Interview: Dick Burke on the Creation of the Rickenbacker 12-String | Bacon's Archive

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. These interviews will be appearing on Reverb in the coming months.

For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Les Paul, Tom Petty, and Chet Atkins, as well as a deeper look into the recording of Sgt. Pepper's.

I interviewed Dick Burke in 1993 for my first book about Rickenbacker. We met at the Rickenbacker factory in Santa Ana, where Dick was factory manager.

He'd worked at the company since 1958, so we had lots to talk about, including his fellow worker Roger Rossmeisl, his clever design for Rickenbacker's 12-string headstock, the changes at the firm through the decades, and the effect of The Beatles on Rickenbacker's fortunes. I began by asking Dick about his first years at the company.

What were the circumstances of you starting work at Rickenbacker, Dick?

In 1958, a friend of mine's father worked for them, at 6105 Western Avenue, Los Angeles, and I came out from Tennessee, started in March 1958.

How big was the company?

Not big, maybe 10 or 12 people working there. I started in the woodshop—doing everything pretty much [laughs], running the equipment, the routers, bandsaw, fretting, binding.

Was the electric Spanish guitar the majority of the business then? I think the Combo models were already going.

Yeah, we were putting out quite a few. When I came, they were bolting the necks on those with screws and stuff. Then we started the way we do it presently, gluing the necks.

The through-neck construction of the Combos was unusual back then.

I think we were one of the first people to do that, if I'm not mistaken.

Rickenbacker Combo

Who were you reporting to when you started?

Roger Rossmeisl, and Ward Deaton—he was the manager then.

Tell me about Roger. He was important to Rickenbacker's development in the '50s.

He was a German, as you know. Likeable. I worked with him for about four years. He'd be designing, and working—fretting, spray-painting, whatever. He'd work in the shop.

He was responsible for some of the designs.

Oh yeah, for a lot of the designs we still have today. If Francis Hall [then boss at Rickenbacker] wanted something, Roger would try to come up with it. He'd put it on paper, a small sketch of it, and try and come up with something.

Did Roger change much in himself during those four years you worked together at Rickenbacker?

Oh, I don't know. I think he had a lot of personal problems. I know he drank a lot, quite heavy. A lot of personal trouble.

Did that affect his work?

No, Roger was good. Maybe later on. I never saw the man drunk or anything. I think he told me it was '53 he started, and he left here in August in '62—we'd just moved down from LA to Santa Ana in June or July, and he stayed on for two months, then went to Fender. He knew he was going to Fender when we moved, he'd bought a home up there already. I think he was about 47 at that time.

How many people were working alongside you and Roger, when you joined in '58?

Oh, we only had a small amount of people, I'd say between six and eight—I don't know exactly.

Did Semie Moseley work at the company at that time?

He left the company just a very short time after I was there, maybe a month after I was with the company. He and Paul Barth both left.

So in '62, the Rickenbacker factory moved from LA to Kilson Drive in Santa Ana, a stone's throw from the sales office of Radio-Tel, Francis Hall's distribution company. Was that a good move for the company?

Yeah, I think so. I wanted to get out of LA. This place [Santa Ana] was real small at that time, and I liked the country. No freeways about at that time. I really liked it. It's changed a lot. This here [Rickenbacker's current factory and offices at East Stevens, on the corner of South Main] was a drive-in restaurant—we used to come down here and eat our lunch.

Did the move in '62 result in changes to production methods?

No, we brought the equipment down with us. I was doing the same things in both places. I'm doing the same thing now, basically [laughs].

Were Rickenbacker's large-body F-suffix models under way by the time you joined, the ones with the controls mounted on the front?

Yeah, and I remember we had some problems with those cracking around the front of the instrument, around the heel near the body. And to get those controls in, we had a tool to put them in there and pull them through. It was a standard tool, and we had to just pick it up like a surgeon would and pull the control up through the hole—and then, obviously, put the nut on. The hole was probably two inches or so in diameter, under that big pickguard, put there specially for that, because there was no hole in the back.

What prompted the Rickenbacker 12-string? There weren't many electric 12-strings then.

We brought it in somewhere around '64, and Mr. Hall, he wanted a 12-string, but he wanted the head short, a compact head, he didn't want six keys and another six keys. He said could we come up with a configuration to make it not much bigger than a regulation six-string head. So I drilled around, and I came up with what we've got today.

