Rickenbacker’s Bakelite Spanish Vs. Fender’s Esquire

Fender Myth Debunked! (Part II)
Fender Myth Debunked! (Part II)

Even if Rickenbacher’s 1935 Bakelite Spanish model wasn’t the first solidbody electric, it would still be important in the evolution of modern guitars as the inspiration for Fender’s 1949 entry into the world of Spanish-neck instruments. During WWII, a crude test model was made in Leo Fender’s radio shop, using a prefab fingerboard and a Spanish-style neck, but this directly led to the K&F Hawaiian (lapsteel), with no apparent influence on the much later Spanish release. However, a piece-by-piece comparison with the Rickenbacher leaves little choice but to concede this is where Leo got his design for the Esquire.

Build an Esquire out of Bakelite and you basically have a Model B Spanish (as the Rick was referred to in its later years). Or build a Model B out of wood and you basically have an Esquire, which inspired the Broadcaster/Telecaster, which is all the further in the evolution of the electric guitar many feel is necessary.

The fact Leo started with Doc Kaufman as his business partner points to an acute awareness of Rickenbacher. Kaufman was involved on a number of projects prior to meeting Fender, including the motorized vibrato version of the standard Model B. Performing on his personal Vibrola Spanish Guitar prior to, during, and after WWII (which includes the entire time he was involved with Mr. Fender), Doc reportedly wore out at least one of the easily replaceable necks. It seems ridiculous to think Leo could have been unaware of the Bakelite guitars. So just how close are they?

Parts is Parts
One of the distinguishing features of Fender guitars has always been the neck; a solid piece of maple that could be screwed securely to the body but was easily removed for replacement should the frets wear out or a warp develop. No more expensive or amateur refrets or necksets – remember, in many parts of the country, quality repair work was an oxymoron.

And because there was no separate fingerboard on the ’50s maple-neck models, mass production was made even more efficient.

A brilliant idea, but credit its refinement and popularization to Rickenbacher. While others had failed with bolt-on neck acoustics, Adolph’s skills with non-wood materials yielded a sturdy, consistent, inexpensive, and easily installed neck with the frets and nut installed. Adjustable truss rods were not necessary, even with the heavy strings of the day, but replacement necks were available for $2.75 (less than five percent of the instrument’s total price) in case of accidental breakage or worn frets.

Like the Rickenbacher, the first Esquires did not have a truss rod of any kind. But, unlike the Rick, they would need them. The prototype Esquire from late ’49 (which more than any instrument, represents Leo’s conceptualization) also had a Rickenbacher-ish headstock, in that tuners were fitted three to a side; plus the shape was simple, with straight lines across the top and down the sides. No graceful curves or frills on either utilitarian peghead.

Manufacturing with Bakelite allowed Rickenbacher to mold in a perfectly formed nut, having a cross-section where the strings make contact that was much thinner than the traditional style. On its lapsteels, Fender used a metal plate that covered most of the headstock before bending up to form the string spacers. But the Esquire essentially had a Rickenbacher-sized nut installed after the neck was shaped (try mass-producing a nut-sized protrusion at the end of a wooden fingerboard!).

Rickenbacher gracefully molded the headstock face to curve up into the nut instead of the traditional flat peghead veneer; Fender mimicked the curve almost to a T. Since their necks started as a straight piece of wood, pegheads ran straight back from the nut; as opposed to the Rick’s gentle backwards slope – just enough to keep strings from popping out of the nut.

While Fender’s design made efficient use of wood, following Rickenbacher’s more closely could have alleviated the future need for string retainers.

Neck Joints
The famous Fender neck pocket is less intricate but still similar to that of the Model B, particularly in concept. On most pre-CBS instruments, friction alone can usually hold the neck in place while screwing it to the body and the same is true of the perfectly molded Rick, which has no side-to-side play. Later Fender guitars often had 1/8″ gaps up on either side that required aligning the neck with the strings in place before final tightening.

On Fenders, the use of a clunky metal plate keeps string tension from pulling the mounting screws through the wood body, but this additional part was not necessary with the dense, hard Bakelite. The ability of Bakelite to withstand massive pounds per square inch of pressure was critical to a bolt-on arrangement, and because the bolts were threaded into tapped holes (as opposed to screws being forced into wood), the minimal number of two was sufficient. Four screws sunk into maple is the standard configuration today for detachable wooden necks, though interestingly, they are still referred to as “bolt-ons.” The rounded heads of the two Rickenbacher bolts were recessed flush with the voluptuous back, instead of sticking up 1/8″ along with the neckplate off the otherwise flat surface.

