It’s true that Rickenbacker has strong associations with world famous players, bands, songs, and even genres. Terms like ‘Jangle’ are nearly-exclusively associated with the Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar sound. However, pigeonholing the Rickenbacker sound would be as big a mistake as calling a Fender Telecaster “just some country picker’s guitar.”
Rickenbacker has a range of devotees, as wide and varied as its sounds. Innovative ideas and forward-thinking design advancements define Rickenbacker, every bit as much as tradition. Rickenbacker has been with us since long before the birth of Rock and Roll, and helped create and define the music of many generations. A voice so loud and vocabulary so varied, Rickenbacker instruments sometimes speak louder than the artists who choose them. You can own a Rickenbacker, but you can’t own the Rickenbacker sound.
Just a Bit of Rickenbacker History
Swiss born Adolph Rickenbacker was a machinist who made parts and spun aluminum cones for George Beauchamp’s resonator guitar companies. Beauchamp’s partners at Dobro and National had no interest in solid body electric Hawaiian guitars. The Rickenbacker/Beauchamp partnership formed as a result. Beauchamp was the designer, and Rickenbacker was the builder. This perfect match resulted in the world’s first solid body electric guitar. Commonly called the electric “frying pan,” the solid aluminum body 1932 model ‘A-22’ relied solely on amplification. The intrepid and enterprising team of Rickenbacker/Beauchamp continued to successfully build, improve, and create new models of lap steels and electrified Spanish guitars under the name ‘Rickenbacker Electro.’
How cool and ‘retro-futuristic’ does the ‘Electro’ name sound? In hindsight, it’s a good idea to have dropped that part of the name in 1965. It smacks of Tin Robots and 50’s Roger Corman films.
Like many of America’s factories, production came to a halt during war time (1940-1945/46). Rickenbacker was no exception. The loss of Beauchamp (retired in 1940 and died in ‘42), was equally devastating.
Late ’40s and ’50s America was rich with prosperity and invention. Rickenbacker’s fine, but now-dated lap steels, and lackluster (Kay made) Electro Spanish guitars could not compete with Gretsch, Fender, and Gibson. Rickenbacker was out of step with the times, instead of out front. In 1953, Adolph Rickenbacker sold his company, leaving his namesake company’s future in the sole care of Frances Cary Hall. If not for Hall, Rickenbacker may have become a footnote in the expanding guitar world. Hall built on what Beauchamp and Rickenbacker started, creating an empire of world-renowned style and sound.
Rickenbacker has provided inspiration to artists of The British Invasion, Folk Rock, Hard Rock, Prog Rock, Blues, New Wave, Retro, Roots, Shoe Gaze, Alternative, today’s Indie. Any genre and sub-genre of rock music you can think of, has devoted Rickenbacker players. Rickenbacker has a unique tonal signature, feel, and a stylistic identity every player that became a devoted Rickenbacker player, will have a personal story to tell about their first encounter with the Ric sound and first Rickenbacker Instrument.
Classic Rickenbacker “Close Encounters”
The Instrument: 1958 Prototype Rickenbacker Capri 325 4/5th Scale.
Lennon’s first Rickenbacker seems to have been seeking John, as much as John was seeking it. The now world-famous Rickenbacker was an unusual prototype, and easily recognizable. This very special model had four knobs instead of two. It had the deep ‘Capri’ style body and hollow construction, but the top is solid, with no tell-tale F-hole. The now infamous prototype was not 100% ready for a production run. Consequently, a few 325 models have a 4-knob control layout, and single layer pick guard (instead of the production run 325’s two control layout. The controls and guard were likely borrowed from the earlier Rickenbacker Combo model guitar. The guitar with serial #V81 was built 1958. It is only the 2nd 325 Capri model ever built.