It's a great piece of design, Dick. You have the six regular tuners, three on each side of the head, and then you added two parallel routed channels in the headstock face—like the slots on a classical guitar, but not going all the way through—with the second set of six tuners at 90 degrees to the first, the keys facing backwards. Did it take you long to get to that?

I was head of the woodshop at that time, and we worked it different ways. We thought about putting the rout all the way through, in fact I think I made a couple with the rout all the way through. I think it looked better without it. We ended up with a rout about an eighth of an inch in. If you can see through it, I don't know, it doesn't look as good. But I'm not a musician.

Why did you incorporate the classical-style head into your design? Were you looking at those kinds of guitars?

No. I mean, I knew what a classical guitar was from the side. But if you wanted a short head, you had to come in from the side some way, you had to mount them a different way, you know?

So it wasn't the influence of classical guitars that made you do it that way?

Well, yeah, you know—you see something and it sticks with you, definitely. I was going to go all the way through, like a classical, with the first one we made, but then we came up with one with a back on it. It didn't take very long to come up with it, you know [laughs].

What effect did it have on the company when The Beatles used Rickenbackers—John his 325, George his 360/12, and Paul his 4001S bass?

We started getting busy! We got a lot of interest from The Beatles, definitely. Pretty good for the company—they played those instruments, and liked them, I guess. I think that the 320 took off, and our basses took off, in the mid to late '60s. The 12-string went good, too.

Who came up with Rickenbacker's classic "R" tailpiece, which you introduced around 1963?

Well [laughs] I'll tell you, we copied that from the Washington Redskins. Do you know the football team? We saw that R there on their hats, an R for Redskins, and we copied that. That's where we got it from! It looks good, so we came up with that. You're familiar with the trapeze tailpiece? Well, they wanted a new tailpiece, and "R" went with "Rickenbacker," obviously. I just remember seeing the Washington Redskins' R and it looked good, the way that tail of the R came up. So we just copied it from there [laughs].

An "R" tailpiece from 1964
A Rickenbacker Astro Kit guitar

Do you remember the Astro Kit guitar? It was a kit of parts to make an electric guitar, which Rickenbacker sold at Christmas 1963.

Yeah, it was designed by a guy named Marvin Boyd. He came with the company in '62, when we moved to Santa Ana from LA. He worked with us for a little while, maybe a year or so, then he moved to Missouri, maybe Mississippi—one of the two, I can't remember. He would have left in '63 or '64. Those kits, we made a few with no lacquer or anything on them, and then we made some complete, we painted the bodies red and blue, and sold them, too.

How about the new rounded-edge body style, which came along in 1964 or so?

I guess some musicians complained about the sharp edge on the double-bound [sharp-edge] one, and Mr. Hall wanted something maybe more rounded, so we came up with that. It's more comfortable for the player. When we first came up with it, it didn't look good, in fact it looked awful—because we didn't bind the f-hole. When we bound the f-hole, it sets it off. If you take that binding off the f-hole it just doesn't look right.

Tell me about the differences in production for the sharp and the rounded one.

We just shape the top of it, for the rounded type, instead of putting the binding groove in and binding it, and the horn is rounded off more—that's all. But you take from the horn back, everything's the same, except for knocking the horns off. They do look completely different.

You start with the same body?

Right, we have a jig that can shape that side. We can cut blanks off and make them anything we want, long as you put them in the right jig. We start with a solid block, cut the different lengths, join them together, then set overnight. Lay them out, put them through the rim sander. Then we have jigs to shape them and flip them over, eat the insides out, put in the control pocket, the f-holes, the neck slot. Next we do the back on it. Then we put the binding on, or the carved top, and put the binding on the back of all of them.

The necks come separate, but the same neck goes in either—what I call the regular [rounded] 360 or the OS [Old Style, sharp-edge]—they're interchangeable. Same pickups, same bridges, everything else.

Has that process changed since you've been here?

Slant-fret Rickenbacker 481

No, I don't think so. The same way. We don't have much cracking, nothing like that, which is good. And in the factory, well, we now have humidifiers in here and stuff, which helps. We had trouble with paint here in Southern California one time, too. But we've been pretty lucky, we haven't had any big troubles. The main thing is, somebody makes a mistake, we catch it before it gets out.

You mentioned soundholes just now—did the real f-holes of the '60s export models for Rose-Morris and others mean much of a change in production, from the regular Rickenbacker "slash" hole? Did you make many of the f-hole type?

