RICKENBACKERS

 

 

Rickenbacker 330/6 Dark Cherry Metallic I've always thought that Rics were cool-looking, but never felt that to be a strong enough reason to buy one. They're expensive and there are a lot of other guitars and guitar toys competing for those dollars. I can't say that I've ever been a huge Byrds, Beatles, or REM fan either-- I like their music, but as a guitarist, I gravitate toward more prima donna-ish lead guitar-centric music... Music where it doesn't matter whether you can understand the lyrics, as long as there are guitar solos.

I finally got around to the Rickenbacker simply because I'd already "done" Strats, Les Pauls, and Ibanezes, and explored a lot of interesting features with them, like scalloped necks, graphite necks, compensated nuts, guitar synthesizer, COSM virtual guitar, onboard distortion, onboard active EQ, sustainer, aluminum-bodied guitar, noiseless pickups, humbuckers, P-90s, mini-humbuckers, piezos, and various types of tremolo (vibrato) mechanisms. (Obviously, I really like the hardware and tinkering aspect of guitars.)

Rickenbacker makes a handful of different models, but I was drawn to the Ric 330 because I liked the aesthetics of its large, rounded body with two pointy horns. It also happens to be a semi-acoustic model. I knew the implications of that since my second guitar (a long, long, time ago) had been a Yamaha SA-50 semi-acoustic electric guitar. I knew that they tended to feedback more readily than solid body electrics, but what the heck... I already had plenty of solid body electrics. Time for something new and different.

 

Rickenbacker 330/6 DCM

My first Rickenbacker was the 6-string 330 DCM, a.k.a., the 75th Anniversary Dark Cherry Metallic. (Being an anniversary model, it's sort of a foo-foo guitar, but looks great and I got a real deal, so I couldn't resist.) Naturally, opening the case and seeing it for the first time was exhilarating-- absolutely mint, and a beaut to boot. I gingerly and awkwardly played it, trying not to get any marks on its beautiful high-gloss finish. Rickenbacker devotes a lot of time and attention to the finish, which probably accounts for a fair bit of the pricing. Great neck... narrower than many, but for me a welcome, nostalgic feel (after my first Strat had been stolen, I used a Gretch BST-1000 for the rest of my gigging days).

Modest Mods Once I got comfortable with the fact that it was mine and that it was going to get smudges (and maybe even dings!), the first thing I did was remove the chrome bridge cover-- awfully shiny and pretty, but it's like the Strat's useless ashtray that everyone removes so that they can palm mute strings and do the pizzicato thing.

The second mod was replace the single coil "High Gain" pickups that are standard on most 6-string Rickenbackers. Although they sound nice & bitey, I despise the noise of single-coil pickups. I live in a world of computers, monitors, electric motors and all sorts of things that make electrical noise. Fortunately, RIC makes humbuckers for a few of their models. That's an important point since you can't exactly buy a drop-in, third-party replacement humbucker for Rickenbackers. To fit one of those full-sized humbuckers, you'd need to take your Swiss Army knife to the Rickenbacker's wood, and that's something that I wasn't prepared to do (not yet, at least).

After I'd done that, it was time to change the controls wiring, paring the 5 controls down to a master volume and a tone pot. Generally, I like guitars controls to be fast and simple. I'd rather be able to change the overall volume and tone quickly than be able to dicker with the volume and tone mix of individual pickups. (I don't like the 4 controls wiring on Les Pauls either.) The 5th control knob on Rickenbackers is an especially weird idea-- it's in series with the neck ("Bass") pickup's volume pot, and I think it's to give some sort of preset-like function (?) for the pickup selector position 2, but it's called a "mixer". I've read about it but I can't see it as anything but what the wiring says it does, which in my opinion, is pretty inconsequential. Nevertheless, some folks seem to find a use for it and like it.

Of course, since I'd installed humbuckers, I had to do the ever-popular coil-tapped wiring on a push-pull pot to give the option of the noisy, thin-sounding single-coil mode. This was relatively easy to do using a generic wiring diagram, once I figured out the north/southiness of the pickups using a compass. It was basically a freebie mod, and one that I doubt I'll use much.

