A Brief History of Rickenbacker

Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard a Rickenbacker.

From the first chord of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night" to the opening figure of The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the aggressive chordal work on The Who’s “Substitute,” Rickenbacker’s 12-string electric guitars, with their distinctive jangle, helped define the sound of an era.

Most people don’t realize that the company - which is fifteen years older than Fender - made the first mass-produced electric guitar. Here’s a look at one of America’s most influential guitar manufacturers from the ground up.

The Dopyera Brothers

1928 National Tricone Resophonic Guitar

1928 National Tricone Resophonic Guitar

The Rickenbacker story starts in 1920s Los Angeles when vaudeville performer and multi-instrumentalist George Beauchamp went looking for a guitar loud enough to be heard clearly in big ensemble settings. Beauchamp reached out to a local instrument maker, John Dopyera, for help.

After several failed attempts, Dopyera and his brother Rudy arrived at a design in which three resonators sat inside a metal body. The first tricone resonator guitar was born.

A wealthy cousin of Beauchamp’s was so impressed by a prototype of the metal guitar that he invested in production of the instruments with a check for $12,000 (about $168,000 in today’s money). The Dopyera Brothers began making the instruments in their shop under the National brand name.

This is where the man behind the brand name, Adolph Rickenbacher, comes into the picture.

Rickenbacher, a Swiss-born engineer and machinist, had a tool-and-die shop not far from National’s headquarters. To bolster National’s production, he and his craftsmen began forging metal bodies for guitars as well as mandolins and ukuleles.

The Frying Pan

1954 Rickenbacher A-25 Frying Pan

1954 Rickenbacher A-25 "Frying Pan"

In the early ’30s, disputes at National and a slowdown in demand for tricone guitars (which were difficult to make and therefore expensive) led Beauchamp to his next project: the development of an electric guitar. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, but it hadn’t yet been successfully realized.

In a somewhat crude experiment, Beauchamp turned a 2x4 into a one-string guitar and attached a Brunswick phonograph pickup to it.

Inspired by the potential of the idea, Beauchamp took some electronics classes. With the help of National employee Paul Barth, he designed a primitive pickup that “read” the vibrations of the strings and translated them to electric current.

The factory’s superintendent, Harry Watson, joined the effort, crafting a wooden neck and body by hand. What resulted was one of the earliest electric guitar models, dubbed the Frying Pan due to its peculiar shape. Eventually thousands would be produced.

Rickenbacker Takes Shape

1938 Rickenbacher Electro Model B Spanish

1938 Rickenbacher Electro Model B Spanish

In 1931, Rickenbacher and Beauchamp formed the Ro-Pat-In Corporation (a truncation of Electro Patent Instruments) to make electric guitars. Eventually, the name would change to Electro String and then to Rickenbacker, in part to capitalize on a distant relation to Eddie Rickenbacker, an American fighter ace in World War I.

The earliest years of Rickenbacker saw the company developing a range of designs. During the ’30s, Rickenbacker made models like the Frying Pan Model A-25 and Model BD lap steel, with its Bakelite (an early plastic) construction. The BD is regarded as among the finest steels ever produced.

Among Rickenbacker’s most notable early standard guitars was the Model B Spanish, with a distinctive Art Deco–inspired appearance and Bakelite construction. The guitar also had a detachable neck and eliminated the feedback common to hollowbody guitars, two important steps toward the fully realized Fender and Gibson solidbodies of 1952.

Rickenbacker shifted its focus to hollowbody and solidbody guitars and basses in the early ‘50s, following the emergence of rock and roll the popularity of models like the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Telecaster.

By the end of that decade, Rickenbacker had established its trademarks: crescent double cutaways, neck-through-body construction and a unique modern aesthetic. This took form with the "Capri" and "Combo" style guitars which would evolve into the iconic designs of the '60s. Both body styles were similar to their successors but with more elongated shapes and less refined components.

1960 Rickenbacker Capri Fireglo

1960 Rickenbacker Capri Fireglo

1957 Rickenbacker Combo 400

1957 Rickenbacker Combo 400

Iconic Models

Rickenbacker’s 360/12, introduced in 1963, was a revolutionary design. This 12-string semi-hollow electric was made popular by George Harrison of the Beatles.

The Beatles in particular were responsible for the popularity of Rickenbacker in the 1960s. George had his 360/12. John had his 325. And Paul used a 4001 bass in the mid-1960s.

Other British Invasion groups took to Rickenbacker instruments as well. The Who’s John Entwistle played his thunderous lines on a Rickenbacker bass, while guitarist Pete Townshend used a Rick on “Substitute,” “My Generation,” and other early songs.

1968 Rickenbacker 360/12 Fireglo

1968 Rickenbacker 360/12 Fireglo

1967 Rickenbacker 325 Fireglo

1967 Rickenbacker 325 Fireglo

1975 Rickenbacker 4001 Jetglo

1975 Rickenbacker 4001 Jetglo

The Rolling Stone’s “As Tears Go By” is another classic example of the Rickenbacker sound.

Meanwhile, in America with the Byrds, Roger McGuinn began used a 360/12 in creating seminal folk-rock recordings like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The 12-string Rick also worked well for psychedelic-infused work like “Eight Miles High” and “Why,” with its references to Indian ragas.

Moving into the '70s, Rickenbacker faced the same challenges and as other American guitar makers and experimented with new models like the 480 and 481 with body shapes that echoed the 4001 bass. This decade also saw the marketing of bizarre Rickenbacker 331LS Lightshow which featured a flashing light system on the face of the body.

Modern Artists and the Rickenbacker Legacy

The designs that Rickenbacker pioneered in the 1960s have remained in the company’s lineup ever since. These days the production volume is low, but love of the brand has never waned. As a result, there’s a particularly strong used market for Rickenbackers.

The list of post-1980 rockers that have famously used Rickenbacker guitars to build their tone and identity covers the whole FM radio dial.

Tom Petty and his co-guitarist Mike Campbell. Peter Buck of R.E.M. Johnny Marr of The Smiths. Modest Mouse bassist Eric Judy. Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Roger McGuinn still tours with his 12-string today - a testament to Rickenbacker’s enduring designs.

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