Rickenbacker International Corporation, also known as Rickenbacker ), is an electric guitar manufacturer, notable for putting the world's first electric guitars into general production in 1932. All production takes place at its headquarters in Santa Ana, California. Rickenbacker is the largest guitar company to manufacture all of its guitars within the United States.
The company was founded as the curiously-named Ro-Pat-In Corporation by Adolph Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp in 1931 to sell electric "Hawaiian" guitars which had been designed by Beauchamp, helped by his fellow employees at the National String Instruments Corporation, Paul Barth and Harry Watson. For these guitars, they ultimately chose the brand name Rickenbacher (later changed to Rickenbacker), though early examples tend to have an Electro brandname on the headstock.
These instruments, nicknamed "frying pans" due to their long necks and circular bodies, are the first solid-bodied electric guitars, though they were not standard guitars, but a lap-steel type. They had huge pickups with a pair of horseshoe magnets that arched over the top of the strings. By the time production ceased in 1939, several thousand frying pans had been produced.
Right from the start, Electro String also sold amplifiers to go along with their electric guitars. A Los Angeles radio manufacturer, Mr. Van Nest, designed the first Electro String production-model amp. Shortly thereafter, design engineer Ralph Robertson was hired to further develop the amplifiers and by the 1940s at least four different Rickenbacker amplifier models were made available. James B. Lansing of the Lansing Manufacturing Company designed the speaker in the Rickenbacker professional model. During the early 1940s, Rickenbacker amps were sometimes repaired by fellow Californian Leo Fender, whose repair shop soon evolved into the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company.
George Beauchamp was a vaudeville performer, violinist, and steel guitarist who, like most of his fellow acoustic guitarists in the pre-electric-guitar days of the 1920s, was searching for a way to make his instrument cut through an orchestra. He first conceived of a guitar fitted with a phonograph-like amplifying horn, and approached inventor and violin-maker John Dopyera to create a prototype which proved to be, by all accounts, a failure. Their next collaboration involved experiments with mounting three conical-shaped aluminum resonators into the body of the guitar beneath the bridge. These efforts produced an instrument which so pleased Beauchamp that he told Dopyera that they should go into business to manufacture them. After further refinements, Dopyera applied for a patent on the so-called tri-cone guitar on April 9, 1927. Thereafter, Dopyera and his brothers began to make the tri-cone guitars in their Los Angeles shop, calling the new guitars "Nationals". On January 26, 1928, the National String Instrument Corporation was certified and, with its new factory located near a metal-stamping shop owned by Adolph Rickenbacher and staffed by some of the most experienced and competent craftsmen available, began to produce Spanish and Hawaiian style tri-cone guitars as well as four string tenor guitars, mandolins and ukuleles.
Adolph Rickenbacher was born in Switzerland in 1892 and emigrated to the United States with relatives after the death of his parents. Sometime after moving to Los Angeles in 1918 Adolph changed his surname to "Rickenbacker". This was done probably in order to avoid German connotations in light of the recently concluded First World War as well as to capitalize on Adolph's distant relation to World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. In 1925, Adolph Rickenbacker and two partners formed the Rickenbacker Manufacturing Company and incorporated it in 1927. By the time he met George Beauchamp and began manufacturing metal bodies for the "Nationals" being produced by the National String Instruments Corporation, Rickenbacker was a highly-skilled production engineer and machinist. Adolph soon became a shareholder in National and, with the assistance of his Rickenbacker Manufacturing Company, National was able to boost production to as many as fifty guitars a day.
Unfortunately, National's line of instruments was not well diversified and, as demand for the expensive and hard-to-manufacture tri-cone guitars began to slip, the company realized that it would need to produce instruments with a lower production cost if it was going to succeed against rival manufacturers. Dissatisfaction with what John Dopyera felt was mismanagement led him to resign from National in January 1929, and he subsequently formed the Dobro Manufacturing Corporation, later called Dobro Corporation, Ltd, and began to manufacture his own line of resonator-equipped instruments (dobros). Patent infringement disagreements between National and Dobro led to a lawsuit in 1929 with Dobro suing National for $2,000,000 in damages. Problems within National's management as well as pressure from the deepening Great Depression led to a production slowdown at National, and this ultimately resulted in part of the company's fractured management structure organizing support for George beauchamp's newest project: the development of a fully electric guitar.
