Electro/Rickenbacher Amps

Pre-WWII Electro/ Rickenbacher Amps
Pre-WWII Electro/ Rickenbacher Amps

Experiments at marketing electrified musical instruments and their accompanying amplifiers may have started in the late 1920s, but it wasn’t until the early ’30s that any long term commitments were made by manufacturers. Even though a number of short-lived attempts followed the 1927 release of “All AC”/battery-less radios, the first company to really dive in head first was Electro String Instrument Corp. Established in 1931 solely to pursue the possibilities of a truly electric musical instrument, the “Electro” brand name was George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacher’s “light socket” powered offshoot of the fast growing National String Instrument Corp. (makers of the famous single and tri-cone resonator guitars). A year later, the fruits of Beauchamp’s post-resonator experiments were unleashed – a genuine electric instrument to change the metal string’s rapid vibrations into alternating currents and the necessary amplifier/speaker unit to convert these to high-volume soundwaves.

It’s ironic that Beauchamp’s ca. 1926 request for John Dopyera to build a guitar with internal “speakers” basically entailed replacing the electrical impulses necessary to excite a cone with mechanical impulses (string vibrations transferred through the bridge). What’s astounding is how quickly Beauchamp adapted the idea of using cone speakers introduced ca. 1925, to replace the acoustic phonograph horn built into his guitar. Since mid-’20s amplifiers required large batteries for operation and produced very little power, it makes perfect sense that Beauchamp opted for mechanical stimulation instead of electrical.

Once “All AC” amplifiers became a reality and tubes, transformers, speakers, and circuits became powerful enough to make an electric instrument louder than its acoustic counterpart, Beauchamp was ready, armed with his electromagnetic pickup and solidbody guitar (the result of intensive experimenting in the preceding years). His genius in applying novel approaches to musical instrument design was equaled only by his timely implementation of technology.

Following the release of the first Electro model in ’32, Beauchamp and Rickenbacher’s line evolved and expanded over a 10-year period, albeit in a much more conservative manner for amplifier design than their farsighted approach to musical instruments (Beauchamp) and mass production (Rickenbacher). Amplifier design was apparently farmed out, which helps explain the company’s laissez-faire attitude toward the sound-emitting portion of its product line. While Electro/Rickenbacher was not as bent on cutting edge electronic technology and seasonal cosmetic changes as some of its competitors, they did provide reliable and compact units with a fair amount of visual appeal, built from quality parts.

Shortly after Beauchamp’s death in late 1940 came the U.S. involvement in WWII, which halted production for the entire market of nonessential electrical goods. Adolph Rickenbacher warily continued the business following the war, before selling to Fender/Radio-Tel’s F.C. Hall in the early ’50s. For more on this fascinating story, Richard Smith’s book, The Complete History of Rickenbacker Guitars (Centerstream Publishing) is highly recommended. Also recommended is this month’s feature on Rickenbacher’s Bakelite Spanish model. In keeping with the theme, this month’s column focuses on the entire collection of pre-WWII Electro and Rickenbacher Electro amplifiers.

Standard Model Style 1 – Electro
(ca. 1932-’34, $175 for guitar and amp) Since Electro was the only player in the electric instrument market at the time of their introduction, the guitars (Spanish and Hawaiian) had to be paired with an amplifier if they expected to sell any. Little information is available on the pre-Rickenbacher Electro amps, since an existing example cannot be located (alright, who’s got one?) and the catalog from ca. ’32 does not go into particulars. The cabinet appears to be about the same as the early Rickenbacher version of a year later, with black Keratol covering and the outside cutouts for the speaker openings having an Isosceles trapezoid shape. The heavy-duty buckled handle would remain on this model for many years. Missing from later editions were the metal corner protectors, plus the grille appears to be a metal mesh instead of cloth. As for the guts, chances are good it wasn’t much different from the first Ricks that followed. “The Most Marvelous Musical Invention of all time!” modestly accompanied the Hawaiian guitar and amplifier set in the original promotional flyer and it’s important to remember that this was an inseparable set — no amp, no electric guitar.

