Ca. 1946 Rickenbacker Lap Steel

The Second World War is considered by many to be a watershed period for the electric guitar. Little changed in guitar design between 1940 and 1950, but the experimentation of the 1930s was toned down as manufacturers started to converge on what would become standardized features. Factories focused on designs that were easier and faster to produce in large quantities, having gained experience building military supplies during the war years.

From 1942 onward, most musical instrument production in the US essentially ceased. Crucial supplies such as magnets, wire, sheet metal and even wood were sequestered by the military to build anything from tents to bombers, and guitar builders ran through their existing stocks pretty quickly. Many were awarded contracts to build military equipment, thus saving them from bankruptcy. This wartime work often introduced new skills and equipment into factories. For example, the Valco factory made cast clear lucite nosecones for B-24 bombers; after the war ended, many Valco steels sported pickup covers created from the same material, possibly to use up existing stock. As a builder of resonator guitars, Valco was hit particularly hard by wartime rationing of metals and was only able to ship a few instruments cobbled together from existing parts.

Rickenbacker suffered a similar problem. Their lap steel bodies were made of aluminum, steel and bakelite, and the pickups used cobalt-steel magnets and copper wire – all hard to come by in the early ‘40s. Material shortages continued for a while after the war ended, so that Rickenbacker (like most guitar manufacturers) didn’t get back up to full production until 1946 or 1947. By that time, though, some changes had been made. The pre-war “horseshoe” magnets were changed from 1.5” to 1.25”, which had a subtle effect on their sound. Lap steels now had the strings anchored in a metal tailpiece instead of through the body. The finishing process was changed and economized – no more expensive chrome plating of entire instruments, paint was sufficient. In the mid 1950s, Rickenbacker finally bowed to convention and introduced lap steels made out of wood.

These were not the first wooden Rickenbacker steels. The first “frying pan” prototype was made of wood, but production instruments were made from metal or bakelite. About 15 years later, just after the end of World War II, the factory shipped a small number of steels with conventional wooden bodies like the one pictured above. As far as I can tell, there is no information available at all on them; they were never catalogued, and they don’t appear in any official list of models. Very few were produced; I’ve seen two or three others, which seem to baffle both steel and Rickenbacker aficionados whenever they appear.

The early decal logo combined with the 1.5” horseshoe magnets places the steel in the first years of production after the war, most likely 1946. In terms of features, it could be described as a wooden equivalent of the S/NS model introduced about the same time. Volume and tone controls are located on the same side, with the pots attached to black plastic diamond plates that I have not seen on any other model. The nut and bridge are bakelite, and tahe tuners are identical to ones used on other late '40s Rick steels. I am not sure what kind of wood comprises the body, but it is probably ash or a similarly inexpensive species. The entire instrument is surprisingly light.

My theory is that these were built as soon as production restarted in 1946. Rickenbacker probably had spare pickups laying around, but not the materials to make new metal or bakelite bodies. They built a few steels out of wood just to use up the existing pickups, quickly switching back to the old materials once supplies became available. Based on comparison to the other examples I’ve seen, I believe that mine is almost all original. The cord has been replaced (the cloth insulation probably frayed) and the paint on the knobs. Everything else appears to be original.

The few other examples all have similar features, but there are slight differences between each one suggesting that the factory was winging it to a certain extent. The placement of the controls varies slightly, as if they were routing by hand instead of using a jig. The workmanship is surprisingly crude for a Rickenbacker product, as if they were still learning how to work with wood. The strings go through the body (as with the bakelite models) and there are ferrules at the back but not the top. As a result, the strings have carved their way into the wood. I may add some ferrules in the top to halt the damage. The diamond plates holding the pots are different sizes, as if someone realized too late that he couldn't fit the tone control next to the pickup and had to cut another plate.

The sound is reminiscent of other 1940s Rickenbacker steels. It has the clear, round, bell-like tone you'd expect from the horseshoe pickup, but without the shrill highs you sometimes get from a bakelite body. The sustain is in between the bakelite and metal models. There is a bit of mud in the lower mid-range that reminds you it's based on 1930s electronics; as a fan of early electrics, I consider this a good thing. The guitar has enough output to make David Lindley blush, and better string balance than most Ricks I've played. The pots appear to be original yet work better than they should after 65 years, with the tone control giving a great wah effect.