By the late twenties, the idea for electrified string instruments had been around for some time, and experimental banjo, violin and guitar pickups had been developed. George Beauchamp had himself been experimenting with electric amplification as early as 1925, but his early efforts involving microphones did not produce the effects he desired. Along the way Beauchamp also built a one-string test guitar made out of a 2X4 piece of lumber and an electric phonograph pickup. As the problems at National became more apparent, Beauchamp's home experiments took on a more rigorous shape, and he began to attend night classes in electronics as well as collaborating with fellow National employee Paul Barth. When the prototype electric pickup they were developing finally worked to his satisfaction, Beauchamp asked former National shop craftsman Harry Watson to make a wooden neck and body to which the electronics could be attached. It was nicknamed the frying pan because of its shape, though Adolph Rickenbacker liked to call it the pancake. The final design Beauchamp and Barth developed was an electric pickup consisting of a pair of horseshoe-shaped magnets that enclosed the pickup coil and completely surrounded the strings.
At the end of 1931, Beauchamp, Barth, Rickenbacker and with several other individuals banded together and formed the Ro-Pat-In Corporation in order to manufacture and distribute the newly-developed Frying Pan lap-steel electric guitars. In the summer of 1932, Ro-Pat-In began to manufacture cast aluminum production versions of the Frying Pan, and these instruments were the first electric guitars placed into general production. Not only that, but Ro-Pat-In was the first company in the world specifically created to manufacture electric instruments. In 1934, the Ro-Pat-In company name was changed to the more conventional Electro String Instrument Corporation. In 1935, because the original aluminum Frying Pans were susceptible to tuning problems from the expansion of the metal under hot performing lights, Electro began to manufacture Frying Pans from Bakelite, an early synthetic plastic.
Rickenbacker continued to specialize in steel guitars well into the 1950s, but with the rock and roll boom they shifted towards producing standard guitars, both acoustic and electric. In 1956, Rickenbacker introduced two instruments with the "neck through body" construction that was to become a standard feature of the company's products — the Combo 400 guitar and the model 4000 bass.
In 1958, Rickenbacker introduced its "Capri" series, including the double-cutaway semi-acoustic guitars which would become the famous Rickenbacker 300 Series. In 1963 Rickenbacker developed an electric twelve-string guitar with an innovative headstock design that enabled all twelve machine heads to be fitted onto a standard-length headstock by alternately mounting pairs of machine heads at right-angles to the other. The first prototype of this 12 string electric guitar (originally produced as a "show and tell item" only) was ultimately sold by then Rickenbacker CEO/Owner F.C. Hall to Suzi Arden, a Las Vegas country and western music entertainer, in 1963. The second electric 12 string prototype, which was somewhat different, was given by F.C. Hall to Beatle George Harrison in February 1964.
In Hamburg in 1960, the then-unknown John Lennon bought a 325 Capri, which he used throughout the early days of The Beatles. He eventually had the guitar's natural alder body refinished in black (a color later to be officially known as 'Jetglo' by Rickenbacker), and made other modifications. In its final modified form, Lennon played this guitar during The Beatles' famous 1964 debut and third appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. (This has led to much confusion over the years, since the first and third Beatles headlining shows on The Ed Sullivan Show, were taped to time on the same day with different live studio audiences). During Lennon's post-Beatles years in NYC, this very same Rickenbacker 325 guitar was "refurbished" somewhat, with its black paint stripped, stained in a "honey colored" tinted finish and the gold pickguard replaced with a white plastic one.
A brand new one-off custom second 325 model was created just for Lennon and shipped to him while The Beatles were in Miami Beach, Florida, on the same 1964 visit to the US. He used this newer model on The Beatles' sequentially "second" appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show which was broadcast live for the east coast and simultaneously taped to time for same-day broadcast to the other US time zones.
Lennon accidentally dropped the second 325 model during a 1964 Christmas show, breaking the headstock which made the instrument go hopelessly out of tune every time he played it. While it was being repaired, Rose Morris, the official UK importer of Rickenbacker at the time, gave Lennon an export version of the 325 called the 1996. (This 1996 was later given by Lennon to fellow Beatle and friend, Ringo Starr. Fear that the guitar had been destroyed in a 1979 fire at Starr's Los Angeles home was laid to rest in 2005, when Starr and his lead guitarist used it on a recording. Ringo owns this Lennon RM 1996 Rickenbacker guitar to this day.)
