This blueburst/paua 700C/12 offers an up-close look at Paul Wilczynski’s trademark pickguard.
In a world dominated by Gibson- and Fender-style instruments, it is easy to forget that neither Leo Fender nor Orville Gibson created the first commercial electric guitar. Truth be told, the first 6-string instrument manufactured with a pickup was a lap steel invented by George D. Beauchamp with help from Paul Barth and put into production by Adolph Rickenbacker. The 1935 Bakelite Model B Spanish-style guitar made by Rickenbacker predates the Telecaster and the Les Paul by over a decade. This guitar eliminated the acoustic feedback suffered by plugged-in archtops long before the solidbodies of Gibson and Fender.
So why has Rickenbacker receded into the background in the new Millennium? Who knows—perhaps because jangly pop has fallen from favor? Or, maybe it is the fact that Rickenbackers are all American made. The company doesn’t offer any low-cost, offshore-manufactured models that help spread brand names like Fender and PRS. John Hall and his family still manufacture Rickenbackers in the U.S. of A., just as Adolph Rickenbacker did more than 75 years ago.
When Rickenbacker decided to take a break from making acoustic models in-house, it teamed up with a man as passionate about the Rickenbacker legacy as they are: Paul Wilczynski. A self-described “guitar hobbyist and mediocre musician for about 40 years,” Wilczynski is the man you now call when you want a Rickenbacker flattop—or if you need that vintage Rick restored to its former glory. You can see gorgeous examples of his work at studiocalifornia.rickbeat.com. He has restored, rebuilt, and refinished about 200 Rickenbacker guitars in his one-man shop since May 2005. As Rickenbacker’s sole licensee for construction and restoration, Wilczynski gets all of the company’s non-warranty work. The Bay Area luthier also handbuilds Rickenbacker’s entire line of flattop acoustic instruments— at a rate of one every six to eight weeks.
Wilczynski’s earlier and current alternate lives revolve around industrial design and prototype manufacture— including concept-car design (visit conceptcar.co.uk to see some of the cars Wilczynski has worked on). This craft-oriented background might explain how the first instrument he ever built was good enough to be played by the Jefferson Starship’s Paul Kantner and the Church’s Marty Willson-Piper at Rickenbacker’s 75th Anniversary celebration in August 2006. But let’s let him explain.
A Rickenbacker 700 Comstock 12-string finished in Mary Kaye white with spruce-green
back and sides. Note typical checkerboard body and soundhole purfling.
How did your debut as a luthier turn out to be such a well-constructed instrument?
Half of it was luck and half of it was knowing what I was doing. I was educated in industrial design at the University of Illinois in Chicago. At that time, I found that I was as interested in actually building things as in designing them. My career ended up being evenly divided between designing objects and building them—not as sculptures, but as working products. After a successful career as a toy designer, I migrated to California and started my own design and fabrication business in Orange County. During that time, I had design firms as customers, and I also worked directly with companies like Xerox, Mazda, GM, and Mitsubishi. I did the design and fabrication work for them in my own shop, or contracted with them to work on their premises. My business was building precision prototypes of anything from stereo systems to automobiles. I started off really knowing my way around a shop: metal shop, wood shop, painting, etc. When I decided to get involved in guitars, I took all these talents and focused them into building instruments. You could say that building guitars is half engineering, half art.