In-Depth Analysis of Rickenbacker Guitars – Are They Good?


Out of all guitar brands, there are a few that have a richer history and more important legacy than Rickenbacker. However, you came to this article to get some answers. Are Rickenbacker guitars good? Are they worth it?

Here are the main characteristics of Rickenbacker guitars.

In short, Rickenbacker guitars are the best when it comes to recreating a rock ‘n’ roll sound from 60s.

  • they have a shimmering, bright tone, great for clean and overdrive (not so great for high gain sound)
  • not so great for playing lead guitar, especially soloing in hard rock, blues or funk genre
  • they are very lightweight, which makes them practical for live shows.
  • tuning stability is perfect
  • typical Rickenbacker models are in 1500$-2000$ range or higher

Most people connect historic guitar models with brands like Gibson and Fender. But actually, the first solid-body electric guitar was invented by Rickenbacker. The brand was very popular in the last century and legendary musicians favored them for live shows and recording.

In fact, you probably heard the tone of a Rickenbacker guitar in many classic tunes already.

In this article, we will thoroughly and objectively analyze the main qualities of Rickenbacker guitars. At the beginning, let’s just briefly answer the common question. Are Rickenbacker Guitars good? Are they worth it?

History

The roots of Rickenbacker guitars date back to the 1920s. That was the era when lap steel and acoustic guitars suffered to be heard on a stage or cut through an orchestra. Musician George Beauchamp and inventor John Dopyera experimented until they built an electric lap steel model. The model worked so well that they decided to make a business out of it.

After launching the “national” musical instrument brand, they partnered up with engineer Adolph Rickenbacker and expanded from producing “frying pan”  Hawaiian guitar models and the electric Spanish guitar to what they are most known today, electric guitars and basses.

Rickenbacker finally broke through the guitar market in the 1960s. At that moment, John Lennon and other rock pioneers of the 60s started performing tunes and recording with Rickenbacker models. Being connected with the sound and look of The Beatles, the company evolved to producing electric bass guitar – a prog-rock and rock musicians favorite.

Perhaps the most familiar image of a Rickenbacker is John Lennon playing one on his live shows. Or George Harrison playing his iconic Rickenbacker 425 that just recently sold for $657,000!

George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 425 Guitar

So, why are Rickenbacker guitars not that popular anymore?

Nowadays the brand is not as nearly as popular as it was in the last century. There are many reasons for that. Some are related to the companies management while others are related to the changes in music and the adaptability of their guitars.

Some reasons for the loss of popularity of Rickenbackers are the following:

  • their look remained an icon of the 60s and 70s

Other brands like Fender and Gibson managed to go beyond the 60s and were the favorite instruments of other decades. Rickenbacker, however, was very tightly connected to the 60s look. Their design is still tightly connected to that era of music.

  • the company keeps a low supply strategy

What this means is that the brand on purpose does not mass produces many guitar models. This helps them keep the premium value to their instruments and keep the high prices going.

  • the tone of Rickenbackers is specific

The vintage design is not only for the looks!

Rickenbacker guitar tone is the classic bright tone you hear in The Beatles records. Generally, their pickups are not suited for high gain and are not the best guitars for blues or funk music.

  • their playability is limited 

As we will analyze further in the article, the design of the neck makes them not the best model for a lead guitar.

Limited to certain genres and music period by both their history and characteristics, Rickenbacker remain a premium brand that is still in high demand for the guitarists looking for their unique characteristic. 

Design

The appearance of every Rickenbacker guitar is unique and recognizable. It immediately recalls the image of 60s rock in any music lover’s mind. 

From the headstock to the body of the guitar, the general characteristics of Rickenbacker guitars appearance are the following.

Signature Headstock

The Rickenbacker headstock designs consist of very smooth curves. Typical Rickenbacker headstock contains a curved pennant with the underlined Rickenbacker logo.

