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Father of the Electric Guitar - 7/21/2006

Bänz Friedli takes a candid look at Adolph Rickenbacker and the history of the company bearing his name.
Adolph Rickenbacher 1887–1976
by Bänz Friedli
Swiss journalist

Lemmy just shows up from time to time. The roughneck from Motörhead, a legendary heavy metal bass player, has himself chauffeured down to Santa Ana from L.A., an hour’s drive. He leans back in his chair, naked from the waist up, nothing but a pair of torn jeans on, puts his bare feet on the desk while his bodyguard serves him a drink from a little attaché case he has brought along (contents: a can of Coke, a glass and a bottle of whiskey), takes a sip, sits back and says, “What’s up, John?”

John Hall, 56 years of age, the owner of Rickenbacker International Corporation, enjoys talking about visits like that. He is on a first-name basis with rock stars, and at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl in 1965 he got to do something every teenager in America was dreaming of doing: he shook hands with the Beatles. “Plus I gave Paul McCartney a special left-handed bass guitar made to order for him.” With his moustache, his easy laugh, his suntan and his silk Hawaiian shirt, Hall plays the part of the businessman as rocker, the good-buddy millionaire.

Hall claims he can pick a Rickenbacker out of a hundred guitars. It simply transmits the energy of the strings better, he says. Asked to name his favorite guitarist, Hall doesn’t answer right away. After some reflection he says with certainty, “Peter Buck from R.E.M.” He could just as easily have named Tom Petty, U2’s The Edge, Melissa Etheridge, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Bangles front-woman Susanna Hoffs, maybe even America’s slut queen Courtney Love or country-rebel Dwight Yoakam, all of whom favor the Rickenbacker, the brand Hall inherited sole rights to. His father bought the firm from Adolph Rickenbacher, a Swiss immigrant who created the world’s first electric guitar 75 years ago. The original, known as the frying pan for its round wooden body and too-long neck, hangs in the anteroom to Hall’s office. It has an insured value of $1.25 million.

So the electric guitar, the prototypical rock instrument, was invented 75 years ago –by a Swiss? Yeah, man.

He was a character, they say. “Mister Adolph gave everyone a calling card printed with the words ‘Adolph Rickenbacher, Father of the Electric Guitar’,” recalls Margarita, veteran member of the cleaning staff at the Atria Acacia Senior Living Group, a pretty colonnaded building at the corner of Acacia and Chapman in Fullerton, California. Early on March 7, 1976, Rickenbacher, who had been suffering from cancer, succumbed to acute circulatory failure at the Gordon Lane Convalescent Hospital. Rickenbacher was the embodiment of the American dream, the one that still had a chance of coming true for immigrants arriving between 1890 and 1924. He had come in 1891 as a poor kid, and he died a wealthy man.

As the "father of the electric guitar," however, he lives on. Far from being “Born in the USA,” the electric guitar, perhaps the number one icon of American pop culture, would have been unthinkable without the work of this Swiss immigrant. And although many people were tinkering away at electrically amplified guitars in the early 1930s, and Rickenbacher’s partner George Beauchamp may have been indispensable to the invention of the pick-up, which turns the oscillations of the steel strings into electrical energy, the company that first patented and manufactured the electric guitar still bears Rickenbacher's name, ever so slightly Americanized as Rickenbacker.

Superstars like the Beatles, the Who, the Byrds, Motörhead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Radiohead and R.E.M. have made the “Rick” a legend. Claimed as their own by thousands, left for dead on hundreds of occasions, the electric guitar has risen from its tomb every time. And what does your average three-year-old do when he wants to be super-cool? He plays air guitar. How did John Kerry make George Bush look old during the 2004 campaign? By playing the electric guitar. Entire generations associate their lifestyle as well as a whole series of attitudes, fantasies and juvenile rebellions with the instrument. Currently guitar rock is enjoying a renaissance, after an interregnum in the 1990s featuring the guitar-free sounds of rap and house music. And what is the instrument of choice for top bands on both sides of the pond, whether Franz Ferdinand of Scotland or The Strokes of New York? Take a guess.

