Rickenbacker - The Guitar Manufacturer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Rickenbacker - The Guitar Manufacturer

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Photograph of a Rickenbacker Guitar in front of an amp.

You may not have seen a Rickenbacker guitar, but you have almost definitely heard one. Here's something about them.

The Beginning

George Beauchamp (a steel guitar player) was looking to make a louder guitar. He eventually started experimenting with electricity and created the first electric pickup. He enlisted a friend to create a prototype body. The resulting guitar was known as the 'frying pan' as it had a long thin neck and a small round body. He then approached Adolph Rickenbacker, who owned a workshop that made metal guitar parts as well as plastic products such as toothbrushes, and their electric guitar manufacturing business began.

The guitars were named Rickenbackers to capitalise on the fame of World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who was Adolph's cousin1. These electric Hawaiian guitars were Rickenbacker's most famous product during the 1930s.

In 1940 Beauchamp sold his shares in the business to Rickenbacker's bookkeeper as he wanted to spend more time on his hobby of deep sea fishing. He had not been in good health though, and died soon after.

Rickenbacker continued making and developing electric guitars and amplifiers after his business partner departed, building them in Bakelite plastic instead of metal and adding a tone control as well as volume control, but in 1953 he sold the company to FC Hall, a businessman keen on the potential of electric guitars.

Solid-bodied Spanish Models

Guitar fashion had moved on from electric Hawaiian (steel) guitars - electric Spanish (six-string semi-acoustic) guitars had become more popular for musicians to use. As a result, the Rickenbacker Combo 600 and Combo 800 guitars were developed in 1954. The solid body (which had first been developed in the 1930s by rival guitar manufacturers Les Paul and Leo Fender) almost completely eliminated the feedback that had been a problem for the early hollow-bodied electric guitars.

In 1956, the company introduced the (affordable) Combo 400 guitar and branched out into bass guitars in 1957 with the 4000 series. These were the first mass-produced neck-through-body instruments (having their neck piece extending to the length of the guitar, and the body being formed by gluing sides to the neck piece - guitars of this type had been produced since the 1940s, but only in small numbers as they were more expensive to make than the traditional bolt-on-neck guitars).

The 300 series

The 300 series (hollow-bodied) was introduced in 1958. They were known as the Capri models and came in three different styles - slim bodied, medium bodied and deep bodied (including acoustics). A variety of colours were available, including natural wood and two-tone starburst.

Rickenbacker guitars became famous in the early 1960s when John Lennon and George Harrison of The Beatles, started using a 325 and a 360/122 (respectively). Paul McCartney also switched to a Rickenbacker bass - model 4001S. After The Beatles started using them, Rickenbackers began to attract more players, both in the US and the UK.


The surge in demand that followed The Beatles' popularisation of their instruments meant that the company struggled to keep up. In 1964 production moved to a larger factory. New guitars were also introduced, including convertibles, which could be changed from six strings to 12 strings by turning a lever, and guitars with lights inside, creating a multi-sensory experience when they were played.


The Rickenbacker International Corporation (RIC) obtained its name in 1984, when FC Hall retired - previously the company was split into Electro String, which made the instruments, and Radio-Tele, which sold them.

The company has seen some controversy in its history. For example, in 1999 RIC successfully defended its brand and image against a manufacturer of similar guitars in court - the manufacturer paid a settlement amount to RIC and the court recognised the trademarks associated with the Rickenbacker guitar designs. RIC again had to defend its brand in 2007 when a fan offered custom built Rickenbacker guitars for sale without the company's knowledge - the transactions did not proceed as expected and several people lost money as a result, but RIC was not implicated in the events.

Rickenbackers are still made only in the US and most parts are made in the Rickenbacker factory. They are known for the neck-through-body construction of their solid-body instruments. Many of their instruments also have two truss rods, allowing each side of the neck to be adjusted individually and many models have individual volume and control knobs for each pickup. Twelve-string instruments have all 12 machine heads on a standard size headstock; this is accomplished by alternately mounting the machine heads at right angles to each other. Deluxe models have a neck binding, triangle fretboard markers, and often have Ric-o-Sound3.