No problem: it was the same instrument except for the f-hole. Same fittings, same jig, all you have to do is change that pattern. You've got three or four screws to change. I remember some time, maybe '63, there was an order for about 50 of them—the 330, not the bound-top model 360—and they wanted the f-hole. We went into the 12-string a year or two later, and they ordered quite a few of them, too. Then that f-hole more or less went dormant, it seemed, until we started to make the Pete Townshend limited edition in 1987. I like that better than our regular soundhole, myself.

I wonder why Rose-Morris chose to have that?

I think Lennon or one of them had one with an f-hole, and the Rose-Morris guy saw that, but I'm not sure. I think they may have sent us a picture or something how they wanted it. But we did put out some of the short-scale 320s with that, almost but not quite the same.

How about the lightshow guitars, with the clear body and triggered lamps inside?

We had a little trouble with that [laughs]. We had a plexiglass bottom and top, and then we came up with the silver underneath it, so when you played you could see the light. After we figured it out, it wasn't any trouble, it was easy. Had a little thicker body, if I'm not mistaken. That was something completely different!

Also around 1970, you changed the width of the triangle inlays on the deluxe models. Why was that?

Yes, we changed the inlay from all the way across to midway, and we did that because it makes for a stronger neck—especially on a 12-string—when the inlay doesn't go all the way across. If you take that wood out, you weaken that neck all the way across there.

What prompted the slant-fret guitars, which I think you made a few of around 1971?

Some musicians said that's the way when you hold the neck in your left hand—your hand is slanted. So we put the slanted frets in a few guitars. I don't know how many, maybe a hundred or two—I don't recall. We had everything set up the same, and the only thing that was any different was the fretboard, just cut at an angle. The pickups and the bridge sat at an angle, too. Other than that, everything's the same. I remember making some slant-frets with ebony fingerboards, but most of them were made with the regular rosewood.

Do you recall whose idea it was to make the "bass body" 480-series guitars in the early '70s?

Well Mr. Hall again [laughs], he wanted an instrument that looked like the 4001 bass at the time. That was very simple, because it was just about a copy of the bass, but it had a six-string neck in it. I believe, from memory—and this was a long time ago—that the bass was very popular and it would look good if you had a guitar that was similar. I guess he felt it might sell the instrument with the bass.

It was around that time, early '70s, that you began to make double-necks for the first time.

The 4080, they called it, and the 362/12. You had to make sure everything lined up, that was the main thing with those. The 362 was pretty easy, it was just an oversized 360, basically—through necks is all. Most of the 4080s had that bass neck on there, and the pickup came off different spots and the bridge was in a different position. And that 4080 neck was on an angle, if you recall, and the bass neck stuck right out, which I didn't like.

They said it played good because you have that neck kind of backwards. I don't play, but they said it was a good instrument on account of that relationship. We put out small runs of those, 10 at a time, 15 at a time. I don't know how many times we did that.

What would be the regular number for a run?

Oh, it depends what period you're talking about. When we were busy, we might run a couple of hundred, for a two- or three-week production, before we started on something else. Like the 360/12 was real strong in the mid-'60s there, and I remember it seemed like that was all we were seeing, the 360/12 coming out. I think in the late '70s and early '80s, it was maybe 90 percent basses at that time.

What period was the factory most busy?

I would say maybe in the late '60s, or mid-'60s—1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, something like that. At one time, we had 103 people at the factory, but I can't be sure if that was in the late '60s or maybe some time in the '70s. We got low, too. I know when we landed on the moon, that was 1969, we were slow—we were slow in 1969, 1970, and 1971, and we had, oh, seven or eight people. We'd go for a couple of years and then we'd pick up again.

How did Rickenbacker's sales hold up in the '70s?

Well, we put out a ton of basses in the '70s. In the '60s, it had been the 320, the 12-string, and the 360.

What about more recently, say in the '80s?

We were slow at the beginning of the '80s but we started picking up in about '84, and it's been going good since [speaking in 1993]. Now we have about 60 people. This is probably the longest I've ever seen it steady. It's real good, nine or 10 years now, whatever it is.

A Rickenbacker Page in a 1964 Rose Morris Catalog.

Were you involved in the redesign of Rickenbacker's double truss-rod in the early '80s?

Yes. I thought the old truss rod wasn't as good as we make them now. The old type, when you tighten the rod up, the top part of it goes up and the bottom part appears to go down a little bit, so it seems like you're pushing and a-pulling. And those fingerboards used to pop off a lot, too.

