Rickenbacker Electro Spanish Guitar

George Gruhn
Rare Bird, Guitar Player, September 1982
THE RICKENBACKER Electro Spanish guitar of 1935 is a contender for being possibly the first commercially-produced, Spanish-neck, electric solidbody available on the market. The model shown here, a later version, has some unusual features which are due, in part, to the efforts of such early design pioneers as Adolph Rickenbacker, George Beauchamp (pronounced "Bee-chum"), and Doc Kauffman. [Ed. Note: For more about Rickenbacker see Rare Bird, Apr. '74;for more about Doc Kauffman see Q/A in this issue.]

The Electro is made of cast Bakelite, a synthetic resin composed of formaldehyde and phenol that was developed in the early teens by Belgian chemist L.H. Baekeland. The Electro has a bolt-on, 23-fret, integrally fretted neck that joins the body just beyond the 14th fret. (This model may have been the first guitar to feature a bolt-on Spanish neck.) There is no truss rod since, presumably, the Bakelite design was supposed to eliminate the need for any structural neck adjusting apparatus. Nevertheless, the necks on most of these instruments do have a tendency to warp.

The unusual horseshoe-magnet pickup is placed 9/16" from the slanted, adjustable bridge--a position closer to the guitar's waist than that of the pickup on Electro's Hawaiian counterpart, the model B (BD-6, BD-7, and BD-4). The patented Vibrola tailpiece, designed by Doc Kauffman, is a curiosity in itself, a precursor of the commonly misnamed "tremolo" tailpieces of years to come (vibrato is a change in pitch, while tremolo is a change in amplitude, or loudness).

The Electro Spanish guitar functions as a solidbody instrument, and the series of hollowed-out chambers hidden beneath the fitted-dome covers do not add any beneficial acoustic properties to the instrument's sound; the cavities are there for the sake of efficient mold design, and save both in weight and in material. In size, the Electro Spanish with its baritone ukulele-shaped body resembles many of today's travel guitars, but by modern standards it is too heavy to be considered a comfortable travel instrument. [Ed. Note: For more on travel guitars, see the July 82 issue of Guitar Player.]

As early as 1929, Les Paul was experimenting with electrifying acoustic guitars, using a phonograph needle. In the early '30s, Vivi-Tone's line of radical instruments--designed by the prominent acoustical engineer Lloyd Loar [Rare Bird, June and July '79]--included an acoustic-electric Spanish-neck guitar made out of solid wood. This model, however, was a marketing failure. Whereas Vivi-Tone's primary thrust was in the design and manufacture of Spanish necked instruments, Rickenbacker was primarily concerned with the manufacture of Hawaiian-necked ones. Making the Electro Spanish guitar was more of a sideline marketing trial for Rickenbacker.

After George Beauchamp patented the solidbody "Fry Pan" Hawaiian guitar (cast aluminum model A-22) in 1930-31, the Electro Corporation, maker of Rickenbacker guitars, produced as many as ten handmade prototypes of a solid maple Spanish-neck with 25 frets and a body with the following dimensions: 31-3/4" long, 1-5/8" thick, and 7" in diameter. These prototypes have necks that resemble the National Company's design, which is not surprising since Adolph Rickenbacker, as an independent contractor had, for years, engineered and manufactured metal parts for National. [Ed. Note: For more on National, see Rare Bird, March '80.]

Within two months or so of the introduction of the "Fry Pan" on the market, Dobro came out with its own electric solidbody Hawaiian guitar [Ed. Note: For more on Dobro, see Rare Bird, September '72]. It is still unresolved whether the Dobro or the Rickenbacker electric was the first to be sold commercially in music stores (a prototype of the "Fry Pan" made of solid wood with a Spanish neck and raised frets is on display today at Rickenbacker's office in Santa Ana, California. This particular model, which never went into production, was made by Rickenbacker in 1930 and features a retrofitted raised nut that converts it to a Hawaiian guitar; a long scale, National-style neck; and a slotted headstock with no name).

