An oral history of the Rickenbacker 12-string
Rickenbacker was not the first company with an electric 12, but when its models were taken up by The Beatles, The Byrds, and many more, the brand became synonymous with the big, bold jangle that this instrument could produce.
Image: Micheal Ochs Archives / Getty
This oral history is about the early days of the Rickenbacker electric 12-string, a remarkable guitar with a newly popular sound that the company introduced in 1964. Melody Maker called it “the beat boys’ secret weapon” as players inspired by the likes of George Harrison and The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn lined up to add it to their arsenal.
The voices here come from interviews I’ve conducted for my books about guitars. The people you’ll hear from are: Suzi Arden, a showband singer, fiddle-player, and guitarist whose Suzi Arden Show was a regular on the Las Vegas circuit; Dick Burke, who worked at Rickenbacker from 1958 to 2004; Mike Campbell, guitarist in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and more recently with Fleetwood Mac; Francis (F.C.) Hall, who ran the Rickenbacker company from 1953 to 1984; John Hall, who took over the running of Rickenbacker from his father, Francis Hall, in 1984; Roger McGuinn, guitarist with The Byrds; and Mike Pender, guitarist with The Searchers.
A new era for Rickenbacker
Francis [F.C.] Hall
“I acquired the Rickenbacker guitar business from Adolph Rickenbacker in 1953. They were selling basically to teaching studios, so they built a lot of student-model steel guitars. Then we started developing the other style of guitar, the Spanish electrics, and that started taking over. I thought there’d be more sales volume in that style.
“I hired some engineers to work on it, to design something that was different than what was being produced at that time. Roger Rossmeisl was one of them – Paul Barth, who was managing the plant, hired him. Barth was a very good fella and a good manager.
“I had a lot of input from musicians. I’d go out to Vegas and various places where they were playing, talk to them, find out what they wanted, have them try our equipment.”
“Radio & Television Equipment Co [Radio-Tel] was owned by Francis Hall, and I was the general manager there. Leo Fender was making a little tiny steel guitar, and we were doing business with him at the time, so we started selling those at Radio-Tel. Leo and Francis really didn’t get along. They just rubbed each other the wrong way.
“In 1953, we had a fellow selling for us in the South, Charlie Hayes. We formed that year the Fender Sales company, and the four of us became partners. I was the managing partner, plus Leo, Charlie Hayes, and Francis Hall.
“That went on for a little while, and the antagonism in the company was such that I felt like a referee. Charlie and I were doing one thing, and Leo and Francis another. In 1955, Charlie was killed in a head-on car accident near the Fender factory. That left Francis, Leo, and me in the company.
“Anyway, this animosity continued to grow, and Francis had bought the Rickenbacker company, so that sealed his fate there. We decided we couldn’t have him in the company, made him a buy-or-sell offer, which he felt he couldn’t handle, so we bought his interests. The company became Leo and myself, and it continued in that vein until we sold it to CBS in 1965.”
Roger Rossmeisl & new-look Ricks
“When my dad bought Rickenbacker in 1953, it began the transition from a Hawaiian guitar company into a more mainstream Spanish guitar company. And without question Roger Rossmeisl was responsible for that. He was given certain parameters to hit. I can’t tell you how many prototypes or whatever they were or what they even looked like, but Rossmeisl certainly came up with the body styles and the body shapes.
“He was brought in specifically by Paul Barth to do the design work. My dad designed the circuits, and I think there must have been somebody else involved in some of the mechanical aspects – I can’t quite picture Roger designing the bridge assemblies. Maybe Barth did that.
“I thought Roger was a very warm and interesting sort of guy. He was the only person I knew at that time who drove a sports car – he’d often take me round the block in his sports car, top down, a lot of fun. Come Christmas, I could guarantee that Rossmeisl’s gift was always the best, it would be educational, always interesting.
“He seemed like a fairly decent family man at that time, he had a very young son. I was young, and we’d get together socially, [myself] Roger and his son. He seemed, at least in the factory, a little eccentric perhaps in that he pretty well liked to be hands-on and do his own thing, and be left alone to do his own thing.
“A lot of little stylistic elements that Roger brought with him from his father, and his grandfather, are still with Rickenbacker today. In particular, the way that the tops are carved, not only the German carve as on the 381 series, but the carving at the tailpiece, which is quite unique to Rickenbacker, and the idea that you’re essentially making a guitar from the front. The soundhole shape is very northern German, and the fingerboard inlays – the shark’s tooth or whatever you want to call ’em – are very definitely Roger.
“Roger really liked to work alone, he was a real loner, and he wanted to do everything himself, and that just didn’t work well in a production environment. So all his assistants had been hired that he was supposed to train and to delegate to do the different jobs.
“As I recall there were 10, and the factory manager was railing that nine of them weren’t worth a damn, or were creating problems, whatever – and Semie Moseley [later of Mosrite] was one of those nine [laughs]. The tenth was Dick Burke, who the factory manager had written up very favourably.”
