A gorgeous new book celebrates Rickenbacker electric guitars and their pivotal influence on rock and pop music

Rock music has always been partly defined by its instruments. From Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster to Kraftwerk’s Mini Moog synthesiser, these instruments have become as iconic as the musicians who played them.

And few manufacturers have been as influential as Rickenbacker. Founded in 1931, its electric guitars defined the jangly sound of the mid-1960s, angular post-punk of a decade later and the psychedelic indie that blossomed during the 1980s. From The Beatles to The Byrds, The Jam to The Stone Roses, the sound of the Ricken-backer is the sound of melody unleashed.

One fan is guitarist and author Martin Kelly. As part of ’80s indie group East Village, ‘Ricks' were an integral part of the band’s sound. Now he’s written Rickenbacker Guitars: Out Of The Frying Pan, Into The Fireglow, a comprehensive (and loving) tribute to one of the most influential musical instruments of the 20th century.

Here, he talks about his passion for Rickenbacker and why 90 years after its founding, the company’s products are as relevant as ever.

Hi Martin. Why did you want to write about Rickenbacker?
I’d written a book about Fender, which sold incredibly well, so as a Rickenbacker fan, it seemed like the natural thing to do. I produced both books with my brother Paul, who’s a photographer and designer, and does all the layout. Our books are about presenting guitars as works of art.

Why was Fender important?
Leo Fender revolutionised the electric guitar and created the tools on which the rock’n’roll revolution was staged. He made the Fender Stratocaster before Elvis Presley had even strolled into a recording studio. Without him there’s no rock ’n’ roll. That’s how I got into Rickenbacker.

How did the company start?
Rickenbacker actually invented the electric guitar – and that started with George Beauchamp, a poor kid born on a farm in Texas. He was a guitarist, and wanted to make his guitar louder. In the 1920s and ’30s the banjo was dominant in bands. You also had horns, a drumkit and the double bass to compete against, so the guitarist couldn’t be heard. Beauchamp came up with the ‘resonator guitar’ – the one everyone knows from the cover of Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms – which has ‘speakers’ inside to boost its volume.

Where did Beauchamp go from there?
Inspired by the stylus on an electric record player, he worked out how to use electromagnetism to amplify the guitar’s sound. He used horseshoe-shaped magnets and a home-made induction coil that converted the vibration of the strings into a specific electric current. This was in 1931. He got together with Adolf Rickenbacher (the company later swapped the ‘h’ to a ‘k’). They started making electric guitars together – and the first was the Hawaiian or ‘lap-steel’.

“There are few things more satisfying than the shimmer of an open chord played on a Rickenbacker”

Rickenbacker’s look was the work of German designer Roger Rossmeisl

As rock came in, what happened?
A guy called Francis C. (‘FC’) Hall met Leo Fender. Hall had a company called RadioTel that distributed Fender guitars. In 1953, Adolf Rickenbacher sold the company to Hall – whose family still owns it – and by 1954 they were making solid-bodied guitars. Hall employed a German designer called Roger Rossmeisl, who styled the guitars and gave Ricks their distinctive look.

Why is that important?
All the important makers have their own unique aesthetic – Gibson, Gretsch, Fender – and Roger defined the Rickenbacker look. In 1958, he developed a new range of guitars called the Capri, and the very first one he built – a Rickenbacker 325 – ended up in Germany where it sat in a shop in Hamburg until 1960. Then one day, a guy called John Lennon walks in and buys it. The whole story of the company pivots on the sale of that one guitar.

Why’s that?
When the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, the whole guitar thing exploded. Guitar sales went up by 10 times overnight – every kid in America wanted an electric guitar and Lennon was playing a Rickenbacker!

Did this lead to any groups forming?
Oh yeah. For example, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby go to see A Hard Day’s Night, and when they come out, Crosby is swinging around a lamppost like Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain, shouting “Man, this is what I wanna do for the rest of my life!” And they form The Byrds – and influenced by George Harrison in the film — Roger McGuinn goes out and buys a Rickenbacker 12-string.

Describe the Rickenbacker sound…
Ricks have a real ‘chime’. During the Beatles first visit to the US, FC Hall managed to arrange a meeting to show them his latest products. The band turn up at the Savoy Hilton but George is ill in bed. Hall shows them a 12-string – and Lennon takes it back to George. That guitar has a unique ‘jangle’ sound: and it soon became the sound of the mid-1960s.

How did they become popular in Britain?
In 1963, two guys from a UK distributor called Rose Morris visited FC Hall in California and asked to buy 400 guitars from him. FC is pretty shocked as he’s yet to see The Beatles, but before long a host of British bands are playing Ricks; including The Who, The Hollies, The Searchers and The Animals. There’s a great picture of Pete Townsend sitting on his bed, and hanging on the wall behind him are about five smashed-up Ricks. I worked out the cost of those and he’s got two and half times the average annual wage hanging on his wall smashed to pieces!

Did he get them for free?
No, he bought them!

After the 1960s, what happened?
By the early 1970s, Paul McCartney had made the Rickenbacker bass his trademark and that sparked a real interest for that particular instrument. Soon every band had one – Lemmy from Motorhead being a prime example – and the sales from that kept the company going. Chris Squire from Yes played one and really took bass playing to another level – he was the ‘Hendrix of bass’ in a way. Then by the late-’70s Paul Weller started playing a Rickenbacker six string and kicked it all off again. They’re the Picasso of guitars.

Are Rickenbackers popular today?
Oh yes, lots of young bands use them. They don’t care that The Beatles had Ricks – they play them because The Smiths’ Johnny Marr did or because Peter Buck from REM does. Johnny claims that his 330 really informed the way that he plays and that it really shaped his style. Peter Buck has never strayed from a black Rickenbacker 360 he bought in 1981: it’s an integral part of his sound. For rock stuff like AC/DC or Led Zeppelin it’s got to be a Gibson, while Fenders are cleaner. But Ricks just have this magical chime.

You were in a band called East Village and played a Rickenbacker. What’s so special about them?
They may not be as user-friendly as guitars by other brands but nothing else does what a Rick can do. While Fender might make the most versatile guitars, Rickenbacker offer something unique, iconic, beautiful and incredibly well made. Susannah Hoffs from The Bangles gave me a great quote for the cover of the book: “There are few things more satisfying than the shimmer of an open chord played on a Rickenbacker through a Fender amplifier.” And she’s not wrong!

Rickenbacker Guitars: Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fireglow is out now, published by Phantom Books, phantombooks.com

The Who’s Pete Townsend in front of his bashed-up Ricks