In Santa Ana, California, there’s a family business which makes guitars and basses with a style and a sound quite unlike any other. Join Lars Mullen as he gets the complete guided tour from Rickenbacker’s CEO John Hall
Few guitar stories are more steeped in history than that of Rickenbacker. The tale harkens back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Adolph Rickenbacker was born in Switzerland in 1886, but we’ll take up the narrative in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, when vaudeville guitarist George Beauchamp recognised the need for a louder guitar to compete in the environment of a show band. Beauchamp was paramount in the design of the mechanical ampliphonic cone resonator principle for the National String Instrument Corporation, where Adolph Rickenbacker was a director. Rickenbacker was a highly skilled engineer, and his tool and die company could spin aluminium for National’s resonator cones and stamp out various metal guitar parts.
Although the resonator guitar succeeded in putting out more volume than the all-wood flat-top or archtop guitars of the day, Beauchamp wasn’t finished. For months he dabbled with electronics, and finally – using a washing machine motor to wind the coil – he came up with an effective magnetic pickup made with a pair of horseshoe magnets surrounding the strings. Beauchamp enlisted Rickenbacker to help with the project, and the pickup was installed inside a lap steel guitar shaped from a plank of hemlock taken from the factory fence around 1931.
To this day this iconic prototype is called the Frying Pan because of its long neck and small, circular body shape. Through the ’30s, the pickup was installed in Rickenbacker lap steels, first made of aluminium and then Bakelite, plus some regular guitars, the Electro Spanish models.
Adolph Rickenbacker sold his guitar-making company to Francis Hall, a Californian businessman in the early ’50s, introducing many new lines.
‘Rickenbacker guitars go back a long way,’ begins John Hall, son of Francis Hall and CEO and Chairman of Rickenbacker International Corporation. ‘The Frying Pan reflects the fact that at that time the main interest in guitars was Hawaiian style and not Spanish, and that’s why Adolph and George built it as a lap steel, although it has been played at times as a Spanish guitar. The original has travelled to many exhibitions around the globe, but I don’t think it will be going anywhere now… it’s a little fragile!’
Rickenbacker has been at its present location in one form or another on the corner of South Main Street and East Stevens Avenue in Santa Ana, California, since 1975. ‘This building was originally the headquarters for the amplifier factory,’ Hall explains, ‘but in 1990, after producing amps for 60 years, we made a decision to stop production and relocate the guitar plant here from about a mile and a half down the road in Kilson Drive. Prior to that, we were in downtown Los Angeles. When we first moved here it was all open bean fields – the nearest building was about a mile away, with a couple of highways merging in the distance. It’s a far cry from today. The world has changed around us but we’re still here, pretty much doing what we did decades ago.
‘My dad was already the half-owner of Fender with Leo when he purchased the Rickenbacker Company in 1953, and he could see how the world was moving towards Spanish guitars rather than Hawaiian. He brought over a German luthier called Roger Rossmeisl to do a make-over and introduce new designs. Rossmeisl was a graduate of the old classical instrument school in Mittenwald in Bavaria, very well-known since around the 1880s. These new designs included the Combo, launched in 1956, and the striking Capri models. Rossmeisl drew up guitars which we still make today, including the 330 and 360. He came up with the 600 body shape and, possibly more importantly, the bass shape and headstock. He had a unique outlook on what a guitar should look like, and he was definitely the father of our designs.’
In the 1960s, the Beatles’ use of Rickenbacker guitars really put the company on the map worldwide. John Lennon had a 325, a natural-finish one which he later had repainted in black; Paul McCartney had an early 4001S bass, and George Harrison received the second-ever electric 12-string, the double-bound 360/12, creating unique sounds on multi-million sellers like Eight Days A Week and A Hard Day’s Night.
Rickenbacker continues to survive fashion changes, maintaining its longevity not only by recreating classic models associated with the past but also by adding new designs and upgrading the hardware. Though a tradition-based company guitar company, they do find space for the latest technology.
