Why I Will (Probably) Never Buy Another Rickenbacker
by Joseph Avery-North
Jangle and chime. The sound of the 60s. Jangle Pop in the 80s. An iconic look, a unique sound and… a bit of a pain in the ass.
When I was a little kid I fell in love with music. I was raised mostly by my grandparents and developed an eclectic taste in music, going through their records and listening to Glenn Miller, Buddy Holly and The Beatles (among countless others) again and again and wanted nothing more than to be a musician. And The Beatles imprinted on me the most.
I listened to their records, the original Canadian versions (which were possibly more butchered than the US Capitol versions), watched A Hard Day’s Night and Help! and every documentary I could find and read every book I could get my hands on and had three dreams as far as gear – To have a Vox AC30, a Gretsch and a Rickenbacker. And over the years, I achieved all three. But owning a Rickenbacker became a disappointment that bordered on nightmare.
In 1995 I bought my first Ric, a 330/12 in Mapleglo. I will always remember that day so clearly. The music store called me to say my guitar had arrived, I excitedly called the woman I loved, who met me on her lunch break, and we went to the store together. I was like a little kid again and it was like Christmas morning. I was so excited she couldn’t help laughing. I was a college student at the time, I’d scrimped and saved, eaten like a bird to afford it, and the thought of attending my afternoon classes didn’t even cross my mind. She went back to work and I went home and played. And played and played.
Remember, this was 1995. The internet was primitive by today’s standards and I didn’t get my first computer until 1999. So Rickenbacker’s well deserved reputation for hit and miss QC and horrible customer service was unknown to me. I learned first hand. The hard, dream shattering, way.
As the months went by I had issues with tuning, intonation and buzzing so I took my guitar to a luthier (one of Ontario’s best). He showed me the nasty knot in the neck by the 12th fret that had lead to the neck warping. That wood never should have been used. That guitar never should have left the factory.
Since my guitar was under warranty and I’d done my due diligence and sent in the warranty card, via registered mail to ensure its delivery, I naturally reached out to Rickenbacker. They claimed there was no warranty card on file. Here I was, a college kid, calling long distance to California from Canada, with a highly expensive lemon of a dream guitar, and Rickenbacker was just brushing me off.
So I involved the dealer. They reached out on my behalf and Rickenbacker brushed them off too. So the dealer dug in deeper. Rickenbacker then said they did have a warranty card on file after all but it was in someone else’s name. Now the facts were very simple: I went to the dealer and ordered the guitar. The dealer ordered it from Rickenbacker. It was shipped from Rickenbacker to the dealer and I went in and picked up my guitar. From the factory to the dealer to me. The dealer even sent them proof – copies of the order info, the bill of lading, my purchase receipt, even a copy of my receipt for the registered mail when I sent in the warranty card.
And even with all that, with what would be overwhelming evidence in a court of law, Rickenbacker refused to acknowledge me as the owner and honour the warranty. So much for my dream guitar.
(Note – Shortly after my incident that dealer stopped dealing with Rickenbacker because, well, they’re a pain to deal with and mine wasn’t the only problem they encountered.)
Years later, in 2003, I was willing to give them another chance. What I wanted was the George Harrison reissue 360/12C63 (I don’t have heroes but if I did, as a person and a guitarist, it’d be George) but there was a wait. A long wait. With Rickenbackers there almost always is unless you luck out and a store has one in stock. Fortunately the store I went to this time was something of a British Invasion store. Usually, you walk into a music store and they have a wall or two of Fenders, a wall or two of Gibsons and Epiphones and then a guitar or two of this and that brand, a “mixed tape” if you will, on the remaining wall. Well, this store was the exact opposite. It was almost all Gretsch, Hofner and Rickenbacker. I might have drooled a little. So, not wanting to wait two years for the Harrison model, I chose another 330/12, this time in Fireglo.
Being once bitten and twice shy from my first Ric experience I looked over this one very, very carefully. It was flawless. And a thing of pure beauty. So I bought it and fell in love all over again.
And shortly after discovered what my youthful exuberance had blinded me to with my first Ric… those damned narrow necks – 1.63″ (41.4mm) wide at the nut. That’s narrower than your typical six-string. My Epiphones measure 1.68″ (42.67mm) and my Gretsches measure 1.685″ (42.8mm) and Rickenbacker is crowding twelve strings into less space than any other manufacturer uses for six. It was not fun to play.