I think extra knobs are cool if they do something unique or useful. The large number of control knobs would be real inviting for some onboard electronics if one had an easy way to access a battery without carving wood for a battery box or unscrewing the controls scratchplate (what a hassle!). This is another case where the high price of the guitar and its un-modular nature conspire to put the kibosh on the joys of ownership and modding. (Damn, I love Strats!)

Overall, Rickenbacker modding options are awfully limited, similar to a Les Paul where you can change the knobs and the pickups. Woo hoo! At least with Les Pauls, there's a fairly healthy third party industry for mods and parts, like custom truss rod covers, imitation Gibson selector switch rings, and a zillion varieties of pickups. With Rics, not so much.

RIC (Rickenbacker International Corporation) vigorously defends its property rights, so you have to jump through hoops (like sending what's left of the original) to get a replacement truss rod cover or the distinctive "R" tailpiece. They're the only source for most of the parts. Therefore, if you want to replace pickups or some parts, you have to hope that they're in current production by RIC and available through their distributor network, or buy used, from eBay. Expect to pay big too-- for example, their 330K CTS pot costs $10 each, which is an absurd amount to pay for a pot, unless it's really special. (I used normal-priced 500K pots when I put the humbuckers in.) At the time of this writing, the popular and prized "Toaster" pickups can't be found in stock at any online sources, except for an occasional listing on eBay.

Rickenculture The RIC corporate philosophy is unusual and unlike the Fenders and Gibsons who seem to be only about chasing the buck and maximizing profit. RIC has the scrappy character of a small but enduring company that stubbornly produces only what it wants to make at its own pace and totally on its own terms, regardless of demand. They aren't going to rerelease the Roger McGuinn Rickenbacker just because people want them; it was a limited edition release, end of story. I've read that there has been a history of long waits (several years) for delivery of orders; still, they don't make drastic course corrections just to rush things along. They seem to have a very different measure of success than the one that most people are familiar with, which may make the company seem unconventional and sort of persnickety-- sort of like an artist!

Based on lurking their forums, the devoted users have a kind of a peculiar culture as well (but I guess no more so than any other manufacturer-centered forum). Of course, it's individuals who make up the forums, and some seem to treat the Rickenbacker as if it were a sacred object that should never be desecrated: Modding a Ric is seen by some as an act of heresy. If you want to mod your Ric, then you've bought the wrong guitar! There's some of that in every guitar forum, but it seems especially rabid in Rickland.

Another thing that I thought was weird and just a little creepy was that there's an unofficial online Rickenbacker registry database, started by well-intentioned folks with some serious computer technical skills. The database is really cool, interesting, and works very well. I admire the accomplishment, but the creepy part is that the entries don't only come from the submissions of Rickenbackers owners; they aggressively harvest data and photos by monitoring eBay sales. I thought it was creepy that they'd registered and documented both of my Rics while they were being shipped to me.

All that makes it seem (unintentionally, I'm sure) like you don't really own the guitar you bought, and that you're just doing some kind of peculiar stewardship for the community and posterity... It kinda reminds me of those small rural communities in Texas, where all politics are local and your bizness is everyone else's. I felt like I'd sinned when I removed the "Made in America" sticker from the pickguard. Fortunately, removing the sticker seems to have the approval of the ornery and straight-shooting CEO, John Hall who commented in a forum: "Well, it's your guitar and sticker to do whatever you want with, but it was never intended that the sticker remain on the guitar after the sale. After all, it IS just a STICKER . . ." Whew. Sanity.

I don't live there, so I don't feel so bad about removing it, swapping the pickups, and rewiring the innards. I even contemplated having the frets replaced with jumbo wire. Although such things lower the value of the guitar, I like to enjoy my guitars, guilt-free, as if I owned them.

Driving Test As mentioned, I replaced the stock High Gain pickups with Rickenbacker's humbuckers. These certainly killed the loud hum that radiated from a fan a few feet away, which was job #1-- good riddance! While noticeably "darker" (less treble, more full) than the single coil high-gain pickups, they seemed to be a bit brighter than most standard full-sized humbuckers.

As expected, the guitar did the low frequency feedback thing when the amp was turned up loud enough-- it's just the nature of amplified acoustic and semi-acoustic guitars.