In 1963, George Harrison of The Beatles bought a 425. In February 1964, while in New York City, F.C. Hall of Rickenbacker gave Harrison the second prototype model OS 360/12 FG electric 12-string Rickenbacker ever made. This instrument became a key part of the Beatles' sound on A Hard Day's Night and other Beatles songs through late 1964, and was played by Harrison throughout his life.
In August 1965, during a Beatles concert tour, a Minnesota radio station presented Harrison with a second model 360/12 FG "New Style" 12-string electric guitar, which he toured and recorded with until it was stolen after The Beatles' last public concert at Candlestick Park in 1966.
After the Beatles 1965 summer tour, Paul McCartney frequently used a left-handed 1964 4001S FG Rickenbacker bass since its tone was better suited to recording than the lightweight Hofner basses he had used previously. The instrument became popular with other bassists influenced by his highly melodic style, as it produces a clear tone even when played high up the neck, its deep cutaways allowing easy access to the higher frets. McCartney predominantly used a Rickenbacker bass until the late 1970s during his time with Wings. (He has used varied other basses live and in studio since then, including a return to the use of a Hofner from his Beatle years.)
Perhaps at least partially due to the Beatles' popularity and their persistent use of the brand, Rickenbackers were quickly adopted by many other 1960s notables, including Mike Pender of The Searchers, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend of The Who, Pete Watson of The Action, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, Jerry McGeorge of the Shadows of Knight, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Al Nichol of The Turtles and Steppenwolf.
As both the British invasion and the 1960s came to an end, Rickenbacker guitars fell somewhat out of fashion; however Rickenbacker basses remained highly in favor through the 1970s and on. Perhaps as an echo of the past, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rickenbacker guitars experienced a renaissance as many New Wave and jangle pop groups began to use them, with notable users including Tom Petty, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Marty Willson-Piper of The Church, Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles, Paul Weller of The Jam, punk funkster Rick James (as pictured on the "Street Songs" Album), The Smithereens, and Johnny Marr of The Smiths.
Rickenbacker guitars and basses continue to be very popular to this day with demand persistently and exponentially outstripping new factory supply. Demand is particularly high amongst retro groups who have been influenced by the sound and look of the 1960s.
Current Rickenbacker CEO/Owner John Hall (son of the late Francis C. Hall) remains adamant that these legendary and fabled instruments continue to be manufactured only in the USA under the most exacting quality control standards.
Many Rickenbackers — both guitars and basses — are equipped to be compatible with a "Ric-O-Sound" unit via an extra "stereo" output socket that allows the two pickups (or neck and middle pickup combined/bridge pickup, in the case of three pickup instruments) to be connected to different effects units or amplifiers. Another idiosyncrasy of Rickenbackers is the use of two truss rods (rather than the usual one) to correct twists, as well as curvature, in the neck.
Known for their distinctive jangle and chime, Rickenbacker guitars in general were equipped with lower-output "Toaster" pickups until they were phased out circa 1969-70. Hereafter, most Rickenbacker guitars were equipped with the newer design "Hi-Gain" pickups. In most cases, these pickups had twice the output of their illustrious predecessors. This change was almost certainly due to the trend toward the louder "Rock" sounds of the 1970s. Because of their tone, the guitars tended to be favoured by Jangle Pop, Power pop and British Invasion-style groups. However, in recent years, a diverse cross-section of artists have started to favour Rickenbacker guitars. In particular, the older "Toaster" pickup-equipped 12-string guitars have been associated with The Who, The Byrds and The Beatles among others. By 1979, Tom Petty and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would adopt the Rickenbacker 12-string "toaster" jangle into their records and still use the vintage 1960's models. The post-60's "Hi-gain" pickup-equipped guitars are associated with The Jam and REM. The "Hi-gain" pickups are well suited to harder spiky pop/rock sounds as well as the classic clean chime.
