Released in 1932, Rickenbacker were the first electric guitars to go into production on any meaningful commercial level. Founded by Adolph Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp in 1931 in order to sell electric Hawaiian guitars the guitars had been initially designed by Beauchamp. Beauchamp was probably the first real electric guitar inventor, who like all good inventors, stumbled upon the idea through ‘necessity being the mother of invention’. George was a Vaudeville performer, and amongst the orchestras of variety shows his guitar could not be heard, so, he endeavoured to find an electronic solution to making his guitar heard above other instruments.
Beauchamp got together with John Dopyera, and after a few unsuccessful attempts they came up with the first prototype that actually worked. Beauchamp and Dopyera went their separate ways, and Beauchamp got together with Rickenbacker and formed the Ro-Pat-In Corporation to sell the ‘Frying Pan’ which was what the first guitar was nicknamed. The company went through a few name changes during this era before settling on Rickenbacker, which was an altering of the German spelling which was done to counter any negative associations after the war with Germany at the turn of the century.
After producing several electric guitar models in 1935 they introduced the Model “B” Electric Spanish guitar which is considered the first solid body electric guitar. Further down the line in 1958, Rickenbacker introduced its “Capri” series, including the double-cutaway semi-acoustic guitars which would become the famous Rickenbacker 300 Series. They also released an electric twelve-string guitar in 1963 and even since then have continued to be an innovative force in guitar design and manufacture.
In the 1960s Rickenbacker hit a stoke of luck involving four mop-tops. The Beatles throughout their early days had been playing on Rickenbackers, and when they hit the big time, Rickenbacker capitalised by giving John Lennon guitars which he then went on to play, and more importantly was seen playing it on the Ed Sullivan show twice. This did for Rickenbacker models what that Hendrix did for Stratocaster.
George Harrison also played a Rickenbacker, and Paul McCartney a Rickenbacker bass, and their influence arguably led to other musicians of the day picking up Rickenbackers including guitarists from the Who, Beach Boys, Credence and the Stones. This new upsurge wasn’t to last though, and the guitars fell from grace during the 1970s, although a resurgence occurred ion the 1980s when big players like ‘The Edge’ from U2, Paul Weller from the Jam, and Johnny Marr from the Smiths were seen playing Rickenbackers.
One unique feature of the guitars is the dual outputs which allowed the sound from each individual pick up to routed through an effect separate to the sound from the other pick up, which was a great source of experimentation for many players. They moved from the low output ‘Toaster’ pick ups that were very popular during the melodic sixties to higher output ‘High Gain’ pick ups during the raucous hard edged rockiness of the seventies.
Various big name guitarists’ use of Rickenbackers over the years has ensured the brands pedigree and longevity, and although not the at top of the guitar pile, vintage versions are highly sought after by both players who want to emulate a certain sound, and savvy collectors after a good investment. Their popularity has also led to a a whole series of reissue models which are probably the best option for a new player who isn’t prepared to fork out several grand for an original.
Rickenbackers will always retain a certain level of popularity as long as the music of the sixties remains popular with musicians, and as this is not likely to wane for a very long time, they will continue to be played by guitarists, and hunted by collectors.