Only a handful of electric guitars reach 'immortal' status, surviving despite every change in musical fashion. Among these few classics must count Rickenbacker's perennially successful 12-string electrics. Now, thanks to a new distribution set-up, Rickenbackers are once more widely available in the UK. But how good is today's Rickenbacker 12? Gary Cooper wraps his fingers round a 360/12.
Rickenbacker have been an unlucky company in the U.K. Frequent changes in their distribution here have meant that the brand has popped on and off the market like a jack-in-the-box, just getting established with British players before disappearing yet again, only to be picked-up by another distributor months or years later. The direct result of this is that few British players have any clear idea of the sheer size of their range. Nor, perhaps do many of us over here realise just how individual Rickenbackers are - worthy in their own right to be ranked alongside Gibson, Fender and Martin as true innovators.
But Rickenbacker may well have finally solved their British distribution problem, by having established a dedicated and effective British team (led by Linda Garson and Trevor Smith) and by exporting their products direct from the Santa Ana plant to an increasing number of British retailers. This direct export policy means that Rickenbackers, whilst too complex and too traditionally hand-crafted ever to be cheap, aren't anywhere near as costly as they would be if imported through a third party distributor. It also provides for a direct spares link to retailers, which I hope will give Rickenbacker their long-deserved permanent place in our market. My problem, faced with a huge range of guitars to pick from, was, which model to review? Did I opt for one of the more obscure models like the re-issued 'John Lennon' 3/4 scale length 320? Would a 4000 series bass be better? What about the 4005 bass or the new-ish 2000 range? In the end I called on London's Chappells of Bond St, one of the largest Rickenbacker stockists. Confronted by a bewildering choice, I finally decided on one of Rickenbacker's classic 12-string electrics, the 360/12, reasoning that it would probably be one of the models most likely to interest the majority of IT readers, partly because it's so unique and such a good test of a maker's abilities (12-strings being notoriously difficult to make). For all that I promised myself that I'd steadily work through the range over the coming months and years.
Rickenbacker's range really is wide. Apart from there being several quite different 12-string electrics to choose from, the selection becomes quite baffling once you start gravitating towards the 330/340/360/370/360WB/370WB types. To begin with they all bear roughly similar shapes, having those huge double cutaways and George Harrison/Jim McGuinn/Paul Weller looks - but they're all substantially different. Leaving aside the 330 and 340 models the 360 is best described as the 'basic' or perhaps 'parent' of this general Rickenbacker type. This is the model with sensuously rounded, curved edges on the top of the thin body. The 370 is the same guitar but with three pickups. Add a WB (hence the 360WB and 370 WB) and you get straight edges with a bound top. On paper it sounds like a small difference - in practice it makes the 360/370 and 360WB/370WB look very dissimilar.
Constructionally, the 360 isn't as simple as it looks. It's a semi-acoustic, measuring only 1 1/2" deep, but with an exceptionally thick maple back. This contributes to the quite substantial weight of the guitar and, no doubt, its characteristic bright and long-sustaining sound. In fact when you first lift the 360 its substance is a definite surprise - it weighs far more than you imagine, providing a comfortably reassuring handful. The 360's back is joined to a seductively carved solid maple top and sides fashioned (no doubt with great intricacy from a single piece of wood), with a wide, aged-looking plastic/ivoroid binding. It's this sort of carving which makes the Rickenbacker a costly guitar. The more you examine it the more you realise that the Rickenbacker is no churned-out semi designed for easy manufacture. The sides aren't just wafer-thin slivers of wood, and if you look around inside the body (access to which is via the slanting, bound, top cut-out) you find that all the wood is thick, and that the neck (a glued 4-piece laminated maple type) runs deeply into the body shell. Now I begin to understand why there are no good Rickenbacker copies - a good one would cost as much to make as the real thing!
Fixed to the laminated neck (with what looks like a mahogany insert running down the back of it) is a typically Rickenbacker looking rosewood fingerboard. For reasons best known to themselves Rickenbacker use exceptionally thick rosewood pieces for their fretboards and they're uniquely coloured, too, being much lighter than most. It's bound in 'aged' plastic, and varnished rather than left plain; this being one of Rickenbacker"s most individualistic traits and providing a really slick feel to the board.
