The name Rickenbacker was made famous during WWI by Eddie Rickenbacker, the Flying Ace who shot down 26 enemy planes, started his own car company and won races in some of his products, and then set up Eastern Airlines. However, a cousin of his, Adolph, was also making a big noise with products that still bear his name today. From his first involvement as manufacturer of National Steel guitars to his pioneering work on the earliest electric guitars, Adolph promoted high quality instruments that gave us the sounds that are fundimental to the music we love.
Adolph Rickenbacker was born in 1886 in Basel Switzerland. He was orphaned as a youngster and emigrated to the USA with relatives in 1891. The family settled in Wisconsin, later relocating to California, and Adolph set up an engineering shop in Los Angeles specialising in metal pressing. In 1927, George Beauchamp and John Dopyera were looking for production facilities for their metal bodied National Steel resonator guitars, and Adolph joined the pair to set up The National Stringed Instrument Corporation. Dopyera left the company the following year to develop his wooden bodied Dobro resonators, but Rickenbacker, Beauchamp and engineer Paul Barth continued their quest for louder guitars, seeking an electronic solution. They sold the National business back to the Dopyera brothers to concentrate on their ‘Frying Pan’ aluminium guitars, with their ‘horseshoe magnet’ pick-up. The company was originally called Ro-Pat-In, but it was soon changed to Electro-String with Adolph as President and main investor, and their products were marketed as Rickenbacker because of his cousin Eddie’s high profile.
During the 30s, the Frying Pan was joined by several Rickenbacker Hawaiian lap-steel guitars. Standard f-hole flat-top and arch-top Rickenbackers were produced, which had the ‘Electro adjustable pick-up’, which could also be bought to retro-fit any guitar. In 1935, a Bakelite Model B Rickenbacker solved many of the feedback problems associated with early electric guitars, but it was too heavy to play standing up! ‘Doc’ Kaufman, who was later to be a partner of Leo Fender, then invented a Vibrola Spanish guitar for Rickenbacker with a vibrato tailpiece, but that was heavy too and was usually played while supported on its own stand. Rickenbacker were also early manufacturers of amplifiers, and their designer Ralph Robertson had four models in production by 1941. Also that year, George Beauchamp retired to pursue his love of fishing, and almost immediately passed away from a heart attack, aged just 42.
When WWII ended, Adolph had a lot of other business interests to pursue, so in 1953 he sold Rickenbacker to WC Hall, the owner of Fender’s distributing agents. Sales of Hawaiian guitars were falling, so the Rickenbacker company concentrated on standard guitar production: with the help of Paul Barth they introduced the solid bodied Combo series and a solid electric bass. In 1958, they launched the semi-acoustic Capri series, made famous by John Lennon of The Beatles, with Paul McCartney also playing a Rickenbacker Fireglo bass. When George Harrison began playing a 360 12-string, the Rickenbacker name was so closely aligned with ‘The Fab Four’ that many thought that Rickenbacker was a British brand. The company went on to introduce many innovations into their designs, like detachable necks and ‘convertible’ guitars that could be changed from 6 to 12 string use.The current Rickenbacker range extends to over 40 electric, acoustic and bass models, and are the favoured instruments of many fine musicians.
Adolph Rickenbacker passed away in Orange County in 1976.