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History of Rickenbacker

History of Rickenbacker

2020-12-17

Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard a Rickenbacker.


From the first chord of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night" to the opening figure of The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the aggressive chordal work on The Who’s “Substitute,” Rickenbacker’s 12-string electric guitars, with their distinctive jangle, helped define the sound of an era.


Most people don’t realize that the company - which is fifteen years older than Fender - made the first mass-produced electric guitar. Here’s a look at one of America’s most influential guitar manufacturers from the ground up.


The Rickenbacker story starts in 1920s Los Angeles when vaudeville performer and multi-instrumentalist George Beauchamp went looking for a guitar loud enough to be heard clearly in big ensemble settings. Beauchamp reached out to a local instrument maker, John Dopyera, for help.


After several failed attempts, Dopyera and his brother Rudy arrived at a design in which three resonators sat inside a metal body. The first tricone resonator guitar was born.


A wealthy cousin of Beauchamp’s was so impressed by a prototype of the metal guitar that he invested in production of the instruments with a check for $12,000 (about $168,000 in today’s money). The Dopyera Brothers began making the instruments in their shop under the National brand name.

This is where the man behind the brand name, Adolph Rickenbacher, comes into the picture.


Rickenbacher, a Swiss-born engineer and machinist, had a tool-and-die shop not far from National’s headquarters. To bolster National’s production, he and his craftsmen began forging metal bodies for guitars as well as mandolins and ukuleles.


In the early ’30s, disputes at National and a slowdown in demand for tricone guitars (which were difficult to make and therefore expensive) led Beauchamp to his next project: the development of an electric guitar. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, but it hadn’t yet been successfully realized.


In a somewhat crude experiment, Beauchamp turned a 2x4 into a one-string guitar and attached a Brunswick phonograph pickup to it.


Inspired by the potential of the idea, Beauchamp took some electronics classes. With the help of National employee Paul Barth, he designed a primitive pickup that “read” the vibrations of the strings and translated them to electric current.


The factory’s superintendent, Harry Watson, joined the effort, crafting a wooden neck and body by hand. What resulted was one of the earliest electric guitar models, dubbed the Frying Pan due to its peculiar shape. Eventually thousands would be produced.


In 1931, Rickenbacher and Beauchamp formed the Ro-Pat-In Corporation to make electric guitars. Eventually, the name would change to Electro String and then to Rickenbacker, in part to capitalize on a distant relation to Eddie Rickenbacker, an American fighter ace in World War I.


The earliest years of Rickenbacker saw the company developing a range of designs. During the ’30s, Rickenbacker made models like the Frying Pan Model A-25 and Model BD lap steel, with its Bakelite (an early plastic) construction. The BD is regarded as among the finest steels ever produced.


Among Rickenbacker’s most notable early standard guitars was the Model B Spanish, with a distinctive Art Deco–inspired appearance and Bakelite construction. The guitar also had a detachable neck and eliminated the feedback common to hollowbody guitars, two important steps toward the fully realized Fender and Gibson solidbodies of 1952.


Rickenbacker shifted its focus to hollowbody and solidbody guitars and basses in the early ‘50s, following the emergence of rock and roll the popularity of models like the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Telecaster.


By the end of that decade, Rickenbacker had established its trademarks: crescent double cutaways, neck-through-body construction and a unique modern aesthetic. This took form with the "Capri" and "Combo" style guitars which would evolve into the iconic designs of the '60s. Both body styles were similar to their successors but with more elongated shapes and less refined components.


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