The headstock, too, is a different from everything else you're accustomed to. It's carved from one piece of maple (fitted with mahogany strips on the edges) and has its twelve Kluson machines arranged in an alternating pattern, whereby the low (leading) strings have their machines fixed to the back of the headstock the higher pairs being fitted to machines penetrating the sides of the head. The white plastic Rickenbacker logo on the headstock matches the white 'double' scratchplate down on the body. The lower section of this is screwed directly to the guitar's body, and the top part rides above, held apart from the lower section by rubber washers to prevent unwanted vibration.
The 360's strings fasten into the heavily chromed 'R' design tailpiece, whence they run over quite a complicated bridge. This comprises a baseplate screwed down to the body, with four (hex key adjustable) penetrating screws which enable you to raise, lower or angle the bridge as a whole. The saddles look rather unpleasant being made of a dulled alloy of some sort and seeming rather roughly finished. In my experience of Rickenbackers, however, this is purely a cosmetic problem as the saddles work very well. Each pair of strings shares one saddle and, while each is fully adjustable for intonation, the compensation required for the individual pairs isn't - although it's taken account of by staggering the saddle edges where needed. Covering the bridge is a chromed metal plate which again, looks odd - one's fear is that it might hinder right hand damping as it prevents you getting at the saddles. In practice it doesn't and damping is extremely easy.
The two pickups on the 360/12 are a pair of Rickenbacker's own single coil units. Each has six pole pieces which appear not to be individually adjustable for height although the pickups themselves are, via screws at either end. Pickup controls are those unique Rickenbacker types which for all that they once again look unusual are particularly easy to grip, especially with sweaty hands when you're on stage. You have tone and volume for each pickup, a very conveniently placed three-way selector switch and a small extra rotary pot which provides an additional - and very useful - amount of extra tone control. In true Rickenbacker style, two jack sockets deliver either normal mono sounds or 'Rick-O-Sound' a form of stereo separation of the bass and treble strings, intended to be fed to a pair of amps. Useful or not in its intended role, it has great potential with effects units. I'll leave that point to your imagination!
I have to take my hat off to the men from Santa Ana. The model which I wanted to try had only just been delivered to Chappells and was still in its (unopened) shipping box. They kindly unpacked it for me in the shop. What were we in for? Would the Ricky have a bent neck, badly set-up action - remember, the imported guitars you see in any decent music shop have either been set-up properly by the distributor or by the shop itself - if they weren't, boy would you see some rubbish around! Anyway, as the 360/12 slid out amid a shower of foam chips it looked positively edible, it was so finely finished. Not a mark, not a scratch flawed its luxurious hand-rubbed looks, burnished in that unique Rickenbacker Walnut colour option. The aged effect of the binding and the triangular inlays added to the overall effect the Rickenbacker was exceptionally well turned-out by any standards. A closer examination caused some astonishment - the guitar (a 12 string, don't forget!) had arrived perfectly in tune! Now, I'm not going to suggest that this happens every time, but it speaks volumes for Rickenbacker's quality control that they can ever pull-off such an extraordinary feat!
The 360/12 was strung with what - personally - I would regard as an odd choice of strings: light gauge, but flat-wound. Nonetheless the action was mind-blowingly low. The strings were perfectly adjusted the intonation spot-on right across all twelve, and not a buzz or rattle to be heard. Not many new guitars come out of their shipping boxes in that condition. Congratulations, Rickenbacker, on setting such a standard!
You'll probably have guessed (even if you've never tried one) that any 12 string guitar is going to feel odd after your Strat or Les Paul. Even so, you may not be prepared for the 360/12. The varnished fingerboard feels unusual in itself but the neck is unbelievably slim. My sample measured just under 15/8" at the first fret but still only 1 7/8" at the 12th. Not only does this make it a narrow neck, it also means that the pairs of strings are very close together and this, compounded by a relatively shallow depth, makes it quite difficult to play at first - especially if you have gorilla paws (all right guilty, guilty - I admit it!). Nonetheless, this width does become familiar after a while and combined with the pronounced camber to the fretboard and the extremely comfortable fretting and binding makes tricky chords (even highly positioned ones) very easy.