Despite being potted with epoxy, the humbuckers did emit some high-pitched (microphonic?) squealing at a fairly low sound pressure level when I kicked in a lot of gain. I mention this because my Strats clearly have a much higher threshold for this. I think this helps explain the perception that Rickenbackers are mainly rhythm guitars, not lead guitars. If you're playing clean, it's not an issue, but if you play distorted with high gain (as many lead players do), it's a disincentive to pick a Ric.

Personally, I'd love it if boutique pickup builder Chris Kinman (or any 3rd party pickup builder) could make a noiselesss Rickenbacker replacement pickup that preserved the treble "jangle"... I think the pie may be too small for larger manufacturers, with too many legal obstructions.

Fretboard Feel Another unique feature of Rickenbacker guitars is that their fretboards are skinny, flat, heavily lacquered, and fitted with thin, low-profile "vintage-style" frets. Being someone who swears by scalloped fretboards, this was about as jarring a contrast imaginable. The skinniness of the neck didn't bother me but the relative difficulty of bending notes on vintage frets sure did.

As I mentioned, I considered having it refretted with jumbos, but the price was daunting and it seemed wasteful to rip out perfectly good, virgin fretwire. Fortunately, I kept playing it and started to feel better about it as my hands acclimated and I adjusted my string bending technique. It actually was fun! I came to accept that it was harder to bend notes than on a scalloped neck, but that the difference in feel was a good thing: If nothing else, it strengthened my fingers a bit, and made it easier to play other guitars with low action and unscalloped necks. I think being adaptable is a good thing, and it shouldn't be a big deal to switch between necks with different widths, radii, scale lengths, and fretwire.

 

Rickenbacker 381/12v69

Rickenbacker 381/12v69 Montezuma Brown Naturally, one wasn't enough (in the world of Rics, it's called RAS, or "Rickenbacker Acquisition Syndrome"), and I happened to come across what I'd considered to be my idea of the perfect Rickenbacker aesthetic: A pointy-horned 330 body style with full binding, triangular fretboard inlays, toaster pickups, with a beautiful Montezuma Brown burst finish. It also had the questionable benefit of a unique and unusual carved top, making it a mighty conglomeration of Guitar Excess Blingishness (GEB). And it was a 12-string... a special feature that I'd never explored before. If I didn't like 12-strings, I could just remove 6 and it would be a normal (and awesomely blingish) guitar.

The 12-String Blues Shortly after receiving it, I did just that. It may have been the shock of trying to play something so unfamiliar, or the shock that I was so lousy at playing it, or that I'd spent a bundle to sound so bad, or all of the above, but I needed to experience it as a 6-string guitar to reassure myself. It also gave me the opportunity to bring the string gauge down a notch to .009s. This put less tension on the neck (which I'm sure is a good thing) and let me lower the bridge and therefore, the action. It played great as a six-stringer. Confidence restored. I decided to give it a second chance as a 12-stringer, and this time the lighter gauge GHS strings and slightly lower action made it much more playable.

...Or maybe it was because I'd made a conceptual adjustment: I finally accepted that the very first chord I'd ever learned, the simple open 'C' Mel-bay cowboy chord, was damned hard to finger on a Rickenbacker 12-string. There wasn't enough fretboard room to press strings against frets and leave some open without inadvertently making some awful notes ring. I accepted that I needed to play some chords differently. I could play the open C chord if I didn't try to get the high open E to sound. In fact, the only way for me to play it was to focus on keeping the G string open, and muting the high E string. I thought it was ironic to have so much trouble with the very first chord that I'd learned!

After that, everything kinda fell into place. The feel is very different, both for fretboard fingering and strumming, and the difference is sort of... refreshing? It feels good to strum across a near solid field of strings and hear that big sound. Playing single note noodling with bends takes more focus and strength than a 6-string. I pick much harder and fret notes more deliberately, so to an extent, some of the subtlety just isn't appropriate-- sort of like playing MIDI guitar. Bends are more limited, and unison strings detune slightly as they're bent to differing degrees. Even though it's more difficult to play the usual stuff than a scalloped neck Strat, it's still great fun, and gives me something different to explore after boring myself with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn".