Which came first, the solidbody or mass production? Before the solidbody wooden Fenders, or the prototypes of Bigsby, App, Polfus, the solidbody wooden Slingerlands, the solidbody wooden Audiovox cutaway prototype, the solidbody Bakelite Ricks, the solid neck-through portion of the prototype/first issue ViviTones, or the solidbody aluminum Frying Pans (whew!), there were the fretted Spanish-neck, handmade, solidbody wooden Electro prototypes by George Beauchamp (with the help of Harry Watson and Paul Barth; see Richard Smith’s The Complete History of Rickenbacher). Unfortunately, Adolph Rickenbacher didn’t do wood. His shop cranked out metal parts all day for National, but he was the wrong man to ask about making wooden instruments. He and Beauchamp’s relationship in National even led to experiments with Bakelite necks for a totally woodless resonator guitar. Therefore, the first Electro Hawaiian guitars were aluminum and the manufacture of wooden Spanish guitar bodies was subcontracted out.

Why did they not make a Spanish-necked solidbody model from the start, using aluminum? Aluminum has been experimented with by numerous companies since the Frying Pan, but the public’s reaction to holding it in the palm of one’s hands and against their bodies has traditionally been lukewarm at best. It’s just doesn’t feel, like wood. Or even Bakelite, which is a vast improvement over metal for both comfort, and stability. Hawaiian guitars, wood or aluminum, require no fretting. Plus, tuning problems related to temperature changes are not as noticeable, since you use your ear to find notes, with left-hand vibrato masking small pitch variations.

So Rickenbacher included a round neck with molded frets on the aluminum “fingerboard,” a slot for easy installation of a Spanish-style nut, and made mention of adaptability in their patent applications from January, 1932 ,and June, 1934. But they chose to release a wooden-ody Spanish guitar with the caption “The conventional shape is retained for convenience,” which can be interpreted as “The conventional shape has been retained so that we have a snowball’s chance of having players at least comfortable with the feel, if not the strange sound and sustain.”

Richenbacher’s business savvy was probably responsible for the traditional Spanish-style instead of a solidbody along the lines of the prototypes. The only people thinking even remotely along the same plane as Beauchamp were Williams and Loar of ViviTone, who made it explicitly clear in their July ’33 patent application that solid was the way to go. And that resonant air chambers were the root of all evil. Then reality smacked them across the face, as the initial reaction from violinists, violists, mandolinists, mandocellists, and guitarists was a nearly unanimous rejection. Sales of perhaps a handful or two of the different solidbody instruments led to the majorly reworked patent application filed less than six months later for an acoustic instrument that could also be used electrically. Another patent was filed three and a half months later for an even more acoustic instrument with a pickup, followed shortly thereafter by Loar’s experimental “fairy fret” acoustics with no pickups. Two failed businesses in three years later, they gave up, while Rickenbacher’s business was up in 1935 almost 400 percent from ’34 (ViviTone’s inferior pickup design was also to blame).

How does Fender’s body compare to this multitude of earlier attempts? For one, it had a cutaway, useful to future guitarists, but then, electrified archtops had been fitted with both Venetian and Florentine styles in the preceding 10 years, so Fender was merely in keeping with the times (a prototypical Bakelite Spanish with cutaway from the late ’40s has also turned up recently). Circa 1930 Epiphones and KayKrafts come to mind for cutaway pre-Electro (which had 24 frets clear of the body!) guitars, although mandolins had them for years prior to that. Nothing clever about Leo’s body design.

Like the Bakelite Spanish-body that preceded it, the first two prototype Esquires attempted to deal with the excess weight of a solidbody, with the first being two pieces of pine and the second being two pieces of ash, with hollow chambers like the Rick. Rickenbacher had taken out all the excess Bakelite from their bodies they feasibly could while maintaining the structural integrity of solid Bakelite, but Leo eventually opted for a heavier, but easy-to-manufacture solid instrument. Guitarists have gotten used to the weight over the last 50 years, but it was a major concern of Rickenbacher and Fender – Rickenbacker in ’35 and Fender in ’49.

