Pivotal Moments in Rickenbacker History

"Rickenbacker's story pivoted on the purchase of one particular instrument by John Lennon," says Martin Kelly, author of the new book Rickenbacker Guitars: Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fireglo. You might know his earlier book, Fender: The Golden Age, but this one shifts the focus to another great guitar brand from California. I've written a couple of books about Rickenbacker myself, and I can honestly say, hand on heart, that Martin's book is set to become the ultimate work on the company.

A trio of Rickenbackers photographed for 'Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fireglo'
A trio of Rickenbackers photographed for Rickenbacker Guitars: Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fireglo

As they did with their Fender book, Martin and his brother (and photographer) Paul Kelly have assembled and presented a jaw-dropping collection of instruments across the book's 336 pages, along with a dazzling array of catalogues, ads, photos, and more. This all comes together alongside a thoroughly researched text with plenty of new information to tell the full Rickenbacker story, from the company's origins in the '30s all the way through to more recent creations.

Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fireglo is a big, detailed, engrossing work, so I asked Martin to whet our appetite and take us through just a few of the gems that lie within the covers of his new book.

First up, we looked at that purchase in a German music store by a young Liverpudlian rhythm guitarist, and how it links to Rickenbacker's wider '60s popularity. "When Lennon buys that 325 in 1960," Martin says, "it really marks such an important moment in Rick history. I think he had a hankering for a Rickenbacker anyway, and when he saw that 325 in a Hamburg shop, it meant something to him. And that guitar led the UK distributor Rose-Morris to chase Rickenbacker."

Martin explains how Rose-Morris opened up demand for Rick instruments on the vibrant music scene that rocked '60s Britain. "This was the moment, in 1964," he says, "where Rickenbackers are not just in the hands of a couple of famous people, like The Beatles. Thanks to Rose-Morris's efforts, they're suddenly being seen and heard in the hands of many, many famous bands. There they were with The Who, The Animals, The Hollies, and many others, not least The Moody Blues, who had a number one single with 'Go Now'—and Denny Laine, the lead singer, is so visible playing nothing but a Rickenbacker. Gerry Marsden, too, gave his Rick 12-string tons of exposure."

Spot the Rick 12 in this '65 TV performance of The Animals' "It's My Life."

The Rickenbacker basses also took off alongside the brand's six-strings and 12-strings. "The basses were seen with Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, The Kinks, and others," Martin says. "Chris Squire of Yes got his then, and even though it took a few more years, his patronage of the Rick bass would throw it through the roof in the '70s. But in those key years in the mid-'60s, Rickenbackers seemed to be everywhere in Britain. And there really couldn't have been a better place at a better time for that to happen."

How big a deal was the UK distributor Rose-Morris for the California-based Rickenbacker? "In 1964 alone, 40 percent of Rick's output went to them," he says. "That's a high number! Their first order of 350 instruments sold out instantly. And again, the timing was right. George Harrison getting his 360/12 really ignited the whole thing."

Martin's research involved deep dives into Rickenbacker's vast archive, a rare possession for any guitar firm these days and one that's survived in this case thanks to the continuing family ownership of the company. "I could have spent a year in there," Martin adds with a smile. "I'd be rummaging around their files and out would pop something unexpected. We've shown a mock-up ad in the book for Rickenbacker's Astro build-yourself guitar kit, which I happened on while looking through a pile of unrelated Rose-Morris stuff."

Another time, he was sifting through a map drawer full of posters. "And then, all of a sudden, I stumbled on an amazing blueprint for the original Rickenbacker Combo guitar, signed by the graphic designer responsible, Hunt Lewis, and dated April 1954. Remarkably, this document that seemed lost in the files was one that really marked the birth of the 'modern' Rickenbacker electric guitar, right there. It was a great find and one that I relished adding to the book."

That date in '54 also marked the arrival at Rickenbacker of Roger Rossmeisl, the single most important person in the design development of the company's guitars in the '50s and early '60s. Martin has illustrated this development with outline illustrations through the book that document what he calls Roger's flair for fluid design and how each new iteration of the standard Rick electric flows into the next.

Rickenbackers on Reverb

"Roger had a brilliant eye and was a phenomenal guitar maker," Martin says. "For the first few years, until early '57 or so, Rickenbacker's owner, F.C. Hall, seems to have had him on a fairly tight leash. But once he lets him go, Roger comes up with the most amazing things. You do see some influences from guitars he'd been making in Berlin in the late '40s and early '50s, before he moved to America, such as cat's-eye soundholes. But in the '50s at Rickenbacker, his designs flow from that original Combo to the 'tulip' body, then the 'cresting wave,' and then the one everyone knows now as the classic Rick shape, originally called the Capri when it appeared in the late '50s."

A power struggle at Rickenbacker meant that Roger left in 1962 to work for Fender, and he died tragically young after returning to Germany in the '70s. Martin's research for the book led him to Roger's surviving ex-wife and son, who still live in the house he owned when he moved to Fender. "They still have the original furniture," Martin reports, "so it was like walking into Roger's house in 1962."

Before he met them, Martin had asked if they had any old material from Roger's guitar days, and they said no, it was all gone. "But I was late for my meeting with them, and while they waited, his son, also called Roger, went off looking and found two boxes full of all this fantastic old paperwork—catalogues, letters, notebooks, amazing stuff that helped the book tremendously. If you go close to the source, very often it's all there."

Many Rick fans consider "Rickenbacker" synonymous with "electric 12-string." Martin reckons there was a rare quality of adventure in the air when the Rick 12 was devised at the firm's California HQ in the early '60s.

"I think something magical happened between 12 strings and Rickenbacker's toaster pickups. It was as if those pickups were designed to be next to those 12 strings. They're great sounding pickups anyway, but with a 12-string there's something just so right about it. It was the chime of those pickups and the way the strings were paired in an unconventional way," he says. "Suddenly, everything came together on that instrument to create something perfect. And I think a lot of people would argue that the same thing happened when the Rick bass reached its zenith."

Watch Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace show off her amazing Rickenbacker collection.

There are more significant, rare, and just downright desirable Rickenbackers pictured in high quality in this book than you'll find anywhere, thanks to some very generous collectors who helped Martin and Paul with access and information. Were there any faves among those guitars, Martin?

He tells me about the legendary El Toro, considered for 60 years or so to be missing and known only through one photograph of someone holding the ornate instrument at a trade show. But out of the blue it walked into a music store in Seattle—and with perfect timing to be photographed for the book.

"There's a particular round-top 360 six-string, in black, that really spoke to me," Martin says of one guitar from among the many photo shoots. "Sometimes," he adds with a chuckle, "it can be an instrument you're not expecting to do anything for you. Rickenbackers are not to everyone's taste, playing-wise and tonally, but I don't think it can be denied that the company created some of the most beautiful and well-crafted instruments ever made."

Martin describes a pair of personal favorites. "There were two Roger Rossmeisl carved-top model 390s from Rickenbacker's own collection, and they were just—," he pauses, momentarily overcome by the memory, "—they were just staggering to hold. They were Roger, excelling. And I said to myself, 'Ah, man, you were good.'"

Rickenbacker Guitars: Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fireglo is available for order via Phantom Books.

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Rickenbacker Electric 12-string, The Bass Book, and Legendary Guitars. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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