There is no more beautiful sound in pop than the jangling, sad sunshine of a well played 12-string. And the Rickenbacker is the undisputed queen of those guitars. It is truly one of the instruments of rock.
John Lennon began a love affair with Rickenbacker guitars in 1960, when he bought a six-string Model 325 Rickenbacker. He played the blonde-coloured guitar on all the Beatles recordings until early 1964 – listen for the rhythm track on ‘All My Loving’ for a definitive example of the sound. You can see it in concerts from this period; it was repainted black after a while: this is the incarnation you can see on the footage of The Ed Sullivan Show. John later owned three other Rickenbackers – these early ones were all conventional six strings – and eventually got a unique 12-string.
But it was his fellow Beatle, George, who was perhaps more associated with the Rickenbacker sound. He owned the second 360 model 12-string ever made by the company. The first one – and if this ever comes up in a pub quiz, you owe Rock Solid a pint – was sold by Rickenbacker CEO FC Hall to a Country and Western artist from Las Vegas called Suzi Arden.
These 12-strings featured the ingenious arrangement of putting the machine heads at alternate right angles, allowing the 12 tuners to fit on the headstock. They were lovely instruments, with the neck running all the way down into the body, as was the Rickenbacker way, and the finish carrying all the way up the neck and onto the headstock.
It is this instrument that you can hear on classic 12-string Beatles songs like ‘Eight Days A Week’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. The group became so closely associated with the firm that adverts for the Model 1996 in the UK offered for sale ‘The Beatlebacker’. In 1965, on tour, a Minnesota radio station presented George with another 12-string Rickenbacker; he used this for some years but it was stolen after the famous final concert in Candlestick Park.
And it was the film of A Hard Day’s Night that inspired undoubtedly the most-celebrated of all the 12-string players: Roger McGuinn. He saw the guitar in the movie and knew he had to have it, and that he would make music to utilise its lovely, unique sound to the full. As Roger himself said:
“The Byrds’ sound would have been impossible without the invention of the Rickenbacker twelve string electric guitar.”
Those two ‘Toaster’ pick-ups and the synchronised octaves that each pair of strings produced lead to that unmistakeable jangly, bell-like sound of the Byrds. Soon, other bands were also catching on to the possibilities: Tom Petty and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, Pete Townshend of The Who, John Fogerty of CCR, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, Brian Jones of The Stones, Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys… all found a use for the 12-string Rickenbacker.
The instrument’s popularity faded somewhat in the Seventies, the Toaster pick-up not being suited for the high-gain sounds of hard rock, but they enjoyed a resurgence – especially in the UK – with jangle pop sounds more recently. Johnny Marr, a real guitarists’ guitarist, proudly displays the 12-string he used for the strange and lovely Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others on his website. Once saw an interview with Johnny where he said that he knew it was time for The Smiths to call it a day when he wrote that soaring, majestic guitar part and Morrissey came back with lyrics about “some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.”
Thankfully for lovers of beautiful instruments everywhere, Marr didn’t clunk him round the head with the 12-string.
The Rickenbacker is still the guitar that indie guitar bands turn to when they don’t want to be hard-core rock but still want to look cool…and it probably always will be.