Backloaded Tailpieces
Beauchamp’s early-’30s prototype instituted a novel approach to mounting strings to a guitar body, the backloaded or string-through style, as it is referred to today. Practical on solidbody instruments only, for obvious reasons, the incredible string tension is spread out through the depth of the instrument, with hot spots where the ball-ends rest and where the strings make a sharp break to the bridge (see Bridgeplate section). The ball ends sit firmly in the Bakelite body’s individual recesses, with no apparent strain on the pressure points over the last 64 years.

Fender also used an identical backload arrangement on his Esquire, but with recessed metal cups to keep the ball-ends from having direct contact with the wood (a potentially unstable arrangement over time).

Here the guitars really differ. The Rick got by with a simple metal combination bridge and saddle, with a string angle going over the bridge similar to a Tune-o-matic Les Paul’s. This piece was chrome-plated to match the rest of the hardware and the saddle was compensated for longer bass string distance.

Fender used a relatively new design of adjustable saddles, allowing individual height adjustment and accurate intonation…kinda. Instead of one for each string, there were only three. Six strings, three saddles. With a wound third, this arrangement almost works as intended, but with a plain third, the angled bar worked better, ala Rickenbacher, wraparound Les Pauls, late-’50s Gretsch, etc. Neither work as well as six individual saddles, as seen on Melita bridges and National’s patented post-WWII device.

Following the release of Gibson’s Tune-o-matic, Leo’s next design, the Stratocaster, used six. Why didn’t they change the Tele’s bridgeplate and saddles after the Strat’s release, who knows? There are those who feel that having the force of two strings pulling down on two adjustment screws is better than only one string pulling down on two adjustment screws, which makes sense in theory. But why six on one guitar and three on the other for the next 30-some years?

The distance between where the strings come through the body and where they break over the bridge is relatively close on both guitars, particularly when compared to the multiple inches generally separating a standard trapeze tailpiece and the bridge. All of the early solidbodies mentioned above, except for the one-off Audiovox, still relied on floating trapeze tailpieces, missing one of the most important benefits of solidbody construction. Perhaps the steep angle over the ridge on the Esquire was intentional to generate a great amount of downward pressure on the bridge saddles. Or possibly it was just to help keep the metal bridge/pickup unit from taking up any more space on the face of the guitar. For whatever reason, the break coming out of the body, even though less than on the Rick, still required a metal plate with six holes for the strings to keep them from digging into the wood. This plate also held the pickup and its top mounted height-adjustment bolts (see below for the merits of the sharp metal edges on the sides of the bridgeplate).

Rickenbacher’s pickup, too, was height-adjustable from the top, but used separate metal brackets (instead of the large combination plate) with two small bolts securing each to the body and a thumbscrew-style adjustment nut on each, allowing either side of the pickup to be manually raised or lowered. Although Fenders require use of a screwdriver, both arrangements accomplished the same task and connected to metal plates underneath the pickup. While Rickenbacher designed this arrangement, it was industry standard by the time Fender implemented it.

Bridge/Pickup Covers (a.k.a Handrests)
Whether Beauchamp included half of his pickup’s magnets on the topside of the strings for performance reasons (magnetic) or utilitarian (handrest), there they sit, as they left the factory during its first 20 five years of operation (and some later than that). You probably wouldn’t want one of these in the neck position on a Spanish guitar, but there is a spot, right where they put them, that allows the hand to firmly and evenly mute the strings when desirous and still have room on the other side of the pickup to pluck in the bright range when not muting. There’s also room to fit a pick between the bridge and the pickup for special, effect if you’re careful.

But the popular right-hand technique of the era was to use the pickup or bridge cover as a handrest, either for plectrum playing in the imaginary rhythm pickup vicinity or to fingerpick from, as the thick horseshoe magnet provides an extremely stable base to work from.

This was mimicked by countless other companies for lapsteels and numerous times for Spanish-necks. Fender’s pickup cover, reverentially referred to as the ashtray, stretched from the bridge in a similar fashion, but without allowing for mutations! Luckily, it was removable to facilitate string changes, but the original intention was for it to be returned to place. Even Leo’s prototypes had these covers, so they weren’t merely cosmetic. Removal became accepted practice, however, allowing the Telecaster to become one of the most popular guitars of all time, despite the major design flaw. Unfortunately, the portion of the bridgeplate designed to hold the cover securely in place can wreak havoc on the hands of players with an ambitious right arm.