I’m a fairly big guy at 6’2″ (though I’ve shrunk an inch or so as I’ve aged) and typically weigh around 195-200 lbs. And I have big hands. Playing chords was not comfortable. Take a typical open A-chord at the second fret for example. Crowding in three fingers and getting all the strings/notes to ring cleanly just wouldn’t happen. I tried contorting my fingers in bizarre ways (I played a lot of jazz chords so I was used to it) but the simple fact is the standard Ric neck is simply too narrow for twelve strings. I tried to love it, I tried to adapt but it just wasn’t worth it so I sold it.
Tom Petty and Pete Townshend had the same issue. They both approached Rickenbacker and specifically stated they wanted wider necks. So Rickenbacker came out with the 660 and 1993Plus models respectively which both measure 1 3/4″ (44.45mm). For years players had been asking for a wider neck on the 12-string models and were ignored but you don’t ignore Tom Petty and Pete Townshend.
Rickenbacker is not a corporate behemoth. They remain as they always were – a family owned business in Santa Ana, California. Every single Rickenbacker is made in their factory in the USA. And there’s something to be respected about that. But that’s also part of the problem because being family owned, it’s their way or the highway and, as so many have discovered over the years, their way is all to often stuck in past and covered with what I consider an unjustified amount of arrogance and hubris.
The problem starts with the owner/president, John Hall, and trickles down to the employees. He has a reputation for being rude and condescending to customers/non-famous players on the phone and on public forums. You see, Rickenbacker does not consider the average player/guitar buyer to be their customer. They consider the dealer to be their customer and don’t give a damn about anyone that isn’t famous. I experienced this myself with my first Ric and I’ve read many, many exchanges between him and customers over the years. Once something’s online, it tends to stay online.
He’s resistant to change (their website speaks to that in spades) and has stated that, since they sell every guitar they make and that they’re back ordered 18-24 months, he’s clearly in the right and there’s no reason for him to modernise the guitars. This is despite a plethora of posts online about the poor, outdated design issues. Seriously, one of the worst bridges you will ever find on a guitar or bass is a Rickenbacker bridge. And if you bought the 660/12 or 1993Plus model for the wider neck, guess what? The factory still puts on the standard bridge, designed for the narrow neck models, which means it’s utterly pointless unless you buy an aftermarket bridge and install it (which may or may not void the warranty assuming you can even get them to acknowledge you as the owner in the first place). Oh, and the bridge you get on a 12-string is a six saddle bridge and if you want a twelve saddle bridge, well, that’s extra (and poorly made anyhow – it’s a hacked up six saddle bridge).
With most products and warranties the warranty starts the day you make the purchase. Not so with Rickenbacker. Their warranty starts the day the guitar is made and if it takes a year or so to get from their factory to the dealer to you, the paying customer… well, that’s a year of your warranty gone. And if you try to broach the subject of quality control issues or customer service with the company, or John Hall in particular, you’re more likely to be brushed off, told you don’t know what you’re talking about, or outright ignored than to receive what passes for even average customer service with any other company, because, well, again, you’re not their customer.
I wrote earlier that the company’s arrogance and hubris is unjustified and that’s because Rickenbacker pretty much owes its continued existence, even now, to The Beatles and to the clever marketing of FC Hall, then the head of the company.
It’s well documented in many books and on many websites – John Lennon got his first Rickenbacker, a 325 Capri, in Hamburg before they were famous. Then he had it painted black. Then they did the Ed Sullivan show and got very, very big. Then FC Hall went to visit them in their hotel room in New York and offered John Lennon the 12-string that George Harrison soon made famous. John didn’t want it, George did. So FC Hall offered John a shiny, brand new 325 (and offered Paul McCartney a right handed Ric bass because he somehow missed the incredibly obvious fact that Paul is a leftie. Paul’s leftie bass came a little later). Then a young Roger McGuinn and his friends watched A Hard Day’s Night and George’s Ric blew him away so The Byrds built their entire sound around that guitar. It seemed like soon every band had at least one guitarist playing a Ric. And pretty much everyone after that that played a Ric did so because of The Beatles. Mike Campbell even said in an interview that when he bought his first Rickenbacker 12-string (used) he was disappointed when he got to the seller’s house to discover it was a 620/12 and and not the model George had.
When most people think of The Beatles they immediately think of Rickenbackers but the truth is they didn’t use them that long. And they used them as long as they did because, well, they were free, given to the band for marketing purposes and the band used them on tour for the sake of image. Once the touring stopped, the Rickenbackers went away with McCartney’s bass being the exception. He toured with his Hofner and used his Ric in the studio but even when they became strictly a studio band he switched back and forth between his Ric and Hofner.
It’s entirely possible, maybe even probable, that if FC Hall hadn’t given John and George free guitars in ’64 the company wouldn’t even exist today. And as for the oft bandied about “They sell every guitar they make and are back ordered so they must be amazing” claim touted by John Hall and parroted by Rickenbacker’s faithful followers… well, that’s marketing too. And one of the oldest tricks in the book – increase demand by deliberately decreasing supply.
