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The Modern Era of the Electric Guitar

Francis C. Hall was born in Iowa in 1909 and moved to Southern California in 1919. His father owned a small store in Santa Ana, and F.C. went to work at an early age. As a high school student, he became interested in radios and electronics. Besides the obligatory homemade radio enterprising kids of the 1920s made for themselves, young F.C. started a part-time business recharging batteries, making home pickups and deliveries. By the time he had reached 18, he was manufacturing batteries at home for sale. The battery business evolved into a prosperous electronics-parts distribution company called the Radio and Television Equipment Company (R.T.E.C. or Radio-Tel). Hall's solid background in electronics and public address systems, which he installed in many Orange County churches, schools, and meeting rooms, made his transition into the music industry almost a natural step.

Shortly after WWII, Hall started to distribute steel guitar and amplifier sets made in Fullerton by Leo Fender. In 1946, he became Fender's exclusive distributor and set out to build a national distribution network. Hall played a key role in Fender's early success by providing financial backing and parts at a time when electric guitar manufacturing seemed like a high risk venture to most businessmen. F.C. was one of the first people to recognize the bright business possibilities of amplified music, but gradually grew unhappy with his situation selling Fenders. Opportunity knocked again when Adolph Rickenbacker and other shareholders in Electro String sold their interests to him. John Hall says that his father wanted to pioneer the in-house sales organization where closer ties to the decisions made at the manufacturing level would better serve the customer's needs. The purchase of Electro String by Hall and the distribution of its guitars by Radio-Tel thus set in motion the modernization of the Rickenbacker guitar line.

The early 1950s marked a period of major change in the guitar marketplace-the popularity and sales of steels waned as the popularity of regular guitars exploded. The advent of rock music in the mid-1950s was the coup de grace for non-pedal steel guitar-the electric Spanish guitar had proven itself more versatile and adaptable to the new musical styles. In other words, by the time Hall purchased Electro String, the trend was away from the company's fine lap steels. To update the Rickenbacker line, he introduced the Combo 600 and 800 guitars, designed for the most part by factory manager Paul Barth. Each differed only in its electronics-the 800's horseshoe pickup had two coils, the unpatented "Rickenbacker Multiple-Unit." When used in combination, these coils were humbucking; when used separately, one coil accentuated treble and one bass.

In 1956, Rickenbacker celebrated its 25th anniversary with the introduction of the student model Combo 400 guitar, with what collectors call the tulip or butterfly-style body. Moreover, the firm soon added a solid body electric bass. Both instruments had a novel construction feature: their necks extended from the patent head to the base of the body. Today this is known as neck-through-body construction, with the sides of the guitar body bolted and/or glued into place. Rickenbacker was first to mass produce instruments like this, and the design would soon became a well-known trademark.

Perhaps the best known 1950s Rickenbackers were the hollow body 6-string Capri models, introduced in 1958. Designed for the most part by Roger Rossmeisl, there were three categories, each distinguished by a different body style. The first group had 2-inch-thick double-cutaway bodies, while the second group had 3 1/2-inch thick single-cutaway bodies. The third grouping was a catch-all category for instruments with even deeper bodies, including pure acoustics. All Capri styles came with or without Vibrato and with either two or three pickups. Customers chose either deluxe-style fingerboard inlays and bindings or standard inlays and no bindings. Capris had slim and narrow "fast action" necks, which appealed to many. Standard colors in 1958 included Hi Lustre Blonde (a natural maple finish) and Autumnglo (a 2-tone brown sunburst). Fireglo (the pink to red sunburst we now know so well) was added in 1959. Standard finishes for Rickenbacker solid bodies included Cloverfield blue-green, natural maple, gold-tinged Montezuma Brown, and Black Diamond. Virtually any color was available on any model by special order, and the factory made them. In the late 1960s the standard colors would include Azureglo-blue and Burgundyglo.

In the early 1960s Rickenbacker history became forever wedded to one of the biggest music upheavals of the 20th century: the invasion of the mop-top Beatles from Liverpool, England. The Beatles used several Rickenbacker models in the early years. Before the group broke up, John Lennon would own at least four. This love affair began in Hamburg, Germany in 1960 when he bought a natural-blonde Model 325 with a Kauffman vibrato. Lennon played the original (which was eventually refinished black but still easily identified by its gold-backed lucite pickguard) on all Beatle recordings and in all concerts until early 1964. (Listen for it especially on the rhythm track of the group's "All My Loving.") Rickenbacker provided Lennon with an updated 325 in early 1964--also painted black, it featured a solid top, Ac'cent Vibrato, and white pickguards. Lennon's third Rickenbacker conformed closely to the features of the English distributor's Model 1996. (In the 1960s Rose, Morris, Ltd., carried five Rickenbacker models in England. Generally, they had F-holes instead of cat's eye slashes or solid tops. Ads in England called the Model 1996 the "Beatlebacker.") Lennon's fourth Model 325 was a one-of-a-kind 12-string version.