From the time the Rickenbacker Electro Spanish guitar was introduced in 1935, until the 1940s, several solidbody guitars were produced by other contemporary designers--including Les Paul's "Log Guitar," the Doc Kauffman/ Leo Fender K&F solid body Hawaiian electric (and in '48, Leo Fender's Broadcaster), the Paul Bigsby/ Merle Travis Spanish solidbody electric, O.W. Appleton's electric solidbody, and others. [Ed. Note: See the following Rare Birds for more about these pioneering solidbody designs: Appleton, January '79; Bigsby/ Travis, November and December '80: Fender, January '74.]

Adolph Rickenbacker, a Swiss tool-and-die maker, founded Electro in Los Angeles, California, in 1928. He had considerable experience in the production molding of Bakelite products, and was responsible for developing a time-saving, hot-cold method for the curing of Bakelite in the casting process. At that time, manufacturers were interested in Bakelite because it was a good insulator, could be polished easily, did not deteriorate, and saved production time--a bag of powdered resin could almost effortlessly be transformed into a smoothly designed instrument. Since Bakelite is a brittle, easily chipped material, though, all hardware on the Rickenbacker-designed guitar is machine-threaded, or tapped. No wood screws were used.

The patent for the Rickenbacker Electro Spanish guitar was filed by George E. Beauchamp on May 26, 1936, and granted in 1939. In 1939, the model listed for $62.50, and came with a Geib-manufactured, formed hardshell case of three-ply veneer with green, curly plush lining and no compartments. The Electro Spanish is a modification of Rickenbacker's black, Bakelite, guitar-shaped lap steel--later named model B--that was a successor to the "Fry Pans."

The bodies of both the Hawaiian and Spanish models appear to be made from the same mold, a fact that accounts for the inconvenient placement of the 1/4" female phone jack; the jack is laterally mounted on the bass side of the guitar, several inches off center. While this location is acceptable to Hawaiian-style players, who sit the instrument on their laps, it is particularly irritating for Spanish style musicians; the cord is between the strap button and the guitarist's right elbow, hindering the strumming hand.

The bolt-on neck is fastened to the rounded body with two 15/32" oval-head slotted machine screws, spaced 3-7/16" apart. The guitar body is 1-3/4" thick, with an average wall thickness of .350". It is 7-1/8" wide across the 19th fret, 5-7/16" wide across the waist and 9-1/4'' wide at its fullest part. The guitar has an overall length of 32-9/32" and a body length of 14-1/16". The nut and the integral frets are subject to wear, and are difficult, if not impossible, to be replaced or repaired. The 22-5/8" scale length varies in thickness from .930" at the first fret to 1.12" at the 12th. The neck's width at the nut is 1.760", at the 12th fret 2.2", and at the heel of the fingerboard 2.3". The molded frets are .030" high.

Fingerboard markers appear on frets 5, 7, 9, 12, 17, 21, and 24, with the 24th fret not being playable. The serial number, C 2039, is die-stamped into the lateral top edge of the headstock. The headstock plate, mounted with two round-head slotted machine screws, bears the name "Rickenbacher Electro, Los Angeles" with a symmetrical bolt of lightning. At the time, the company had a surplus of "Fry Pan" headplates with the non-Americanized spelling "Rickenbacher." These were used on the Electro Spanish guitars, although by then the 1937 catalog was using the American version of the name ["Rickenbacker"]. Eventually, the spelling "Rickenbacker" came to be used both for the instruments' and for Adolph's name.

There are chrome-plated, domed panels (later replaced by white, painted metal and after that, white plastic--with the discontinuance of the Spanish model) that cover the body cavities. There are a total of eight holes under the bridge, as well as one pickup cavity, two front cavities, and one square hole at the heel of the neck. All wiring pathways within and between the cavities are handtooled or drilled, rather than molded. The two control knobs are black Bakelite with etched white arrow pointers. One of the two control cavities houses a Centralab volume pot, the other similarly shaped control cavity contains a Centralab pot and one MFD 400 VCD Tiger Cornell Dubilier capacitor.