Which way round the strings on a 12 should go is another of those problems to which Rickenbacker have their own answer. Everyone else arranges theirs so that the thinner string comes first in each pair. Rickenbacker, however, have it differently. I have to confess bafflement about this, and it was IT's acoustic specialist Katy 88, who offered a truly inspired piece of reasoning which may account for this oddity. Katy (primarily a fingerstyle player) suggested that what Rickenbacker may have been striving for with this unusual arrangement is the perfect system for a guitarist who uses a pick and who, thus, tends to play with the emphasis on downstrokes. A 12 string is normally tuned with octave pairs on the lower four sets, the top two pairs being tuned identically. As a result of this it would both sound and feel unusual if you were to hit the strings in any other order than the lower pitched strings first - to hit the higher ones initially would result in an unmusical jumping around the octaves. Now, a fingerstyle player uses (mostly) up strokes and thus wants the strings arranged so that the lower ones appear second in each pair, thus keeping the initial stroke constant within one octave. A plectrum user will want things the other way round - so that their down stroke hits the lower strings first The Rickenbacker, being an electric guitar, has actually got the arrangement right. If Katy's right (and we suspect she is) then whoever designed the Rickenbacker system was quite brilliant - as is our Katy, for being the first player we've found to have explained this unusual arrangement. Right or wrong we've rewarded her with a new sheet of IN TUNE carbon paper!
Getting used to the neck of the 360/12 isn't easy, but it comes with practice. At first your fingers feel a bit cramped, the strings seem too close together and you make some ghastly mistakes with chord shapes you've known for years. Take your time, though, and you eventually get the hang of it
As you'd expect the Ricky jangles and rings, just as you hoped it would! Getting either that Byrds sound or the Beatles/Harrison tone comes naturally. But this isn't all the 360/12 can do - far from it! That small third tone control adds a huge tonal effect and allows you to smooth the guitar's sound down, or indulge in some potentially very interesting - and highly distinctive - sounds. What's more, the Ricky works superbly with some effects. Strange as it may seem (given that part of their purpose is to replicate a 12-string effect), a Chorus pedal produces a breathtaking sound - positively spine-chilling! Flanging (if it's kept subtle and clean) also works well, and this shows the way for players to experiment creatively with a guitar which they may (mistakenly) have written-off as having only one sound. What impressed me (apart from the extraordinary quality of manufacture and setting-up) is just how unexplored this instrument's potential remains. Yes, that jangling ringing sound (aided by fine sustain) is so tempting that it's hard not to use that and that only, but try it - experiment with the wide tonal range, use the stereo option; above all, exploit the potential of this unique guitar, and you'll find new sounds which you never imagined possible.
Beautifully made, finished and set-up, it's not hard to see where the cost of this guitar comes from. The carved maple top must take a lot of work - ditto the finishing standard. You won't find it easy to play at first (owing to the narrow neck), but once you get used to it, the magical quality of its sound, the vast and largely unexplored potential of tones which few players have exploited, make a creative guitarist feel a bit like Columbus must have done when he first set his eyes on the New World. Not everyone will like - or even be able to comfortably play - this guitar. It's a unique instrument, and it will take an imaginative player to get the best from it. Used in its traditional Folk and Folk/Rock roles its potential is obvious; likewise as a Weller or early Townshend-like rhythm instrument it's equally at home. But try some unusual-sounding chords on that slim neck and see how they ring and sustain like unearthly bells. Add an effect or two and you've got a new sound for a new generation.
The Rickenbacker 360/12 will undoubtedly live on, an unorthodox guitar in an increasingly orthodox world. Its individuality and creative potential assure it a future.
360-12 12-String Electric - RRP £930 Inc VAT
Thanks for the loan sample are due to Chappells of Bond St, (Contact Details).
More info on Rickenbacker from Rickenbacker U.K, (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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