It was a home birth. Adolf Adam Riggenbacher – as his last name was originally spelled – first saw the light of day on April 1, 1887. He was born into a poor family living at number 7 Gemsberg Street in the middle of Basel, according to an entry at the local registry office. His parents rented their apartment in the rambling half-timbered house, built in 1291 and known as the Sign of the Chamois, from a bookbinder. Adolf senior ran a small business as a cabinetmaker and model-builder; his wife Elisabeth, née Wyss, had brought a child from a previous marriage into the family, Adolf junior's half-brother Oscar. While the economic gloom of the 1870s had lifted, the rich had fled the inner city for the suburbs, leaving the narrow, crowded old town to the have-nots.

On October 1, 1891, the family left Basel for the promise of a better life in the New World, drawn by rumors and letters sent home by the many relatives already living in the U.S. (the family’s ancestors had been emigrating since 1734). The Rickenbachers put to sea from Le Havre on the La Bretagne and arrived in Castle Garden, New York, on October 12, 1891: Adolf senior, Elisabeth, entered in the passenger list as “Louise,” and the children Oscar (11), Emma (seven), Adolf junior (age four, although erroneously registered by the immigration authorities as a two-year-old) and the new-born, Robert. One daughter had died before the departure, from burns sustained when she fell into an open campfire.

Those who made the week-long crossing recalled it later as a time of deprivation, at the mercy of a brutal crew. “The livestock on the ship was treated better than the people,” one of Rickenbacher's nieces reported. When the ship docked at the south end of Manhattan, its passengers were met by a dispiriting sight. Unseasonably cold weather (40 degrees) had practically obscured the Statue of Liberty, which had been standing on Bedloe’s Island for just five years at that point. The new arrivals were given tomatoes to eat, which Adolf senior warned those near him not to touch, saying they were poisonous, “forbidden love apples.” It was all a ruse, of course: he collected the discarded tomatoes and was thus able to see his family through the days of customs formalities and medical checks.

In 1893 the family reached their destination, Columbus, Ohio, a short-lived paradise. Elisabeth died shortly after their arrival; Adolf senior lost both his legs in a train accident and began to drink away his pain and grief. Soon he could no longer care for the children, who roamed about, hungry and neglected. Emma rescued her younger brothers from an icy death when she found them, covered with snow, asleep in a doorway. With her rudimentary English, and barely out of childhood herself, she found work as a maid with a wealthy family in the southern end of town, and got permission to lodge Adolf junior and Robert in her room as well. For seven years Emma raised them there.

With a mixture of skill and luck, young Adolf Rickenbacher was able to escape his family’s fate. A frail man with sloping shoulders and ears that stuck out, he made up in brains what he lacked in looks. The vertical furrow in his forehead gave his young features a serious cast, although there was a twinkle in the eyes that peered out alertly from beneath heavy eyebrows. He was a charmer. While still in Ohio, young Adolph (as he was now writing his name) fell in love with Charlotte (“Lottie”) Kammerer, the daughter of German immigrants to Pennsylvania who had grown rich in the oil business. Lottie herself worked in Columbus as a secretary at another oil firm. Later on, Rickenbacher’s financial fortunes were said to have changed with the marriage. The couple lived in Illinois until 1918, when they moved to California for good. Their earliest recorded abode there was at 4910 Angeles Vista Boulevard in Los Angeles, not a particularly fashionable address.

But The Father of the Electric Guitar would end up living high on the hog. In the 1950s he had a villa built on a prestigious hill-side site in Fullerton, high above Los Angeles, paying what was then the hair-raising sum of $200,000 for the spread at 1801 Vista Lomitas Drive, complete with guesthouse and swimming pool. Rickenbacher designed the place himself, special modern touches and all. He dreamed up a ventilation system that purified the air, and later liked to boast that he hadn’t dusted in 20 years. The property featured a garden with an orange grove, which Rickenbacher worked himself on the back of a tractor. On fine days (and there are no shortage of these in Southern California) he could see the ocean from his perch. Because his Lottie was crazy about one-armed bandits, he used to drive her through the desert once a month in his 1965 Ford LTD to play the slot machines in Las Vegas. The childless couple could afford such luxuries.

Adolph must have spoken Baseldytsch, his parents’ dialect, as a boy, “but in the end his accent was pure California,” reports his last neighbor, Bob Genc, a robust California senior with a tan in white slacks, light-blue shirt and cowboy hat who continues to practice as a dentist long past retirement age. Everyone who knew him says that Rickenbacher was “a character,” including Genc. “Oh, Ay-dolph was a real cut-up! When you would go to visit him he liked to show you a picture of couples dancing and all the guys had erections,” says Genc, shaking his head in amusement. “In the end, after his wife’s death, we used to take him to a restaurant with a view of the airport. He used to watch the planes taking off and landing. It reminded him of Eddie.”