The 4000 series were the first Rickenbacker bass guitars, production beginning in 1957. The 4000 was followed by the very popular 4001 (in 1961), the 4002 (limited edition bass introduced in 1977, only 100 or so models were produced), the 4008 (an 8-string model introduced in the mid-1970s), the 4003 (in 1979, replacing the 4001 entirely in 1986 and still in production in 2008), and most recently the 4004 series. There was also the 4005 which was a hollow-bodied bass guitar (discontinued in the 80's); it did not resemble any of the other 4000 series basses, but rather the new style 360-370 guitars. The 4001S (introduced 1964) was basically a 4001 but with no binding and dot fingerboard inlays. It was exported to England as the RM1999. However, Paul McCartney received the very first 4001S (his was left-handed, and later modified to include a "zero fret").
Rickenbacker basses have a distinctive tone. The 4000 bass has neck-through construction for more solid sustain due to more rigidity. The sustain at the bottom end is particularly striking, and by routing the two outputs from the stereo 'rick-o-sound' output, the lower, brighter pick up through a guitar rig and the bassier upper pick up through a bass setup, the classic Rickenbacker bass sound is produced. The 3000 series made from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s were cheaper instruments with bolt-on 21 fret necks.
Aside from McCartney, some of the earliest Rickenbacker bass users were John Entwistle of The Who, Peter Quaife of The Kinks, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. Rickenbacker basses became a staple of 1970s hard rock and were featured on countless recordings of the decade. A good example is Roger Glover, who used Rickenbacker basses on all of his early work with Deep Purple in the seventies. Another good example is Geddy Lee of Rush who used a 4001 bass from around 1975 to 1984, and was seen using a Ric bass again on Rush's 2007 tour. Lee also occasionally used a double-neck Ric instrument, the Rickenbacker 4080 bass/guitar.
These instruments were also widely used among progressive rock bassists, like Yes's Chris Squire, Genesis' Mike Rutherford, Renaissance's Jon Camp, and Cobol Tongue's Rory Hinkel, among others. Another notable player was Rod Deas of rockabilly exponents Showaddywaddy.
Rickenbacker basses were not as visible among the punk/new wave explosion of the late 1970s and early 1980s; however there were some notable users: Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols played a Rickenbacker during his tenure with the band, allegedly stolen, like all the Pistols' equipment, from David Bowie's band. Lemmy Kilmister of Hawkwind and Motörhead has played a Rickenbacker his entire professional career. Cliff Burton of Metallica played a modified Rickenbacker 4001 bass early in his career in Metallica. Bruce Foxton of The Jam played a Rickenbacker 4001 through the group's first two albums (both released in 1977), in part because the band strived to emulate the "mod" look and sound of the 1960s and the Rickenbacker label had the ultimate mod pedigree thanks to Pete Townshend's use of Rickenbacker guitars. (The Jam's guitarist, Paul Weller, played Rickenbacker guitars throughout the group's existence.) Paul Simonon of The Clash used a black Rickenbacker that he received as a gift from Patti Smith, but later would switch to a Precision Bass Former Stone Roses bassist Gary "Mani" Mounfield used a Rickenbacker 4005 bass covered in Jackson Pollock-style drip paint during the band's peak period (1989–90). John Taylor of Duran Duran occasionally used a Rickenbacker around the time of the bands first album. Jerry Only played a modified SB4001 in the early days of The Misfits, before switching to Rand (and later Gothic Customs) Annihilator basses. Karl Alvarez of Descendents and All used a Rickenbacker Bass in 1985. Brian Helicopter of The Shapes was also an early punk adopter of the 4001 bass in 1977, and still uses them to this day. Paul D'Amour of early Tool fame played a 4001CS Chris Squire signature. Chris Ross, formerly of Wolfmother is known to use a mapleglow Rickenbacker 4001 bass in which he gets his distinctive fuzzy tone along with various pedal equipment. Even Kurt Cobain was said to have a lefty Rickenbacker 4001.
In recent times, many bass players have continued to play Rickenbackers. (see "Ric" players section below)
Rickenbacker has produced and/or sold a number of uniquely-designed and distinctively-trimmed acoustic guitars through the last half-century of its history. Beginning in about 1957, these ranged from flat top western-styled guitars like the models 385 and 390 (both built in the mid-1950s) to archtop jazz guitars like the modern model 760J "Jazzbo", notable for its hand-carved ("German-carved") top and back, in the tradition of luthiers from the southern German town of Mittenwald.
