The Electronic History
of Rickenbacker Guitars
by Glen Lambert
Many would say that the golden age of Rickenbacker guitars began in the 1960's with the advent of the Corporation's innovative and exceptionally well designed 12 string guitars. This may well be the case, however, these 1960's guitars were the result of much innovation on the part of F. C. Hall and his design team over the previous decade. The Capri series electric guitars were introduced in 1958 with two major body styles that continue to be in use today. The 325 model (a three-pickup small semi-hollowbody, short scale with vibrato) is still available as a vintage re-issue. although without the once popular f-shaped sound hole. The 330 model (a two pickup large hollowbody, full scale, with scimitar shaped sound hole) is also still available as a standard production instrument. There are variations of each model with different pickup and tremelo options, however, the present 325 and the 330 are the original Capri formats produced.
The First ‘Modern’ Electric Rickenbackers
The first 'modern' style electric guitars produced by Rickenbacker were the Combo models of the 1950's. In both construction and electronics, they were the ancestors of Rickenbacker electric guitars of today. The Combo 800 model was first manufactured in 1954. This solidbody guitar was a full two inches thick with a section of the rear routed out to hold the controls and pickup. A metal cover was fitted to the rear to seal the opening. Later models were routed more extensively, resulting in a lighter instrument with a larger metal cover-plate. The Combo 800 was equipped with the 'Rickenbacker Multiple Unit' - a dual coil horseshoe-pickup, one winding configured to accentuate treble and the other to accentuate bass. The Combo 600 had a single coil horseshoe-pickup only. Compared to modern Rickenbackers of today, the controls of these earlier models were quite different. Up until the end of 1957, the controls on Rickenbacker guitars were a combined rotary and switched tone arrangement. On single pickup models there was a rotary tone and rotary volume control as well as a switch for changing the filter capacitor routing. On two-pickup (and dual-coil horseshoe) guitars there was a rotary volume and rotary tone control as well as two switches for capacitor routing. There were nine possible tone settings on these guitars. There were no jackplates as we know them today. Early Combo's had recessed jacks. Incidentally, these models were the first to feature the truss-rod cover as we know it today. The linked script-style logo designed by Mrs. Hall is reminiscent of classic motor vehicle nameplates.
Routing for 1954 Combo 800
A 1954 Combo 800 with extensive routing. The metal cover plate is removed to expose the wiring loom. This is a version with a dual coil horseshoe-pickup only. There are two tone preset switches and individual tone and volume pots.
The Combo 400 and 450 guitars appeared in 1956. They are often referred to as tulip shaped guitars. They were the first neck-through-body Rics. These
are of interest as they were the first Rickenbacker not to use the horseshoe
pickup (which had been in use on Ric Steel and Spanish electric guitars
since 1932). They now introduced an intermediate type of single coil pickup
that predates the toaster type. Combo 400 had one pickup, the Combo 450 had
two. Later in 1956 a landmark in modern guitars was reached. The first
production appearance of Rickenbacker's most famous pickup - the 'Toaster
top', single coil, and it was on these tulip-shaped combos. The
intermediate type still appeared on some instruments until the following
Rickenbacker Guitar Pickups
The evolution of Rickenbacker Pickups from left to right: Famous "horseshoe", intermediate single-coil, classic "Toaster" and modern high-gain.
Combo guitars from 1957 also began to be fitted with a jackplate similar to the modern type. These original plates were a longer type. One end of the plate provided an anchoring point for the strap screw. According to Rickenbacker enthusiast Larry Wassgren, the very first 1958 325 Capri’s also had these longer jackplates. This apparently came about because the smaller type were not available. Once these familiar smaller plates were released, slightly later in 1958, they were used in all cases except for stereo guitars. That’s a whole different topic in itself. The serial number was also displayed on these jackplates from 1957 onward.
On the left, the early Combo-style jackplate with integral strap screw. On the right, the smaller jackplate that has been the standard since early 1958.