I’ve been a musician for well over 30 years and been surfing around online for about 20 years and I’m hard-pressed to think of any guitar/bass brand that has a more love/hate relationship. A few seconds searching on Google will lead to lots of reading about the company, its design flaws, its treatment of customers who do anything other than praise them and dare to honestly speak of QC and CS issues. Some fans border on sycophantic absurdity while some “haters” go to the other extreme, going out of their way to rail against Rickenbacker. I prefer the middle ground, an honest, accurate, critical assessment.
It’s well outside the scope of this article for a detailed delve into all the issues, or all the famous players of their guitars and basses, but I’d like to dispel a few myths before closing.
1) Rickenbackers are “One Trick Ponies” – Absolutely untrue.
While it’s true that Rickenbackers have a characteristic chime and distinct sound they are not just limited to jangle pop or people in Beatles tribute bands. They can handle almost style if you know what you’re doing. A quick read of the long list of players of both their guitars and basses will establish that very quickly.
2) Rickenbackers are overpriced – Absolutely untrue.
While “Made in America” often means very little to anyone outside of the USA, Rickenbackers aren’t overpriced. They may be more expensive than what you may want to pay but stating as an absolute that they’re overpriced is daft. Seriously, anyone that says that needs to look at the prices of an American made Fender or Gibson. Especially Gibson.
3) Rickenbackers are the best/worst made guitars ever – Entirely subjective.
I’ve come across this so many times on various forums. Someone gets a good quality Ric and proudly proclaims the company’s quality second to none. Someone gets a bad one and proclaims they’re the worst guitar maker ever. Are the bridges absolute garbage on both their guitars and basses? The overwhelming response there is yes. The guitar bridges are cheap and haven’t changed in 50+ years and the bridges on their basses, well… just Google it.
And I haven’t even touched on the exploding “R” tailpieces on the guitars. They’re poorly cast, rough and jagged underneath where the strings go through and over time, the tension of the strings could make them crack and, in some cases, essentially “explode”. There’s some more fun reading there. Hell, there are companies out there that specialise in making replacements parts for Rickenbacker. Still, all companies make diamonds and duds.
4) Rickenbackers are the only 12-strings worth owning – Entirely Subjective
I’ve seen this said too and it annoys me. Someone will post a question on a guitar forum, asking for suggestions for a 12-string, and some elitist will come along and state that Rickenbackers are the only 12-string worth owning, that everything else wants to be a Ric and is just garbage. Stating your personal opinion as an absolute truth is pointless (and speaks more to the ignorance and/or underlying insecurities of that individual than anything). There are other options, for less money, and less money doesn’t automatically equate to lesser quality.
I can’t imagine not having a 12-string electric. It’s simply part of my “sound” as a musician and composer. I’ve written so many songs on them, songs that just sound wrong when played with anything else, that it’s almost a need. (And no, pedals do not replace 12-strings which is another stupid claim people make.) When I decided to recommit to music as a profession a couple of years ago I knew I needed another 12-string. I debated, seriously so, whether I wanted to give Rickenbacker another chance. I knew the 330/12 neck wouldn’t work for me and took a long look at the 1993Plus. And then I decided to give Danelectro a try. And I couldn’t be happier.
Danelectro is overlooked far too often and has an undeserved reputation as being poor quality. That’s easily dismissed if you do a search online for famous Danelectro players. So when I decided to try one my wife bought me a D59 12-string as a Christmas/birthday gift and it’s simply great. I love the quirky, art deco look, the neck width is what a 12-string should be, it has all the jangle and chime I want and when I’ve recorded with it people have mistaken it for a Ric. And it’s 1/4 the price of a Ric 330/12.
Still, there’s an almost undeniable allure to Rickenbacker. As I said at the start of this article (which turned out to be longer than intended) they’re iconic and unique. If you pull one out at a gig you immediately have everyone’s attention and almost invariably get a “Dude, sweet Ric!” comment from other musicians and again, every guitar manufacturer makes diamonds and duds. And a good one, if you get a good one, can be a thing of beauty and inspiring to play.
I’m still tempted but my temptation is tempered by a few factors – I have a 12-string I love in my Danelectro and the only Ric 12-string I’d want is the Harrison model and I know I wouldn’t get along with the neck. I’ve also thought of getting a six-string 620 in Jetglo but what stops that acquisition are memories of my very first experience with Rickenbacker’s QC and CS. Even though my second Ric was flawless from a build standpoint I’ll never forget that first experience. Oh, and my wife says we don’t have room for any more guitars.