Rickenbacker Guitars truly established itself as a giant of the guitar world when the ‘60s arrived…
When Rickenbacker Guitars (or Electro String, to give it the correct company name of the time) was purchased by FC Hall in 1953, the music world was going through a revolution. Hall had spent the early part of his career in the musical instrument industry distributing equipment for Leo Fender. He recognised the potential for Fender’s products and became sole distributor, providing support that enabled the brand to succeed in those early years.
It was this recognition of the potential for electric instruments that led Hall to seize the opportunity to take control of Rickenbacker, when the opportunity arose. The market was changing, with less demand for lap steels and more for ‘Spanish Style’ six string instruments. To fit these new trends, two landmark models were launched to update the product line: the Combo 600 and Combo 800.
The Combo 800 featured an early humbucking pickup, called the Rickenbacker Multiple unit. The twin coils could be used simultaneously, as a humbucker, or separately, with one coils enhancing bass frequencies, the other treble. The innovation didn’t stop there, however. Later, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Rickenbacker, in 1956, the Rickenbacker Combo 400 was launched. A student model, this instrument was the first to feature the, now iconic, ‘tulip’ double cutaway body shape. More significantly, however, the guitars featured a neck-through-body design. This meant that the neck extended from the headstock right through to the heel of the guitar, with the sides attached to give the instrument its ‘guitar’ shape. This feature would become a detail for which Rickenbackers would become renowned.
In 1958, the Rickenbacker launched the hollow Capri range, which would lead to the famous Rickenbacker 300 series. Whilst there were three distinct styles in this range (a slim, double cutaway range, a thicker, 3 ½” range with a single cutaway, and a deeper bodied range), all featured slim, fast necks, were available with or without vibrato, with two or three pickups, and were available in a wide variety of finishes.
The international profile of Rickenbacker guitars was set to skyrocket in the 1960s. A young John Lennon picked up a Ricky 325 in Hamburg. Used in all early Beatles recordings and performances, this model is synonymous with Lennon, and he kept the guitar until his death. The other Beatle members got in on the act later. Paul McCartney put down his violin bass in favour of a solid body Rickenbacker 4001S in Fireglo. George Harrison famously used a Rickenbacker 360/12, which provided the famous chiming 12-string sound that defined the early Beatles recordings. This led to a huge increase in popularity, with Rickys played by artists from Pete Townsend, Roger McGuinn and John Fogerty and more during the ‘60s.
The ‘70s saw Rickenbacker introduce a range of models with redesigned pickups and detachable necks, and on some models, angled frets. It was during this decade that Rickenbacker basses commonly became the tool of choice for recording and performance, with six and twelve string models retaining their enduring popularity. Throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s, Rickys have continued to be used by some of the World’s most respected artists. Paul Weller, and Noel Gallagher have played various models throughout their illustrious careers, along with Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, U2’s The Edge, and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and many, many others.
Unlike many long-standing guitar brands, which regularly update and ‘tweak’ older models, Rickenbacker models remain pretty much unchanged from the original spec. It is this, ‘if it’s not broken, don’t try and fix it’ attitude, perhaps, that has been the secret of the brand’s enduring success. This, companioned with the fact the guitars play beautifully, look incredible, and possess a distinctive tone that is incomparable to anything else, will no doubt that this popularity will continue for some time to come…
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.