There's no denying that it's a very specialized guitar and I sometimes regret that it's not a 6-stringer so I could noodle wildly with high gain... but with 12 strings, it's just not that kind of guitar: It makes pretty sounds. Unfortunately, one can't switch back and forth between 6 and 12 string configurations as easily and often as I'd like. Since it's my only 12-string, I reckon that I ought to keep it that way.

More Modest Mods Despite it's pricey-ness, I have made a few changes that would probably raise some eyebrows in the Rickenbacker community. As with the 330, I dickered with the pickup loadout. Before buying the 381, I'd heard so many good things about the Toaster pickups, and how they were so necessary for the Rickenbacker's "jangle". Therefore, they were a feature I wanted in my "ultimate Rickenbacker". Once I got it, I wasn't as impressed as I'd expected to be, and there seemed to be an output mismatch between the front and rear pickups. I replaced the bridge Toaster with the 330's bridge Hi-Gain pickup to help balance the output from the neck Toaster which would be naturally louder since the plucked string excursion is greater at that point along the string. Basically, I just thought this configuration sounded better, and that the Hi-Gain had more than enough "jangle". I didn't want to replace them both with Rickenbacker humbuckers partially because of the expense, but also because l thought that the single coils retained more highs than the humbuckers. I figured that with a 12-string, you're periodically obligated to play some of the Byrds/Beatles stuff. The noise does bother me (and does interfere with the electronic tuner), but what can ya do when there are no Chris Kinmans making noiseless pickups for the Ric? Anyway, it was also nice to have representatives of all three of the pickup types that Rickenbacker currently makes.

Again, as with the 330, I replaced the 5 controls with master volume and tone pots. Also, I contemplated adding active electronics to the guitar and got pretty far along in the planning and preparation. I'd even bought an MXR Custom Compressor to install inside the sucker. However, I couldn't come up with an acceptable way to host a battery box that would have minimal impact on the pristine condition of the guitar. Yep, deep down in my heart, I felt a bit like a Ferrengi, like I didn't have the balls to really own the guitar, because I might sell it and that would lower its value. I have some contempt for that attitude, but I'm not above having contempt for some of the stuff that I do, or don't do. For what it's worth, nothing cements the bond between you and your guitar like an irreversible mod.

Compressors It was probably for the best. Ultimately, I decided that the onboard compressor idea was a "just because" idea anyway. It would give some of the unused knobs a function, and it would mimic the concept of the Rickenbacker McGuinn model, but there were some major "why?" questions that I hadn't explored. I consider the compressor to be a set-and-forget device (unlike Overdrive), so there would be little advantage in having the controls at my fingertips. A stompbox compressor would serve just as well, if not better.

Arghhh... Noise! Because a simple stompbox compressor (like the Dyna Comp) also has an electronic "sustainer" function (the auto gain circuit raises the volume as the output decays), there would be a lot of noise at higher squishy settings. The problem would be even worse with noisy single coil pickups. This is pretty much what I was experiencing when I ran either MXR compressor at the front of the signal chain, right after the tuner. I even tried running an ISP Decimator fast-reacting noise gate to see if it helped any, but it didn't-- it just made the whole thing sound worse.

Unexpectedly, the thing that worked fairly well was playing it through the Yamaha THR-10 mini practice amp after creating a preset in computer parameter edit mode. I set up a stompbox compressor with fairly squishy settings and put their noise gate at the end. I was quite suprised at how well the patch worked and how gradually but effectively the noise gate gradually squashed the noise. You can still hear the layer of noise when a sharp attack brings the sound out of the noise gate, but it's pretty darn effective. Anyway, the thing that surprised me about this was the fact that the compressor was at the end of the chain, which is counter-intuitive to me. Of course, lots of noise in the environment still means lots of ugly noise coming through the pickup, and being amplified by the compressor's auto gain circuit. Naturally, I wish I'd found a stompbox solution for the problem so I could play through my real amps, but since getting the THR-10, I haven't fired them up once (which is another story).

The reason I blather on about all this compressor stuff is because the famous Byrds 12-string "jangle" has very heavy compression, and it has been said that the pricey third party "Jangle Box" will get you there. It's basically a stompbox compressor circuit with extra treble. Although the unadorned sound of the 381 12-string gets you most of the way there, compression helps with the rest of the way. For me, and not really wanting to emulate the famous Byrds sound, I'm satisfied with playing my 381's bridge hi-gain pickup into the Yamaha THR-10 on the Vox amp emulation, with compressor (and noise gate) and just a little bit of chorus. It's a neat and very pretty sound.