Style 2 – Rickenbacher
(ca. 1934-’35, $62.50)
More information is available on this variation of the initial amp, as a few examples have turned up. Two input jacks and an AC power cord were stock back panel devices, with a screw-in house fuse located behind the rectifier tube on the top side of the chassis. No volume or tone controls yet, not even an on/off switch. A 10″ Utah speaker was stock, powered by a pair of 47 pentodes, with B+ from a 5Z3 rectifier. On an early version of this model, the power tubes are side by side to the right of the speaker, with the preamp tube – a 56 single-triode – in the back. Since the 56 was used for the preamp function and generally either a second tube or a transformer is needed for the phase inverter, let’s presume there’s a transformer inside the chassis (there are a number of methods to invert phase in the output section, but they are inherently high in distortion and probably would not have been used).

A later version of this style has the far right power tube swapping places on the chassis with the preamp tube, which was changed to a 53 high-mu twin-triode. The two circuits in the 53 were presumably used for the preamp function and the phase inverter (note: all tubes mentioned, except the rectifier, operate on 2.5 volt heater supplies; most guitar amps use 6.3V). Both surviving amps were fitted with the brass “Rickenbacher Electro” badges seen on the instruments, plus the cabinets included metal corner protectors and a larger upper back panel than later models, with three ventilation holes. Apparently, neither amp came with a serial number (the early example was originally sold with a long-scale frying pan, serial number A56).

Style 3
(ca. 1935 -’36, $62.50)
Electrically, this amp seems similar to the preceding model, with the big changes occurring in the cosmetics. Most obvious is the change in cutouts for the speaker opening, which makes a more defined circle. The outside openings are half-moon shaped, with sharp corners where the arc meets the straight cut. The house fuse moved up to a more easily accessed back-panel location. It should be noted the chassis were drilled for three inputs, even when only the stock two were fitted. One surviving example has a volume control in place of the second input, with close examination showing a period potentiometer, appropriate wire and no signs of any monkey business where the pot connects to the circuit, or points where the second input would have originally been connected. The solder looks neat and untouched, warranting its mention, but since the back panel had to be notched (non-professionally) to get around the pot’s shaft, it probably was not original equipment and definitely not a standard feature.

Serial numbers were stamped into the center of the speaker’s magnet and these fit into the standard numbering scheme of the instruments, e.g., amp numbers B39 (originally purchased with guitar B69) and a later example, B646. This amp differs slightly from earlier ones by having an 80 rectifier instead of the 5Z3, an aluminum name tag instead of brass and a non-cataloged handle, similar to the one on page 11 of Gruhn and Carter’s Electric Guitars (and thousands of old guitar cases, so who knows?). While catalogs give the impression the change to half-moon cutouts corresponded with the introduction of Bakelite instruments, amplifiers with pre-Bakelite serial numbers A129 and 0116 (sold with an A-22) suggest the change occurred a bit earlier. The late-’35 “lightning bolt cover” catalog made little mention of the amp, except in the price list – “One style speaker is used for all instruments.”

Style 4
(ca. 1937-’42, $62.50 – ca. ’40 becomes No.100A, $65.50)
A final version of the twin-47 powered, 53 preamp, 10″ speaker equipped Standard model followed the addition of the larger and more up-to-date Professional. A brand new cabinet of formed steel with perforations for the speaker openings, finished in black crinkle paint, retained the original large buckle handle (all the way to WWII) and aluminum name tag, now on top. This was more in keeping with Adolph Rickenbacher’s approach to mass production – don’t use wood! Layout for tubes, transformers and control panel were unchanged from the earlier model, including the continued use of screw-in house fuses at a time when most of the industry (including Rick’s Professional) had switched to the small glass version still standard today. Perhaps they were using up old chassis. An on/off switch finally was added to the “control” panel, which still offered no controls! Unfortunately, we have little in the way of details for later models than serial number C585, ca. ’37 other than the catalog descriptions through ’41, which show the basic amp didn’t change much. There is the possibility that the 2.5V tubes were changed to 6.3V models (anybody have one of these with 6V6s or 6L6s?). The amp was paired with Rickenbacher’s “Silver” Hawaiian guitar for $100 or available by itself at the same price as the ’34 model. Finally, the price was raised $3 around 1940 (see Student/Model 59, Style 2 for safety tip).

