Ca. 1940 Rickenbacher Electro Mandolin

The Rickenbacker line of the 1930s is remembered almost exclusively for its lap steels, and with good reason. Rickenbacker was the first company to mass-produce electric instruments with a modern electromagnetic pickup, and they found a receptive audience among the Hawaiian-style players that made up a huge percentage of the guitar players at the time. The steel models were produced in greater numbers and in greater variety than the Spanish-style and tenor guitars, even in the first few years when the public wasn’t yet sold on the idea of electrifying musical instruments. However, Rickenbacker did introduce a few new Spanish models in the 1930s and even branched out into mandolins.

Since the Electro Mandolin appeared in company literature as early as 1932, I’m confident in saying that it was the first such product on the market. As with Rickenbacker’s first Spanish and tenor guitars, the instrument was made almost entirely by an outside factory. Early catalogs show a mahogany body with a typical flat-top shape and oval soundhole identical to many Harmony mandolins at the time. If it weren’t for the enormous horseshoe pickup sunk halfway into the top, it would be a conventional Harmony product. The price was set at $125 for a set - $62.50 each for the instrument and the speaker. This design would change several times over the next decade, but not dramatically. The materials would change to a spruce top and maple back, and the back would become arched. Some have been reported with arched tops as well. At some point, outsourcing of the body and neck shifted to Regal, whose fingerprints are all over my mandolin’s features. The instrument would gain a volume control and a fixed metal bridge similar to those found on some Rickenbacker steels.

The mandolin was clearly designed as an electric instrument, even if it has a body shape inherited from acoustic ones. The top and back are thick and laminated, which cuts down on feedback while providing a cheaper way of presenting better wood on the exterior. Extremely heavy bracing and the lack of a soundhole also help minimize feedback. Just as importantly, the heavy construction supports a heavy pickup. The pickup itself is identical to those found on Rickenbacker steel guitars, right down to the six pole pieces. Unfortunately, my pickup was dead when it arrived, but it was rewound to the same specs as the original. Despite being built like a tank, the mandolin’s unplugged sound is fairly loud.

In terms of cosmetic appointments, the mandolin is a mid-grade instrument by the standards of Regal’s custom shop. The back and sides have figured veneers, and both the top and back sport single-piece exteriors. The top has 3-ply binding while the back and neck have single-ply; the edges of the pickup cutout have no less than five layers. The tuners are a step up from those found on basic mandolins and Rickenbacker’s brass bridge has some compensation for string gauge. The pickup and bridge are chrome-plated, while the rest of the hardware is nickel. The only flaw I can find in workmanship is that the pickup set slightly cockeyed in its cutout; I assume the blame goes to the assemblers at Rickenbacker rather than Regal.

The sound was described by Rickenbacker as “pure, rich and deep, with the tinkling of silver bells in it.” Marketing hyperbole aside, this is a very good sounding mandolin. It has a very clear sound, with excellent balance between the courses but no harshness in the high frequencies. There is plenty of upper mid-range, which I think would have been a good complement for a typically boxy, dark-sounding 1930s amplifier. The pickup has average output for the 1930s (slightly weak by today’s standards, but not remarkably so) and is remarkably noise-free for a single-coil unit. The sustain is not as good as with a solidbody, but better than most acoustic mandolins. Playability is pretty good, and can be improved by correcting a slight bow in my mandolin’s neck. The 14” scale feels more familiar to Gibson players than most flat-top mandolins of the time, which had 13” necks.

My mandolin is all original except for the rewound pickup coil and the addition of a grounding wire between the tailpiece and the output jack. Some minor issues have arisen over the years – cracks in the knob have been glued, one tuner is bent, and the neck has a slight bow – but overall the instrument is in fine shape for a septuagenarian. This one was probably built in the last couple of years before production ceased for World War II, but the evolution of this model is not well-documented and it could be a few years older. Most surviving Electro Mandolins are equipped with Doc Kauffman’s Vibrola, an early vibrato mechanism that predated similar efforts by Bigsby and Fender. I can’t imagine the havoc that a vibrato would wreak on a mandolin’s tuning, and I’m happy not to have one installed on my mandolin.