One of the first made but last ordered, Hall took it to a NYC trade show in 1959 in hopes of getting his odd-ball prototype sold, as all the latter models were. Hall was undoubtedly happy to sell the ‘NOS’ inconsistent prototype model 325’s. It was a bonus the guitar was ordered by Framus music in Germany: Nobody in the USA will ever see this oddball model ever again! F.C Hall is usually right, but not this time, thankfully. This particular Rickenbacker Capri 325, bearing serial number V81, will soon be seen by more people around the world than any other guitar in history.
It needs to be understood that American guitars were in high demand and in short supply, in late 50s-early 60s Europe. An American guitar of any kind, was considered a prize. John’s first Ric may have been found by random luck, but the desire for a Rickenbacker was already in him. Lennon had been admiring Rickenbacker guitars, after seeing harmonica/guitar player Toots Thielemans playing one.
Having started playing on a Banjo, and tiny Gallotone ‘Champion’ guitar, the shorter scale must have felt like home. He loved its tone so much, he traded away his mainstay Hofner ‘Club 40 guitar’, and never looked back. The natural finished Rickenbacker 325 was purchased on a layaway ‘Play as you pay’ contract on the spot. Over time, the insidiously awful Kaufman vibrato with a much more reliable Bigsby. The control knobs with refitted with a more manageable ‘Burns of London’ set, and soon, it will be refinished to Black. (You didn’t know? Black guitars are cooler than natural, and a coat of black, makes it sound better!).
If F.C Hall was happy to see the odd prototype 325 leave the USA, he must have been ecstatic to see it’s return, in the hands of John Lennon. The Beatles played live on the Ed Sullivan show to a record smashing on 73 million viewers, in 1964. A smashing bit of promo, and validation for Rickenbacker’s new line. Hall is so thrilled, he gifted John a 2nd ‘updated’ Rickenbacker 325, soon to be known as the ‘Miami’ model. George Harrison will receive his most iconic Rickenbacker at the same time as John (Paul had to wait a year for a special Lefty 4001). Harrisons prototype Rickenbacker 360/12 ‘OS’ will color the sound of the Beatles album and Major motion picture ‘A Hard day’s Night’. Another smashing bit of promo!
In 1964, endorsements and gifted instruments are unheard off. Nobody, including the Beatles thought that fame or ‘Beatlemania’ would last much past lunch time. Forward thinking Hall believed differently, it proved to be a wise move. Lennon retired his 1958 325 prototype, in favor of his new Rickenbacker ‘Miami’ 325. Lennon’s first Ric was driven hard, and put away wet. It also suffered wiring damage during it’s re-finish to Black. John still loved and missed his battered 1958 325. A man who can have any guitar on earth, just wanted his first Ric back. John had his first love restored to its original luster in 1972. Returned to original natural Alder finish, rewired to spec and got a fresh set of tuners in 1972. He kept it close, and played it the rest of his life. It’s safe to say John Lennon is one of the most famous and trend setting Rock and Roll Stars that ever stomped the Earth. It’s also safe to say Johns first Rickenbacker prototype pay for play ‘Hamburg’ Rickenbacker 325 is not only Johns favorite Ric, but Johns favorite guitar.
Instrument: Rickenbacker 360/12 NS
The lusciously rich, full sound of the Rickenbacker electric 12 string nearly snapped the necks of players whipping their heads to point an ear at the speaker playing ‘A hard day’s night’.
What is that sound?
That is an Electric 12-string Rickenbacker, Jim.
They make an electric 12-string! Dang, it was hard enough for me to find an acoustic 12!
Didn’t you know? George Harrison has one. You can see him play it in the Hard Day’s Night movie!
The opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night is among the most famous sounds in Rock history (G7+11) plus Paul’s bass and George Martin on the piano. It’s a full sound, you might say. George’s short solo and lone ringing closing out the smash hit guitar at the songs ending the same song, is equally iconic. How does he do that? It sounds like two guitars! A Hard Day’s Night is teeming with the electric 12. The most listened to electric guitar band, dove deep into the new sound. It won’t be contained within the hands of George Harrison alone, for very long.
