Probably one of the nicest things about doing this BunnyBass thing is that we've had a chance to learn new stuff about basses from a lot of folks. Recently we had an opportunity to sit down and chat with John Hall, CEO of Rickenbacker International Corporation, makers of Rickenbacker basses and guitars. We conducted the following interview at the Rickenbacker factory in Santa Ana, about an hour south of Los Angeles, in a museum-like room filled with dozens of rare and beautiful Rickenbackers from years past. Entering the room we passed by a display case with the world's first electric guitar in it - the Rickenbacker "Frying Pan", serial number 001. Very humbling!
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John Hall of Rickenbacker
February 23, 2001
John Hall even was nice enough to take us on an extensive tour of the facilities where we got to see firsthand the painstaking process by which Rickenbacker basses are made (some pictures at the end of the interview). Needless to say, it was once in a lifetime, super-cool experience for someone like me who grew up dreaming of one day owning a bass just like Chris Squire's, or maybe Geddy Lee's, or Paul McCartney's, or Lemmy's...
bunnybass: Do you mind if I start with a couple of historical type questions?
John Hall: Absolutely. Go ahead.
bunnybass: You know, I recently moved to Los Angeles, and one of the things that I always thought was real interesting about Southern California was its status as the "entertainment capital of the world". It makes a lot of sense that the birth of the modern production electric guitar would happen here.
John Hall: I'm not entirely sure how that came about, but certainly the record industry was in full force here. It started in the late 1920s. Basically there was a need for a guitar that was louder than a traditional acoustic guitar. Adolph Rickenbacker was already producing all kinds of parts for the National company [builders of resonator guitars], and George Beauchamp, who was with the National company, decided to team up with Adolf to build an electric guitar to meet that need. They essentially just needed more volume to compete with the rest of the orchestra. The guitar was being lost amongst the horns and other instruments at that time, but I guess that could have happened anywhere except for the fact that Southern California was the hot spot for musicians at that time. I think it's entirely coincidental that Leo Fender also happened to be here in Southern California. I think that was pretty well a serendipitous event because he literally could have been anywhere given his radio servicing background.
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the world's first electric guitar
bunnybass: Most people don't know about the relationship that the Rickenbacker company had with Leo Fender. Could you talk a little bit about that?
John Hall: Well, first off, you'll find, if you really dig, that this is an incredibly incestuous industry to begin with. But in that particular situation, my dad (F.C. Hall) was a very successful businessman in electronics - the early electronics - meaning radio, and some time later, television. And one of his customers was Leo Fender, who repaired radios for a living. And he happened to see Leo building these instruments in his shop, and was thinking, "Gee, I've got this great distribution company, and Leo's got this idea. Maybe we can work together." Beyond that, Leo owed him some money. So, my dad suggested that he would become the worldwide distributor for the product and Leo would manufacture it, and that was really the beginning of the Fender company in 1948. My dad owned that business fully until 1953. By 1953 Adolf Rickenbacker was retiring from business. He had no heirs and he was of the age that he wanted to retire and my dad purchased that with the thought that he would operate both companies in parallel. He seemed to think that they were complementary. I don't think Leo saw it that way, and there were some other external forces, including the death of one of their more important employees. And as a result, my dad then sold his interest in the Fender business back to Leo Fender, and that ended the relationship between the two companies.
bunnybass: Did your father have any interest in developing musical instruments before 1953?
John Hall: Well, only from 1948 on. Prior to that time it was all strictly electronics related, not musical instruments. Electro String was Rickenbacker's company, and that's what my dad purchased in 1953. Electro String Instrument Corporation was the original manufacturer of Rickenbacker products. You have to put in perspective in that era that companies often operated in two pieces. They operated as a manufacturing company, and they operated as a sales or distribution company, and that had to do with the tax laws of that era. And Electro String was strictly the manufacturer of the goods, and Radio-Tel (Radio and Television Electric Company) was the distributor of the goods. That same company was the distributor of the Fender products prior to 1953. Those companies remained completely independent throughout the years. So it operated as two halves of an organization and as a practical matter, I actually did not merge those companies together until 1998. So RIC - Rickenbacker International Corporation) - where you're sitting now, this is the merged company. This is actually the original Electro String Instrument Corporation to this day.
bunnybass: It always surprises me when I read about businesses that were started in that era that have survived to this day. I mean, 1931 was a bad year in terms of business. How did Electro String survive that kind of economic situation, onwards into the year 2001?
