Rickenbacker's John Hall: 'The Only Way to Compete Against That Is Using Various Forms of Automation and Working Smart'

gear manufacturer: Rickenbacker date: 10/06/2013 category: interviews
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Rickenbacker's John Hall: 'The Only Way to Compete Against That Is Using Various Forms of Automation and Working Smart'
When you call Rickenbacker, the first thing you hear is the opening chord from "A Hard Day's Night." It is possibly the most famous intro chord from any song ever. And it was played on a Rickenbacker 360/12. That magic chord has variously been described as a G7add9sus4, a G7sus4 and a G11sus4 but what truly matters is the guitar it was played on. Any other instrument than that crystalline - sounding 12-string Rick just wouldn't have been the same. Rickenbacker has been forever married to the lore of the Beatles when John Lennon famously played a Rick when the Fab Four originally appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show back on February 9, 1964. It was a marketing gift sent from heaven and from that moment forward the company - recently celebrating their 82nd year in business - has built and expanded on the brand. John Hall took the company over from his father, F.C. in 1984. His dad had bought the company back in 1953 and finally passed the baton some 30+ years later. Rickenbacker is still wholly owned by the Hall family and here in this illuminating and historic discussion, Hall talks about what it's been like running and growing this legendary business. It hasn't always been an easy process and particularly when he first came onboard, there was some housecleaning that needed to be done. UG: You took over Rickenbacker from your father in 1984 - what was the company going through at that point?

JH: That's a good question. It really was a little bit of a slow period for the company. I think a lot of the employees here in management were on the older side and maybe not totally in touch with the music world. There was a lot of experience in the industry but maybe not so much with what was going on in music. I actually had been gone for a while myself for a little over a year. My dad's health had declined rather rapidly and of course he was considerably older too. He was well into his '70s at that point and I came back. I actually purchased the company from him in September of '84. What was Rickenbacker worth in 1953? Well, I'm not gonna give you an exact number but it was a fairly sizeable amount at that point in time. That was a company that was 25-years old at that point and what was moderately successful - and I won't say it was necessarily Adolf (later changed to Adolph) Rickenbacker's first priority - is that he had a very large manufacturing business that did anything and everything in metal. In '53 the way I understand it basically the business was split - the music part went off in one direction and all the metal stuff went in the other direction. They were originally all in the same building on Western Avenue in L.A. and half the building was a guitar factory and half was the metal shop. Now there was a lot of synergy there obviously because you were building metal parts for Rickenbacker instruments. That even continued after the companies were split. To be honest with you, I don't know who bought the other half but they were a supplier for parts well into the '70s. Rickenbacker has always been known for one specific and beautiful guitar sound. How has the company endured all these years based on that one simple guitar tone? I don't have a specific answer and I've often wondered about that. The main thing though is this side of the business anyway and the side we've chosen to come down on is the fact that this is a unique industry. Can you imagine someone saying they wanted the exact same TV set they had in 1964? I don't think so. It's great to have the incredibly long product lives on stuff and we're really in a neat situation in our industry. Some might call it a throwback and others might call it an appreciation of history but we chose to stay on that side of things as opposed to doing really new things. What is your earliest memory of Rickenbacker? Sure, I remember 1954 or '55. The first thing I probably remember were all the people that came to our home. People like Toots Thielemans and old-timers like that were friends of my dad and hung around the house. But I can remember at a very young age probably five or so, the factory was in Los Angeles but the warehouse and sales office was here in Santa Ana. So either my mom or dad almost every day drove to Los Angeles and it was partly to oversee some of the management. But more than anything it was basically just to pick up a load of guitars that had been produced. Your parents would actually make that drive and pick up the guitars themselves? I would end up riding with them relatively often and the car was packed with these guitars coming back. So I'd have a little, tiny spot and these cartons of guitars all around me coming back. Later on in 1955 they bought an old Ford station wagon that they could get a heck of a lot more instruments into. They'd pack that thing solid. So I used to hang out as a kid very often at the factory up there and one of the employees always bought me a Ne-Hi out at the pop machine. I played around with little blocks of wood and sandpaper and pieces of scrap metal. So I had pretty early exposure to if not the actual instruments themselves certainly all of the stuff to make them. You immediately think of the Beatles and the Byrds as the main bands using Rickenbackers back in the day. But Pete Townshend was also using Ricks and that connection seems a bit more difficult to understand. To be honest with you I'm not sure how much he was tuned into the idea that it had a particular sound or playability or whatever. I almost think any instrument would have worked for what he was doing. But he has stated in a real nice BBC hour radio show called Rickenbacker: History of the Frying Pan. In fact it's on our music on hold when you call. If you're on hold for an hour you can hear the whole thing. Anyway he says in there part of his attraction was the fact that it was almost an unattainable instrument and it was far too expensive for most of the people to own. For him there was some vicarious thrill in being able to toss one of these guitars around and be able to afford to break one up in pieces. So there was something else there going on there (laughs). Read the full interview here.
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