In 1931, engineer Adolph Rickenbacker was approached by inventor and guitar pioneer George Beauchamp with a novel concept: a guitar that could be amplified by electrical current. With pioneering concepts like magnetised steel bodies and wound pickups, the two decided that this bizarre new idea could revolutionise the music industry, and decided to form a company to manufacture these guitars. Nearly a century later, Rickenbacker guitars laid the groundwork for nearly the entire pop music landscape since their inception.
Besides manufacturing the first electric guitar, Rickenbacker has been on the cutting edge ever since they first opened their doors in 1931. Too often pigeonholed for their jangly sound, Rickenbacker guitars are far more versatile than they get credit for, appearing in the arsenals of eclectic artists with wildly varying genre leanings, including rock, pop, folk, metal, punk, and more.
It might surprise some that Rickenbacker is as old as it is, and despite existing for over thirty years prior, the Rickenbacker phenomenon was really born with one band: The Beatles. All three string players wielded legendary guitars that would become synonymous with their images: John Lennon’s short scale 325, George Harrison’s 360/12 that instantly became a signature sound for the group, and Paul McCartney’s 4001S bass that he favoured throughout the band’s second half. Through The Beatles, Rickenbackers became the hottest and coolest guitars in the world, and soon artists like Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, and John Fogerty were enthralled enough to get their own Rickenbackers.
Even as The Beatles influence was being subverted by the new wave of punk rockers in the ’70s, those musicians couldn’t resist reaching for the same instruments. Paul Weller, Glen Matlock, and Paul Gray all challenged the ideals of the ’60s while using the signature guitars and basses of that era. They were simply too good to leave behind.
Six and twelve-string Rickenbacker guitars get most of the fame, but the company’s basses have found favour with some of the greatest four string players of all time as well. Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee, Roger Glover, and Cliff Burton all favoured the rounded out sound of Rickenbacker basses, but it was Lemmy who squeezed every last bit of high gain out of his famous fondness for the brand. Whether it was aggression or foundation, any bassist could find their own unique tone and sound through a Rickenbacker.
It just goes to show how adaptable the Rickenbacker brand can be to any sonic stylings. Even today, guitar heroes like Kevin Parker and Carrie Brownstein keep the legendary status of the Rickenbacker alive. The day Rickenbackers stop being used will be the day that electric guitars themselves will stop being used. As the company closes in on 100 years of rock and roll, here’s a definitive playlist of some of the best uses Rickenbacker guitars and basses over the span of their existence. 90 years, 90 different artists, one singular brand.
Here are just a few of the highlights.
‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – The Beatles
The legendary status of Rickenbacker starts here. Honestly, it could end here too.
If the company decided to shut down the very second ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ hit the airwaves, it would still be an iconic brand. The opening chord to end all opening chords, George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 360/12 gave The Beatles their signature sound and enthralled an entire world who otherwise might have written off the Fab Four as simply screaming teenage girls and hype. Harrison’s solo is perhaps the one piece of guitar history that will forever be associated with Rickenbacker.
‘In The City’ – The Jam
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, every musician who bought a Rickenbacker did so with some level of reverence towards The Beatles. But even when punk bands were trying to demolish the remnants of Beatlemania, they couldn’t help but gravitate towards the instruments that The Beatles made famous.
Paul Weller and Bruce Foxton were perhaps the most visible Rickenbacker users of the punk era, swearing by the company’s guitars and basses as tools for sonic deconstruction. Their reliance on the brand helped Rickenbacker prove that their instruments were versatile enough to be used in any setting.
‘Ace of Spades’ – Motorhead
Sitting at the crossroads between punk and metal, although Lemmy always preferred to just call it “rock and roll”, Motorhead cranked up the gain and distortion to push the Rickenbacker bass to its ear-splitting height. A famous Beatle fanatic, Lemmy’s favouring of the 4000 series echoed Paul McCartney’s own use of the instrument, but Macca never got as dirty, aggressively nasty, or viciously cool as Lemmy could.
‘Ace of Spades’ is the perfect example of Lemmy’s unique ability to play the bass like a guitar without sacrificing any of the low end, a technique that would have been impossible without his trusty Rickenbacker.
‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ – Metallica
Cliff Burton was a singular prodigy who expanded the horizons of what metal bass lines could do. Willing to experiment with pedals and tones, Burton brings a distorted, wah-wah infused sound to the band’s pummeling take on death and destruction, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’.
At that point, the Rickenbacker was synonymous with jangle pop and progressive rock, but thanks to Burton’s open-minded approach to music, the 4001S was able to escape its own preconceptions and transcend to a whole new world of genres and styles.
‘Give It To Me Baby’ – Rick James
Despite their ability to play almost anything, Rickenbacker basses do have a signature sound: aggressive and trebly, the tone can be rounded off to produce a supremely funky result. Rick James, the Super Freak himself, was privy to this and favoured Rickenbackers throughout the height of his fame.
Almost all his records and videos show him sporting a 4001, and if you want to know exactly what the ideal tone for a Rickenbacker bass sounds like, listen to the intro of ‘Give It To Me Baby’. There is no better example than that elastic, groove-centric lead-in line.
‘What Difference Does It Make?’ – The Smiths
Rickenbackers weren’t the only guitars that Johnny Marr used: the famously jangly intro to ‘This Charming Man’ is actually a ’54 Fender Telecaster, and these days Marr gravitates mostly to Fender Jaguars. However, if there’s one guitar that will forever be associated with Marr, it will be the Rickenbacker 330.
Used all over The Smith’s discography, the 330 was at its best on ‘What Difference Does It Make?’, the virtuosic riff-rocker that fully established Marr as a guitar god.
‘Freak Scene’ – Dinosaur Jr.
For all the genres it was being adapted for, the Rickenbacker had to be flexible: rigid, durable, and sonically pleasing were essential qualities. But most importantly, it had to be loud. No band did loud better than Dinosaur Jr., and in order to cut through J. Mascis’ fuzz-filled Fender Jazzmaster onslaught, bassist Lou Barlow turned to the singular bite of the Rickenbacker 4003.
Like Lemmy and Cliff Burton before him, Barlow found the power and punch of the 4003 necessary to create his own musical space among crashing cymbals and effects-heavy six strings. His bass lines are what gives the band its solid foundation, drawing a straight line through the trio’s “world’s loudest country band” ethos.
‘Mysterious Ways’ – U2
The Edge will always be associated with the Gibson Explorer. When paired with an Echoplex delay and Vox AC30 amp, the sound he creates is unmistakable. But credit where credit is due: the man never stopped expanding his palate.
His use of a Rickenbacker 330 and an envelope filter to create the unique riff that runs through ‘Mysterious Ways’ is a prime example of how The Edge, and the band, modified their sound to changing times.
‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ – Tame Impala
In the modern day, the Rickenbacker is used by so many dichotomous artists that its signature jangle can be modified to fit any genre. If you didn’t know it, Tame Impala’s brand of psych rock wouldn’t necessarily fit the Rickenbacker mold, but Kevin Parker is never seen without his trusty 330.
It’s just the latest example of why Rickenbacker has survived for 90 years: they excel in high quality, highly alterable instruments that can fit in any sonic space.