Baby's In Black:

Refinishing The Most Famous Rickenbacker

by Peter McCormack

Part 2: Why Was The 325 Refinished?

The Rationale For Refinishing

The hypotheses have been considered thus far in attempted to uncover the reason why John Lennon would take a perfectly nice natural finish and have it covered with black paint.

The Worn Instrument Hypothesis attempts to find justification for refinishing the instrument based on a worn or "performance scarred" appearance. Lennon played many gigs in which fan frenzy was mounting. Did these tense moments of being pursued by excited fans or tight packed rehearsal rooms result in heavy duty guitar trauma?

The Tinkering Hypothesis explains the refinishing on Lennon's insatiable desire to make changes to his guitar, whether it be control knobs, vibrato assemblies or the colour of finish. Was it simply a matter of restless, purposeless tinkering?

The Professional Look Hypoothesis examines the likelihood that John Lennon or Brain Epstein perhaps, considered that success in the highly competitive music scene in Liverpool had its roots in a formal professional appearance that could be best achieved by "fading to black."

The Worn Instrument Hypothesis

It is particularly puzzling why the rationale for refinishing the 325 has not been documented in detail by any of the Beatles, technicians, promoters, musicologists or the media over the past four decades. The argument that Lennon's cherished Rickenbacker became badly scarred in the pandemonium associated with the relentless performances in 1960-1962 is one of several plausible explanations for the facelift. There are a couple of reasons, however, why this view may not meet the mark as the impetus that led to the "fade to black."

To begin, Lennon was rarely seen by anyone to be particular about the manner in which he kept his own appearance or that of his instruments. His own public comments concerning his beloved 325 focused primarily on the ease with which it could be played "the action is incredibly low." A rather close examination of photographs taken in the early 1960's reveals the strong tendency to string his guitar in a haphazard and careless manner with the strings at the headstock projecting well beyond the tuners. The result was a rather formidible weapon for those playing on stage close to him.

It would be difficult to hold John Lennon up to the musical community as an individual obsessed with guitar aesthetics. Moreover, an inspection of photographs as late as September 1962 reveal a finish that was not as seriously marred as folklore would have us believe. It is considered that refinishing, for the sake of a poor finish or to maintain a meticulous standard at least, would seem to miss the mark. The change in colour may have more to do with Lennon's flamboyant personality than cosmetics. Regardless, this single action on his behalf would have many a baby boomer buying a black Rickenbacker, Model 325 or otherwise, for decades to come.

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The Beatles and 325 on September 4, 1962
Not as battle scarred as legend would have it
A Dezo Hoffman Studio Photo

The Tinkering Hypothesis

A second reason offered as an explanation for the refinishing stems from the claim by some that Lennon had an insatiable desire to "tinker" with his guitars. So what is the evidence for the tinkering hypothesis? Personal communication with Pete Best, September 12, 2000, has confirmed that Lennon indeed displayed the tendency to figet or adjust his guitar on an ongoing basis, right from the beginning. In describing the events leading up to Lennon's purchase of his 1958 Model 325 in natural finish, Best indicated that Lennon was playing a Hofner Club 40 model at the time that the Beatles went to Germany in the fall of 1960. Apparently, Hamburg offered John the opportunity to purchase instruments that were not available in Liverpool. In referring to John Lennon, Best recalled "He tried out a short-arm Rickenbacker at a shop in Hamburg. He loved the sound and the ease with which he could move up and down the neck. He didn't like the pickup arrangement though or the "vibrator arm." So he changed the arm to a Bigsby which was popular at the time. He didn't like the resonance of the guitar so he tinkered with the pickups." Best said that he did not know why Lennon had his instrument painted black or who did the work as this was after the time that he was asked to leave the group.

Some authors addressing this refinishing issue have offered evidence that Lennon was, to some extent, neglectful of his 325. Presumably it was this neglect that set the stage for the need to refinish the instrument. John Crowley's article on Lennon's Guitars, for example, reveals comments made by Long Island technician, Ron DeMarino who mentioned the wiring problems associated with the 325 Capri. DeMarino has not been able to determine if Lennon was responsible for the bad wiring job, but he did comment on that the instrument was neglected and that it was strung somewhat haphazardly when he first saw it. Pete Best's observation that Lennon was unhappy with the pickup arrangement and his persistence in making adjustments to his guitar does, however, implicate Lennon.

A closer inspection of Lennon's 325 is possible from a photo of him performing at the Star Club in Hamburg in April 1962. The following photo is an important one for a couple of reasons. To begin, it shows that Lennon's instrument is in reasonably good condition with regard to the body with the presence of some finish marks. The finish is not marred to the entent that refinishing is needed. Moreover, this photo also permits a reasonably good look at the guitar's setup. Lennon remarked about the good action. Some observers have pointed to a possible misalignment of the strings on the fretboard. In this photo the sixth or low "E" string appears to be close to falling off the fretboard at the 12th fret. The photos that seemingly demonstrate an alignment difficulty are typically those of Lennon playing live, with the strings bent due to strumming. So refinishing for the sake of a compulsive tendency to tinker remains a possibility, particularly when Lennon's preoccupation with his instrument's setup and a desire to want his guitar to be optimum has been validated by Pete Best.

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Lennon and 325 at Star Club in April 1962
Serial Number "V81"

The Professional Look Hypothesis

A third explanation for the refinishing stems from the need to have a cleaner looking guitar. One that matched the black Gretsch of Harrison, the black highlights of the legendary Hofner Violin Bass of McCartney and the dark "Beatle suits." This need, however, was in all likelihood not John Lennon's, but rather, Brian Epstein's. Lest this view seem too unduly churlish, it will be remembered that manager Epstein was making over the Beatles' tough "Teddy Boy" image in earnest. Moving away from leather, he introduced the more formal and professional look including ties, dress shirts, mohair suits and uniquely tailored "Beatle jackets".

That Epstein was rigid and insistent that The Beatles dress formally for all their concerts was emphasized by Pete Best in his comments of September 12, 2000. Of particular interest, are comments made by George Harrison in September 1963 to Gabe McCarty at the time that George purchased his first Rickenbacker Model 425 in the United States. The instrument purchased by Harrison was in a "Fireglo", a classic Rickenbacker red finish. George insisted that the the proprietor, Red Fenton, arrange to have it refinished to black as a condition of sale. George informed Mr. McCarty that he wanted his instrument so to match the Beatles' black look including Lennon's guitar.

A black refinished guitar accomplished this move toward professionalism and at the same time minimized, to some extent, the strong presence of individualism and raw edge exuded by Lennon. Lennon railed against this new conservatisim with his caustic quips and tie aschew to the point where it would be difficult to argue that the "clean" look was his idea. The true measure of the importance of Brian's influence on The Beatles' classic "suit look" would become more pronounced following Epstein's death when the groups dress code changed markedly.

Not all those versed in Beatles' history are convinced that the impetus for refinishing Lennon's Rickenbacker stemmed from the wishes or direction of Brian Epstein. Mr. Chris Wharton, a contemporary of The Beatles during the early 1960s offers a different point of view. Based on personal contact with John Lennon, he considers that Lennon himself made the decision to have is guitar painted black. Wharton also maintains that Epstein had nothing to do with the refinishing. Wharton commented "Brain Epstein had no involvement or knowledge that the guitar was being painted. He took the band over during the earlier months of 1962 and was still learning the business."

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Refinished 325 and Brian Epstein's "Clean Look"

Submitted on November 17, 1999 - Revised April 19, 2003

1999-2003 Peter McCormack. All rights reserved.

Part 1: The IntroductionPart 3: Who Refinished The 325?

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