Rickenbacker International has a problem General Motors would love. The company that made the first electric guitar and instruments popularized...
Rickenbacker International has a problem General Motors would love. The company that made the first electric guitar and instruments popularized by The Beatles can’t make them fast enough.
“We’re back-ordered two years,” company owner John Hall said, even after he raised prices on all 6- and 12-string guitars and basses by as much as 20 percent this year to cool demand.
The 77-year-old company that made the chiming guitars featured in folk-rock hits such as the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” is a music-industry anomaly: a debt-free, family-owned brand that makes everything at one small factory in Santa Ana, Calif, 38 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
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Larger U.S. rivals Fender Musical Instruments, famed for its Stratocaster, and Gibson Guitar, which produces the Les Paul and other Gibson models domestically, now make their lower-priced guitars in Mexico or Asia. They craft their highest-quality instruments in the U.S., including custom guitars that can cost $3,000 to $10,000 and more.
“There’s nothing like that sort of industrial-sized company that’s still doing everything in-house,” said Mitch Easter, who played the Rickenbacker in the group Let’s Active, the 1980s college-radio darlings. “They either are really contrary or very classy.”
Easter, producer of R.E.M.’s first records with fellow musician Don Dixon, helped spark new enthusiasm for the brand in mixes of Peter Buck’s ringing Rickenbacker 360 guitar on songs such as “Radio Free Europe.”
Like Harley-Davidson, another U.S. manufacturer that’s obsessed with brand image, Rickenbacker won’t manufacture abroad or add a discount line below its current $1,500 to $5,000 retail-price range, Hall said.
“I could do it with a phone call, but it dilutes the brand, the image of the company, the product,” he said. “Beyond that, we need the work here. Why ship it off someplace else?”
Likewise, Hall says he declines unsolicited offers to sell the company “about once a month.”
In 2007, Rickenbacker’s “60 or so” assembly workers in its 37,000-square-foot factory turned hard-rock maple from Michigan, Indiana walnut and imported bubinga wood from Africa and Asia into more than 10,000 guitars.
“Studies that we’ve done suggest that our market is about eight times what we’re producing right now, so we’re way behind the eight ball,” Hall said.
To quadruple output, he added laser cutters, quick-drying ultraviolet coating ovens and metal injection-molding devices. Such equipment shortens assembly time and improves quality, he said.
That should also lift Rickenbacker’s annual revenue beyond last year’s “$10 million range,” said Hall, 58, who doesn’t disclose financial results of his closely held company.
Hall inherited Rickenbacker from his father, Francis, whose Radio & Television Equipment Co. first handled sales of Leo Fender’s namesake guitars and amplifiers in the late 1940s.
The elder Hall bought the company in 1953 from Adolph Rickenbacker, who co-founded it in 1931 with George Beauchamp. That year, the company introduced the first electric guitar, a lap steel model made of aluminum that’s referred to as “the frying pan” for its round body and elongated neck.
Through the 1950s, the elder Hall updated the products, hiring German luthier Roger Rossmeisl, who had worked for Gibson, to add touches that became brand hallmarks, including exaggerated slashes on hollow-body instruments in place of standard F-holes.
The distinctive, vibrant sound of a Rickenbacker comes from a solid neck that runs from the headstock through the body, said DeWitt Burton, R.E.M.’s equipment manager in Athens, Ga.
“I can only describe it as a very ’round’ sound,” said Burton, who oversees more than a dozen Rickenbacker guitars and basses used by the band for tours and recording. “All spectrums of the sound wave are represented.”
John Lennon, who had played a Rickenbacker 325 since his days in Hamburg in the late 1950s, made the guitar even more famous when The Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. That made the brand essential for other British Invasion bands, including the Rolling Stones, the Who and Herman’s Hermits.
Francis Hall scheduled a meeting with the band in New York before their first performance on Sullivan’s program.
“He made arrangements with manager Brian Epstein to meet them and set up a suite in the Savoy Hotel,” John Hall recalled. “They all came except George, who was sick.”
His father brought Lennon a new guitar, a 12-string for the absent George Harrison and a bass for Paul McCartney.
“It was a right-handed bass. Oops,” Hall said. His father didn’t know McCartney was left-handed.
A year later, when The Beatles played a famous 1965 show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, then-15-year-old John Hall delivered a proper left-handed instrument to McCartney.
“He still uses it for recording,” Hall said.