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My First 12-String Rickenbacker

Written by Brian Wolfe

May 6, 2020

I remember the compressed guitar sound coming out of our black and white Motorola TV set like it was yesterday. That moment in time has become part of my sonic DNA. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. There on the TV was this skinny guitar player with strange rectangular sunglasses and a blonde guitar that sounded like it was sending messages from another dimension.

I recognized the guitar instantly as a Rickenbacker because John and George of The Beatles both played Rickenbacker guitars. This one sounded completely different than either of theirs. I discovered pretty fast that the guitar had 12 strings, with the bass strings tuned an octave apart and the treble strings tuned in unison. George’s Rickenbacker was also a 12-string, but this new sound was a sonic game changer. The song was “Mister Tambourine Man,” and the band was The Byrds.

The guitarist Jim McGuinn (later to change his name to Roger) had created a new sound by compressing the signal and boosting the treble. He was also a banjo player and fingerpicked the guitar with metal fingerpicks. This sound became known as “Jangle” Rock and pretty soon almost every band had a 12- string Rickenbacker on both sides of the Atlantic.

There were three basic models; the solid body 450-12, the semi-hollow 330-12, and the deluxe semi-hollow 360-12. The two most popular finishes were the natural, which was referred to as Mapleglow, and the sunburst, which was named Fireglow.

I had to get my hands on one of these. The problem was they were very expensive. Even the least expensive one, the 450-12, was around $250, which was a lot of money in 1965 for a 13-year-old kid to lay his hands on. It was decided that I would have to get an after school and weekend job if I was ever to afford one.

At this point, a little back story is in order. My first guitar was a robin egg blue Kapa Continental. It was an okay guitar, but not what it was sold to me as, which was “better than a Fender,” I got it in around 1963 at Goldies in New Haven. A year later, I was at Caruso’s in New London trading it in. I had a bunch of money saved and hoped that with my trade-in I could get a 450-12. I asked what could he do. He opened up the case of a Rickenbacker 450-12, thought for a bit, and offered me a red Fender Mustang. I don’t know why I took the Mustang. I suspect I was sick of the Kapa.

I then went back to work at my job at the local Hammond Organ shop. My job was to polish the organs, help deliver them, along with cleaning and vacuuming the shop. Oh yes, and every Saturday I had to clean both sides of the very large plate glass window in the front of the shop. The owner insisted that I use only Windex and old newspapers to clean the window. It took me forever to get rid of all the streaks.

It wasn’t until 1966 that I finely had enough money to get my first Rickenbacker, a Fireglow 450-12. The guitar was my pride and joy until one night, playing at a coffeehouse in Ivoryton, the neck fell off. For a very short period of time, Rickenbacker experimented with changing the guitar’s construction to a glued-on neck, from “neck through” construction, where the neck and body are one piece of wood (the body is created by gluing “wings” to either side of the core). Sadly the amount of string pressure was too much and the glued on neck joints failed. The guitar had to be sent off to Rickenbacker for replacement.

This took over a year and by the time I got the guitar back, I had acquired a used Mapleglow 360-12 on loan. My father met a guy at a bar named the Woodlawn in Madison, Connecticut. He had the Rickenbacker and a Stratocaster that he gave up playing. He told my dad I could keep the 360-12 until I got my 450-12 back. Needless to say, I tried my hardest to keep the 360-12, but it would not be until a couple of years later that I would be able to get one from Harmony Music in Madison. By then, I got a job there and worked it off, instead of getting paid. I’ve almost always had a 450-12 and 360-12 in my “toolbox” since high school. There were very long periods of time when I would not play them and was tempted to sell one or both of them. However, there always seemed to be a song or project that only sounded right with that haunting compressed jangle of my youth.

©2020, AcousticMusic.Org

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