John Hall: That's a good question considering 1929 and what had happened in the business world. But you also have to remember Adolf Rickenbacker was a very talented engineer. He's often credited as being a father of injection molding of plastic. He worked with Dr. Baekeland who developed bakelite. Dr. Baekeland had this material and basically they were molding it the way you would mold clay pottery and things like that. It was Adolf Rickenbacker that came up with the concept of using pressure, heat, and a in particular, a mold that would split into two pieces so that the bakelite could be injected into the mold. Then the mold was popped open and the part would fall out. Well that was a very, very powerful technology at that time, and that was absolutely Adolf's invention. So he had some notoriety and he had a very successful business in creating metal parts, molds, and of course that was his association with the National company. He was providing all of the metalwork that they required for their guitars. The aluminum spinning of the diaphragm on the instruments, the resonators, and all of the punch metal parts. So he had a really successful niche business, and I think that's the answer - having a specialty that happened to be in demand. Even in the worst economic times, there's always a core market for certain things, and he had found that out. At the same time, and I honestly don't know how big of a factor this is, you have to remember that his wife was the heiress of Standard Oil.
bunnybass: I did not know that.
John Hall: And he lived in Beverly Hills, and he had 7 cars. So he was substantially well off. And that certainly had some influence.
bunnybass: When your father took over the company, there was a major shift not only in the organization of the company, but also culturally - the line of instruments changed pretty radically. Can you talk a little bit about your father's influence on the direction of the company in the beginning years?
John Hall: Yeah. I don't know exactly how he came to some of his conclusions, but I know at some point he realized - I'm not sure whether publicly or just intuitively - that he needed to make some changes in order to be competitive. And certainly one of the greatest influences in that was hiring Roger Rossmeisl. Rossmeisl was a Northern German luthier, a graduate of the Mittenwauld School, which is a prestigious classical musical instrument school that goes back a long time. He had been working at Gibson, and he worked at Gibson because his father had also worked at Gibson before returning to Germany. And my dad had the opportunity to hire Roger and specifically gave him the mission of developing some models that would be more competitive. I frankly never heard him discuss this, but surely he had to be aware of the growing influence of Leo Fender's designs, having been there with Leo and seen all that. So that was his first priority - to restructure the company, and to build more modern types of instruments. At that time too, you have to remember, the company absolutely, totally, completely dominated the Hawaiian guitar market - the lapsteels, pedalsteels, and all of the different type of steel guitars. That was a big market in the 1930s, 1940s, and immediately following the Second World War, you know, the servicemen returning home from Hawaii, and this kind of thing. It was a big influence and a lot of products were being sold. But certainly by the early 50s, we were moving on into the earliest stages of rock and roll and a demand of an entirely different type of instrument was emerging.
bunnybass: How did your father restructuring the day to day operations of the company affect the final product - the instruments being produced? For example, the in-house sales folks having a more direct line into the development of the instruments, and so on?
John Hall: Well, let's put it this way - he was always incredibly receptive to ideas from the outside. He was not a musician, or at least not a guitar player. He'd had some experience with the violin as a child, but he really was not musically inclined, and he was at least smart enough to understand that. And he relied heavily upon others to come up with suggestions and ideas, and he was willing to try just about anything. So, the sales people that he utilized around the country indeed were very active - mainly in writing reports back to him. More than anything else, I've noticed in the files a tremendous amount of correspondence where the sales people were saying "I visited such and such store, I observed these types of instruments which seemed to be selling well..." Or talking with a musician, they'd say "Wouldn't it be nice if we could do this or that". So he did have a constant stream of "intelligence" if you will, coming back to him upon which to act.
bunnybass: This would be in the mid-50's. How old were you around at that time?
John Hall: I was born in 1950, so mid-50's maybe around 5 years old...
bunnybass: Were you conscious while you were growing up that you were growing up in the midst of a business that had national, even worldwide musical impact?
john lennon with his rickenbacker
John Hall: Well I'm not sure that I appreciated that, although I did have a lot of opportunities to establish that I suppose. For instance, it must have been 1955 or so. My dad took me up when he was very much involved with Rick Nelson. We went up to the Ozzie and Harriet show's set and sat around with the cast there, mainly talking with Rick Nelson. James Burton and some of the other people were there as well. Maybe the answer to your question specifically - maybe I wasn't totally cognicent because I actually was more interested in the Lassie set, which shared the same sound stage. But I did have that opportunity. We had a lot of fairly prominent musicians to our home - Jean (Toots) Thielmans comes to mind, Toots of course being the jazz great with the George Shearing Quintet. That was John Lennon's idol, which is why John Lennon purchased a Rickenbacker to begin with. So, I definitely had some feel or some appreciation for it there, but to pin it more precisely, I don't think that it really dawned until the Beatles hit, and at that point I knew that there was some major international prominence associated with the company.
bunnybass: By then you would have been a teenager.
