1987 Rickenbacker 330 - Fireglo

Bob Leggitt | Friday 25 November 2011
Rickenbacker 330 in Fireglo
In addition to this old photo of my '87 Rickenbacker 330, there are more recent ones in the Why Semi-Acoustics Rock and Vintage Guitars: Prices Set To Crash? articles.

I bought this Rickenbacker 330 with a chunk of the money I got for the sale of my Yamaha DX7 synth. The serial number K0 7268 dates this fireglo (essentially a red sunburst) example to November 1987. That ties in perfectly with my having purchased the guitar brand new on Saturday 20th February 1988, from a shop called Tempo, in Hanwell (the shop used to be on Uxbridge Road – number 72-74).

I’d actually read quite a poor review of the Rickenbacker 330 before buying it. Not in a magazine – the review was in an early ‘eighties book called The Complete Guitar Guide. The reviewer clearly wasn’t impressed with the instrument and concluded by saying it wasn’t particularly good value for money, based on what he perceived as a lack of versatility. He then gave it just about the worst star rating in the book – 15 out of 25. Mind you, he’d given 25 stars to a number of guitars I thought were as dull as dishwater, so I didn’t place a great deal of trust in his opinion.

Besides which, I’d seen the guitar in use with bands I admired a great deal, I’d always loved the sound, and I thought the look was fantastically distinctive in a world where most new guitars were essentially just revisions on the Strat design – whoever the maker. Rickenbacker guitars made me think of The Jam, The Smiths, The Who, REM, and best of all, Susanna Hoffs. Any guitar brand which was gonna make me think of Susanna Hoffs was pretty much a must-have, whatever the pro reviewers thought of it… 

Rickenbacker’s production methods were and in many respects still are highly traditional, and that means expensive. There’s no Fender-type bolt-together fixing for the neck and body join. It’s all old-style crafstmanship, and there’s no question whatsoever that these people know what they’re doing when it comes to making a fine guitar. Rickenbacker’s own blurb implies that they no longer use cellulose for their finishes, but in the 1980s they certainly did, and the finish on this guitar is beautiful. It looks thin, but it’s as flat as sheet of glass, if no longer now as shiny due to the ageing process.

The neck would come as a shock to anyone used to Gibson or Fender guitars. It’s incredibly slim, with a narrow fingerboard, made of the highly distinctive African rosewood. Actually, whilst this light-reddish-coloured timber is technically rosewood, it’s probably more akin to a maple fingerboard in its hardness and tonality. Indeed, quite strikingly for a rosewood fingerboard, it’s actually fully finished in clear gloss cellulose. So despite the rosewood look (albeit unusually light in colour), it feels like playing a maple board. Access to the high frets is virtually unparallelled. On a Strat, the neck meets the body around the 16th fret. On a Rick 330, the join is not until around the 21st! Mind you, actually playing anything coherent up there is a major challenge, due not only to the close spacing of the frets, but also to the close spacing of the strings. Country pickers might hate the narrow string spacing, but players in other genres could use the small neck to their advantage.

Pete Townshend said in a 1980s interview that the Rickenbacker neck profile had encouraged him back in the ‘sixties to invent new chord shapes – some of them defining contributions to rock playing. In The Complete History of Rickenbacker Guitars, he said: “What falls under your fingers on a Rick might dislocate your hand on an old acoustic Martin”. But he wasn’t being worked from the back by Rickenbacker’s marketing people. He also alluded to his accidental breaking of Rickenbacker necks in the past, before going on to discuss how many Ricks he’d deliberately smashed on stage. Fender hated and were disgusted by the thought of people smashing their guitars, but Rickenbacker seemed much more prepared to see it as a historical curio.

The body is very slim – thinner than that of a Gibson 335, so the acoustic chambers aren’t very big. However, the maple used for the construction is of high quality and in fact, the acoustic tone is both louder and in my view nicer than that from a typical Gibson semi-solid. I’m not saying the 330 is a viable acoustic guitar, but you can tell by the acoustic tone of an instrument how good the wood is. If all you can hear is the metallic clank of the strings, you’ll struggle to get any great tones regardless of what pickups or amp you use. But a good, audible warmth when you use a guitar unplugged is a sign you’re holding a guitar that any good valve amp will love to death. A good valve amp loves this Rickenbacker 330 to death.

The pickups are standard Rickenbacker Hi-Gain units. These are single coils with more width and windings than Fender Strat pickups, and certainly a thicker sound. It’s strange the way particular instruments have a highly distinctive voice, whereas others just sound generic in the extreme – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. The Rickenbacker 330 is brimming with character, and whilst I believe the pickup design assists in that, the basic personality is still there when the guitar is unplugged. I can assure anyone potentially in the market for one of these that they don’t sound like any other brand of guitar. You may love the sound, or you may hate it, but you won’t be able to get it by customising a Strat or whatever. So if the Rick’s distinctive jangle with body and personality is your thing, you’re gonna need to get a Rickenbacker.

I can see why these guitars have been niche instruments through the years, and it’s true, they’re not for everyone. But to write them off on that basis is to overlook the iconic styling and tremendous commitment to quality Rickenbackers have exuded through the years. In a world where so many people think of little but how to cut more corners, this guitar stands as a glowing exception. So, far from believing that value for money was poor in the case of this guitar, I actually think it was exceptionally good. I paid £549 for what is undeniably a highly individual, distinctive and cool design, crafted (and I do think this is one case in which the word ‘crafted’ is more than appropriate) to a rare standard of high quality.

This Rickenbacker 330 looks great, and sounds great. It did take some adaptation for me to play it comfortably, and I agree with some people’s assertions that it often leads you towards playing methods you didn’t perhaps initially intend. But surely that’s a good thing. Rickenbacker-driven bands are typically untypical. Would some of the more unusual guitar riffs which famously emerged from the guts of a Rickenbacker guitar, still have emerged had Rickenbacker not existed?… No. I don’t think they would.

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