Paul McCartney used a Hofner bass in the early years of Beatlemania but soon had a Fireglo twin-pickup Rick bass, an early Model 4001S with dot inlays and no bindings. Its features closely resembled those of the Rose, Morris Model 1999 later played and made even more famous by Chris Squire of Yes. These solid body basses-which seemed so modern in the 1960s-used horseshoe pickups in the bridge position, thus proving the validity of Beauchamp's original 1930s design. Good ideas are timeless.

While Paul's Rick bass surged like an undertow, George Harrison's double-bound 360/12 (the second one made by the company) defined a new tone at the other end of the audio spectrum. Its ringing sound embellished "You Can't Do That," "Eight Days a Week," and "A Hard Day's Night," to name just three 12-string cuts from the 1964-65 period. Thus the Beatles created unprecedented, international interest in Rickenbackers, which many fans actually believed came from Britain.

Soon Rickenbackers created the sound and image of bands on both sides of the Atlantic. Jim (later Roger) McGuinn-who bought a Rickenbacker 360/12 after seeing the movie "A Hard Day's Night"-literally made the bell-like quality of its tone the foundation of the Byrds' early style. His later 3-pickup 370/12 featured custom wiring, but was still for the most part an off-the-rack instrument. The Who's Peter Townshend, Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, Steppenwolf's John Kay, and many other well-known 1960s guitarists became faithful Rickenbacker users. What had been a six-week waiting period from the factory for some models became a six-month (or longer) waiting period in the mid 1960s.

This rapid growth in demand led to changes in the company. Before 1964 all Rickenbacker guitars had been made at the original Electro String factory in Los Angeles. That year Hall moved it over a six month period to Santa Ana, in nearby Orange County. Despite the disruption in production during the transition, the new factory had increased production capacity. During this same period, the distributor Radio-Tele changed names to Rickenbacker, Inc., thus adopting a moniker people had used all along anyway. The company also added several novel guitars to its line.

The so-called convertibles came equipped with a lever that changed a 12-string neck into a 6-string neck. The Model 331- commonly called the "Light Show Guitar" because of its frequency-modulated internally-lit body-reflected the psychedelic 1960s in both sound and substance. The flashing began when the player hit the strings: yellow for treble notes, red for mid-range, and blue for bass. (Rickenbacker also produced a kaleidoscopic light projector called the Phantasmagorian.) Other oddities included the Bantar ( 5-string banjo meets electric guitar) and Eddie Peabody's Banjoline (a 6-string with Ac'cent Vibrato that tuned like a 4-string tenor guitar). Rickenbacker introduced the hollow body 4-string 4005 and 6-string 4005-6 basses in the late 1960s. Several custom-ordered 8-string basses were also produced.

In the 1970s, Rickenbacker added guitars with detachable necks and redesigned single- and double-coil pickups. A patented feature on some new models, and an option on others, was slanted frets, which better matched the angle of the player's hand. Two double-neck instruments became standard items: the model 4080 bass/guitar and the model 362/12 6/12-string. Rickenbacker basses dominated production during the early years of the decade-in many circles, a Rick bass was the only one to own. Then bands such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and R.E.M. hit like their 1960s forerunners, using Rickenbacker 6- and 12-strings. As the saying goes, fashions go in and out of style. Style is always in fashion.

Today the manufacturing and distribution of Rickenbacker guitars and basses is combined into RIC, the name used since F.C. Hall retired in September 1984 and John Hall, along with his wife Cindalee, became the sole owners of the company. RIC retains the spirit of first-class pre-1965 electric guitar manufacturing and craftsmanship. In addition to newly designed guitars and basses, the company offers faithful reissues of the classics played by the Beatles and other famous artists. RIC has offered highly successful, limited-edition signature models endorsed by such diverse players as Roger McGuinn, Pete Townshend, Tom Petty, Carl Wilson, and John Kay. Improvements in construction and quality control have carried Rickenbackers into the modern era, one that respects the company's early history and at the same time sets out to write new chapters. Groups like Oasis, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, U2, and other of today's top acts include Rickenbacker guitars in their musical arsenal.

A DJ once asked George Harrison if he liked a guitar he doodled on during a radio interview. Harrison is said to have quickly replied, "Of course, it's a Rickenbacker!" Asked the same question 65 years after the invention of modern electrics, thousands of satisfied guitar players would say exactly the same thing.