‘We have a lot of machines here in the factory,’ Hall allows. ‘Sure, handmade is great, we love handmade… but these machines provide consistency and give us the ability to produce high-quality guitars faster.
‘Everything we produce today is shipped tomorrow, and this is a situation we have been in for 16 years. Our stock room is huge, but it’s always looking empty. We simply can’t make enough instruments! Work starts here at 6am, unloading daily deliveries of hard rock maple: this is wood that has been ordered in log form up to a year ago, and it’s organised to arrive on a precise date, as our work is scheduled week-by-week to about nine months in advance.
One week it might be six-string or 12-string guitars, or solidbodies, or semi-acoustics, or basses. It’s a huge operation, and the relevant wood and hardware all arrives right on time specifically for the particular model we are building that week, and no earlier. That’s essential for consistency and efficiency from the start to the finish, from setting up the machines right through to the spraying and testing.
‘Our lumber arrives already pre-cut for length and width, and most importantly it’s kiln-dried to 6.5 per cent humidity. There’s a big moisture shift in the air around here, especially during the season of the Santa Ana winds in the summer, when it can be 70 per cent at six o’clock in the morning and down to 10 per cent by noon! We have humidification units the size of Tokyo apartments up in the ceilings that add a lot of water to the atmosphere, and we have to work fast to get this wood into a guitar as soon as possible.
‘The hard rock maple we use is about 10 years old, and it’s grown specifically to be cut on plantations in Michigan, USA. We don’t use any endangered South or Central American tropical hardwoods, for a lot of reasons. We started this policy about 45 years ago, not because it was better environmentally but because at the time it was – and still is – a better and more consistent source of supply.
‘We also use Eastern hard rock maple from Canada; it’s an equivalent species of tree, grown in the same way, but because of the different weather and soil it has a lot more flame and a more interesting-looking grain. We also use Indiana walnut, while the rosewood used for our fingerboards is farmed in the Caribbean and Belize
‘For years we’ve researched the possibilities of what can be done with the waste wood and even the sawdust, but sadly there’s absolutely no use for it when it comes to recycling. Nobody wants it as mulch, and burning is discouraged here in Southern California for air pollution reasons. Fireplaces are regulated, and they don’t even make fire logs.
If we were in a snowy area we would have a boiler and use discarded wood for heating, but here in Southern California, if you can’t turn it into air conditioning, I’m afraid it’s useless! Some employees have taken maple off-cuts home for fires during the winter, but you have to be careful as maple burns incredibly hot. I tried it, and the intense heat actually melted my stove’s end-irons.’
Building a Rickenbacker guitar is a process organised with great precision, especially when it comes to the semi-acoustic models. ‘We start with two matching body blanks glued together,’ Hall reveals, ‘and then the body shape is hollowed out from the inside. Vacuum air pressure is used to suck down the wood to hold it in place before the cutters go to work.
We use a computer to make a 3D model of the guitar, and that way we can decide where we want the cutters to move around. The details are recorded and stored so that we can achieve the same precision cuts time after time. This machine runs to within one thousandth of a millimetre, which is a metalworking level of tolerance. I personally programmed most of these machines back in 1995, but since then we’ve had to gain extra expertise because of the level of complexity.
‘Depending on the model, you’ll see there are different ribs and supporting structures that are all cut from solid wood. After gluing on two pieces for the back and using the locating pins in the blanks, the whole body is now put back on the cutting machine, where the guitar starts to take shape.
‘We employ multiple laminations for the necks – far more than a lot of other guitar makers. For instance, we’ll often put in a walnut strip down the middle. Eleven-piece necks are typical; you don’t see a lot of the laminations as they’re under the fingerboard, and aligned cross-grained so the grains work against themselves, eradicating movement while offering tremendous strength and stability. Slots and pins are used to accurately align the fingerboard to the neck to stop it migrating when the glue is applied.
‘For instruments that have through-neck construction, both sides of the body are glued to either side of the neck strip which runs all the way through the instrument; this puts all the string tension on one piece of wood. For models with glued-in necks, we have to provide a little overflow reservoir in the end of the neck where it meets the body, so the glue can puddle up. If we didn’t do this, we would never be able to insert the neck into the body because of the immense hydraulic pressure.