Although a small number of Rickenbacker-branded acoustic guitars were sold in the 1950s and were seen in the hands of stars like Ricky Nelson and Sam Cooke, the company concentrated on their electric guitar and western steel guitar business from the early 1960s through the electric guitar boom of the mid-1960s through early 1970s. From about 1959 through 1994, very few Rickenbacker acoustic guitars were made. In 1995, an effort was made once again to re-introduce acoustic instruments, with factory production beginning in the Santa Ana manufacturing facility in 1996.
Four models of flat top acoustic Rickenbackers were depicted in factory literature. These were built in "jumbo" body size and style, designated as Model 700, and "dreadnought" body style, designated as Model 730. Additionally, there were variations of wood, using rosewood and maple as back and side tonewoods, with all tops being fashioned of spruce. Rosewood jumbos were called "700S" (for "Shasta"); maple jumbos were "700C" (for "Comstock"). Rosewood dreadnoughts were called "730S" (for "Shiloh") and maple dreadnoughts were "730L" (for "Laramie, retaining the Western theme to the nomenclature). Each of these four models was also available in both six- and twelve-string configurations, yielding a range of eight distinct instruments.
The exquisite 760J "Jazzbo", though it was shown repeatedly in factory sales literature and displayed at trade shows, was only built as a prototype, with three examples known to exist.
Although the acoustic guitar line was built by hand by skilled luthiers in a dedicated area of the Rickenbacker factory, the line was painted in the same area as the electric instruments, being returned to the acoustic area for assembly, trimming, detailing, and setup. It is estimated that less than 500 Rickenbacker acoustic guitars were built before the factory shut down the acoustic department in mid-2006.
In the Fall of 2006, the license to build Rickenbacker acoustic guitars was granted to Paul Wilczynski, a luthier with a workshop in San Francisco, California. He continues to offer all eight models of the Rickenbacker flat top guitar line, with the distinction of each instrument being 100% handbuilt to the customer's order. These guitars are built to Rickenbacker standards and are identical to the factory-built guitars in nearly every detail; they are built from wood procured from Rickenbacker's own acoustic wood stock when the factory shut down production.
Most models come with single-coil Hi-gain pickups as standard equipment. Many post-British invasion Rickenbacker players such as Peter Buck, Paul Weller, and Johnny Marr have used instruments with these pickups. Rickenbacker's humbucker/dual coil pickup has a similar tone to a Gibson P-90 pickup, and comes standard on the Rickenbacker 650 C. The pickup itself is also available for purchase at Rickenbacker's online boutique. Vintage reissue models, and some signature models, come with Toaster Top pickups, which resemble a classic two-slotted chrome toaster. Despite their slightly lower output, "Toasters" produce a brighter, cleaner sound, and are generally seen as key to obtaining the true British Invasion guitar tone, as they were original equipment of the era.
Within the Toasters, there are four subgroups based on impedance and time of release. The original pickups were used from approximately 1956 to 1968 (although 4001 models continued to use the Toaster for a neck pickup until around July 1973). Later came the Vintage Reissue pickups of the mid-1980s and 90s; with approximately 12 kilo-ohms of resistance, they had a similar impedance and sound to the high-gains, and are seen by many to be strictly for aesthetic purposes. In the late 1990s, more accurate, scatterwound pickups were made, with about 7.5 kilo-ohms of resistance, closer to the originals. The final group are found only on 325C58 models, and are designed to replicate the toasters of the 1950s, with about 5 kilo-ohms of resistance.
In addition to the standard pickups, some vintage reissue bass models are equipped with Horseshoe wrap-around style pickups, very similar to the pickups on the earliest Rickenbacker Frying Pan models.
Some of Rickenbacker's most popular models include the following:
Rickenbacker has produced many colors that are often unique to their company. The colors' names usually have official abbreviations such as 'JG' which stands for 'Jetglo' (black). Rickenbacker often produces a 'color of the year' which is only made available for a limited time. Many colors have been produced over the years though there are three that are perhaps the most well known due to their quite lengthy runs; 'Fireglo', the company's longest running color option, has been made available every year since 1958, with Jetglo and Mapleglo right behind, being made available every year since 1959. Since Rickenbackers are hand-sprayed, thus left to the judgment of the professional sprayer, shading can vary slightly from one guitar to the next. However, even the most extreme differences in shading are quite minimal.
|Color of the year||2000s|
Non-standard, only available for 4004 Cheyenne II model:
Non-standard, only available for 650 series):