B.C. Rich: Origins and Evolution

Today, B.C. Rich is virtually synonymous with outlandish pointy metal guitars. The brand’s origins, however, are quite far removed from the popular image it took on beginning in the 1980s. Let’s take a look at how B.C. Rich evolved and how the innovations and craftsmanship of its early history laid the groundwork for its popular image.

Beginnings

When Bernardo Chavez Rico started working in his father’s East Los Angeles guitar shop in the mid-1950s, he specialized in flamenco guitars. Eventually he branched out into repairing and building steel-string acoustics and banjos as folk music gained popularity in the '60s. Rico began making electric guitars and basses in 1969, based on the Les Paul and the Gibson EB-3 bass, but very few of these were finished and even fewer survive today (before this, Rico had probably built about 300 acoustics).

Seagull

Rico’s earliest original design for a solid-body electric was the single-cutaway Seagull in 1972. A production model arrived in 1974. Although the body design was based on a toilet seat, the Seagull scored higher for looks than ergonomics, due to two sharp points—one about halfway down the bass side and another where the cutaway horn jutted out at a 90-degree angle—that were almost guaranteed to dig into some part of the player, whether standing up or sitting down. As Neal Moser put it, "Only a flamenco acoustic guitar player would design an electric guitar with a point on the top that stuck you in the chest and a point on the bottom that stuck you in the leg." The exceedingly rare Seagull II omitted the point on the bass side. This model, and the even rarer “pointless” Seagull, eventually evolved into the Eagle. A Seagull Junior was also produced, featuring an unbound rosewood fretboard and simplified electronics.

40th anniversary recreation of an original Seagull, via bcrich.com.

The Seagull was notable at the time for its neck-through construction, which Rico helped to pioneer. He also introduced the innovative heelless neck joint that would become a hallmark of many B.C. Rich guitars. Rico’s first few Seagulls were wired like Les Pauls, but he soon enlisted the help of Neal Moser, a local luthier who was becoming well known for his custom electronics. Moser rewired Rico’s existing Seagulls, then began wiring new builds according to his own electronic design, which included an active preamp, Varitone, phase switch, and coil taps, besides master volume and tone controls. This design was standard on the Seagull, Mockingbird, and Eagle. Moser expanded it when he designed the Bich.

Until 1975, the Seagull used Gibson humbuckers, which had to be taken apart and rewired to enable coil splitting and phasing. When Gibson objected to this arrangement, B.C. Rich switched to Guild humbuckers, but because these were also two-conductor pickups, they presented the same technical obstacle. In 1974, Rico reached a deal with DiMarzio to supply the brand with four-conductor humbuckers, which offered a hotter, more modern sound than the Guilds and were more compatible with Moser’s electronic design. DiMarzios were standard on B.C. Rich guitars until 1986, when the company began designing its own pickups.

Mockingbird

The mid-'70s brought the debut of The Mockingbird, designed by Johnny “Go-Go” Kallas. Although it featured the same neck-through construction and wiring as the Seagull, the Mockingbird made a bolder visual statement, and it remains one of B.C. Rich’s most iconic guitars. While the Mockingbird features sharper points than the Seagull, it at least directs them away from the player. Bernie Rico modified the design in 1978, lengthening the cutaway horn on the treble side to improve balance. Popularized throughout its long production run by players such as Joe Perry, Slash and Kerry King, the Mockingbird marks an important development in B.C. Rich’s transformation from esoteric boutique brand to heavy metal mainstay.

Eagle

The less stabby successor to the Seagull, the Eagle rounded out B.C. Rich’s trio of 1970s avian-named models when it appeared in in 1976. The body shape closely resembled that of the Seagull II, but with a more Strat-like upper horn. The Eagle soon replaced the Seagull, and, like the Mockingbird, it remains in production today.

Although B.C. Rich was not technically a custom shop at this time, all of their guitars were entirely handmade in Rico’s California shop or a factory in Tijuana, Mexico where specifications could be modified in response to player requests. Not only were the bodies and necks hand-carved, but the electronics were handmade as well. The level of craftsmanship that went into these early models was remarkable, but it came with a steep price tag for the time (a suggested retail price of $999) and limited availability.

Bich

Designed by Neal Moser, the 10-string Bich is a throwback to his earliest foray into guitar building, when he modified a six-string Yamaha acoustic to a twelve-string with his father’s help in 1964. The Bich adds unison D and G strings and octave B and E strings strung in the opposite direction from the other six strings, with the additional tuners arranged along a diagonal cut below the bridge. The body shape eventually changed slightly, featuring a shallower cut where these tuners attached to allow for a Kahler tremolo. The Bich also added a second preamp to Moser’s already complex electronics.

A custom doubleneck bass version of the Bich body shape.

And then…

In 1980, B.C. Rich began offering bolt-on neck versions of the three models currently in production: Son of a Rich (a bolt-on Bich), the Nighthawk (a bolt-on Eagle), and the Phoenix (a bolt-on Mockingbird). They also began introducing a Strat-like tremolo as an option on the Eagle II, Mockingbird II, and Warlock II in 1982. Previously, hardtail bridges had been standard on all models. Kahler tremolos followed in 1983, on both U.S.-made models and the import NJ series. These were replaced by Floyd Rose copies on the NJ series after Class Axe took control of B.C. Rich’s import business in 1986.

The introduction of the Warlock in 1981 marked the beginning of B.C. Rich’s rise to iconic status in heavy metal. Its looks owe more to the Bich than to the Seagull, Eagle, or Mockingbird, and it foregoes the graceful curves of earlier models in favor of aggressive angles. The confluence of B.C. Rich’s far-out designs and the emerging hair metal culture of the late '70s and early '80s helped cement the brand’s place in the market, with unmistakable designs, player endorsements, and appearances by several B.C. Rich guitars in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. New models proliferated during this period: the Warlock and the Wave in 1981; the Stealth, the Ironbird, and the Widow in 1983; and the Strat-shaped ST in 1985.

Although Rico had begun producing import guitars in Japan as early as 1978 under the "B.C. Rico" name, these were predominantly acoustics until the early 1980s. Eventually they were rebranded as the B.C. Rich NJ series in 1983 (with the “NJ” standing for “Nagoya, Japan”). The B.C. Rico imports that arrived stateside in 1981 and 1982—Mockingbirds, Waves, Seagull IIs, and Eagles—were extremely high quality.

The Japanese models served several purposes. They allowed B.C. Rich to increase production volume and offer lower-cost versions of its high-end handcrafted models to students and other players on a budget. And getting into the import business was partly a defensive move, as Aria copies of B.C. Rich designs began to hit the market. In addition to more affordable bolt-on versions of B.C. Rich’s more distinctive designs, the NJ series also included a semi-hollow jazz guitar. Not surprisingly (in light of the brand’s emerging image) this model sold poorly and did not last long.

A lineup of newer B.C. Rich guitars.

The 1980s also saw major changes in the management of the company, with the departure of Moser and vice president Mal Stich in the middle of the decade, then of Rico himself in 1989 after he gradually turned over complete control of the company to New Jersey-based Class Axe. Quality control was notoriously unreliable during the Class Axe era (the late 1980s and early 1990s), with plywood construction and shoddy workmanship damaging B.C. Rich’s once-sterling reputation. Hoping to right these wrongs, Rico bought the company back in 1993 and worked to restore the quality and image of the brand until his death in 1999.

Under the current ownership of Hanser Music Group, B.C. Rich has revived its custom shop, in addition to offering a wide variety of imported lower-cost models.

B.C. Rich Shop Now

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