Guitar Series

In addition to the above, they offer acoustic guitars. However, Rickenbacker is known as the company that invented the electric guitar so the acoustics don't get much recognition.

The current range of solid body electric guitars is the 600 series. These feature the 'cresting wave' body design that has been a hallmark of Rickenbacker guitars since the 1950s.

The 4000 series is Rickenbacker's line of basses (there was a 3000 and a 2000 series, but these are not nearly as famous as they were cheaper and had indistinct bolt-on necks). The original model 4000 bass featured a large 'horseshoe' pickup (as seen on their steel guitars). Later basses in the series featured 'toaster-top' pickups and the most recent versions have 'humbuckers'.

RIC also have re-issue series of significant instruments from their history, which includes replicas of the Rickenbackers used by The Beatles.


The first electric pickups were 'horseshoe' pickups - large units containing horseshoe-shaped magnets that wrapped around the strings. These worked fine for the steel guitars they were making at the time. However with the rise of rock in the 1950s the company had to come up with another pickup to put on a semi-acoustic guitar. This led to the creation of the 'toaster-top' pickup, which as its name suggests looked like the top of a toaster - rectangular in shape with a dividing strip in the middle. This was the standard until 1968, when 'High-Gain' pickups were introduced, containing two coils of wire wound in opposite directions to reduce noise from other electrical equipment being picked up. Now High-Gain (or Humbucker) pickups are the standard equipment.

It should probably be noted that these pickups have remained unchanged for their life (the toaster-tops being the only ones that have ever had any change, and most of them were updated versions for re-issue instruments, strangely enough). While this may seem insignificant, take for example Fender or Gibson. Fender has always experimented with new pickup designs as well as modifying existing pickups to better provide the tone being used by the musicians of the day, while Gibson has kept established pickups in the line-up, but has created numerous other pickups to try to give options to the buyer. This shows that Rickenbacker tries to keep things traditional, lending their distinct tone to those who enjoy it, rather than trying to branch off to attract different types of musicians.

And what of bass pickups? Well, the horseshoe and toaster-top pickups do not have pole pieces dedicated to each individual string like the pickups found on Gibsons or Fenders did. This meant that Rickenbacker could just use their established pickups on their basses, and so they did. The fact that the 4001 had guitar pickups was probably more key than anything else (not to say that the neck-through-body construction didn't play a major role) in providing its signature tone. Dedicated bass pickups didn't come around until mid-1973, when the toaster-top was dropped from the 4001 and 4003 and replaced by a High-Gain designed for a bass (having a single pole per string). In 1975 a High-Gain with a removable, over-the-strings, chrome pickup cover was introduced (while the cover was probably added for aesthetic purposes, it also enhances the higher range). It was designed to fit into the previously established mounting hole, allowing the ability to switch the newer pickup into the older instruments, as well as to emulate the look of the older style.

So who Plays these Things?


Rickenbacker guitars were most famously used by John Lennon and George Harrison, but many other guitarists followed in their footsteps. Mike Campbell from the group Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the 360/12 like his idol George Harrison, as did Carl Wilson from the Beach Boys, the guitars helping them to develop their distinctive sound. Pete Townshend (The Who), Paul Weller (The Jam), Peter Buck (REM) and Thom Yorke (Radiohead) also had 300 series Rickenbackers in their collections.


Rickenbacker basses have been played by Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee (Rush), Chris Squire (Yes), Peter Quaife (The Kinks), Roger Glover (Deep Purple), Cliff Burton (Metallica), Bruce Foxton (The Jam), Mark Evans (AC/DC), Lemmy (Motorhead), Roger Waters (in the early years of Pink Floyd) and Rick James (R&B and Funk singer).

1Not to mention the fact that Beauchamp, pronounced Beech-am, isn't an easy name to read and then pronounce.2A slash followed by a number in the name of a Rickenbacker guitar refers to the number of strings it has. So the 360/12 means a model 360 guitar with 12 strings.3A second output jack which allows for stereo output when used in conjunction with certain equipment (such as the Ric-o-Sound kit).

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