From one perspective, flamenco and heavy metal might seem as far apart as the sun and the moon, but if you think about the hyperbolic emotion involved in both genres, there is a certain spritual connection. Abstractions aside, however, there’s a more concrete connection between the two forms in the person of Bernie Rico, the man behind some of guitardom’s most flamoyant instruments, B.C. Rich guitars.
Born in East L.A.
Bernardo Chavez Rico was born in Los Angeles in 1941, actually in East Los Angeles, home to the city’s largely Hispanic population. Growing up in a guitar-oriented culture, Mr. Rico came from a guitar household. His father, Bernardo Mason Rico, was a guitar-maker, with a shop where he built guitars, vihuelos, requintos, bajo sextos and other instruments for the Mexican-oriented musicians in L.A. playing in local Latin conjuntos and mariachi orchestras. He also sold guitarmaking parts through the mail. The Rico shop was originally known as the Valencian Guitar Shop in around 1947, and later as Casa Rico. Eventually, as Bernie joined his dad, it became known as Bernardo’s Guitar Shop.
Mr. Rico began playing guitar at an early age, as primarily a flamenco and classical guitarist. “I studied with Sabicas when he came to L.A., which he did a lot because he liked to go to down to Mexico to see the bullfights. I got to meet all the players coming through, including young Paco de Lucia and Montoya. Montoya used to compare himself with Sabicas saying ‘I am the box office draw.’ I also studied with the great Mario Escudero for three years, and learned to play with very high action on the guitar, but Sabicas was the main influence. He and I were like godfather to son.”
“I’ll never forget the time,” recalls Mr. Rico with a smile, “when Sabicas said to me, ‘I’m tired of playing, you play!’ I played and Sabicas played second guitar. I was very nervous but it is a great memory.”
Bernie Rico had begun working in his father’s shop as early as 1953 or ’54, building ukuleles out of koa. “You know,” says Rico, “My Dog Has Fleas!” If you’ve ever played uke, you’ll know that phrase. Soon thereafter the American Folk Music Boom began, and Rico recalls that his father’s shop made banjos and retrofitted a lot of banjo necks on other brands. “Prior to 1964, we also converted a lot of Martin guitars to 12-strings because Martin didn’t make 12s before ’64.” Rico also remembers building some steel guitars during those early days, as well.
“It was working with the banjos,” says Rico, “that taught me what I know about tone and timbre, all tension, with tension hoops in place of struts.”
In a way, you can say that Sabicas not only was the main influence on Rico’s guitar playing, but was also the main influence on his guitar making. One day Sabicas took Rico aside and told him, “My son, I want to play a guitar you made for me.” Bernie Rico made his first guitar for Sabicas.
What’s In A Name?
Bernie Rico continued to make acoustic guitars. However, by the mid-’60s many of the customers for guitars were country musicians, and, well, the name “Bernie Rico” just didn’t make it with country players. As it happened, ironically enough, Rico had a friend named Bobby Rich who had adopted an Hispanic stage name, Roberto Rico. Reversing the process, Bernie Rico changed his guitar name to B.C. Rich. So, in a way, the B.C. Rich name came from Bernie’s friend Bobby, although all the parts were actually just Anglo adaptations of his own family’s names. This was in around 1966 or 1967. Up until 1968 Rico made only acoustic guitars. Probably only about 300 of these acoustics were built.
In 1968 Rico built his first custom electric solidbody. At the time he was doing a lot of refinishing and repair work. He had an assistant working for him who suggested that he start getting more avant guarde in his finishes. Since he was riding a lot of motorcycles with fancy paint jobs at the time, this made sense. This is where the B.C. Rich tradition of wild finishes originated.
That year a customer came in with a Fender guitar neck and asked Rico to make a body for the neck. “I remember I had to go over to Hollywood to get advice about how to wire the guitar once it was built,” recalls Rico. Rico had gotten on the electric freeway and there was no looking back!
Rico’s custom guitars