Rickenbacker Guitars is one of the oldest and most innovative guitar builders in the World. So, where did it begin?
There are few brands of guitar as instantly recognisable as Rickenbacker, both aesthetically and sonically. Their guitars have strong associations with some of the most famous musical artists of the modern age (not least of which, The Beatles), and take their place among the early pioneering solid body guitar designs. And, like many of the early pioneering electric guitar companies, its history is colourful, involving millionaire party animals, disputes electric harps, and some of the World’s most renowned musicians.
Like a guitar, but louder…
Rickenbacker Guitars (or Rickenbacker International Corporation- RIC) had its earliest beginnings in 1920s LA. The US city was establishing itself as the World’s entertainment capital. George Beauchamp was a lap steel guitar player seeking a louder instrument than was currently available, to meet the needs of current musical trends and performances. This was a common desire among guitarists of the era, and several had attempted to remedy this problem by creating guitars with amplifying ‘horns’. Beauchamp teamed up with local violin repairer, John Dopyera, with the intention of obtaining one of these.
The birth of the tri-cone resonator
After a failed first attempt, which required the instrument to be on a stand, Dopyera and his brother Rudy created an instrument which became known as the ‘tri-cone’). This featured aluminium cone-like resonators, attached to the bridge, and contained inside a metal body. Beauchamp was overjoyed with the tri-cone, and he the Dopyera brothers formed a manufacturing company to bring the new guitars to the masses. Taking the prototype to his millionaire cousin-in-law, Ted Kleinmeyer, he immediately managed to secure an investment of $12,000.
Beginning production of the guitars in a fully equipped factory, manned with a team of experienced craftsman. Significantly, the factory was located close to Adolf Rickenbacker’s tool and die shop. Rickenbacker ‘s expertise as a production engineer was employed to produce the metal guitar bodies for the instruments, which became known as Nationals.
Unfortunately, disputes tore this fledgling company apart. By 1928, the Dopyera brothers were disillusioned with the company management, with John unable to work with Beauchamp. Kleinmeyer had been taking cash from the company funds, to pay for his ‘playboy’ lifestyle. The Dopyera brothers split, and formed the Dobro Company.
Rickenbacker ‘s earliest instruments
Beauchamp had been entertaining ideas about an electric guitar, and had carried out experiments with magnetic pickups, whilst attending a night-school electronics class. He developed a pickup based around two horseshoe shaped magnets, before forming a company with craftsman Harry Watson, who had worked in the National factory, and Adolph Rickenbacker, who once again lent his ideas, expertise and capital. After creating a prototype, with a small round body, nicknamed the ‘frying pan’ or the ‘pancake’, the company, which became known as Electro String, began producing the first instruments to bear the name ‘Rickenbacker’.
The rush of companies competing to get an electric guitar to the marketplace, combined with difficulties patenting the frying pan meant that it was pointless to pursue infringements. However, Rickenbacker continued to produce innovative instruments throughout the 1930s, with many of the Lap Steels produced in this period considered to be the best ever made.
Other models produced in this period included their first Spanish style guitar, the Ken Roberts model, with the Bakelite Model B following shortly afterwards. Amplifiers were also part of the Rickenbacker catalogue during this period, and the company managed to apply its pickup technology to a huge variety of other musical instruments. A harp was produced, as were violins, violas, cellos, and even a primitive electric piano.
After leading the company through two decades of innovation, Beauchamp had become jaded with the industry, and sold his shares. Rickenbacker continued the company until 1953, when he sold his stake to Californian music business giant, F.C. Hall. The company continued to lead the World in the production of lap steel guitars, but introduced several models in the late 1950s with features that would ultimately change Rickenbacker ‘s future direction, most significantly, the neck-through-body design. In addition, in 1958, the Capri series of semi-hollow, double cutaway guitars was launched. This series of guitars gave a lot of inspiration to the Rickenbacker models which are available today.
The 1960’s would propel the brand to the heights it remains to this day, however. Stay tuned for part two…
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.