Just like the word ‘legendary’, the term ‘iconic’ is horribly overused. Which is a shame as it perfectly sums up the instantly recognisable and timeless design of Rickenbacker guitars and basses. Glance up at any guitar shop wall and if there’s a Rickenbacker present, it will leap out at you – as futuristic as the day it was launched (which, depending on the model, could have been over 60 years ago) and clearly not the product of a company that once had a look at what everyone else was doing and decided to copy them.
Rickenbacker has always done things its own way which, depending on your tastes, might make it seem a bit contrary, even stubborn – perhaps even pig-headed at times. However there’s simply no escaping the fact that Rickenbacker does everything differently and yet continues to prosper, with a full order book, a waiting list and many devoted customers. It has also remained blissfully free of the corporate shenanigans and financial dramas that have beset some of its larger rivals.
Undoubtedly, part of this ‘do different’ philosophy is due to the way Rickenbacker is owned and run. Unlike Fender and Gibson, it’s a family owned business, headed by John Hall, who purchased the firm from his father, Francis C. Hall. In the 1940s, Hall senior had been the sole distributor for a fledgling guitar and amp business started by fellow Californian, Leo Fender, before deciding he wanted his own guitar company.
In 1953 he bought the Electro String business from its owners, the Swiss-born engineer Adolph Rickenbacker and inventors George Beauchamp and Paul Barth. Which is where that other overused word ‘legendary’ might have come in handy, because Rickenbacker’s history is graced with many names and brands from the very earliest days of electric guitars and amplifiers stretching right back to the 1920s and incorporating more than a few of the technical and stylistic innovations that we take for granted today. The famous ‘Frying Pan’ is just one among many Rickenbacker firsts.
Now poised to celebrate its 90th year, Rickenbacker International Corporation is run on a day-to-day basis by John Hall’s son, Ben and Hall’s son-in-law, Dan Beighley. Hall, meanwhile, divides his time between California and the depths of the English countryside, where, beside watching over the guitar business, he runs his own polo team – and not just runs it. Although polo has a reputation as a dangerous and vigorous sport, John Hall, despite reaching 70 this year, is still a very active and enthusiastic player.
“My dad acquired Rickenbacker in 1953 and of course he had been a partner with Leo Fender since 1946,” Hall says. “That meant we always had a collection of musicians that were coming to our home and I spent an awful lot of time hanging around the shop – namely the sales office, not so much the factory, as the factory when I was younger was in Los Angeles, which was a good hour’s drive away. But I used to ride along with my Mom when she went to pick up the instruments every day to take back to Orange County, so I certainly got to meet the characters that are legendary within the company and saw the original manufacturing facility. It definitely was an interesting experience growing up!
“I knew a lot of people in the industry but pretty much all the other students thought I was bullshitting them – though they always seemed to want to borrow my guitars!”
“Back them the factory was quite a large building because there were two halves to it. The other half of the factory was Rickenbacker Manufacturing where Adolph continued to produce metal and injection moulded products.”
It’s worth explaining that, despite having his name on the guitars, Adolph Rickenbacker, was principally an engineer and a lot of the credit for the firm’s early musical successes must go to Messrs Barth and Beauchamp. In fact the brand name Rickenbacker was chosen mostly because in the 1920s it was deemed more recognisable by the public thanks to the exploits of the air ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Adolph’s cousin, and because, the story goes, people found Rickenbacker easier to pronounce than Beauchamp!
Back in 1953, when Francis Hall decided to relinquish his role as Leo Fender’s distributor and strike out on his own, the electric guitar was still to achieve the prominence it acquired during the rock ’n’ roll boom that was soon about to happen. Was it luck or foresight?
“He had been in the business since 1946 so certainly was on the cusp of what was coming in,” Hall says. “In 1947 country and western was perceived as being an up-and-coming music scene and certainly Fender had been pulling fish out of that ocean, so I would say that initially his interest was probably country and western, but rock ’n’ roll obviously slid in there and took over the market.
