The Rickenbacker guitar company is perhaps most famous for mass producing the first electric guitars in the 1930s. Rickenbacker did not begin manufacturing electric bass guitars until the 1950s. Though they were early to the electric guitar market but late to the bass game, their basses would eventually become legendary.
Rickenbacker's Early Years
Adolph Rickenbacker was an engineer and machinist who migrated to America from Switzerland in the early 20th century. His work in Los Angeles as a craftsman for musical instruments would prove fateful for him and for the history of modern music.
- 1920s: The Dopyera Brothers and a musician named George Beauchamp form the National String Instrument Corporation in Los Angeles and begin making electric guitars. Rickenbacker meets them and begins making metal bodies for their instruments to boost their production.
- 1931: Rickenbacher and Beauchamp become partners and form Ro-Pat-In Corporation, which is changed to Electro String, and then finally to Rickenbacker to suggest a connection to Adolf's distant relative Eddie Rickenbacker, a famous American pilot ace from World War I who is well known to the public.
- 1930s: Rickenbacker makes electric guitars, such as the Frying Pan Model A-25 and the Model BD lap steel.
- Circa 1935-1936: Rickenbacker releases its metal bass, which uses a horseshoe pickup.
The Rickenbacker Bass Guitar Invades Pop Culture
As rock and roll heated up in the '50s, Fender beat Rickenbacker to the bass guitar punch with the early '50s Fender Precision bass that rocked the music world. However, Rickenbacker would have its revenge in the '60s with its own revolutionary model.
- 1957: Rickenbacker releases its first electric bass guitar, the 4000 series, the predecessor to the internationally famous 4001 model that comes a few years later.
- 1961: Rickenbacker releases its 4001 model of electric bass guitar, which is made famous when it becomes the bass of choice for Paul McCartney of The Beatles. Besides making the instrument a household name in popular culture, McCartney's use of it leads other artists to use Rickenbacker's instruments.
- 1960s: The 4001 model features the revolutionary "Ric-O-Sound," which is partly responsible for The Beatles signature bass sound. It allows each pickup to be plugged into a separate amplifier. This allows bassists like McCartney to create an innovative sound by separating the highs and lows of the bass and amplifying them in different speakers to give the bass guitar a clear, full-bodied presence.
- 1970s-1983: The 4001 sees some significant design changes in the early '70s, but then remains the same until it is discontinued in 1983 and replaced with the 4003 model number.
Rickenbacker has not changed its production methods for decades so Rickenbackers are always limited and hard to obtain. The company is not a mass-producing commercial operation, in other words.
The following Rickenbacker model profiles and links will provide helpful information as well as online resources where you can shop for both new and used Rickenbackers.
The 4003, modeled after the classic 4001 that took America by storm in the '60s, has a neck-through-body design, which means the neck and body are one solid piece of wood. This produces better sustain. Besides the trademark Ric-O-Sound multiple output feature, it also features separate controls for volume and tone, mono-output, and truss rods that allow adjustment at the head.
The next version of the 4003 added an improved dual truss rod system. Its maple body, dot inlays, and absence of any binding makes it distinct from the first 4003.
Rickenbacker 4004L Laredo
This bass guitar uses a low loss circuit and high output humbucker pickups to give it a bolder, louder sound than other Rickenbackers.
Buy it used in the $2,200 range, give or take, and purchase new for likely in the $2,500 to $3,000 range, though the actual price varies considerably because retailers require you to call or email to learn the pricing.
Rickenbacker 4004Cii Cheyenne
This homegrown bass guitar is made only from American farm-grown sustainable woods, such as maple and walnut. Its two humbucking pickups give it a warm sound with Rickenbacker's trademark punch and clarity.
It ranges from about $1800 used to $2800 new.
The Timelessness of Rickenbacker
It's not hard to see why the Rickenbacker enjoys such a passionate, loyal fan base. Not only does it have an innovative design and one-of-a-kind sound that no other bass can duplicate, it has single-handedly shaped modern American music. Holding a Rickenbacker is like holding a piece of history.