You've probably seen a Rickenbacker, and almost definitely heard one. Here's something about them.
The Rickenbacker International Corporation (RIC) was founded in 1931 by Adolph Rickenbacker1 and George D. Beauchamp.
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 then enlisted a friend to create a prototype body. The resulting guitar was known as "the frying pan". He then enlisted Rickenbacker to manufacture the guitar. These Hawaiian guitars were Rickenbacker's most famous through the thirties.
In 1940 Beauchamp sold his shares of Rickenbacker to Rickenbacker's book keep. In 1953 Rickenbacker sold the company to F.C. Hall.
Rickenbackers are still made only in the US and most parts are made in the 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. Many models also have individual volume and control knobs for each pickup. Twelve string instruments have all twelve 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-Sound2.
The 300 series
The 300 series (hollow-bodied electric) was introduced in 1958. They were known as the Capri models and came in three different styles. These became famous in the early sixties when John Lennon and George Harrison started using a 325 and a 360/123 (respectively). After the Beatles started using them, they began to receive more players, both in the US and the UK.
It should be noted that guitars with a model number of 199-something are the same guitar as its 300-series counterpart (though there were a 1999 and a 1995 which were a 4001S and a 615, respectively). They are modified by the British distributor Rose Morris with a "f" style hole as apposed to the cat's-eye hole or solid top normally found on Ricks.
Solid-bodied Spanish Models
Rickenbacker started on making Spanish electrics with the Combo 600 and the Combo 800 guitars. In 1956, they introduced the Combo 400 guitar. This guitar, along with the 4000 bass, was the first neck-through-body instruments to be massed produced. The current solid body series is the 600 series. Many Rickenbacker solid bodies have a "cresting wave" design.
The 4000 series
The 4000 series is Rickenbacker's line of basses (there were a 3000 and a 2000 series, but these are not nearly as famous as they had bolt-on necks). It was introduced in 1957 with the model 4000 bass. This bass featured neck-through-body construction, dual truss rods, and a large horseshoe pickup (as seen on their steel guitars). In the sixties they introduced the 4001S (a two pickup version of the 4000, made famous by Paul McCartney), the 4001 (a deluxe version of the 4000, with two pickups, neck binding, and triangle fretboard markers), and the 4005 (a thinline bass with two "toaster-top" pickups, discontinued in 1983). In 1977 they introduced the 4002 (a limited addition bass featuring two humbuckers) and the 4003 (a 4001 with round-wound strings4). They also discontinued the 4001 in the early eighties. During the nineties they introduced the 4004 (a 4000 series bass with two humbuckers and a modified underbody curvature; it does not have a neck binding, triangle fretboard markers, or even a pickguard).
In addition to the above, they offer acoustic guitars; however, Rickenbacker is know as the company that invented the electric guitar so the acoustics don't get much recognition.
They also have reissue series of significant instruments. They also have a replica series of Rics used by the Beatles.
There was also the 3000 series of basses in the 70's and 80's which was a more affordable line of basses, but they never shared the fame of the 4001 and 4003. This is likely do to the fact that the 4001 and 4003 were distinct sounding instruments, the 3000's had bolt-on necks and did not share the pickup design of their more expensive cousins.
Rickenbacker (as mentioned earlier) invented the electric pickup (okay, so Beauchamp did, but we're talking about the company here). These early "horseshoe" pickups were large units that wrapped around the strings. These worked fine for the lap steels they were making at the time. However with the rise of rock in the 50's they had to come up with another pickup to put on a semi acoustic guitar. This lead to the creation of the "toaster-top" pickup. This was the standard until 1968, when the High-Gain pickups were introduced. Now these 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 on reissue 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 lineup, but has created numerous other pickups to try and give options to the buyer. This shows that Ric tries to keep thing traditional, lending their distinct tone to those who enjoy it, rather than trying to branch off to different musicians.
And what of bass pickups? Well the horseshoe and toaster-top pickups do not have pole pieces dedicated to each individual strings like the pickups found on Gibson's or Fender's. This meant that they could just use their established pickups on their basses, and so they did. The fact that the 4001 had guitar pickups were probably more key than anything else (not to say that the neck-through construction didn't play a major role) in providing its signature tone. Dedicated bass pickups didn't come around until mid-year 1973, when the toaster-top(s) was dropped from the 4001 and 4005, replaced by a High-Gain designed for a bass (design meaning having a single pole per string). The horseshoe was replaced in 1975 by a High-Gain with a removable, over-the-strings, chrome pickup cover (while probably for aesthetic purposes, it also enhances the higher range) designed to fit into the previously established mounting hole, allowing the ability to switch the newer pickup into the older instrument, as well as to emulate the look of the older style; it also retained the capacitor that filtered out the bass.
They only currently offer 2 types of humbuckers. The first are for guitars and sound similar to Gibson P-90's (an interesting fact as the Beatles's non-Ric semi-hollow bodied guitars used these pickups). The others are found on the 4004. Others have been made in the past but on instruments that aren't commonly seen (I.E. 3000-series basses and 4002's), not to say that Ric's with humbuckers are commonly seen.
So who Plays these Things?
Rickenbacker guitars have been used by John Lennon (The Beatles), George Harrison (The Beatles), Pete Townshend (The Who), Tom Petty, Mike Campbell (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), and Paul Weller (The Jam).
Rickenbacker basses have been played by Paul McCartney (The Beatles), 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), Lemmey (Motorhead), Roger Waters (in the early years of Pink Floyd), and Rick James.