John Hall: Exactly. I was exactly the age at which that type of music was appealing and certainly all of my friends in school were interested in that kind of music. And needless to say, I was the only person in my age group, among my friends, that had the opportunity to meet the Beatles and other artists like that by going along with my dad. So by then I realized that it was something pretty unique.
bunnybass: so at what point did you realize that guitar and bass would become a big part of your own life?
John Hall: Well, I think there were actually several moments. That feeling came and went a few times. I started working during the summers when I was 16, and I did quite a lot of the creative side of the company. I did a lot of advertising, promotional work, as well as working in the warehouse and sweeping things up and...well, I had a lot of different jobs. But on the other hand, I also had some other interests, completely my own, even though I was playing in bands and that kind of thing which tied into this. I had some other interests in photography and other art forms and I really did leave during the time I was in university and I went to art school, and that actually turned into computer graphics, the earliest forms of that. So, it really looked like I was going in a completely different direction. But by 1969 I did come back to the company and worked full-time at a very wide range of experiences throughout the company. My dad gave me some tremendous opportunities to do some things that I certainly wouldn't have had anywhere else. And I did leave again for another year through 79 and 80. I went into the computer business with a partner, but I came back in 1980 because I saw he had some health problems and I also very frankly wasn't really enamored of the computer business after being in it. It began to look too much like the MIDI and keyboard market, where you had to invent a new design every 18 months or you just weren't a player anymore. I really preferred this business more, where we had some product lives of 20, 30 or 40 years.
bunnybass: I'm kind of curious about your own designing and building work. I mean, I saw on the website that you actually designed a few of the models. Do you still do that kind of thing?
John Hall: Oh, absolutely. That's an important part of my work. It's also something that I enjoy doing. And unlike my dad, I am a guitar and bass player, so I would like to think I have some appreciation as to what musicians would like to have in their instruments. So through the years I have designed a number of different things. And I have to give my dad credit that he allowed me to build a lot of things and try a lot of things, and certainly not all of my innovations were a success. A guitar with quarter note frets wasn't exactly a big item.
bunnybass: You mentioned the differences between the computer industry - and the kind of mindset that dominates product development in that sector - and how that's been very contrary to how Rickenbacker in particular does things. For instance, the 4000 series basses haven't radically changed for almost 50 years now. How do you balance, as a designer, the desire to retain the kind of tradition that Rickenbacker is known for against the need to innovate and "keep current"?
John Hall: Well that's a great question because that is an incredibly hard thing to balance. You have to decide which elements are worth saving from the historical past and which items need updating. Not change for the sake of change. Those kind of decisions are incredibly difficult to make sometimes. And more than anything it probably goes beyond the design phase and into the marketing stages. You know, "what could or what can we change successfully?" In our particular case, one of the easier ways that we've done this is actually just to create new models which have some of the historical input in terms of shape - maybe the headstock shape or some reference to the body shape - but incorporating a lot of new features. That plays to the musicians' mentality that we haven't destroyed a product by changing it. All we've done in fact is created a new product. And certainly if people flock to this new model, perhaps we can then phase out that earlier version. That is a little bit unique in our industry, compared to other industries where every year you want a completely new, totally different model, maybe reflecting fashion trends of the time. And we've pretty well bucked that. Even the latest models, you can see where it came from - 20, 30, 40, 50 years earlier.
bunnybass: I especially like designs that seem to have, for various reasons, an apparently timeless kind of beauty. For instance, the exterior contours of the 4000 series basses are very beautiful to my eye. They looked cool when I was a kid and they still look cool 30 years later. In your own design work, how did you attempt to go about internalizing that kind of aesthetic sensibility, so that you could reproduce it but also to evolve it?
John Hall: I think the trick is to appreciate it and to understand that there is something really unique there that does not need changing. Like you said, it is a very good design that goes back to the hand of Roger Rossmeisl. It was fairly timeless. And therefore, maybe it's been subject to just a little updating from time to time - just not throwing out the baby with the bath water. It's been that kind of approach. But at the same time, there has to be some improvements made to keep up with changes in the style of music and the rest of the market where there's been changes in fashion going on. So it is an evolution. If you want to look at a comparable model you can look to the Volkswagen Bug. It started out in one configuration and it has totally evolved into something else. But at least for many years there, the kinds of changes were very, very incremental and you could always see that evolution, that history, from year to year. There are other companies that just don't follow that kind of perspective at all.