“Of course Rickenbacker also had a very long historical role in the Hawaiian guitar market and in 1953 that was still going strong, as were lap steels and various pedal steel guitars. So I think it was a combination of taking over that existing business as well as offering the first Spanish guitars that were pitched to the country and western people and possibly through them into rock ’n’ roll. Certainly one of the earliest people in rock ’n’ roll with Rickenbacker was Rick Nelson and with James Burton being in the band, you can see the country connection.”
What really changed Rickenbacker’s fortunes was the advent of The Beatles – at first John Lennon with the 325 he had acquired in Hamburg, then with George Harrison adopting the definitive 360/12 that dominated The Beatles’ sound on some of the band’s biggest selling records and, finally, with Paul McCartney joining with an early 4001S bass.
Unless you were there at the time, or really immerse yourself in the history of the 1960s, it is almost impossible to appreciate what a cultural phenomenon The Beatles were, and their adoption of Rickenbacker instruments gave the company the biggest publicity rocket the guitar business had ever seen.
Ironically, that distinctive Rickenbacker style, which seems so futuristic and Californian, wasn’t the work of an American – it largely stemmed from the design ideas of German-born Roger Rossmeisl.
“I presented Paul with the Fireglo Rickenbacker bass and he was really excited to see it and play it”
“Roger had been brought into the company to come up with Spanish guitars,” Hall says. “The company was rather strong and healthy in the steel Hawaiian guitar business, so it wasn’t like it was a sleepy little company, it was that they were on the cusp of change and it took them a little while to make that change.”
In addition to Rossmeisl’s shapes, another distinctive element was the Rickenbacker logo on its shark fin nameplate, which was designed by John Hall’s mother. “She did indeed design that,” he confirms. “I can remember her doing it. She was quite a seamstress and was cutting different shapes of paper for nameplates and had a whole bunch of different ideas. She is the one that came up with that crescent – or whatever you want to call it – nameplate. I think there was probably a little bit of influence from the shark’s tooth inlay that came from Rossmeisl, also some of the curves from a few of Rossmeisl’s guitars, so she may have picked up on some of that.
“I knew Roger quite well. He was a great guy, As a kid I really enjoyed him. It sounds bad to say but he gave the best Christmas presents! Every year I looked for his Christmas gift because it was always something absolutely over the top.”
The reason for Rossmeisl’s eventual departure from Rickenbacker has long been the subject of conjecture but Hall reveals that as the result of a monumental amount of work undertaken by guitar writer Martin Kelly (due to appear in a definitive history to be published next year) the story has finally emerged.
“I wasn’t aware of all the details at the time but it was over the move of the factory down to Orange County in 1964. Basically, Roger didn’t want to move and I guess he had already also previously been recruited, headhunted, by Fender. I guess he remained living in LA but went down to Fender which was on the northern border of Orange County so he was able to continue living where he did.
“The other reason was that he didn’t get on with the factory manager at that time. He wasn’t well liked by the employees and an awful lot of people like Roger became disenchanted with his management style. Unfortunately he stayed with us well too long and his last day was I the first day that I took over.”
Growing up in the 1960s music industry, the son of the owner of one of the world’s most famous guitar brands could have led a lot of young men off the rails, but Hall was almost insulated from the potential, having been sent to a very traditional school.
“I was right in the middle of it but I was away at the time at a school that resembles one of your British public schools, so I lived there in a strictly boys school in a very focused, pretty intense educational environment and I didn’t make it home more than once every six, seven or eight weeks, so I didn’t really know what was happening with the company.
“But I certainly knew about The Beatles and all of the other bands that were going on at the time though I had no inkling of The Beatles’ connection with Rickenbacker until I went home, probably Easter vacation March ’64, and was pretty surprised when my father handed me an autographed Beatles album. My classmates were also a little bit surprised, too!”