All hardware is chrome-plated, with the exception of the open-gear 12:1 nickel-plated grip gears, the same tuners used on the Hawaiian models with the same body shape. The gears have no bushings, and are fastened with machinethread screws.

The Doc Kauffman patented Vibrola was a regular feature on the Electro Spanish, although the patent drawings for the instrument show a different unit. In fact, there are several different Vibrola drawings in the guitar's patent file, including a shiftable bridge and a roller-bearing bridge, the latter feature not used in manufacture. The Vibrola used on the guitar has a short handle that can be adjusted for length. When moved in a downward motion, it lowers the pitch of the strings by means of a streamlined, spring-tension device that translates string tension into a lateral movement. Upward motioning of the handle conversely raises the pitch of all six strings. The Vibrola is string-grounded with a stranded copper ground strap to the output jack housed in the tone control cavity.

The horseshoe-magnet pickup bears the patent number on both height-adjustment plates (#2089171). This patent was granted to Beauchamp in 1937. The pickup utilizes some unusual design features: Non-magnetic, brass mounting screws are employed to eliminate interference with the concentrated magnetic field, and a non-magnetic underplate is the fastener for the two horseshoe magnets and the phenolic singie-coil top and bottom plates. The brown enameled coil wire is wrapped around narrow, cylindrical polepieces, sandwiched between a thick (.135") black phenolic top and bottom. The coil, .125" wide, is wrapped with black braided litz cloth. The wound coil is placed inside a two-part, sideways-mounted, horseshoe magnet of relatively low magnetic pull (the horseshoes have an air gap of .168" at the top, and .100" at the bottom), which is mounted securely to the 0.193"-thick, solid aluminum underplate.

This entire unit is then mounted into the Bakelite cavity, and is height-adjustable by the twisting of two knurled, spring-loaded nuts. This height adjustment is, essentially, a slant adjustment that changes the relative distance of the polepieces to the strings. The polepieces are graduated in height from flush at the treble side to a .056" elevation at the bass end. The combined effects of low magnetic pull in an opposing magnetic field, graduated polepieces, and nonmagnetic hardware make this pickup a masterpiece in design for its time.

There are some unusual and extremely rare variations of the Electro Spanish guitar, such as the Vibrola Spanish guitar--which is similar to the Electro, but had noticeable changes, too. It had a motorized Vibrola unit housed in the back of the body, and was almost twice as deep (3-3/16') as the Electro. This body housed a motor, flywheel, rheostats, and pulleys, which generated a pulsating, electrically-operated vibrato. Strategically-located airholes served to air-cool the motor works. [Ed. Note: For more about ihe motorized Vibrola, see Patent Search, April '82.] The Vibrola Spanish guitar, which was used on some of the late Bing Crosbys early recordings, was available as an outfit with the model 200A Professional Amplifier (one 12" speaker, 15 watts), and integral stand that was mounted on the amp and adjusted to the optimum playing height for a standing guitarist. The 200A listed for $198.50 in 1938.

There was also a tenor guitar manufactured, which had a Bakelite body and a Vibrola unit. Priced at $62.50, this instrument had a 6-string bridge and a wood neck resembling that found on early Nationals (remember, Adolph Rickenbacker did the tooling for National).

The Electro Spanish guitar was not a good seller, its poor acceptance possibly due to its small body size and relatively heavy weight. Although the Spanish model was discontinued after several years of production, its Hawaiian counterpart, the model B, stayed in production well into the '50s. Granted, the Rickenbacker Electro Spanish guitar may not be a solidbody guitar in its purest, most modern sense. But its design, nevertheless, was a significant departure from the previous long chain of hollowbody electrics and acoustics of the day with its one-piece body, bolt-on neck, and all molded parts. It heralded design changes that would someday result in the modern solidbody electric.