The Rise of Rickenbacker: from Beatles to Basses

Rickenbacker History. Courtesy of DeLerkim, CC.

Rickenbackers are some of the most iconic, unique, and easily identifiable guitars and basses ever made. It only takes a brief look or a few chords to realize you’re seeing and hearing a Rick. From the Beatles and Tom Petty to Lemmy and Geddy Lee, these instruments have quite the long list of fans. 

But where did Rickenbackers come from? How did such a unique brand come about and manage to compete with the likes of Fender and Gibson? In this article, we’re going to take a deeper look at the history of Rickenbacker and how the company has kept going into the modern age. 

Resonator Before Rickenbacker

The story of Rickenbacker starts with National. Yes, that national—the one known for making tricone resonator guitars in the 20s and 30s. 

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In the 1920s, a Vaudeville performer named George Beauchamp was looking for a guitar loud enough to cut through large ensembles. Due to the limited variety of guitars available at the time, Beauchamp didn’t really have any options. He decided to work with an instrument maker local to LA, John Dopyera, hoping he could help. 

The two then started working together on designs for a new guitar. They tried several different designs, but they didn’t work out. Eventually, they came up with the idea of a metal guitar with three resonators inside the body to increase the volume. This turned out to be the very first tricone resonator guitar.

Beauchamp showed the guitar to a wealthy cousin of his, and it turned out to be a good decision; Beauchamp’s cousin decided to invest in the production of the guitars to the tune of $12,000 (around $168,000 adjusted for inflation). With a revolutionary design and the money to make it happen, they were ready to start production. 

However, they need help with production, particularly from someone with experience working with metal. That’s when Adolph Rickenbacker got involved. He was a Swiss-born engineer and machinist with a tool-and-die shop near the National headquarters. With his help, they started making and selling metal guitars, mandolins, and ukuleles under the National name. 

Frying Pan Fame

As the 20s turned to the 30s, National began having some problems. Due to the nature of their instruments, they were costly to make and therefore expensive for customers. They had seen a lot of demand earlier on, but sales slowed down into the 30s as the Great Depression made them unaffordable for many. However, this downturn inspired Beauchamp to try something else. 

Beauchamp set his sights on an electric guitar. As an experiment, he added a string and a pickup to a two-by-four. This inspired him to take some electronics classes so he could create a more fleshed out version of the experiment. 

Beauchamp, working with Paul Barth and Harry Watson of National, began designing their new model—the Frying Pan. The Frying Pan may look goofy and primitive by today’s standards, but it was one of the earliest electric guitars ever put into production. They ended up selling thousands of them over the years, a surprise given the guitar’s odd looks. 

Rickenbacker Rises

In 1931, Beauchamp and Rickenbacker founded a new company named Ro-Pat-In, an abbreviation of Electro Patent Instruments). The new company was founded to focus on electric guitars instead of the resonators National was known for. 

The name didn’t stick for very long though. First it changed to Electro String, likely due to the unmemorable and hard to say name Ro-Pat-In. Electro String didn’t last very long either though. Eventually they settled on Rickenbacker, partially to take advantage of a distant relation to World War One fighter pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker. 

During the early 30s and the early years of the company, Rickenbacker experimented with a lot of different models. They made an updated version of the Frying Pan, the Frying Pan Model A-25. They also made the model BD lap steel, which was made with an early plastic called Bakelite. The BD lap steel is regarded today as one of the best lap steels ever made. 

Another important model of the time was the Model B Spanish. This guitar was very similar in looks and construction to the BD lap steel, featuring the same art-deco look and bakelite construction. It also had a detachable neck and got rid of the feedback that plagued amplified hollowbody and acoustic guitars. This partially paved the way for Fender and Gibson in the coming years. 

Finding Themselves in the 50s

The 50s were a revolutionary time for guitars and basses. With rock and roll being born and Fender and Gibson creating now iconic solid body electrics, Rickenbacker had to change things up to stay competitive. However, they were still focused on steel guitars in the early 50s. 

That would change in 1953 when Adolph Rickenbacker sold the company to FC Hall. FC Hall’s name may not be as well known as Leo Fender or other icons in the industry, but he played a very important role. He was the founder of Radio-Tel, the company that helped Fender finance, market, and distribute their instruments. He sold his interest in Fender and was ready to try and make Rickenbacker the next big thing. 

Hall knew Rickenbacker needed to start making electric guitars like their competitors, and that’s exactly what he did. The first new models they introduced were the model 600 combo, the 4000 series bass, and the model 800 combo. These instruments were much closer to their competition and featured some classic Rickenbacker trademarks (such as neck-thru construction and double truss rods) , but they still hadn’t come to the classic designs we know and love today. 