Eddie Rickenbacker, Adolph’s famous second cousin, was the hero of American aviation par excellence. He shot down 26 German fighter planes in the First World War, came to be known as the “Ace of Aces” and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. During his career as a race car driver in the nineteen-teens he set a new speed record of 134 mph in Indianapolis behind the wheel of a Blitzen-Benz before going on to found Eastern Airlines. His life story was filmed and a military airfield in Columbus, Ohio, was named in his honor. Until Eddie’s death in 1973, he and Adolph were in frequent contact. It was said that Adolph, ever the canny businessman, changed his name to Rickenbacker in the late 1930s in order to profit from his cousin’s renown. Others believe that the original spelling was simply “too German” for him, an impression he was eager to avoid as the Second World War drew ever closer.

Nevertheless, the name change was purely for the office: he still spelled his name with a “ch” in personal correspondence. Rickenbacher evidently remained closely connected to Switzerland until his death. There is proof of this in the last remaining token of his residence on Vista Lomitas Drive: when his home was torn down in 2002 to make way for three new houses, the wrecking crew left a ten-foot tall, cast-iron sign, half covered by underbrush and palm leaves, emblazoned with the name “Rickenbacher”.

Iron, die-casting, metal parts: that was Rickenbacher’s trade. He must have been reminded of his father’s workshop in Basel when in 1920 he set up the Rickenbacher Manufacturing Company at 6105 South Western Avenue in Los Angeles – except that, like everything in America, it was a whole lot bigger. Soon he was turning out compression moulds, tools and screw threads, casting metal parts and punching out plastic components – and making a great success of it. His first major client was the National guitar company, for which he produced housings and aluminum parts for use in its legendary “National Steel Guitars,” metal instruments with built-in aluminum resonators. Rickenbacher held shares in National, and company brochures from the 1920s list him as an engineer.

Meanwhile, the Texan guitarist George Beauchamp, the originator of the National’s design, was not happy. Frustrated by the failure of his instrument to make itself heard over the combined sound of a whole orchestra, he was tinkering away at a louder guitar. Together with Paul Barth, Beauchamp used copper wire and a couple of horseshoe magnets to create what he called a “pick-up,” an electromagnetic transmitter that paved the way for the electric guitar. In 1931, with Rickenbacher in his studio, the three men assembled the wooden prototype of an electric Hawaiian guitar to be played held in the lap. It was the original frying pan. “It was Beauchamp’s idea, and Rickenbacher carried it out – as well as financing it,” says Hall, 56.

And Rickenbacher would need to be a very patient patron. Barth, Beauchamp and he founded the Ro-Pat-In company and began readying their “frying pan,” now with an aluminum housing, for mass production. But musicians were skeptical. “All the bands were afraid to use it,” remembered Rickenbacher, “because they thought a tube might blow in the middle of a show.” And wouldn’t you know it, during a live stage show a technical glitch had the KHJ radio station out of Los Angeles suddenly being broadcast through the speakers instead of guitar sound. Rickenbacher and Beauchamp were howled out of the theater. Sales were nowhere: in 1932 Ro-Pat-In sold only a dozen of its electric Hawaiian guitars, for $140 apiece. Rickenbacher’s tool factory underwrote the guitar company’s losses. “After about two years of hard work and spending about hundred-fifty thousand dollars we were ready to give up,” Rickenbacher was later to recall.

But then, out of the blue, a Hawaiian orchestra ordered a complete line of electrical instruments, steel and Spanish guitars, mandolin and bass. Rickenbacher and his staff worked around the clock for two months to get the instruments ready – only to have the whole shipment stolen the night before delivery. Rickenbacher figured it was an inside job. Work began from square one, and this time the pieces were delivered. But they were never paid for. Was this the end? It only looked like it. Thanks to a guitarist with a job at a radio station, who used the airwaves to stir up listener enthusiasm for the new invention, the company was able to make a breakthrough, and when an order for 500 instruments came in from Chicago, the “Rick” was on its way. Soon Rickenbacher was supplying the world with instruments.