Apart from inventing the first solid-body electric guitar, Rickenbacker also innovated many elements of the instruments in different eras. The brand was one of the first to produce 12 string electric guitars and applied the unique design where the 6 extra tuners are at the back of the headstock.

Not what you would generally see in any other 12 string guitar where the tuners are usually lined up 6 on each side.

Neck

Rickenbacker necks are usually neck-through constructed.

This means that the neck is a single piece of wood that goes from the headstock to the far end of the body of the guitar. If you turn a Rickenbacker around and have a close look, you will see where the piece of wood is attached to the body.

Neck-thru is regarded as the neck type that offers the best overall sustain and resonance. The bridge of the guitar, saddles, and pickups are all mounted on this piece of wood to help with the sustain.

Neck-thru designs do not require a neck joint and make it possible for the neck to be open and very easy to access on higher frets.

However, the neck of Rickenbacker is somehow a polarizing subject. Many guitar players don’t find them very playable and easy to solo with. It is due to the way they are built.

The necks on most Rickenbackers are very skinny. Most are 1 5/8” at the nut. Some other solid-body models a bit wider. The necks do not get wider or thicker up the neck at the same ratio as a Fender or Gibson.


This is the main reason why lead guitar players do not praise Rickenbackers much. That’s also why they are not used a lot by blues and jazz soloists where the classic Rick tone could fit it.

Fingerboards are usually made out of rosewood, dark brown looking with the signature Pearloid Triangles inlays.

Body

Most 6 strings and 12 strings models have generally a stylish double-cutaway design. They also have a distinctive and unique crescent moon style.

Most models have a white two-level pickguard where the upper part is thought out to help the hand rest when playing. The bottom part holds the electronics. More specifically, 2 single-coil pickups, 5 nobs – 2 volumes and 2 tones, one for each pickup and the 5th to balance the volume between the usually 2, sometimes 3 pickups.

An interesting feature is the 2 inputs on some models, mono and stereo. 

There is the option to choose between solid-body and hollow-body models, both vintage and new.

The Bridge

Rickenbacker guitars have their own set-bridge design.


It usually features four mounting post screws that securely lock into the body plate via two stainless cone point screws on each end of the plate. The bridge is very stable. Many models feature the iconic chrome “R” Terrible that holds the strings.

If you are used to palm muting over the bridge of Tele then you won’t have problems getting used to the Rick Bridge.

The bridge and tuners are all chrome finished in some models. Together they assure great tuning stability. Tuning stability is common for all Rickenbacker models. 

Colors and Finish

A unique feature of this brand is that they traditionally come with 3 colors and finishes for their guitar. All with the goal of keeping everything limited and premium.

Fireglo (red), Jetglo (black), and Mapleglo (natural Maple). 

John Lennon played the Jetglo guitar while Paul Mccartney played on both Fireglo and Mapleglo basses.

There are, of course, other options to choose from, especially in newer models.


Overall, the design of a Rickenbacker guitar is as classic and vintage as there can be in a guitar. Very efficient in the build but not a look that can fit in any stage. 

Materials and Build Quality

Materials and build quality are where Rickenbacker guitars shine.


Just considering that Rickenbacker is a US build guitar means that it has a great deal of quality inspection to go through before being available for sale. The premium price tag seals the quality craftsmanship, materials, and parts topic.

All US quality brands make sure you receive a nicely set up, perfectly finished model when you order one. Even the tiniest details are well thought off and problems like rough fretwork are not a thing for Rickenbackers.

The tonewoods used on Rickenbackers are usually maple for the body and neck, and Rosewood for the fingerboard. Sometimes other woods for the top layer of the body. 

The neck is a one-piece wood and the body is one other piece attached with the neck.  This avoids attaching multiple pieces of different woods together. Some builders say that attaching multiple pieces affects the general sustain of the guitar.

There are 2 types of tuners used, Schaler’s and Vintage tuners.

Schaller’s are precise and very smooth – overall better.

