Several vintage amplifiers that have graced these pages over the years have taken us back to the early days of guitar amplification – the early 1950s, maybe even late ’40s with some of the crustier subjects. This month, however, we travel way back, to the dawn of the electric guitar itself, to visit an amplifier born even before the instrument that would commonly be plugged into it had solidified from its nebulous conceptual state.
This amplifier, the Rickenbacher Model 200A, was built to accompany a variation of what is widely recognized as the first commercially available solidbody electric guitar, the Rickenbacher Electro Spanish made by the Electro-String Company. But the particular guitar it partnered was itself one of the rarest “standard” models in early production, the legendary Rickenbacher Vibrola Spanish.
Though all of these guitars look today like early Hawaiian – or “lap steel” – models, the name reminds us that they were actually built to be played in the upright, or Spanish, style. The stand on this rare example of the Model 200A, which is original equipment, also tells us that the Vibrola rendition was extremely heavy, weighing far too much for the performer to simply hold it on his or her lap or to hang it from a shoulder strap. While the standard Electro Spanish models were heavy enough, molded as they were from Bakelite (body and neck together, including molded Bakelite frets), the deeper-bodied Vibrola Spanish also carried a motor-and-pulley system that ran an onboard mechanical vibrato effect, designed by none other than Doc Kauffman himself, future partner (if only briefly) of Leo Fender. Of the relatively few people who have experienced a Vibrola Spanish guitar in person, though, far fewer have seen in the flesh a Model 200A amplifier with its stand. And a stirring experience it is; this old warhorse takes us back to an age when the guitar was just starting to bust out in all directions, seeking more volume in myriad bold and quirky designs. The National Resophonic guitars were one such venture, and less than a decade later two of the founders of that effort – George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker – along with a few other key players, had stepped the volume war into overdrive with the “electric” guitar, and the amplifiers that necessarily went with them. And while the badge on this one echoes the more familiar Rickenbacker name that was passed down when Adolph later sold the Electro-String Music Corporation to Francis Hall in 1953, its noteworthy “Rickenbacher” spelling was still an effort to cash in on the persistent fame of WWI flying ace Eddie Rickenbacher, a cousin of the guitar-making pioneer. The fact that this example came to its owner as a simple Craigslist “old tube amp” find makes its presence here seem all the more miraculous.
This Rickenbacher Model 200A is owned by Craig Randolph, a professional drummer who has an abiding interest in vintage guitars and amplifiers. After acquiring the amp in “works, but needs service” condition – with neither buyer nor seller really knowing what they had in front of them – Randolph took it to amp tech Bob Dixon, who has maintained amps for the Rolling Stones, among others. The original 12″ Lansing Model 212 speaker, meanwhile, the cone of which “was basically crumbly powder,” was farmed out to Orange County Speaker for a re-cone. While this repair work was underway, Randolph sent photos around to try to ascertain what the thing was.
The answer came back quickly, and pegged this as one of the few, possibly only, existing examples of one of the rarest and earliest production amplifiers in the history of the electric guitar. Randolph’s research indicates that fewer than 90 Model 200A amplifiers were ever made (it’s possible the actual number was far fewer), and he was unable to turn up another survivor all these 75-odd years later. While not what you’d call plentiful in and of themselves, the Vibrola Spanish guitars do seem to exist in greater numbers, and tend to pop up now and then in prominent collections or on the sales sheets of notable vintage-guitar dealers. Electro-String sales literature lists a price of $198.50 for the Model 200A in 1938, a pretty penny in the latter years of the Great Depression, but there’s little on which to base its vintage value today.
Under the chassis, the Model 200A proves an archaic piece of work, as you’d expect, but it’s impressively neat and efficient, too. The circuit is a robust, if minimal, affair laid out across a combination of point-to-point and tag-strip connections, using minimum components to get signal from input to output. Octal 6SF5 and 6N7 preamp tubes take care of gain and phase inversion, with only a Volume control for user interface – no Tone – while a pair of 6L6 output tubes pump around 15 watts.
From the look of it, you’re probably imagining certifiable old-fart tone, and that’s much what the Model 200A’s owner was expecting even post-service, but Randolph says the Rickenbacher has a few tricks up its sleeve.
“Bob [Dixon] told me he was very surprised with the sound of the amp, he wasn’t expecting much. He said it’s a really great-sounding amp. We pulled out a Les Paul and the amp was very warm and punchy with a nice overall tone. We hit it pretty hard to see what kind of drive it would have at higher volume… it had a nice warm, fuzzy gain sound that was very clear and precise.” Further explorations with a Strat-playing pal on the way back from the repair shop earned another two thumbs-up for the old Rickenbacher.
While the backline-rental fixer in Randolph says he can see some use for this as a recording amp, he would rather find an interested collector or museum already in possession of a Vibrola Spanish guitar with which to reunite it as a full set, and it’s hard to disagree with those intentions. As cool as it is to hear a genuine museum piece like this in action, it is undoubtedly an amplifier worth preserving, given its near-originality. And if that plan doesn’t leave the rest of us much chance of ever hearing it in person, you can dig up an early Bing Crosby recording that featured Perry Botkin on Vibrola Spanish guitar, and groove to the emotive tone of a fully electro-mechanical vibrato tone through an original Rickenbacher Model 200A.
This article originally appeared in VG December 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.