The way they're made now, we never get one back. Now it's just one double-rod in there, not two. It starts off from the beginning at the back, and it dips a little bit, the eighth fret is its lowest point, and it comes back up again. You've got a little U in there, and when you tighten the rod, it goes up, and it adjusts pretty good. It's the same steel material, it's just shaped a little differently. The old rod was more or less flat, and this is oval, and probably a little bit smaller, but you can adjust the neck probably three times as much with it.

Are most things today [speaking in 1993] made in the factory here?

We buy all the metalwork, obviously, the rods and stuff. We make the instrument complete here, except for the machine heads. We make our own pickups, but we buy all the parts and assemble them here. The metal people make our pickup covers, the plastic people make the parts like the coil-form, and we put them together.

You're factory manager now, Dick. Is that the way it's always worked here, a factory manager and people below him?

I've been called other things. I check things at different stages. We have a paint guy, a woodshop guy, you've got your buffing people, people at the sander, and there's a lead person in each of the departments. There's paint, woodshop, buffing, wet sanding, and then number 30 sanding, where we sand the instruments before they go into the paint room. So about five. Basically that's the way it's always been.

When I started, we didn't really have departments, we had pretty much one big-size room for the woodshop, and we basically did everything in there. We had a paint room. But we would make it, hand sand it in the woodshop, then paint it in the paint room, bring it out and wet sand it right in that woodshop. We buffed it in a different spot, at the front. But everything else was done in the same room. Now we have different everything.


Popular Rickenbackers on Reverb

Are there more machines to do things now?

We didn't have a drum sander back then—that puts the different thickness on the wood, takes the glue off, makes things a lot easier. We've got four routers now, and we only had one then. We've got two or three edge sanders, and again, we only had one back then, things like that. Two or three joiners.

Do you think there are parts of guitar-making that will never be automated?

I think you can get a machine to do it just as good. But your wood does move, and if you let it set for a period of time, it could change a little bit on you. We glue the wood up in three pieces, like our necks, let it set for a long time. We got walnut and two pieces of maple—they can go on you. We let it set for a long time, paint it, see which way it's gonna go. We've had real good luck with our necks.

Rickenbacker 12-String ad, 1967.

I guess you've used the same kinds of woods over the years.

Yes, mainly Eastern hard maple, walnut, and rosewood for the fingerboards, mainly the same things.

Has the source of the rosewood changed?

They had that trouble bringing it into the United States, you remember that [speaking in 1993]? I think it comes from Africa now. Padauk looks a little bit redder, had a bit different character, if you know what you're looking for.

Has it become harder to get quality woods?

Well, sometimes we have trouble when they get to just before they harvest the next crop. It can be hard to get in the width we need—we probably need about eight inches for a lot of our instruments. But we can always make necks out of it, or could make a 600 Series or 4000 Series—it doesn't go to waste. And we do get pretty good wood. If it's birdseye maple, you pay a lot of money for it, but we've got some pretty good-looking birdseye, if you pay the price for it. We get the best maple you can find, regular maple, about 30 cents a foot. It's mainly from the northeastern United States.

Rickenbacker fingerboards look distinctive with that lacquer.

We're about the only ones who do that, I guess. It brings out the colour. I think some musicians think it don't play as good. But it looks better. I guess you give up something and get something.

So maple, walnut, and rosewood—it's never changed?

You know, we used a little bit of ash before, in LA, and I think a time or two down here we tried ash. Birch a little bit, but not much of it—we made some 360s in LA from that. With birch, you have to fill more. I think it's about the same price, but it is hard to fill. We sometimes get old ones back to work on. The way to tell is the grain—you sand it down and you can almost see into that grain.

The ash would have been for some of the solidbody guitars and stuff, the Combos. Wouldn't have been much, we just tried some. And ash is pretty heavy, too. We've used maple for some fingerboards, of course. We've used some ebony—I think the 4002 basses, and we put out some 360s, maybe 15 years ago. If a customer wants it, we'll put it on. But the walnut has always been walnut, which is a decorative item more than anything. Real soft and easy to work.

Were you ever aware that at Rickenbacker you were making instruments that were different than everyone else's?

No, not really. I didn't know if there were any guitars out like that or not at that time. I'd never seen any, and never seen none to this day, I think. I never looked at that many guitars. I'd seen a few at the shop here that Mr. Hall would bring in, this and that, but I very seldom went to a music store and looked at any.


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Rickenbacker Electric 12-string, Electric Guitars: Design & Invention, and Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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