Ric-O-Sound I'm a little embarrassed to say that I totally forgot about this feature! Many Ric models, including the 381, are equipped with two output jacks-- one standard 1/4" mono jack, and one 1/4" stereo "Ric-O-Sound" jack. If you insert a 3-conductor stereo plug into the ROS jack, the pickups are tapped separately. Therefore, if you have a cable or adapter that splits the stereo into the two mono plugs or jacks, you can send the output of each pickup to separate signal chains or amps. Pretty neat, huh?

Well, not really. It's an archaic gimmick from a time before stompboxes like delays and modulation effects outputted stereo signals to create a spatial sound image, before amplifiers had channel switching, and before people used A/B boxes to route a single signal down two signal paths. In my opinion, devoting an amp to each pickup is a bizarre concept. It doesn't create a stereo image. It just lets you preset a separate sound chain for each pickup. It's not nearly as versatile as having separate (A/B) rhythm & lead sounds for all pickup combinations running into a single amp or two. Or as cool as having a delay signal ping pong between two amps. Or having a reverb create an immersive 3-D sound field. Even John Hall admits that it's an archaic feature that he'd like to get rid of, but hasn't because so many traditionalists would scream bloody murder. Fortunately, it doesn't really hurt anything by being there (except if you repeatedly mistake it for the mono output jack, in which case it's just an aggravation. If you accidently plug your mono cord into the ROS jack, you'll be momentarily puzzled by why one of your pickups doesn't work.). I briefly considered its potential as a power supply jack for an external battery to run onboard electronics.

 

Last Words

I've gotta say, I have no regrets about these purchases (other than having to unexpectedly replace our HVAC shortly after spending a bundle on these new toys!). Rickenbackers are beautiful and iconic guitars, with unique features. Fun to play, too. However, for practical purposes, I consider them to be a luxury and an indulgence if you just wanna play guitar. I think for most playing situations, the Rickenbacker's 6-string voice would not be a must-have addition to one's guitar arsenal: Strats have a much wider palette of voices, and with dirt boxes, can cover a lot of territory (even that which is usually thought to exclusive to a Les Paul). In addition to that, a solid body Strat doesn't feedback as readily (unless you deliberately want it to), so it's better behaved in a loud, live playing situation. This is probably not an issue for the solid body Rickenbacker 620 and 660 models-- I don't know, since I don't own any (but might have if not for the damned HVAC crisis). The glued-in neck would logically give better sustain characteristics than a Strat (as it does for Les Pauls); however, that's a subtle and less relevant feature when playing with distortion and compression-- Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan never had problems with too little sustain. Also, although some Rickenbacker models do come with whammy bars, the design is primitive and really not much better than those on cheap guitars from the 60s (reminds me of my first Teisco). Bigbys can be installed (although not officially supported). They're more robust and look cool, but the mechanical design is dated and inferior to the Strat's.

On the other hand, the 12-string voice is pretty unique. I haven't played other manufacturer's 12-string electrics to say how distinctive the voice is, but Rickenbacker seems to dominate the field, with its strong imprint on classic recordings, as well as its distinctive look. Their innovative headstock design solved the problem of the traditional dorky-looking 12-string headstock, which (IMO), counts for a lot! Like I said, I consider these luxuries-- I never did the Byrds/Beatles schtick in a gigging situation, I'd gotten along without owning a 12-string and could probably live without one. However, it's a really neat and interesting experience if you've never played one before. I think the 12-string is the best semi-practical reason for getting a Rickenbacker, other than the fact that they're great looking, great sounding, and fun playing guitars.

 

Rickenbacker 381/12v69 Montezuma Brown

Rickenbacker 381/12v69 Montezuma Brown

Rickenbacker 381/12v69 Montezuma Brown

 

Rickenbacker 330/6 Dark Cherry Metallic

Rickenbacker 330/6 Dark Cherry Metallic

Rickenbacker 330/6 Dark Cherry Metallicn

 

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