The Vintage tuners have the advantage of being lighter which is most noticeable on a twelve-string. As we stated before in the article, no player ever complained about a Rickenbacker going out of tune frequently. That means that the nut, bridge, and tuners are all high quality and well designed.

Rickenbacker guitars are very light. That’s a great quality to have if you are frequently playing long shows and need an easy-to-hold guitar.

Electronics

Rickenbacker guitars are known to have low-output pickups that produce the typical “Rick tone” which we will analyze in-depth in the next section.

What you should keep in mind about the pickups is that they are high-end and sound great. Still, they are built to pull off all gain levels. In fact, even some models like the Rickenbacker 620 that has 2 high gain single coils do not do well in high gains.

To put into perspective, if you think that a Tele does not do good on high gains, on a Rickenbacker you will have much more problems to get that distorted tone you are looking for.


So if you need a guitar with electronics built for high gains, Rickenabackers are not a great fit for you.

Regarding the tone knobs and pickup switch selector, everything feels very tight and high-end when you play with them. No detail is spared ensuring the quality of the electronics

What does the 5th knob do?

The tone and volume knobs are wider so that you have one for each pickup on 2 pickups models. 5th knob, the signature Rickenbacker one, will prove to be very useful when you get the hang of it.

Technically speaking, the knob is a potentiometer wired in as a variable resistor between the neck pickup and the neck pickup’s volume knob. In simple terms, it can set the maximum volume for the Neck Pickup so that when you switch from one pickup to the other there is no big difference in volume.

If you don’t find this useful, it’s very easy to tweak the wiring and make it a general volume knob for both pickups.

Tone

Rickenabacker tone is so unique and engraved in rock history that it has even its own name. Many guitarists call it the “Rickenbacker Tone.”

But what is the Rickenbacker Tone?

A bright and crispy tone is generally how the Rickenbacker guitars tone is described. The low output pickups of vintage models and the high gain single coil new ones both share the same characteristics in their tone. Newer models handling a bit more crunchy rock n roll sounds.

As we previously stated, high gain single-coil pickups are not the typical high gain pickups you find in a Gibson. First of all, they are single coil and are somehow closer to a Telecaster’s and a Gresch frequency spectrum.

If a Telecaster bright tone is associated with the word “twangy”, the best word for a Rickenbacker would be “shimmering.”

The best example of this tone would be John Lennon’s or the Beach Boys’ electric guitar playing in most of their records.

The bridge pickups are very bright and shimmering and unlike the Telecaster, it’s never piercing, as long as you don’t exaggerate on the highs on the amp.

The neck pickups are indeed warmer but not “woody” sounding as the typical Strat or Tele would be. They do not have the low mids and lows of a Les Paul.

A great quality of the “Rickenbacker Tone” is the clarity and distinct note separation between strings no matter how much gain you add. Also, the guitars don’t sound thin, even though their tone is bright.

If you are looking for classic bright clean arpeggios, strumming, or leads to record in the studio, a Rickenbacker will cut in mix exceptionally well!

The tone of a Rickenbacker is exceptional for the traditional genres it’s used and very distinct among all guitars.

However, if you are looking for a guitar that can fit all the frequency spectrum and get you through a setlist of classic rock, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll, then a Strat would be a better choice for you.

Playability


Rickenbackers are special in this aspect. They have a somehow different feel on the neck. Many players find difficult to solo on Rickenbacker, while some others love. The fact that the neck does not get thicker at the same rate as it does on other models contributes to that.

The lightweight body shape is very comfortable and the cutaway has one of the best designs. The guitar feels especially great when you hold it with a strap.

Apart from personal preferences, Rickenbacker guitars are more versatile than many people think in the way they play. However, the versatility is limited to their specific tonal characteristic.

It’s a perfect guitar to play clean and crunchy electric guitar tracks. However, if you are looking for a guitar to play lead for many different genres, probably Rickenbacker won’t be the best fit for your hands. Especially if you are used to Strat or Les Paul.