By the end of the 50s though, Rickenbacker was starting to build an impressive lineup of instruments. In the late 50s, they introduced the Capris, which is incredibly similar to the Rickenbackers of today. Designed in part by ex-Gibson designer Roger Rossmeisl, this guitar would eventually evolve into the Rickenbacker 300 series. 

With a solid lineup of instruments and a demand for cool and unique looking electric guitars, Rickenbacker was poised to make it through the coming years. However, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what would happen next. 

The Beatles Boom

In 1960, John Lennon supposedly saw Toots Thielemans performing with a Rickenbacker at a club in Hamburg, Germany. Soon after, Lennon purchased a Rickenbacker 325 from a shop in Hamburg. 

Image courtesy of John Rodgers/Redferns

Interestingly enough, Lennon’s Rickenbacker was an incredibly rare one. It was one of the first of the model ever produced, was one of eight with a natural finish, and didn’t have a sound hole despite being semi-hollow. 

With Lennon’s purchase, the course of Rickenbacker would be changed forever. This guitar was the one Lennon used on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, showcasing the instrument to countless fans. George Harrison also used a model 360/12, Rickenbacker’s new at the time 12 string model. With the Beatles using their guitars, Rickenbacker was about to get a new influx of customers. 

During the British Invasion of the 60s, Rickenbacker saw a massive increase in demand. Young guitarists saw their heroes playing Rickenbackers, so they wanted them too. To deal with the increased demand, Hall moved the company to Santa Ana. This allowed them to increase production and introduce even more new models, such as the convertible series, which let players switch between twelve and six strings. 

As the 60s and 70s rolled on, Rickenbackers became classic instruments like the Les Paul, 335, Stratocaster, and Telecaster. Countless artists used them, such as Roger McGuinn, Chris Squire, Paul Kantner, Steve Howe, and many more. Rickenbacker had finally become the instrument maker that we know them as today. 

What Makes Rickenbackers Special?

So what exactly makes Rickenbackers special? These instruments aren’t cheap, especially in modern times. Why are players willing to pay so much for these instruments, outside of their fame? 

Rickenbackers are unique in a multitude of ways. They were one of the first guitars to be made with neck thru construction, meaning the neck and body (or at least part of the body) are made from a single piece of wood. This helps with sustain, which is a big part of the iconic Rick sound. Plus they feature dual truss rods (for the most part), which helps keep the neck straight. 

Speaking of their sound, Rickenbackers sound like no other guitar or bass. They have a distinct jangly sustained sound that only sounds like a Rickenbacker. The Byrds are probably one of the best examples of this sound, as Roger McGuinn is one of the most well known Rickenbacker devotees. Chris Squire of Yes is a good example of the iconic Rick bass sound. 

Outside of that, the other big factor is looks. It’s hard to deny that Rickenbackers have a distinct and unique look. Many people absolutely love the way Rickenbackers look, so that is a big factor of their success as well. 

Ultimately, they’ve done well because they are unique. They may not be the most versatile instruments, but they have a distinct look and sound that you can’t get anywhere else. And combined with their history of being played by some of the most important artists in modern times, it’s no surprise that they’ve been a success. 

Image courtesy of NME

Rickenbacker in the Modern Day

In today’s world, Rickenbackers are still around. However, they aren’t as popular as they used to be. The jangle of the 60s isn’t the dominant sound, and Rickenbackers are not very affordable for most. Fender, Ibanez, PRS, Charvel, and more are much more common than Rickenbackers in 2023. 

That said, Rickenbackers haven’t faded away. Plenty of modern artists still use them, and they still get a reaction from crowds who think they have a cool look. Rickenbacker still makes a wide variety of models, giving customers more options than in the past. 

Will Rickenbacker ever reach the level of popularity they had in the past? Who knows, but it seems doubtful given the plethora of well-made budget guitars these days and the shifting tastes of the guitar world. However, it’s always possible that the Rick jangle comes back into style. 

The Rise of Rickenbacker

Rickenbacker has a long and storied history. They started out making resonators under the name National, creating some incredibly iconic instruments. Then they made one of the first electric guitars, the Frying Pan. And after years of experimentation and a change in ownership, they eventually started making the Rickenbackers that led the way for the British invasion in the 60s. 

Whether you love Rickenbackers or can’t stand them, they have served an important role in the history of music. They have a unique sound and look that is distinctly Rickenbacker. And though they aren’t as popular as they were in the 60s, they’re still an important part of modern music.