In the growing electric guitar world, there wasn’t a pro-level electric 12, until Rickenbacker’s 360/12.
If you didn’t know it was a 12-string guitar, you’d drive yourself mad trying to figure out how Harrison got that sound. 12-string acoustic guitars were made, but not commonly before the 60s.
Before the Tom Wheeler book, before Guitar Player Magazine, before VCR tapes, and long before the internet, the new Rock guitar sound was pretty mysterious, and word got around slowly. You had to study album covers, see concerts, and look out for your favorite bands on TV variety shows. The Rickenbacker 360/12 was not going to be found at the local music store in early 1964. In fact, only a handful were made before the new styled 1965 model.
Rickenbacker’s 360/12 didn’t give up its secrets easily. A brilliantly designed headstock hid the second course of strings on back facing tuners. This made it easy to tune the correct peg, and eliminate the need for a doubly long headstock. In order to know for sure if the Rickenbacker 360 you are admiring is a 6 or 12 string version, required a close look. If you’ve never seen or played a 360/12, you might not know that Rickenbacker 12 strings have a reversed string course: The lower octave is strung before the upper octave.
The Hard Day’s Night 1964 360/12 had ‘OS’ or ‘old style’ appointments. The top is flat (like a Rickenbacker 330) with a bound top, and back. The fingerboard has Ric’s infamous triangle inlays, spanning the width of the neck. A slash or ‘Cat’s Eye’ F- hole reveals the semi hollow thinline construction. A high gloss ‘bright’ sunburst is officially named ‘Fireglow’. The Harrison prototype is a beautiful, but short-lived design. Before the end of 1964, the 360/12 is transformed into the ‘NS’ or ‘new style’ body.
The new style 360/12’s contoured top advances the guitars comfort, style, and defines the look of the model 360. Other features include Toaster Top pickups, checkerboard rear binding, dual tier white pickguard, and new colors! Fireglow, Mapleglow (natural gloss), Jetglow (uh yea-Jet-back), and Autumn glow (previously called ‘brown’). The sound is full, rich, and unmistakable. The term ‘Jangle’, used to describe its unique essence, is said to be coined by….
…..A folk side man named Jim. Jim was played and sang for folk acts like Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, and more. Folk music was a strictly acoustic phenomenon, in the early 1960s, and purist fans tried to hold back the tidal wave of electric guitars from invading ‘Folk’ music. Bob Dylan famous got himself booed at the 1965 Newport folk fest, for setting down his Martin, in favor of a sunburst Strat.
It was a famous moment, and proof that the times were a changin’ again.
The Beatles unprecedented success laid a safe fanatical foundation for record companies to start grabbing up ‘Guitar bands’ by the dozens. Jim and his band got scooped up, and received a small cash advance from Columbia records. The money went into new gear, and recording sessions for the band. One of the more notable instruments acquired is Jim’s new 1965 ‘NS’ Rickenbacker 360/12 Mapleglow. So, who is Jim? If you haven’t guessed, Jim is better known today as James ‘Roger McGuinn’. His band is known to planet Earth as The Byrds. The band more or less invented folk-rock with the smash hit debut album and single of the same name- ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.
The Byrd’s were the first quintessential American Rock band of the 60s and an instant sensation. Born of folk more so then surf, blues, or the British sound.
The spark that first flashed with Harrisons playing on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ Rickenbacker 12 string, grew to a raging fire in the hands of McGuinn and the Byrds. Mr. Tambourine man has one of the most recognized 12-string guitar riffs, ever recorded. Needless to say, The Byrds are an instant sensation. McGuinn’s band new 360/12’s has a unique sound and present tone, but Byrds producer Terry Melcher will make the most of it. Melcher peppered McGinn’s Ricky 360/12 with compression, resulting in the nearly 3-D tone that McGinn liked to call ‘Jangle’.