Rickenbacher’s horseshoe pickups have garnered a great reputation for their tone, with many players feeling the original models have never been topped by any maker. Fender’s pickups, with their Rickenbacher-like single coils (and un-Rickenbacher-like individual magnets), have instilled the same feeling in numerous Hawaiian players, but the real market strength, bordering on domination, has been for their Spanish-style guitars. Unfortunately, neither the pre-WWII Model Bs or F.C. Hall’s mid-’50s Combos were sold in enough quantities to make much of an impression on the Spanish market, although there are those who swear by them (special thanks to VG contributor Peter Stuart Kohman for letting us disassemble and publicly slander one of his favorite guitars!).

Both instruments have a recessed 1/4″ output jack on their sides, with the wood-bodied Fender requiring the addition of a metal cup and an internal brace, force-fit into place as it digs into the wood – and notorious for coming loose (did a man often referred to as a genius really design this primitive solution?). The perfectly molded Model B did not require anything more than a flat washer, plus it lacked the metal cup’s protruding edges.

The controls on both instruments are mounted to a metal plate secured to the top with either bolts (Rick) or screws (Fender). While the Bakelite pictured here was only fitted with a single control for volume, the later models also employed a tone knob on the opposite side (Alvino Rey was still developing the first commercially available tone circuit for Gibson when the Bakelite models were introduced). However, the last of the Rickenbacher Hawaiians had both volume and tone pots in the same plate, as perhaps did the very last Spanish models, as would the Esquire 10 years later. There was no three-way switch on Leo’s prototypes, just volume and tone, making the top-mounted control panel yet another feature in the incredibly long list of original Beauchamp/Rickenbacher ideas that made up the first Fender.

These little guitars are screamers and have none of the student model/toy characteristic feel or sound some try to demean them with. Similar in many ways to a Les Paul Jr. or Firebird I, as well as the Esquire, the single-pickup Model B is a rock and roll guitar, albeit 20 or 30 years early. Limited access to the high frets would keep this from serious note benders, but noodling in E at the twelfth fret is wide open and two-fingered blues licks in G are quite playable, similar to playing in keys above A on a Les Paul.

The other 31/4 octaves are great, unless you’re used to monster frets, with intonation about what can be expected from a bar bridge (remember any guitar is by nature an imperfect, slightly out-of-une instrument, and it won’t get you down).

With a scale length of 221/2″, the neck is considered short-scale, but the feel is very similar to a ’50s Les Paul Junior, having a good-sized width (13/4″ at the nut) and depth with that almost round feeling Gibson lost in 1960; miles away from the baseball bats or exaggerated Vs of the guitar’s original competition. Note bending is comparable to a Gibson, radius-wise, and similar in feel to most original ’50s frets (you can feel the fingerboard), but not LP Custom Fretless Wonder-like at all. Plus the short scale length makes .011s respond like .010s, .010s respond like .009s, etc.

This was an important feature in the ’30s, when strings came in one gauge – big! Beauchamp used a short scale because he could, tradition be damned! With electrics, it was feasible and the theory was exploited by professionals like Tal Farlow, Billy Byrd, and Hank Garland in the ’50s, as well as Jimi Hendrix in the early ’60s.

As for the hollowed-out areas under the plates, it’s obvious they were dealing with excess weight and not creating tone chambers. The prototype/first run models had unobstructed neck-through solidness, but Bakelite is amazingly dense and when even more weight needed to be removed, they took it from between the pickup and the end of the fingerboard, plus a little bit under the bridge (the only places left), with no obvious negative effect. Fact is, the neck joint is a snug 4″ long and the bridge and strings mount into a square block of the rock-like miracle substance (at least for the ’30s), making this guitar solid and uneffected by the frivolous inclusion of extra mass to either side of the neck.

Next month, we’ll discuss the Rickenbacher/Electro Bakelite Electric Spanish Guitars. And don’t forget to check out this month’s “Vintage Amplifiers” column on the Pre-WWII Electro and Rickenbacher amps.

Neither this article or last month’s on the Audiovox bass were meant to belittle the memory of Leo Fender or try to negate the impact his Precision Bass and Esquire/Broadcaster/Telecaster guitars have had on musicians and listeners alike (I still rely on the ’66 Vibrolux Reverb I’ve had longer than my Gretsch). Hopefully, these exposes have come across as based in fact and not merely opinionated rantings – rewriting a half century’s worth of history books isn’t always easy.

Backs of top-mounted control panels and hollow cavities in bodies. Later Ricks had both volume and tone controls; original Esquire also fitted with volume and tone controls, with no three-way switch. Photo by John Teagle

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’99 issue.

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