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There is no denying Rickenbacker’s status as one of the four or five most important electric guitar companies of all time. Still, for all the company’s iconic status, they are sometimes perceived as misfits within the pantheon. While the Stratocaster and Les Paul cemented Fender’s and Gibson’s reputations as the first choice for legendary lead-guitar hotshots and gunslingers, Rickenbacker remains, in the eyes of many players, a strummer’s guitar—fit for rhythm kings and ill-suited for lead aces.
It’s a much-too-simple generalization that diminishes not only the versatility of Rickenbacker guitars themselves, but also the groundbreaking achievements of the guitarists who have played them over the years. In a September 2010 interview with Premier Guitar, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach praised their smooth playability and build quality. “You can do anything with a Rickenbacker,” he said. “Anything!”
And anyone who has witnessed Mike Campbell rip a Peter Green-style lead, beheld Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto driving a raging, off-kilter punk rhythm, or thrilled to Paul Weller slashing at a bellowing Marshall with a Rick in hand can attest to the veracity of Auerbach’s assertion.
Then there are the things only a Rick can do: Roger McGuinn’s celestial 12-string excursions, Townshend’s ringing dots-and-dashes power chords, Johnny Marr’s complex dancing-and-darting arpeggio intros. Sure, other guitars might get you 80 to 90 percent there. But there is something about the way materials, construction, electronics, balance, and feel conspire in a Rickenbacker that is singular, wholly original, and nearly impossible to reproduce.
It begins, perhaps, with the way Rickenbackers feel in hand. There’s an almost acoustic-guitar-like tension that invites you to simultaneously dig in, attack, or get delicate. But there is also an incredible smoothness—the slickness of low frets, lacquered fretboards, and low action—that invites bends, quick and aggressive arpeggios, hammer-ons, and legato flurries. Then there are the pickups. The toaster tops chime with pure crystalline beauty and ring in perfect, succinct harmonic balance for rhythm work, and the modern, high-gain single-coils veer from bell-like zing to highhorsepower kerrang in a manner quite unlike any other pickup.
And those are just the musical strengths of a Rickenbacker. But many discovered all this after being drawn to how Rickenbackers look. The guitars display a perfect synthesis of classic Bavarian/ European design motifs and Jet Age Californiaisms, and it’s a look that’s unmistakable even from a hundred yards away. Flash mod symbol, punk jackhammer, herald of the British Invasion, and blonde avatar of bangs-and-suede psychedelia from the West Coast—the Rickenbacker sweeping-crescent profile is each of these and more.
Here we’ve collected a few rare images from Rickenbacker’s archive, most never before published, to celebrate the company’s 80th anniversary (also be sure to check out our video tour of the Rickenbacker factory at premierguitar.com).
In a way, it’s refreshing to see how little has changed over the years. Many of these legendary shapes still roll out of the Santa Ana, California, factory looking much like the very first specimens of their breed—and each is still built as they always have been, entirely in the USA.