In 1934 the company’s name was changed to the Electro String Instrument Corporation, and from then on every instrument bore the inscription “Rickenbacher Electro”. “Somehow,” says CEO John Hall with a smile, “Adolph managed to get every project he was involved in to bear his name sooner or later.” A patent, applied for in 1932, was in limbo for years, and Rickenbacher and Beauchamp finally sent a music group to Washington to play for the uptight patent officers, convincing them at last that the electric guitar actually worked. By the time the patent was issued on August 10, 1937, other brands – such as National, Dobro, Gibson, Acousti-Lectric and Epiphone – had long since come on the market.

In 1935 Rickenbacher manufactured the first guitar body out of the hard synthetic known as Bakelite, thus giving birth to the so-called “solid-body” guitar without a resonance chamber. The company’s product range was expanded and business was booming. While Beauchamp supervised guitar production in one half of the factory building, Rickenbacher carried on his tool-making in the other. But in 1940 Beauchamp sold him his shares and left the business. The Electro String finally belonged to Adolph and Charlotte alone. Despite the depression of the 1930s, they were now living in style in Beverly Hills, where Rickenbacher was a made man with a fleet of seven automobiles.

Rickenbacher was always boasting about what he had done, and it was never clear just how seriously to take him. He was adamant in his claim to have been involved in the invention of Bakelite in 1909, and he dined out on his story of having mixed the first Manhattan. And then of course he called himself The Father of the Electric Guitar. So was Rickenbacher just a blowhard? After all, he hadn’t invented the electric guitar anymore than Elvis had created rock ’n’ roll single-handedly: a whole slew of anonymous predecessors had done that. People had been experimenting with Rickenbacher’s “invention” since the 19th century. Rickenbacher (like Elvis) was simply in the right place at the right time, able to capitalize on his hard-headedness and financial wherewithal to hit pay dirt with a mass phenomenon. “Inventor of the Electric Guitar” would have been a bit pretentious – Rickenbacher was its undisputed “Father”.

His factory still stands in a forbidding area of L.A., but the metal grills are locked and a sign announces that 6105 Western Avenue is for sale, call (213) 747-6531. At the company’s current headquarters on South Main Street in Santa Ana, from the street a nondescript, windowless green factory shed, 65 employees are doing precision handwork, among them many Latinos and Vietnamese. They are using a machine calibrated to a thousandth of a millimeter to cut guitar bodies out of maple wood, spraying on paint, drilling, soldering, gluing, winding copper wire and attaching magnetic plates to the pick-ups. “The competition has its pick-ups made in Korea, China and Mexico,” says John Hall. “But we invented ours, so we’re still making them ourselves 75 years later.” His father, F.C. Hall, bought the company from Rickenbacher, then 66 years old, on December 17, 1953, a few weeks before Bill Haley and Elvis Presley exploded on the scene and rock ’n’ roll was born. Rickenbacher, bent on retirement, built his villa in Fullerton and purchased a ranch in Redlands, California.

There was never any question of changing the company name. “Rickenbacker just sounds better than my name,” says Hall. Of all the famous brands of guitar known the world over, the Rickenbacker today has a reputation as a bijou, the only one “proudly produced in the USA” while the competition, from Fender to Gibson, has been manufacturing parts or even entire instruments on the cheap in the Far East for some time now. “We’re the Porsche of guitars: high quality, low production,” says Hall.

If you think that Adolph Rickenbacher is perceived as a Swiss in the United States, then you don’t know anything about the place. Except for the one percent of their population made up of native people, all US citizens have immigrants in their family trees, and are no less American for all that. Still, the head of Rickenbacker sets store by the company’s connection to Switzerland, given that “Swiss” is a byword for craftsmanship and precision. And Hall is quick to rave about his skiing vacation in Grindelwald, as well as the beauty of the Lake of Lucerne. He would have liked to have the Swiss cross engraved into the 10,000 or so instruments his crew produces each year, but the Swiss government nixed his request. Undaunted, Hall continues to dream of moving part of his production to Switzerland, and has already embarked on negotiations with the cantons of Vaud, Jura, Valais and Neuchâtel.

