Late 1940s Rickenbacker Model B

After creating the first successful electric instruments in the early 1930s, the chief designers at Rickenbacker did anything but rest on their laurels. George Beauchamp set to work creating an electric violin – he played a number of instruments – and decided not to pursue the company’s existing practice of casting bodies out of aluminum. The problem, as he and other players discovered, was that aluminum expands substantially with increasing temperature; the Frying Pans were going out of tune under hot stage lights. All materials are subject to some degree of thermal expansion, but aluminum proved more susceptible than guitars made of wood. Beauchamp’s challenge, then, was to find a material that was as durable and sonically pleasing as aluminum but with a lesser tendency to expand.

He found those properties in a plastic resin called Bakelite. Hard, dense, and resistant to most forms of chemical attack, Bakelite was cast into a wide variety of products. Rickenbacker’s lawyer quickly discovered that they weren’t the first to make instruments out of the material: Gretsch had already built ukuleles out of it, and an inventor named Arthur Primrose Young had already patented the idea. Rickenbacker paid Young a royalty on every Bakelite instrument. Adolph Rickenbacher discovered that the original Bakelite formula was too brittle to cast in such large shapes, and, after some experimentation, he developed a new formula that was much less likely to crack in the mold.

Beauchamp’s Bakelite violin grew into an entire range of electric instruments. There was a standup bass, a tenor guitar and an electric guitar – a solidbody Spanish instrument with a bolt-on neck produced as early as 1935. The most well-known of the Bakelite series, though, is undoubtedly the lap steel. It was initially referred to as the Rickenbacker Electro Hawaiian Guitar, but it quickly became apparent that calling it the same name as the concurrent aluminum lap steels was confusing. By the 1940s, the Bakelite steel was called the Model B in catalogs while its aluminum predecessor became the Model A. Both were available with 6 or 7 strings, but the former was much more common on each model. A few changes occurred over the years: the Model B gained a tone control in 1937, the control layout changed a few times, and the panel colors changed as well. (These panels cover air spaces in the body that are necessary to keep the instrument from breaking as it cools in the mold).

The pickups also changed over the years. In 1946, when production resumed after World War II, the magnets were narrowed from 1.5” to 1.25”. Many players claim that the older, wider magnets have a superior sound, but this is controversial. Other changes occurred in the instrument’s design that affected its sound: the number of windings in the coil was dramatically increased, a steel tailpiece was introduced, and the resin formula used in the bodies was revised as well. Two steels built at the same time are likely to sound consistent unless the magnets have been weakened, but two steels built years apart (even with the same pickup) may sound different. The best-sounding Rickenbacker steels I’ve played have had the later, smaller magnets; it’s really down to the individual instrument.

The Model B continued in production until 1955, and the deluxe DB version (the only difference being a headstock cover) continued until 1970. Few Bakelite steels were built after the 1950s, though, as the popularity of lap steels was in rapid decline. An 8-string variant was added in 1940. Rickenbacker serials from this time are not very useful in dating instruments, but the steel tailpiece and t-shaped logo date mine to the late 1940s. It has one top panel and both pots replaced, but the rest of the steel is original and very clean. It has incredibly high output for its time, though like other Rickenbacker 8-strings it suffers from imperfect string balance. The highest string is both far away from the magnets’ poles and over the very edge of the coil, making it weaker than the other strings. Strangely, the lowest string does not suffer this problem even though it has the same location issues. I’m happy to play it with 7 strings, so my only true complaint is the slightly narrow string spacing. The steel is incredibly heavy, but it has remarkable sustain and a beautiful, strong tone that works well for anything from rock and roll to Hawaiian music.