Professional Models Style 1
(ca. 1936-’37, $n/a)
Instead of continuously upgrading their top-of-the-line models, as most of the competition did, Rickenbacher instead added the first of two new models, which would become the Professional. A larger cabinet housed a Lansing 12″ speaker and the more modern 6.3V tubes were used; 6L6s for power and the high-mu twin triode 6N7 preamp/phase inverter, plus an 83 rectifier. Like the Standard model and all amps that followed, the aluminum name tag was mounted on the top of the cabinet. Black Keratol over wood and the gold grillecloth were still used for the box, but the tips of the half-moon outside speaker cutouts were rounded. The buckled handle was replaced by a flat leather piece with arrow shaped ends and the corner protectors changed from metal to leather, further differentiating these from the previous 10″ models. Serial numbers, e.g. C89 and C112, correspond with the first Kaufman hand vibrola equipped Bakelite Spanish models of mid ’36. These numbers, preceded by the number 12, were stamped into the edge of the cabinet’s bottom piece, just below the control panel, which finally included a volume control. A brown knob with the long arrow across the top and serrated edges was used. This version lasted through the prototype stage of Doc Kaufman’s motorized Vibrola Spanish model, sans built-in stand, as seen on page 11 of Bacon and Day’s Rickenbacker book.

Style 2
(ca. 1937-’39, $72.50)
Everybody knows this amp as the one with the built-in stand, underneath the much ballyhooed motorized Vibrola guitar in promo photos and flyers.

Round and unprotected corners and a thicker baffleboard with rounded openings for the speaker (back to Utahs) were standard issue, whether the amp came by itself (e.g. 12C367 stamped on magnet) or as part of the set (e.g. 12C269 stamped on magnet) with the stand support and courtesy AC outlet for the motor added. A 5V4 rectifier superceded the previous 83 somewhere along the line, a different, non-radio style mesh grille replaced the delicate gold cloth and the flat leather handle was upgraded to a hard flip-flop model, still in leather. Otherwise, little changed for a few years, save for the addition of a tone control ca.’39.

Style 3
(ca.1940-’42, NO.200A $79.50)
Add “durable, woven, grey-blue linen fabric” (tweed) and raise the price $7. Actually, the early-’40s catalogs don’t specify a tone control, while mentioning the volume, four tubes, 12″ speaker, two inputs, fuse, and on/off switch. These amps are easily distinguished from the higher-priced 12″ tweed DeLuxe model by the minimal tube count and smaller cabinet.

Bass/DeLuxe Model Style 1
(ca. 1936, $225 with Bass Viol)
To go along with Rickenbacher’s first solidbody upright bass, the company added a larger, more powerful Bass Amplifier. An article in Musical Merchandise Review showing a polished aluminum, non-tubular instrument stated “The specially designed Electro Bass Amplifier is made to handle the low frequency vibrations of the Bass Viol. It has a 12″ latest type full efficiency speaker, is capable of carrying the extra load needed for the Bass Viol without any sign of distortion. The speaker is enclosed in a wooden box covered with heavy grained black leatherette, nickel hardware and cowhide handle.”

While the cabinet appears to be similar in appointments to the ’35-’36 guitar amp, it was taller in proportion to allow for the larger speaker and came with a flat leather handle. As to whether the cabinet was anything other than standard open-back construction is a mystery.

Style 2
(ca. 1937-’38, $90)
A similar archtop bass to the one in the MMR article, but painted in black crinkle, is pictured on page 334 of Tom Wheeler’s American Guitars, attached to a black cube much different from any previous (or later) amp. This same picture of the Electro Bass Amplifier shows up in the ’38-’39 catalog, but paired with the tubular-style Electro Bass Viol; dimensions are listed as 17″ X 19″ X 20″ and the speaker specified as a 15″.

John Hall, CEO of the modern-day Rickenbacker company, reports a surviving example, along with a black archtop (non-tubular) bass, are in the company’s permanent collection. The 15″ speaker was reportedly difficult to have re-coned because it measures only 14″! Tubes include a pair of 6L6s for power, a 6J7 pentode and 6N7 twin-triode for the preamp and phase inverter respectively, plus an 80 for the rectifier. Twelve screws attach the front bafflboard to a sealed-back cabinet, with the large port beneath the speaker opening making this one of the first bass reflex designs and a pretty serious amp for the time.

Despite the commercial failure of the ahead-of-its-time bass, Progressive Music, Rickenbacker’s longtime distributor, offered the amp as late as 1941 for the inflated price of $125, although it was not included in the accompanying price list. The page of amplifiers in the catalog was outdated, picture-wise, with current prices shown, so perhaps it was offered as a custom-order piece. Only the Electric Violin and Cello remained of the original string quartet, and these were probably New Old Stock.