“There are a hundred things that we could improve and make better, but we almost don't dare do them, because every time we add some innovation to the product everyone seems to think that we've broken it. It's such a weird phenomenon. We're definitely trapped,” chuckles Hall, a pained expression on his face. “We’re held back by the customer’s wish for a retro look.” Most of the more than 1,800 different models Rickenbacker International turns out today are re-editions of guitars from the fifties and sixties. “Can you imagine someone wanting to go out and purchase a perfect vintage replica of say a 1954 television set? There's no market there for that.” But guitarists have just got to have the old-time model…

Hall would give anything to be building aesthetically pleasing, mechanically and electronically sophisticated instruments, but the guitar that was once wielded like a weapon on the barricades has hardened into a classic, a symbol. It is the youth of today who prize it as a token of resistance against the digitalized world they grew up in and are sick of. They need something they can hold in their hands, something that looks like it did back then, when music was still hard work – and oh yeah, something that makes you pine for a little blood, sweat and tears. Still, the boss does have one consolation: “Essentially, electronics haven't changed from that first 1931 guitar. I guess you could say it was a good product.”

Actually Hall doesn’t need to work at all, since his family has done well in the oil and real estate business, but the amateur musician still comes in to sit behind his desk every day, along with his wife, his daughter and his son. It’s a family business, after all. The company could be eight to ten times larger, says Hall, considering the demand for its products. “We don't need to outdo ourselves each year. Part of that comes from the fact that we have no outside investors. We also have no loans, we have no banks involved in our business. It's strictly my wife and myself.” All investors care about is money, he reckons, while to him, each individual guitar remains “a work of art.”
So doesn’t it hurt to watch someone like Pete Townshend of the Who smash up that work of art on stage? “You have to hear it in Pete's own words. He said that he had such a high respect for the product, it was American, it was expensive, that it gave him a vicarious thrill to be the only guy who could afford to break up something like this. He himself says that it’s the Stradivarius of electric guitars.”

Hall has just had a limited edition of sixty electric basses made of walnut and maple wood, named after his favorite customer, Motörhead's hooligan-in-chief Lemmy, their hand-carved oak-leaf and acorn adornments copied from old SS uniforms. “Lemmy’s no Nazi,” Hall is quick to explain, “he just likes the aesthetics.” The instruments are already fetching top prices before the complete run has even been delivered.

The company is particularly proud of the “neck-through-body” construction used on most Rickenbacker models, which involves carving the guitar’s main components out of one single piece of wood rather than gluing its neck and body together. But can you hear the difference in quality? “I've always said that it's the neck-through-body drawing that is probably the most important part of the guitar sound,” answers Hall, “the way the energy of the string is transmitted through the neck, that's where the sound of a guitar is. Neck-through-body is harder to manufacture but it sounds better.” You can check it out on the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night,” for example. John’s father F.C. Hall landed his biggest public relations coup when he guided the Fab Four to a New York hotel suite during their first visit to the United States and handed them Rickenbacker guitars – which they then went on to play on their American tour, watched by 70 million TV viewers. And his father didn’t even especially like the Beatles’ newfangled music, notes Hall.

The company is still living off of Beatlemania, although John Lennon and Paul McCartney did in fact buy their first Rickenbackers themselves, in Hamburg, because it was the instrument of choice for their idol, Belgium’s Toots Thielemans.

“Adolph Rickenbacher continued to make sure everything was in good shape even after he had long since ceased to own the company,” recalls Richard Burke in Santa Ana. Burke, who joined Rickenbacker in 1958 as a carpenter, rose to be production manager and stayed on until his retirement 42 years later. “Adolph would come by the factory almost every week, always in the mood to kid around.” And always ready for business. “One week before he died he was still trying to sell me a Buick,” says Burke. “He was a deal-maker, but he always played fair. I bought a 1957 Ford Ranchero from him that ran like a dream.” Only 25 people attended Rickenbacher’s funeral on March 10, 1976, in Loma Vista Memorial Park in Fullerton. “It was a shame! Adolph deserved better. But the Rickenbacker guitar! You just know he would have been pleased as punch to hear that it still bears his name.”

Adolph Rickenbacher was “a character,” even if he did occasionally also indulge in morbid humor. Orphaned young, he had been forced to make it all alone in a foreign country. And, although his success was due to his many talents, there was one thing The Father of the Electric Guitar never did manage to learn how to do: play the guitar.

Adolph Rickenbacher is one of the main figures featured in the exhibition “Small Number – Big Impact: Swiss Immigration to the USA.” Curated by the Association for a Swiss Migration Museum, the show will open on July 29, 2006, on New York’s Ellis Island before going on to the Swiss National Museum in Zurich in spring of 2007.

As published in Die Weltwoche and Rolling Stone (Germany) Used with permission of the author