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the first electric bass
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the first electric bass pickup
bunnybass: When you take a look at the patent drawings for the horseshoe pickup or think about the neck-through construction instruments of the mid-50's, it's always a little surprising to see how many of the design elements that define the fundamental characteristics of your basses and guitars were pretty much nailed very early in this history of this company...
John Hall: Well very much so, and again, I think we've got to give a lot of credit to Roger Rossmeisl. He really is the father of the modern designs in many respects. That neck-through design, the cat's-eye sound hole, the shark-fin neck inlay, the head shape, the cresting-wave body shape, and so on. All of those things came right out of his head.
bunnybass: here's a unrelated question that just popped up into my mind: how early did you start producing 8-string basses?
John Hall: Well actually the first 8 string bass we made was about 1966. It was made for Chris Hillman. And in fact the instrument that you're looking at there is a reproduction of that Chris Hillman type bass. That was the first and I honestly don't know... maybe half a dozen were produced in that era. And then there was a long period of time where there were no 8 string basses produced, and it must have been in the early 80s when they were brought back, and brought back as a solid body bass, a little more conventional configuration.
bunnybass: There's always been a lot of talk about the "trademark Rickenbacker sound". I know this goes for guitars as well, but since this is BunnyBass, I'm going to ask you about your basses. What in your mind, from most important to least important, are the essential variables that create that sound?
John Hall: Well, the quintessential Rickenbacker bass sound is that piano string type ring. It's a combination of sustain and brightness and also along with the fundamental, there's a lot of harmonics associated with it. All of the overtones are a part of that sound. In order to do that, there's a number of things that essentially had to work together. And the neck-through design allows the bridge to sit on the same piece of wood as the neck (so you don't have a neck joint to lose energy to), a fairly low head angle, a fairly low angle across the bridge itself, but nevertheless a fairly sharp break for the bridge. All of those things are contributing factors to that. Of all of those, probably the pickup is the least important. I think most people would be surprised to hear that, but in fact, more than anything it is the neck-body structure that gives that unique sound. But the pickups do have a place in there and they do provide some nuances to the sound.
bunnybass: How would you describe the sonic differences between the 4001/4003 type basses and the 4004?
John Hall: They are a little different sounding, there has been some evolution there. The 4004 provides a more "high-fidelity" type response. The 4001 and 4003 instruments were very definitely a particularly polished, very identifiable sound. All you have to do is listen to Chris Squire and you know what that sound is. The 4004 can pretty much cover that sound but it can also cover the sounds that other instruments put out. It's a little more versatile. It's a lot quieter as well. It has higher output, but it's almost dead quiet because it is a humbucking type pickup. It's probably also a little warmer sounding. Certainly if you're into bite and attack and the Geddy Lee-type sound, probably the 4004 isn't going to be the instrument for you, but if you're like most bass players that have to cover a wide gamut of sounds, the 4004 is much more versatile and it certainly records much better.
bunnybass: You just mentioned a couple of very famous bass players there. How do you go about developing the Limited Edition Signature instruments?
John Hall: Well, we try to identify artists that already have a relationship with the company - they've been identified with using the product, and they've made that choice on their own. It's better when we didn't have anything to do with it. So by the time we've done a Limited Edition, they were already been associated with our product and we basically then just continued that into a little further development on the marketing side I think. Very few exceptions to that. But beyond that, there's a lot of associations there that have never turned into Limited Editions either. And it will probably continue. As I mentioned earlier, I had the great pleasure to sit down with Paul McCartney last week, and talk shop and... well, lot of personal things, family kinds of things. But you know, there's probably never going to be a Paul McCartney Limited Edition because that's just not his kind of thing. But on the other hand, people like Chris Squire, it was a natural thing to do, you know? Here's someone that's out there playing 85% of the time on his Rickenbacker bass, absolutely in love with the instrument, and a perfect spokesperson, if you will, for that particular instrument.
bunnybass: How close are the Limited Edition basses that you produce to the actual bass that someone like Chris Squire would play live or record with?