Style 3
(ca. 1939, $90)
Dressed up to match the ’37-’39 Professional model, the DeLuxe Amplifier featured the port of the bass amp and cabinet (probably sealed) large enough to hold the 15″ speaker. Apparently, both the Bass Amplifier and the Super Professional (as the DeLuxe was originally called) were available through Progressive, with only he DeLuxe listed with the West Coast jobbers. The amp section of this very rare model was probably similar to the later open-back single 12″ DeLuxe.

Style 4
(No. 300A ca. 1940-’42, $104.50)
Reverting to a 12″ speaker in an open-back enclosure, it’s obvious Rickenbacher wasn’t promoting this descendent of the Bass Amplifier as a bass amp. Looking like an overstuffed ’40-’42 tweed Professional, the six-tube, 30-watt DeLuxe gives the impression it could also house a 15″ if necessary. Specifications in the ’41 catalog suggest each of the three “independently operating input channels” had its own preamp, controlled by a common set of volume and tone controls. Not just a guitar amp, the DeLuxe came “…equipped with 110-volt AC receptacle for use with record player or for additional amplifiers.”

Student/Model 59 Style 1
(ca. 1938, “Complete with amplifier – $59.50”)
Rickenbacher had expanded its lineup in ’36, with the 12″ and 15″ models, but it wasn’t until 1938 they began to court the burgeoning student market. At $59.50 for an entire Hawaiian setup, who could resist?

Especially the first version with the Harlequin-patterned covering on the amp and the white guitar! Unfortunately, this amp didn’t last long and is rarely seen today. It seems logical due to the sharp corners and cloth covering that these first cabinets were made of wood.

Styles 2 and 3
(ca. 1938-’39, $35)
The second variant of the Model 59 amplifier, still paired with the white guitar, was manufactured using a similar technique to the Standard model of the era; shaped metal for the cabinet. These amps were painted to match the instruments and like the Standard, hundreds of small perforations in the front of the cabinet allowed sound waves to escape.

Featured in white at the front of the ’38-’39 catalog, another version (Style 3) showed up later in all black paired to a black guitar, with all white still available (a later catalog from ’39 lists black only). One has to doubt having a metal shell on a high-voltage electronic device for kids to play with, especially one with a non-polarized, ungrounded AC plug. Rubber cushioning for the chassis was specified for the larger Standard amp, but there was no mention of it for the 59. Television sets from the ’50s began using metal cabinets until it was discovered repairman/owners would leave out isolating washers and replace plastic bolts, placing dangerous voltages on the cabinets under certain conditions (like when the A plug was inserted backwards). Have a new grounded cable or, at the very least, a polarized plug professionally installed if you or anyone else is planning to use one of these.

Style 4
(ca. 1940-’42, $35)
The majority of Model 59s were a black and white sunburst, with black highlights around the edges. Specs were finally given in 1940’s promo; an 8″ speaker and four tubes. Besides the standard 5Z3 rectifier and 6N7 preamp tubes, it’s interesting that two push/pull 6V6s were used to power an amp not designed for performers – instead of the usual three-tube, single-ended type used by most manufacturers for their student models.

For helping establish a market where before there was none, Electro/Rickenbacher amplifiers have earned their pages in the history of electric musical instruments. Affordable and highly respected in their day, the line stayed in continuous production for as long as any manufacturer’s. In barely five years, the range expanded from a single amp-for-all-purposes to offerings in every price range; by the end of the decade, progress in technology allowed for both the inexpensive student model (comparable to the earliest amps at half the original price), and the powerful, feature-filled DeLuxe, which could hold its own against all competitors of the era.

While not the earliest known guitar amp, the original Electro model does pre-date all mid-’30s entries into the field, including ViviTone, Dobro, Volu-Tone, Vega, Gibson, National, Epiphone, Audiovox, et al. Considering the infancy of the late-’20s field, with electrified acoustics and large, expensive, low-powered amplifiers, it seems safe to say those first-generation trials had little direct influence on what followed just a few short years later. Therefore, the original Electro line appears to reign supreme as the original instruments and amplifiers of electric guitardom’s formative years.

Special thanks this month to Timm Kummer and John Dowhy of Mars Inc., West Coasters Bob Riofrio, John and Geoff at Rickenbacker for providing the catalog reprints, and the ever-cheerful Sal Trentino, Billy Voiers, Bob Smith, Brian Wooten, plus some of the most patient and accommodating folks in the business, Thom and Kathy Humphrey of Ross Music, and Lynn Wheelwright of Gourmet Guitars.

Rickenbacker’s 1935 Bakelite Spanish guitar, with ’35 amp. Photo: John Teagle.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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