Rickenbacker guitars have a look, feel, and sound that is remarkably distinct from those made by any other manufacturers. In fact, artists often find that nothing else works as well for certain applications.
While not as versatile as models made by Gibson and Fender, the sound of a Rickenbacker is so different that it’s difficult to play certain well-known songs featuring the Rickenbacker sound and get an equally good result on any other guitar; many tunes by The Beatles and The Byrds, for example, are instantly recognizable for their instrumentation.
Adolph Rickenbacker entered the guitar business as a subcontractor for National and produced bodies for the company’s early Tricone and other metal-body guitars. He eventually partnered with George Beauchamp, who designed and patented the horseshoe-magnet pickup, and the two introduced the “frying pan” metal-body lap steel under the Rickenbacker brand. While Rickenbacker’s name went on the instruments, Beauchamp was the genius behind the scenes.
Though Rickenbacker had produced Spanish-neck electric guitars in the 1930s, they were very late entering that segment of the market in the years after World War II. Until Roger Rossmeisl’s solidbody and hollowbody designs were introduced in 1958, the company focused on lap steels and a handful of stand-up/non-pedal steels. It also distributed Rickenbacker amplifiers.
Prior to working with Rickenbacker, Rossmeisl worked with Mosrite, and the carving patterns on Mosrite guitars like The Ventures model show clear Rossmeisl influence. The Rickenbacker guitars designed by Rossmeisl also exhibit his concepts, as do the neck shapes, which are very Germanic and rather rectangular in cross-section and dimensions. They are quite different in feel from Martin, Fender, or Gibson necks, and very much like many German instruments.
Though popularized in the mid/late ’60s by British Invasion artists like The Beatles and Pete Townshend of The Who, Rickenbacker guitars of the ’50s and ’60s were produced in much smaller quantities than those by many other manufacturers. For example, this Rickenbacker 345 is one of only 44 of the model made in 1960, and one of only 25 in Fireglo finish.
The 345 was introduced in ’58 as part of Rossmeisl’s Capri hollowbody series. Its body is 151/4” wide and 2″ deep. In ’61, body depth was reduced to 11/2“. It has a semi-hollow body of laminated maple, unbound top and back, slash sound hole, unbound rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays, large gold-backed truss rod with Rickenbacker logo, three chrome bar “toaster top” pickups, four “kitchen oven” or “TV- style” knobs (black plastic knobs with elongated gold-colored/diamond-shaped design on top), gold-backed Lucite split pickguard, and the Kauffman vibrola used until the introduction of the Ac’cent vibrola in early 1961. The 345 was discontinued in 1975.
Rick’s 300 Series models were available in both Standard and Deluxe versions. Deluxe models included body bindings and a bound fingerboard with triangular inlays. However, many other specs were inconsistent through the years as a result of the small-scale production of these instruments. Unlike larger manufacturers, Rickenbackers made prior to the ’70s were often affected not only by the availability (or lack thereof) of different component parts, but by the style of hand work done by individual employees. In addition, as specs evolved, the company would use supplies of parts that did not match the latest specs while simultaneously shipping new – and previous – versions of the same model. While these changes can cause confusion when attempting to identify and date an instrument, Rick enthusiasts find these quirks endearing and appreciate how the company worked through the challenges of smaller-scale production.
While Fender and Gibson have not been successful protecting their body shapes and pickups from being copied by numerous other manufacturers, Rickenbacker has; its lap steels, and especially the horseshoe-magnet pickups, were influential in the design of some of the Epiphone and Vega pickups, but virtually no other manufacturer has ever copied – or appears to have been highly influenced by post-war Rickenbacker designs – with the exception of a few Japanese-made instruments of the ’70s which are no longer in production. To get the Rickenbacker look, feel, and sound, there are few options beyond the real thing.
This article originally appeared in VG February 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.