Electric 12-string – Pre-Rickenbacker
Stratosphere c.1955 catalogue, Twin model, first electric 12-string
“Excitingly new! Astonishingly different! The guitar of tomorrow … today! The only twin-necked standard guitar on the market today: one six-string neck and one 12-string neck. An almost unlimited field of different tunings for the 12-string neck. Toggle switch for cutting in one neck at a time or both. Allows the standard guitar player to play double-string lead as fast as he would ordinarily play single string-lead. Melodies played on the 12-string neck sound like multiple recording. Played and recommended by Jimmy Bryant, West Coast radio, television, and Capitol recording artist. $330.”
Gibson 1958 catalogue, Double-12 model
“A completely new and exciting instrument … the Double-12 combines the conventional six-string guitar neck with a 12-string neck – six strings double-strung which can be tuned either in thirds or an octave apart for reinforced resonance and unusual tone effects. … Custom-built to order only. $475.”
Danelectro c.1963 catalogue, Bellzouki model
“These 12-string instruments are designed by Danelectro from original concepts of Vincent Bell. They evoke the mysterious charm and flavor of remote times and places, yet are easily played using familiar guitar technique. Single pickup Model 7010 $120. Double pickup Model 7020 $210.”
Developing the Rick 12
“I started at Rickenbacker in March 1958, reporting to Roger Rossmeisl and to Ward Deaton, who was the manager then. Roger was likeable – I worked with him for about four years – and he was responsible for a lot of the designs Rickenbacker still has today. If Francis Hall wanted something, Roger would put it on paper, a small sketch of it, and try and come up with something.
“We brought in our 12-string somewhere around ’64. Mr Hall wanted a 12-string, but he wanted the head short, a compact head – he didn’t want six keys and another six keys. He asked – could we come up with a configuration to make it not much bigger than a regulation six-string head? So I drilled around, and I came up with what we’ve got today.
“I was head of the woodshop at that time, and we worked it different ways. We thought about putting the rout all the way through, in fact I think I made a couple with the rout all the way through, like a classical. I think it looked better without it. We ended up with a rout about an eighth of an inch in. If you can see through it… I don’t know, it doesn’t look as good. But I’m not a musician. If you wanted a short head, you had to come in from the side some way, you had to mount them a different way. So then we came up with one with a back on it. It didn’t take very long to come up with it, you know?”
Prototype 1: The Suzi Arden Show
“Mr Hall brought me the 12-string [in 1963], to the show I worked in Las Vegas. It was the first one, his ‘model’. He always brought me new things he was doing. He said to try this new 12-string out and see how you like it. I did, and I wouldn’t let him take it back [laughs].
“I was playing a Martin electric six-string at the time, but the Rickenbacker was so sweet, sounded so good, and it added to my show so much. It made a sharp, beautiful sound—there’s nothing I think sounds as beautiful as a Rickenbacker 12. I could play all the chords on it real easy, and being electric, also, I loved it. I used the 12-string always from that point on, for the next twenty-something years.”
Prototype 2: A hard day’s night
Roy Morris of Rose-Morris, letter to Francis Hall at Rickenbacker, December 1963
“We think it would be an excellent idea if you, as the manufacturer of Rickenbacker Guitars, were to contact The Beatles’ manager and offer them a certain amount of American publicity on their forthcoming visit to the States. If you address your letter to Mr Brian Epstein, Nems Enterprises, 24 Moorfield, Liverpool 2, England, you will reach their manager, who is, I believe, a very charming fellow. It is impossible to exaggerate [The Beatles’] influence at the present moment in this country. We will be getting in touch with him eventually but an initial letter from you could be very important for us all.” [Rose-Morris became Rickenbacker’s UK distributor in 1964.]
“When I heard The Beatles were coming to the United States, I called Brian Epstein and made a date with them in New York for their first appearance in the States, when they were on the Ed Sullivan Show.
“They came over to our suite, except for George Harrison who was ill that day, and we showed them the new 12-string we’d just developed [a ’63 prototype 360/12]. John Lennon wanted to know if he could take it back and show it to George Harrison. He asked me if I would go with them back to their suite, so we carried it across the park there in New York.
“George was playing it, and the telephone rang. John went to answer it in another room and he came back pretty soon, and he said some radio station, I forget which, wanted to talk to George Harrison, because they’d heard he was ill. I heard him tell them that the doctor told him he was to stay in bed, except for their programme that evening.
“Pretty soon I heard him telling about the instrument that John had brought over for him to look at. They said do you like that instrument? And he said, ‘I sure do.’ They said, ‘Well, if we buy it for you, will you play it?’ And he said yeah [laughs]. To shorten the story, he took it back to London, and they made A Hard Day’s Night with it.