The term ‘Jangle’ might be hard to describe with words, it’s easy to hear on Byrds classics like ‘Mr Tambourine man’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘Eight miles high’, Younger than Yesterday, and ‘So you want to be a Rock and Roll Star’ (Later recorded by Rickenbacker and Byrd’s devotee’s ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’). Today the whole world knows of Rickenbacker’s ‘Jangle’, thanks to Jim ‘Roger’ McGuinn.
In 1988, Rickenbacker bestowed the honor of a limited-edition signature model, on Roger McGuinn. The three pick-up 370/12RM is based on McGuinn’s famous modified 3 pickup 360/12 guitar that inspired the 1968 Rickenbacker model 370/12. The McGuinn model has a built-in compressor to absolutely, positively guarantee that fantastic ‘Jangle’ is present.
John Lennon, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney (reliant on his 4001 from 1965 through his ‘Wings era’) were Rickenbacker’s first major champions. By the End of the 60s, Rickenbacker had champions and devoted players in every corner of guitar-based music. The trend has never ended, or waned.
Just a couple more interesting first Ric encounters:
Roger Glover of Deep Purple bought a Rickenbacker 4001 bass while in NYC. To avoid import duty, a false receipt was made, to skate around paying import duty. It didn’t fly. He and bandmate Ian, were lucky enough to avoid being locked up, causing them to miss recording sessions for Deep Purples classic album ‘Machine head’ Glover ended up paying double the price of his beloved Rickenbacker 4001, in fines alone. There was no time for jail- Swiss time was running out, you see.
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead was a guitar player throughout the 60’s. Dave Anderson, bassist of England’s most trippy acid rock band ‘Hawkwind’ failed to show up for a gig, but Andersons bass made it in time for Lemmy to take his place. Lemmy got his introduction to the playing Bass, the Rickenbacker 4001, and becoming a member of Hawkwind, all in one day. Lemmy never did lean proper bass technique thankfully. Lemmy developed his own style: He didn’t play the bass, he assaulted it.
When he formed his own band, “Motorhead”, Lemmy and his 4001 bass were the first two members. Along with a 100-watt Marshall tube bass amp affectionately named ‘Murder One’ Lemmy made quite a racket, influencing all that came after him. Lemmy/Motorhead/Rickenbacker. The rest is history.
REM’s Peter Buck. Buck is a fantastic player and part writer not a flashy spotlight hog. Buck loved the sound of a Rickenbacker. It has the balance, power and clarity he desired. A simple request, one would think. Many players go though dozens of guitars before narrowing down to a handful of favorites. Buck bought a Rickenbacker. He loved it. It was that simple. Unfortunately, it was stolen just one year after landing his ‘perfect guitar’. In 1981, Buck could have any guitar his heart desired, based on REM’s rising star status. Buck bought the next Rickenbacker he found. After a short 3-minute test drive, Peter Buck went home with a brand-new Rickenbacker 330/6 in Jetglow. It will be featured on every REM album ever made (15 studio, 4 live and 16 compilation albums), as well as every tour. Peter also has a couple thinline Tele’s he loves, and a Rickenbacker 360/12 string to complement his 330/6.
It took Buck only three minutes pick out a guitar that will dominate his playing time for 30 years. That’s one minute per decade. He knew what he wanted, and Rickenbacker made it. This is clearly a strength Buck called on. He is focused on the end product, without overthinking the unimportant. There is powerful stuff in Rickenbacker guitars and basses. What more could anyone need?
Every generation has made Rickenbacker its own. From John Lennon, Carl Wilson, Chris Squire, Geddy Lee, Glen Frey, Joe Walsh, John Kay, Tom Petty, The Bangles Susanna Hoffs, Jeff Buckley, James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), Chris Martin, Guy Picciotto (Fugazi), Daniel Kessler (Interpol), Martin Ain (Celtic Frost), Jerry Only (the Misfits), Paul D’Amour (Tool). Rickenbacker is not the voice of a generation. Rickenbacker is the voice of generations.
You can purchase Rickenbacker gear from SamAsh.com!