‘Once the fingerboards have been trimmed and crowned to the correct radius by the cutters then the inlays are fitted, and when the glues have hardened it’s ready for the fret slot saw. Our fretwire is made in France from nickel/steel alloys with a small percentage of gold, which stops discolouration but doesn’t affect the hardness of the wire. If you look at the guitars hanging on shop walls, everyone else’s frets may be starting to change to green, but ours will still be nice and shiny.’
Though the CNC machines whirr away, there’s still a lot of highly-skilled hands-on work to be seen at Rickenbacker, especially involving the body binding. ‘Several areas of the factory use automation,but we revert to a lot of hand labour on specific flagship details, many of which goes back to Roger Rossmeisl,’ Hall points out. ‘The Mittenwald school always had these characteristic details in their instruments, like cat’s eye or crescent-shaped soundholes, and black and white chequered binding. Roger used a lot of these touches himself, and many have become a significant part of today’s Rickenbacker designs.
‘Fitting standard bindings is pretty straightforward, but some models – like the Tom Petty and the 660 – have an additional chequered strip. These fit into a stair-step slot in the wood and are then clamped and glued, so in reality we end up binding the guitar twice. This process does require quite a high level of skill, but it looks very effective and it’s a longstanding Rickenbacker trademark. The black and white chequered material is produced in Italy; it’s built up with laminations into a block, and then cut into strips. A cubic metre of the material will typically cost us $200,000.’
While technology has helped, not all modern developments have been proven to save time against traditional tried-an -tested methods. ‘We still use yellow aliphatic woodworking glue, which takes about six to eight hours to fully set,’ Hall explains. ‘We did experiment with a modern system where the glued sections of the instrument are bagged and all the air sucked out by vacuum so the bag is compressed tight against the wood, like a clamp. This took all the moisture out of the glue so the parts would be dry in 15 minutes, but the amount of work involved in bagging all the parts didn’t offset the time saved.
‘The next machine I’m about to show you has totally opened up production for us. It’s a light-sensitive photo-initiator machine –technology at its best! A lot of sanding and detailing is done by hand, especially in the spraying, shading and sanding process. It’s all quite conventional – except we use a solvent-free paint. Our paint will never harden if left on the wood in a natural environment. In the past it would take about six weeks to build a guitar, two of which would be dedicated to just drying the instrument – but now, with the paint exposed to the brilliant UV lights of this machine, we can cure a guitar from wet to fully cured – and I mean totally dry – in just six minutes. It’s the same technique that dentists use for bonding teeth.
‘The beauty of this system is that there are no solvents in the air. Before we had this machine we ran right on the limit in terms of omissions into the atmosphere permitted here in Santa Ana, which is one of the most restricted areas of the US. It would be a significant problem and limit our production if we were still using solvent-based materials.
‘There is a need of course for clean air, so we have a huge unit on the roof that brings in slightly warm filtered air to the spray room, where banks of 5600/6000 Kelvin lights create a natural colour rendition for the spray guys. The colours include black and ruby for our Fireglo and Jetglo finishes, along with clear ultraviolet and various sealers.
‘The edges of the guitars are taped up during spraying, but we intentionally allow over-spraying onto the bindings, and this is then carefully and meticulously scraped off by hand with a very sharp blade for a perfect razor-edge join, and sealed with a clear coat.
‘Then it’s back to the sanding area where the spray work is taken back with extremely fine sandpaper until we reach a very smooth but dull, milky appearance. After this, the guitars are ready for buffing to an extremely high gloss.
This is a specialist job in itself, and the operator will take well over an hour on one instrument, buffing down through many stages of wax which is laden with different grades of abrasives that get finer each time until it’s actually pure wax. Each stage will erase any fine hairline scratches that may have occurred. These guys are specialists at their job… there are generations of workers here. I guess they have it in their blood. Some have been here buffing for 25 years, grandfather, father and son.’