“Soon, there were musicians who wanted to make the same sound as The Beatles, so they started purchasing them too. I’m sure it helped increase our sales. I don’t think it was The Beatles entirely – I’m sure some of it was – but our business improved in the middle 60s on account of this.”
“Of course, The Beatles had a very positive effect on the company. They gave the company a kind of visibility and unpaid-for advertising that we couldn’t possibly have garnered any other way. Astounding. To have one of The Beatles using the product [Lennon’s 325], then to have another to use it [Harrison’s 360/12] for a great portion, and on some of their most popular movies, this kind of thing was incredible. And then later on to get three out of three [McCartney’s 4001S] was just staggering.”
Prototype 3: Damn The Torpedoes
“I was in California, working on the first Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album, and we didn’t have an electric 12-string in the band. I really wanted one, either a George Harrison type or a Roger McGuinn type, the large body. Recycler was like a precursor to eBay – a magazine where people could advertise stuff for sale. You’d call up the advertiser and go over to their house and make a deal.
“I looked in the Recycler one day, around 1975, and there was an ad for a Rickenbacker 12-string at $200. I took the two-hour drive out to Anaheim, real excited. The guy brought it out, and it’s actually the guitar you see on the cover of Damn The Torpedoes, that small solidbody Rickenbacker [a ’63 prototype 620/12]. When he opened it up my heart sank. This is the little one, and I wanted the big one! I said this is not really what I want.
“I gave it a play and offered the guy $120. And walked out with it. Years later, we made a couple of trips to the Rickenbacker factory, and they said, ‘Do you realise that this guitar was the next one off the assembly line after George’s?’ By some stroke of luck, I had a really vintage one that was right in the same ilk as his, even though it was small-body.
“And on tour, that was our 12-string for quite a while. It’s a great little guitar. But I don’t take it on the road now, because it’s so valuable. I’ve been offered quite a lot of money for it, beyond what I paid for it, which is kind of funny. Yes, a bit more than $120.”
Rickenbacker 60s ad, 360/12 model
“Now, A New Dimension In Sound! Twelve Strings. Take a close look at the brilliant new 12-string Rickenbacker. Fresh in concept, modern in design, this is the instrument professionals are finding so exciting! Its spacious, clean sound is totally different – a new triumph in engineering and structural craftsmanship. Hold this new guitar and strum a little – see how much smoother and faster you play. The Rickenbacker 12-string is now available coast to coast. $550.”
In the jingle jangle morning
“When The Byrds were getting together, I played a Gibson 12-string acoustic guitar that Bobby Darin had given me after he accidentally destroyed the one I was using to back him up in his stage show. The Byrds were heavily influenced by The Beatles, and I started using a magnetic pickup in my Gibson to approximate The Beatles’ sound, but it wasn’t quite the same one we were hearing on their records.
“One night, we all went down to the Pix Theatre in Hollywood to see A Hard Day’s Night. We carefully noted the brands and models of their instruments. John had a little black 325 Rickenbacker, Paul had a Hofner bass, Ringo played Ludwig drums, and George had a Gretsch six-string and a Rickenbacker that looked like a six-string – until he turned sideways. The camera revealed another six strings hidden in the back. I knew right then the secret of their wonderful guitar sound. It was a Rickenbacker 12-string!
“We went down to the local music shop and bought a Rickenbacker 360/12, along with a Gretsch six-string and a set of Ludwig drums. The new instruments gave us a sense of confidence that we hadn’t had up to that point. The Rickenbacker 12-string with the aid of electronic compression in the studio gave us the distinctive jingle-jangle sound that we would later be known for.”
Another Liverpudlian Rick 12
“Needles And Pins was the single that put The Searchers on the world stage and really made us a household name, and following that I think came Don’t Throw Your Love Away – and then Someday We’re Gonna Love Again, which didn’t do as well.
“Drummer Chris Curtis and I wondered what we were going to do. We were a little bit concerned, so we said we have to get a great song for the next one. And we found Jackie DeShannon’s When You Walk In The Room. But it was pretty light. I said to Chris, that riff there, it starts and it’s in between the first couple of lines. That’s really got to stand out, it’s got to be important. It’s not going to sound good on a six-string, no matter if we double-track it or whatever.
“So, we’re in the dressing room at Top Of The Pops, had the telly on, and all the songs from last week’s chart are playing. The Beatles come on, it’s A Hard Day’s Night, and there’s Harrison with this amazing guitar. I’d seen Rickenbackers before, but I said to Chris, listen to that – that’s the sound we want for When You Walk In The Room. The rest is history, really.
“When we got back to Liverpool, I went into Crane’s music store, said look, can you order me a Rickenbacker 12-string? Said I need it by whatever it was – we knew when the recording date was for When You Walk In The Room – and we got it. That became one of the most recognisable riffs on a 12-string, really, especially in the 60s.”
Check out the rest of our Oral History series here.
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