John Hall: Well it's important to clear that up. There's never been any attempt that the instruments in the artist Limited Edition series replicate a particular instrument that an artist already owns. That's never been a goal. The goal in fact has been to create an instrument that is identifiable with the artist, but in fact takes their instrument into perhaps some new ground - more like the artist's dream instrument, rather than recreating his old instrument. The recreation thing, that's all done within the Vintage Reissue series, and now the C series. Those are reserved for that, and those are intended to be recreations. The artist Limited Edition series is not.
bunnybass: Correct me if I'm wrong here but Rickenbacker is one of the few large (medium sized?) manufacturers of musical instruments that hasn't done any manufacturing overseas...
John Hall: Never. We are in fact the last of the major guitar and bass manufacturers that has not manufactured overseas. Everything has been made right here in California. It's completely against our philosophy to do so. The concept of making instruments offshore doesn't make sense to me from a marketing standpoint. You're competing with yourself. You're basically copying your own product. It just doesn't make a whole bunch of sense, but beyond that, I have some real philosophical problems with that. We want our product to be made by our workers in the US. We're keeping their jobs here at home.
bunnybass: Are most of the employees here long-time employees?
John Hall: Pretty much. I am now the longest employee in the company, but that only happened very recently. One of our employees was well up in the 40 year range, but needless to say, age catches up with everyone. But in fact, we do have a very long and very good longevity with our employees. The average employee has served us more than 10 years. So there's very little turnover within the company.
bunnybass: Your company is also very different in the sense that you're not this large multinational with huge board meetings and lots of shareholders.
John Hall: Well, my wife and I are the sole owners of the company. That is a major difference in that there are not a lot of investors and outside shareholders to satisfy. My wife and I operate this company to our satisfaction and we don't have to create all this additional investment income that other companies have to do in order to support their banks and investors. This company is very successful financially. This is our 70th year. We have absolutely no bank loans whatsoever. The company is in very, very good health. We're probably the strongest guitar company in the industry, financially speaking. But we are indeed as you said, relatively small. We don't operate as a multinational company. We do sell our product throughout the world, and we do manufacture a good number of our products. You have to realize we are in fact a production guitar company. We're not a boutique custom company at all. And there's a lot of people that do that very well. If you want to put it in terms of cars, we're more like a Mercedes Benz where we have standard production items created at a high level of quality over and over, but we are not a Rolls Royce which is essentially creating custom items. And there's plenty of people that fill that niche. On the other side of the coin, we're not a Chevrolet or a Toyota either, cranking out a zillion cars either here or offshore.
bunnybass: About how many basses do you make in the span of a month or so?
John Hall: Well, it actually goes in cycles. As it happens right now, we happen to be in a bass cycle at the moment. There's kind of a 13 week cycle that we go through with the various models. But we make lots of instruments. Being a closely held company, we don't really give that information out. But you'll see literally hundreds of basses on the floor today when we go out.
bunnybass: How about this then: What kind of ratio between guitars to basses are you producing?
John Hall: Well I thought that actually that was the question. It varies quite a bit. Right now, it's about 40% basses, 60% guitars. I've seen that go both ways through the years. I would say back in the mid-80's when I started, it was more like 65-70% basses, the rest being guitars. On the other hand, by the 90's, I've seen it go up well into the 70% guitars, 30% basses. so that's always kind of changing. That does probably reflect some changes in music and fashion.
bunnybass: How would you summarize your overall philosophy that guides your decision-making, in relation to moving the Rickenbacker company forward?
John Hall: We probably have a little different mindset than most of the other major players in this industry in that we treat our product more as a work of art rather than as a pure item of production. We really have that mindset and mentality throughout the company and every one that comes out is given that kind of treatment. It's been our belief that the best way we can represent the company is to hold up the highest quality standard and really mean it and let the product speak for itself, as opposed to investing millions of dollars in hype and advertising and instrument giveaways and what have you. The instrument really does speak for itself and most people can look at our instrument and perceive that it's something special, just by observing the instrument. Our marketing and promotional plan is very simple: just build a great instrument and people will recognize it and come to it.
Click here to see some pictures from jon's visit to the Rickenbacker factory...
If you'd like to learn more about the Rickenbacker company, here are a few places to start:
Rickenbacker's official company website, with lots of historical information and a nice online factory tour: http://www.rickenbacker.com/
Maybe our favorite part of the Rickenbacker website - the amazing catalogue section - browse old Rickenbacker catalogues from the 30's onwards! http://www.rickenbacker.com/us/catalog.htm
There is also at least a couple of books that may interest you: The History of Rickenbacker Guitars (Centerstream), by Richard R. Smith, and The Rickenbacker Book: A Complete History Of Rickenbacker Electric Guitars (GPI Books).