As much as possible, Rickenbacker endeavours to use hardware made in the USA. ‘I feel strongly about controlling this whole part of the process,’ Hall emphasises. ‘A lot of guitar brands just seem to bolt on Asian-manufactured hardware, but we strive to use as many parts built in the US as possible. Our suppliers provide us with the raw metal parts and we do the secondary operations – threading, tapping and chrome-plating. If you go down the local store again, the same guitars hanging on the wall with the fretwire beginning to tarnish are likely to have chrome parts starting to acquire varying shades of blue, green and yellow… but not us!
‘There are a lot of different materials on a Rickenbacker guitar – brass, plastic and steel – but our chrome is always the same colour to match the Schaller machineheads that we buy from Germany. We do this by varying the nickel-chrome percentages. We know what is going to look right, so all the chrome parts will always be the same colour. That’s with the exception of the vintage reissue models, mind, as for authenticity in those cases we replicate the original-style plated finishes.
‘As we invented the electric guitar pickup some 82 years ago, it’s important that we continue to make our pickups here in the factory instead of having them contracted out to China or Mexico. Our computer winders measure the exact amount of windings throughout our whole range of different pickups, from the low-output vintage models with the traditional bright Rickenbacker sound to the more powerful high-gain and very high-output humbuckers, all of which are wound with 44 gauge copper wire.
‘All out testing is performed in our music rooms by highly-skilled guitar technicians who set up the guitars in the final stages of completion. Our set-up includes neck adjustment, string height, nut and bridge slots, intonations, sound and playability, and checking for any possible flaws when it comes the construction. Nothing gets past these guys, they’re dedicated to their work – and they won’t put the Rickenbacker name plate on the headstock until they are totally happy with the performance, the sound and the playability. By the end, you’ve got an instrument built, finished and set up to a standard that the testers themselves would be completely happy to own and take home.’
The final stop on our factory tour takes us away from the dust and the noise of machines. For Rickenbacker lovers, this last room is almost like a place of pilgrimage; rows upon rows of some of the most historic models, including many famous classics, lesser-known designs and one-off rarities.
‘I’m really not a guitar collector, as such… this is really our reference library,’ Hall explains. ‘You can see the whole evolution of Rickenbacker, and it demonstrates how one model has evolved into the next one… a bit like a Volkswagen Beetle. All of these instruments – plus about a 150 more which are in storage – are things I’ve accumulated over the years. The very oldest examples we have go back to 1937, and they reflect the fact that Rickenbacker’s initial plan was to just supply pickups and to let guitar brands – like Kay, for example – put them into their own guitars. That changed, though, and soon the company decided to buy guitars – probably at just a few dollars a time – and fit their own Rickenbacker pickups. They also went about electrifying virtually anything they could get their hands on, including violins and pianos
‘There’s some pretty interesting things here. We’re got the early lap steels, the ones with the cast aluminium bodies which were designed as production versions of the original wooden Frying Pan. We’ve also got guitars with humbucking pickups from as early as ’53, predating the Seth Lover/Gibson patent. They were developed by Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp, and came with split-coil facilities.
‘The Bakelite guitars appeared as a result of Adolph Rickenbacker’s previous work with Hotpoint Electric, designing plastic handles for domestic irons. He came up with the idea of having a split mould which was filled with phenolic plastic. There’s also a rare Rickenbacker Astro guitar kit from the ’60s, made out of masonite, or hardboard.
It’s actually an in-depth version of the first guitar I built when I was 13. There’s a lot of models that didn’t get produced. We have a 325 which is just one serial number away from John Lennon’s guitar; judging by all the holes in the body it was just used as a prototype, and presumably it never left the factory.’
Finally, on the way out, John Hall asks if we would like to see the instrument in the glass case on the wall. It’s the original Frying Pan guitar, 82 years young, with its George Beauchamp-designed horseshoe-magnet pickup. With an estimated value of $2,000,000, this simple lap steel is regarded as the father of the world’s first successful electric guitars. Wood and strings, wire and magnets… perhaps not so much has changed since Rickenbacker first laid the foundations for the electric guitar in the 1930s.