“My dad was really gracious, allowing me to do a lot of different things – I was able to learn a lot about the company”
Had it made him an instant star at school? “It’s funny it was almost the other way around because nobody really believed that I had any connection that way and even worse in ’65 I had met The Beatles and had been hanging out with people like Roger McGuinn, who was a very close friend. I knew a lot of people in the industry but pretty much the other students thought I was bullshitting them – though they always seemed to want to borrow my guitars!
“Of course, I was interested in music and I was the first – and probably the last! – person that played a 12-string electric in instrumental surf music. I always enjoyed that, but when surf music moved into the Beach Boys, where it became a vocal thing, I wasn’t as interested in that. I couldn’t sing worth crap then and I still can’t sing worth crap now, so I guess that whole aspect eluded me!”
Despite his schoolmates’ incredulity, being the son of the Rickenbacker business threw Hall into some very interesting company at times, including the Fab Four who, in 1965, were renting a house in Benedict Canyon while they played at the Hollywood Bowl.
“The previous year back in New York my dad had offered Paul a bass. For reasons none of us understood, he didn’t take it home with him but my dad and I were invited up to where they were staying in Zsa Zsa Gabor’s home which they had rented. I presented Paul with the Fireglo Rickenbacker bass and he was really excited to see it and play it.
“He pulled out a tiny Vox amplifier and started playing it, then John and George showed up with their guitars and started playing and there I was, sitting in a private living room with three of The Beatles playing. Ringo was there at the house, incidentally, but at the time he and [names a very famous female artist who is still alive and no doubt well equipped with lawyers] were outside, round the corner by the pool, having an amorous moment on the diving board.
“There were a lot of funny goings going on that day – people coming and going. That was when I met Roger McGuinn and we became friends. We were talking about an electric 12-string guitar string set I had created for myself and I asked if he’d like some. He loved them and we’ve had a relationship ever since. It was quite a day.
“I also met [folk performer and noted photographer] Henry Diltz and I saw John Lennon get into a fist fight with Peter Fonda, because Peter had been enraged by John’s comments about how bad his sister was in a movie they’d just seen the night before.
“Everyone was acting very, very strange and at 16 I couldn’t really put my finger on it. Years later Roger asked me if I remembered that day and asked me to write down everything I could. I said he was there too and he replied, ‘Yes, well, that was the first time that we dropped acid’. That explained a lot! Mind you, Ringo and [famous female performer] were only drinking Scotch,” he adds, drily.
Despite that early exposure it was by no means certain that John Hall would follow in his father’s footsteps. “It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, nor was there any pressure – in fact not any particular discussion, but I started working there when I was 16 and not at school.
“My dad was really gracious, I suppose is the right word, allowing me to do a lot of different things and I was able to learn a lot about the company. But I hadn’t intended to go into the company. I wanted to make my own mark and when I was in university and in the latter years I was working as a graphic artist and more orientated toward some type of art or photographic career.
“But I had got married at some point, I wasn’t making a lot of money and was moving around between jobs and my wife said why don’t you consider going back with your dad? I did and I never left – well, other than one year when I was out of the company, which I think it was 1980, I’ve been with the company ever since then.”
Since taking the reins in 1984, Hall has maintained a business philosophy quite different from the stereotype of the storming American corporation growing at a frenetic rate and acquiring as much of its competition as possible. Rickenbacker has simply refused to play that game, nor has John Hall risked diluting the brand by having its products built overseas. A Rickenbacker is always made in the Californian factory and he has resisted the temptation to over expand.
“If we were able to push up production to the level where we could keep up with the orders it could be dangerous”
Massively boosted by the endorsement of The Beatles it has surfed wave after wave of musical tastes and styles since. Every time it might have seemed as if the Rickenbacker’s star was beginning to wane, another major artist has come along, fallen for its unique characteristics and sounds and pushed it back up to the top again.