The ‘Capri’ Series- here to stay
Through 1957, the Rickenbacker design team had been developing the new flagships of the line. In 1958, the Capri’s were released. The first instruments to be released were the short scale 325’s in April, followed closely by the full scale Capris. For more information on the 325 series, the interested reader is directed to The 325 Connection webpages. The 1958 Capri controls were simplified to a more conventional three-position pickup selector switch feeding one tone control and one volume control. This configuration allowed switching from a lead to rhythm setting with minimal change in volume. Mr. F. C. Hall was ever one for innovation. So it was then, that in late 1958 the four-control Rickenbacker was born. Perhaps the first four-control instruments were a group of 325's recalled to production for retro-fitting of the two additional pots. The new controls afforded a new range of tonal possibilities with the ability to preset tone and volume levels for each pickup (in the case of a 2 pickup guitar), and the familiar three-position pickup selector now feeding to two separate circuits. A 4n7 high-pass capacitor was used in the bridge pickup signal path to further shape the classic Rickenbacker tone. In later periods, when higher output levels became a priority, this high-pass capacitor was dropped from production. The fundamental circuit, however, has proven to be a winning configuration and is still the heart of the RIC control configuration to this day.
Guitar Control Switches
The development of Rickenbacker controls. 1954-58 Combo 2-switch, 1958 2-control Capri format, late ‘58 to ‘60 4-control, 1961 onward 5-control.
The 5th Control
Innovations continued at Rickenbacker in the early 1960's on the new hollow-body guitars. The Capri name (taken from Mr. Hall's cat) never really caught on and the series soon became known as the ‘300’ series. In 1961, the 300 Series saw the addition of F. C. Hall's custom 5th knob control, the 'balance' or 'mixer'. Intended to be used in a variety of ways, it's main function relates to fine tuning the neck pickup level. This control can be preset to allow for the increased output of the neck pickup as compared to the bridge. This also has proven to have long lasting value and is found on current production models. A separate article discussing the detailed operation of this control can be found in another article on this site. By the early 1960’s the controls of Rickenbacker guitars had basically reached the configuration still in use today in the standard mono versions.
Wiring for Controls
Early Rickenbacker controls exposed. Left 1959 4-control unit, Right 1964 5-control unit (note the small green high pass 4n7 polyester capacitor ).
One other noteable feature of Rickenbacker’s volume control setup is, unlike many popular electric guitars, they are not wired as a voltage divider with respect to the jack connection. This enables either volume control to be adjusted to minimum without losing output from the other. A nice user-friendly feature.
The circuit of standard mono Rickenbacker guitars may not have changed much since the early 1960’s but there are a few points to note about component values. Toaster pickup impedance is an issue that has been discussed in other articles on this site and will not be repeated here. The high-pass 4n7 (0.0047 uF) polyester capacitor has been mentioned already. It appears that Rickenbacker stopped fitting this in production by the early 1970’s. When installed, it was connected between the treble pickup side of the selector switch and the wiper of the treble volume control. Many persons have retro-fitted a 4n7 capacitor in this position in their Re-issue guitar in pursuit of the "vintage jangle." Recently it has seen a comeback in some of the Limited Edition guitars.
Tone capacitors have remained a standard 0.047uF. In the picture on the above right they are visible as a large blue polyester capacitor. Volume potentiometers have also remained a standard 250K log type. Tone and mixer controls have, however, experienced a change in more recent years. These were originally 500K log type. They have now been changed to the same value as volume pots (250K log). Some of the re-issue guitars have the original value in these positions, others do not. The tonal difference is probably not dramatic, but those who are keen may like to try changing these on their re-issue guitars if they are not correct. Correcting the tone pots will give you approximately Ľ extra turn in the treble direction, and correcting the mixer pot will make the sensitivity more like the 1960’s guitars. It is also recommended that you avoid changing components unless you are competent in this area. You may need to have the values checked by a qualified person. It is difficult to tell the value of potentiometers by the codes. A measurement across the outer terminals of the mixer pot is often the most convenient place to measure.
It is strongly recommended that you avoid playing with the pots of any vintage Rickenbacker. The potentiometer date codes are one of the ways that vintage guitars are verified. It would be a good idea to retain the original pots of any modern Rickenbacker you modify. In years to come you may want to make it original.
Whilst Rickenbacker electronics aren’t ‘Rocket Science’ they did provide a crucial part of the Rickenbacker sound. Things would certainly have been a little different if not for the chugging rhythm of John Lennon’s 325, the electronic organ like sounds of George Harrison’s 360/12 and the haunting sound of Roger McGuinn’s 370/12. Yes, Rickenbacker had the right sound and the right look at the right time. Their long history of innovative sound techniques in concert with most classic designs and beautiful finishes, has ensured that Rickenbacker guitars will be favoured by collectors and players of all musical styles for many years to come.
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Article Submitted on April 24, 2000
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