When my son was young I used to do “guitar shows” for his classes, showing off 10 or so electric guitars that started with conventional shapes – a Les Paul and a Strat – and progressed to more unusual designs. I’d often conclude with this cool 1981 B.C. Rich Eagle and a rousing rendition of the theme from TV’s “Swamp Thing” that ended by me throwing the overdrive switch. The move always had the 30 little kids putting hands over their ears (and put big grins on their faces!). I’d ask the class to vote for their favorite, and the Rich almost always won the day (though the metallic green Ibanez Maxxas and the black graphite Bond Electraglide with LEDs were in the running).
That B.C. Rich ended up making unusual-shaped guitars was a bit ironic because Bernardo (Bernie) Chavez Rico, the brand’s founder and namesake, began his career following in the footsteps of his father (Bernardo Mason Rico) making classical and flamenco guitars in East Los Angeles. (Rico the elder also made other stringed instruments for local Mexican musicians.) Young Bernie actually studied with flamenco great Sabicas and hob-nobbed with Paco de Lucia and Carlos Montoya. In 1953 or ’54 Bernie started working in his father’s shop and by the mid ’60s was doing a lot of work for country western musicians, though he felt his name didn’t fit with his clientele. A friend named Bobby Rich performed as Roberto Rico and, taking a cue from his buddy, he anglicized his brand to B.C. Rich circa ’66.
Like another L.A.-area guitarmaker before him – Paul Bigsby – Rico was a biker. This gave him a taste for flashy finishes and soon he had a thriving business doing wild refins of electric guitars. By 1968, this led to his making his own custom solidbodies, mainly copies of Gibson and Fender models. By ’69 he was hanging with other guitar makers, including Rick Turner, which steered him in the direction of neck-through-body guitars with no heel. In ’71, Rico designed his first odd-shaped guitar, the Seagull, which debuted at the ’72 NAMM show. It was basically a tricked-out Les Paul-like single-cutaway shape with the cutaway horn flopped downward and a balancing point on the top of the upper bout. The guitar was embraced by Dominic Troiano, who’d just replaced Randy Bachman as lead player in the Guess Who. Troiano favored active electronics, which were provided by Neil Mosher, who would play a big role in the brand’s success through the 1970s. Weird shapes, neck-through construction, and active electronics – Rich’s holy trinity. B.C. Rich guitars were on their way!
The Seagull was heavily promoted and sold fairly well, but players didn’t like its pointy “feather” on the top, which kept jamming them in the chest. In ’75 or so, bassist Bill Bodine lodged this complaint about his Seagull Bass, so Bernie redesigned the Seagull, adding a second cutaway and carving off the offending point on top. This became the Bodine Bass for a short while, but then the guitar got the same makeover and the model became the Seagull II (or sometimes, Seagull Junior). In late ’76 or early ’77 the name game stopped and the model became known as the Eagle, as seen here.
Throughout this time B.C. Rich was really somewhere between a manufacturer and a custom shop. All B.C. Rich guitars could be – and were frequently – ordered with a range of options including custom electronics, vibratos, inlays, and finishes. As a result, there is an enormous range of guitars out there. You could get your guitar passive or tricked out with every conceivable mini-toggle for tapping, phase reversing, or activating other on-board active electronics. The 1981 Eagle shown here is one of these atypical guitars.
This is a swell guitar, like a stripped-down hot rod. It has the usual heelless neck-through-body construction. As you can see, it’s relatively plain in its appointments, with simple pearl dot inlays and no binding on the rosewood fingerboard. The body is a resonant mahogany. It’s pretty thin, so the guitar is not heavy but sounds great. It has great balance and is even comfortable to play sitting down. Whoever ordered this puppy didn’t care about mellow neck tones, just high powered crank out of the bridge. This is a Rich pickup, by the way. You’ll often see these described as having DiMarzios, but Rich usually made its own pickups. There may have been a few with DiMarzios, but those would be special cases, and usually any such description is just wrong.
The guitar shown here was equipped with a Rich-designed vibrato, one of their early designs – the locking vibrato was not widely available in 1981. Most B.C. Rich guitars from the 1970s and early ’80s were stop-tails. The color is interesting, too; it was called “Jump-at-Me Yellow,” a name given to it by a rock star visiting the factory one day.
But, like any good hot rod, the most impressive elements are “under the hood.” While it only has one hot pickup, the mini-toggle hooks up to an onboard preamp. Throw that sucker, and the output doubles. If you’re running at any volume at all, this turns into a nice distortion! The controls are a volume control for passive mode and a volume control for the preamp, so you can control the differential. There’s also a master Tone control that works in passive or active mode.
This particular Eagle has a six-in-line headstock. Previous guitars all had asymmetrical three-and-three heads. In 1981 – the year this guitar debuted, B.C. Rich introduced this design as an alternative.
B.C. Rich guitars aren’t especially rare. This one has a serial number of 85376, and Rich numbers were sequential, not date coded. Once they passed 1,000 in a year, the numbers started getting ahead of the year.
By 1982, the taste for switches and onboard preamps began to wane, and the line began to shift in a more conventional passive direction. This guitar thus represents the apex of that first golden age of B.C. Rich guitars. It’s simple – and great. Great enough to make you cover your ears and wear a great big grin!
This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.