Bass players from Chris Squire to Geddy Lee and Lemmy, guitarists from Pete Townshend to Tom Petty to Kevin Parker – it seems there has always been someone ready to step onto the cover of a guitar magazine with a Rickenbacker in hand. But why hasn’t John Hall set out to do what, say, Fender, Gibson or Taylor have done, and grow as fast as they could?
“If we were able to push up production to the level where we could keep up with the orders it could be dangerous. I have always had a very conservative philosophy. The company does not borrow money, we do growth from within and self-fund our own expansion.
“I can tell you that through the years an awful lot of accountants have said ‘You’re nuts. You’re leaving money on the table. You should take out this big loan and build a new factory and take advantage of all this.’ And maybe that’s true, Maybe there was a lot of money left on the table but I have to tell you that it sure is easy to sleep at night and it has served our family and me very, very well. I also think it’s one if the reasons why we’re still here strong and successful where some others have changed hands and gone through some pretty hairy times.”
Better than ever
One of the constants of the guitar business is the obsession guitarists seem to have with all things vintage. Guitar makers have responded in all sorts of ways, even resorting to inventing alternative realities they never actually had, but it begs the question not just of authenticity but of quality. Were guitars really better in the 1950s or 1960s than they are today? Rickenbackers (being different, yet again) don’t quite seem to fall into that ‘vintage is best’ territory.
“I feel very strongly that we’re now making the best instruments we’ve ever made,” Hall says. “The early instruments were really lovely – the vintage instruments hanging on the wall of the museum are really lovely and there’s nothing like a crackled finish, but the consistency from one to the next, the fit the finish, the actual sizing of components, all of that kind of thing has never been better.
“We basically build them now to machine-tool accuracy and within the limits of working with a natural product like wood, one instrument is exactly like the next one. When we started to shift to a lot of automation, we would take the quintessential old vintage guitar, use that as the target and figure out how to use automation to build it over and over.”
It seems that the company’s conservative and cautious method applies to designs too. Progress is made sometimes agonisingly slowly. Presumably that isn’t by accident?
“When we started to shift to a lot of automation, we would take the quintessential old vintage guitar, use that as the target and figure out how to use automation to build it over and over”
“Absolutely! That’s almost one of our core philosophies. We try to do things very well but very cautiously. There is some frustration in that it seems very often when we try to offer something completely new there is a certain reaction of people saying, ‘Oh, my god you’ve ruined it! It’s not a slotted screw any more, it’s a Phillips head.’
“That also applies to some of the new models. That’s been very frustrating over the years because I enjoy coming up with instruments that are vastly improved or cutting edge and all of that. I can show you a lot of examples in the museum where we’ve done that. Do we dare try to put them out and market them? No, because people then think the company has lost its way and I find that very frustrating.”
Along with resisting the temptation to have its guitars built overseas, Rickenbacker has earned a reputation for fiercely protecting its designs. This has led to dark mutterings in certain sectors of the internet, but Hall is unrepentant and it’s hard to argue with his reasoning.
“First and foremost it’s a design that we created. We made the investment. We marketed the products and built the market – it’s as simple as that. We took the steps to protect it, we were the first to trademark all of our body shapes, our nameplate shapes and a lot of the details like the R tailpiece. We were able to trademark them first in the US and I think we’re about the only one that has been successful in the EU.”
Fascinatingly, he reveals that the EU’s commissioners were initially reluctant to grant a trademark on a body shape but it was the testimony of Pete Townshend – perhaps atoning for reducing so many Rickenbackers to smithereens in the early days! – that swayed them in Rickenbacker’s favour. “The main advantage of this is that it sent the message to the would-be copiers that we’re not going to let you get away with it and that has certainly staved off a fair number of copy products.”
Guitar fashions may come and go but Rickenbacker seems to have found a way of remaining exciting and relevant for the next wave of musicians that comes along every decade or so. Not, it’s not a Fender or a Gibson – it’s a Rickenbacker and not everyone will like it. But for those who do, there is no substitute. John Hall, an affable man with a wicked, dry sense of humour has been the curator and the guardian of that legacy and its continued success.
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