I’ve heard people credit Les Paul with inventing the electric guitar, and I’ve heard people say the Telecaster was the first electric guitar. But the reality is that the history of the electric guitar is messier, and way more fascinating, than most would know. (Check out Who Invented the Electric Guitar? ) While the technology for the electric pickup dates back to the 1830s, the first commercial electric guitar was introduced in 1931-2 by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker. It was called the Frying Pan.
These frying pans were made primarily for Hawaiian music, with the aluminum slide sound that characterizes the genre.
As the Fender Telecaster and then the Gibson Les Paul hit the scene, along with other more modern versions of the electric guitar, Rickenbacker, the company, was changing hands and the modernization of Rickenbacker guitars began.
Then, through fate or happenstance, one of these modern Rickenbacker guitars (being made here in the USA), showed up in Hamburg, Germany, being played in the clubs by a young John Lennon in an unknown band named the Beatles.
George played one often as well, but legend has it that John played a Rickenbacker in all live performances of The Beatles from Hamburg in the early days to Shea Stadium in 1964, and that he recorded all of the music that was recorded during that time on his Rickenbacker, as well. John Lennon’s Rickenbacker was a 1958 Rickenbacker 325 with three toaster pickups. He had others as well.
Another rocker that played a Rickenbacker was a young man named Guy Picciotto who played a jetglo (black) 330 in his band Fugazi (as well as some in his earlier band Rites of Spring). The DC hardcore movement was hugely influential on music (and on me personally!), and Fugazi was center stage.
Another of my Rickenbacker heroes is, of course, Tom Petty. Though it’s not really the case that Tom Petty always played one (as I once assumed). He constantly switched guitars live, and they were all interesting guitars. He was a guitar lover and connoisseur, and it shows in his shows.
He did play a Rickenbacker, and so did Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, and the Ric sound is probably the most central musical characteristic of the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (though the minimalist beats, the solid bass, and the forward vocals of a unique story teller also had something to do with it).
Here’s a later show where Mike Campbell starts out on a Rickenbacker, and Tom starts out on a very interesting and beautiful Vox, and then goes acoustic, and then to the Rickenbacker. You can see how Mike’s sound and Tom’s work together to always be in that Ric-area of the tonal spectrum.
There are other influential musicians who played and play Rickenbacker guitars of course, like Pete Townshend from The Who and REM’s Peter Buck (another example of Ric having a defining quality on a band’s sound).
The plain fact is that a Rickenbacker has a unique sound. It’s the Ric sound. Any way I describe it will be wrong somehow, it’s like describing a smell. The sound can be imitated, but not replicated. Rickenbackers are just unique and beautiful instruments and do their own thing perfectly well. I have a 1991 Rickenbacker 330 myself, and I just love it.