This week, I found myself neck deep in a Tom Petty Full Moon Fever listening binge. As the tracks played through my earbuds again and again, I was struck by the iconic image on the album cover: Tom in technicolor, sporting a Rickenbacker. A classic pair. I know Petty’s story, but what about Rickenbacker’s? How did these worlds collide?
Well before the brand of Rickenbacker and decades prior to the advent of the modern electric guitar, Francis Hall developed a keen interest and aptitude for tinkering with electronic radios as a high school student in Santa Ana, California. With a buzz around his builds and a need to power them, young Francis turned his shop interest into an entrepreneurial venture and started a part-time side gig of selling and recharging batteries. In short order, this venture led to consulting, contracting, and installing public address and radio systems in local schools and churches.
Where the six string enters the story, however, is when Francis’ path crossed with another emerging American icon of guitar gear: Leo Fender. In 1946, Fender was on the rise with its made in Fullerton steel guitars and amplifiers. Yet they needed a businessman to bring the brand national. Francis stepped into this role and became the nation-wide distributor of Fender gear. As Fender’s brand recognition and network grew, so did Francis’ profile.
At this point, another gear maker entered the equation: Adolf Rickenbacker. After emigrating from Switzerland to the west coast of the US in the 1920s, Adolf plied his craft of instrument making. Not unlike Leo, at this point his gear was mostly metal hollow bodies. At the time, his builds were for a larger manufacturer. It wasn’t until 1931 that he broke free and founded “Ro-Pat-In Company,” a mouthful of a name that signaled the business venture with two other partners, George Beauchamp and Paul Barth. The business was a success. Over the course of two decades, their builds exceeded 2,700 electric guitars, many of which were the first to bear the name Rickenbacker on the headstock. By 1953, this was enough to be noticed by the growing network of guitars built and distributed out of sunny California.
Around this time, Francis Hall bought up the company and set his sights on revolutionizing the design and distribution processes of Rickenbacker. The early evolution of the Rickenbacker catalogue included many models, such as the student version Combo 400, as well as design breakthroughs, such as the first-ever manufactured neck through body builds for electric guitars.
By the 1960s, arguably the biggest splash in Rickenbacker’s early history was when their guitars became one of the main weapons of choice for the Beatles. But the British invasion of music also inspired many artists stateside to pick up a Rickenbacker. As a result, Francis expanded and moved the business to Orange County to keep up with growing market demands.
Eventually, Rickenbackers fell into the hands of yet another generation of rockers and writers who continued to give voice to angst and inspiration, which brings us full circle to where we started with my pick of the week, Tom Petty. Petty is among one of the few artists to be knighted with a Rickebacker artist signature, a model of the Rickenbacker 660/12TP. Curious to know what it looks like, just check out the front cover of Full Moon Fever.