What are Rickenbacker guitars good for?

Rickenbacker is one of the best guitar to recreate sounds from the 60s and early 70s.

All classic tracks that use a bright or crunchy tone from that era will sound and play perfectly on any model. You can play rock n roll and sound great but if you step further into the rock they are not the best choice.

If you want to play blues and can adapt to the neck of the guitar, then it will sound great for sparkly rhythm and lead, not so much for muddy warm solos.

The lack of gain from the pickups and their specific playability makes them great for some genres but limited for others. 

The 12 string electric model, however, can fit it in almost any genre. That’s because 12 string guitar is usually always used with a clean tone

Well known models and price range

Rickenbacker has many models but the main theme of the look and sound stays the same across them all.

The 2 models we will take a closer look at are :

Rickenbacker 620 Electric Guitar

The 620 is the best example of a rock ‘n’ roll Rickenbacker solid-body model with two high-gain single-coil pickups. 

It features a very lightweight “Cresting Wave” style maple body, 24 frets, the typical 5 knobs, and two output jacks. The first is a standard mono output and The second is a stereo Rick-O-Sound output which outputs both pickups as a separate signal.

You can feed the neck pickup to a clean amp and the bridge to an overdriven one and get a live stereo track of the tones mixed.

All the other species are the ones we mentioned in the article. If you want Rickenbacker for crunch tones this is probably the best one.

You can hear how it sounds like on YouTube, here.

CHECK IT ON GUITAR CENTER

Rickenbacker 330 Semi-Acoustic

 

The 330 semi-acoustic is probably the most well-known guitar of the brand. The 330 series of guitars is actually what John Lennon played. That made the guitar famous in the 60s.

This hollow-body, lightweight maple guitar delivers a perfectly balanced clean tone. The dual single-coil pickups whose tone is supported by the guitar’s rich acoustic tone produce all the sparkly, shimmering 60s tones. The typical double cutaway allows easy access to all 24 frets. 

All other specs and detail are similar to the 620 we analyzed above.

Overall the 330 is one of the best guitars in the world to recreate classic vintage clean and strummed electric rhythm tones.

You can get the taste of the sound from this video.

The price for this model is high, in the 1500-2000 bucks range. There are also much more expensive models that are well above $3000.

The unique look and tone, along with the limited quantity of these guitars make them very expensive.

CHECK IT ON GUITAR CENTER

Famous Players

The list of legendary musicians that have played and still play Rickenbacker guitars is enormous.

We mentioned The Beatles in this article. Rickenbackers they played became the sound of the 60s and somehow part of the look of that era. However, it was not only the Beatles that made these guitars famous.

Tom Petty, Pete Townshend, and Joe Walsh are some of the most well-known bluesmen and rock gods to use a Rickenabacker on stage and in the studio. The list goes on with John Kay of Steppenwolf, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Peter Buck of R.E.M., Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Noel Gallagher of Oasis.

Rickenbacker basses, on the other hand, being a more versatile, were the chosen instruments of many prog rock, classic rock, and even metal musicians. Chris Squire, Geddy Lee, Lemmy Kilminster, and Cliff Burton among many others played Rickenbackers.

One thing that grabs your attention when going through the list of guitarists is that there are many English musicians on it. That’s probably due to The Beatles that turned the US brand into a British Rock Icon.

Recap

Rickenbacker is a premium brand that excels in making guitars that recreate the classic look, feel, and tone of the 60s and early 70s.

The quality of the parts, craftsmanship, and price tag are all premium in all Rickenbacker models which all share the classic design in both the solid-body and hollow body models. Rickenbacker Semi-acoustics and 12 strings electrics are very unique and rare to find in other brands.

However great they might be to achieve the vintage bright and shimmering “Rickenbacker tone,” they are not very versatile when it comes to high gain tones. 

Rickenbacker also has a special feel when played due to the special neck design that some players love while others find not the best for lead work.

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Cheers, and rock on!

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