The first time you see one, you think, “wow.” The first time you play one, you just say, “ouch.” They are unique bass guitars in many ways. But why are Rickenbacker bass so expensive?
Founded in 1931, Rickenbaker has forged quite a little niche for themselves in the guitar world. Not only for their basses but also for their guitars. In the UK, they were hardly known in the early 60s. It was all Fender Strats like Buddy Holly had used. But we couldn’t get them either.
Then The Beatles, John, and George, started using them. Those that had never seen a Rickenbacker sat up and said, “What is that?” and “Where did it come from?”
But, they still weren’t in the shops to buy. The guitars were popular and still are in some circles, but it was the basses that captured the imagination.
The Iconic 4001
It was and still is a marvelous bass in some situations, but it must be said not in all. The Rickenbacker 4001 has a unique sound that renders it of no value if you need some warm low-end.
It is aggressive and can be shattering with a pick, and it loses its bottom end completely. That is one reason it wasn’t more popular than it was. It didn’t seem to fit very much with the music that was around at certain times.
It was made from 1961 to 1986 when the 4003 replaced it. The 4001 had a 34-inch scale and twin single-coil pickups. There were two volume and two tone controls. It was a monster.
The Rickenbacker Basses
The 4001s and the 4003s tend to get most of the attention and all the limelight. But, there have been other ranges of Rickenbacker bass guitars. Let’s take a quick look at some.
The idea was to ‘glitz’ up the 4001. It came out in the mid-70s, featuring an ebony fingerboard and an XLR output. However, it didn’t catch on.
Another attempt to do something different with a guitar that nobody wanted to change. “Fender disease,” as it was known in the UK at the time. This one had fewer extra inclusions but still had the shape which made it recognizable.
They fitted humbuckers instead of the single-coil pickups that had given the 4001 its sound. You could almost hear the 4001 pleadings, “Please leave me alone.” An extra option was a few different ‘jewel-toned’ finishes.
It is interesting to me that guitar companies don’t seem to learn from the mistakes of other manufacturers. Gibson brought out their ES330. An inferior guitar to the classic original Epiphone Casino.
Nevertheless, they brought out a bass version of the 330, complete with a semi-hollow body, the Gibson EB2. Total disaster in a market where volumes were getting louder by the day. Feedback made it unplayable in the ‘new’ era.
Did Rickenbacker observe and avoid the same mistakes?
Of course not. They gave us the same thing with the 4005. A nice-looking copy of the classic Rickie 360, but that was all.
Again, totally unsuitable for the styles being played. Unless you were a very subdued jazz quartet in a lounge bar, it was okay there. They did try and make it more interesting by making 5, 6, and even 8 string versions. They are now just Rickenbacker collector items.
Maybe Rickenbacker was concerned that their mainline basses were too expensive for most. Maybe they thought the answer was a cheaper, more affordable option. In the 70s, they released the 3001. A lower-level bass with a different body shape and styling. They also offered a short-scale version.
It looked just like so many others that were cheaper. One of the big selling points of the 4000 and 4001 was their design. The 3001 never had that. They are now collector’s items, really, but do hold their value from a rarity point of view.
Found In Some Well-Known Places
Some famous hands have used the 4001. John Entwhistle of The Who and Pete Quaife of the Kinks flirted with it. Neither kept it for long.
Neither did John Deacon of Queen or Roger Glover of Deep Purple, who were both Fender Precision men through and through. Although, Roger did go over to a Gibson Thunderbird later.
Paul McCartney had a fascination with it during The Beatles’ psychedelic era. He had previously not been interested but was presented with a leftie in 1964.
The Walrus was Paul…
It looked the part and seemed to visually fit “The Walrus” and the other songs from that period. It was really only a TV guitar, though he did record songs like “Paperback Writer” and “Strawberry Fields” with it. And he did occasionally use it in concerts.
However, he did remark that once he got used to the extra length, he liked it. The pickups were better, and it stayed in tune longer. That was the case with most long-neck bases, though, not just Rickenbacker.
Rose-Morris in London
That was where I first got to play one. I was impressed, but dear, oh dear, did it have some top end. You felt like you were trying to hold it back before it bit someone’s handoff.
Some interesting players were going over to the 4000, then the 4001, and the 4001S. But, it seemed only a brief flirtation with some of them, which didn’t do the bass justice at all.
A unique animal…
I once remarked to a bass player friend who shall remain nameless, “Why didn’t you keep it?” “I couldn’t get it to sound like my Precision,” he answered. My reaction was to think, “Why would you want to?” It was its own animal. And I think there was half the problem.
Geddy Lee stayed with it a bit longer and did some great work. But one always got the feeling he preferred his black Fender Jazz, which is what he is known for.
Cliff Burton of Metallica used a 4001 for about a year before he went to his signature Japanese Aria bass. Lots of players tried to get in with it. Few lasted the course.
That Might Have Been The Problem
A lot of bass people were specifically used to their Fender’s and the odd Gibson EB3. Rickie was rather a shock. It growled at you like a rabid dog. It sounded angry and didn’t want you to stroke it or pet it, or make friends. A Rickenbacker bass would take your arm off.
It Found A Loving Home
Rickenbacker bass guitars suited a certain style of bass player and band. And, of course, the two most famous Rickenbacker bass players who made it their own.
I am talking about the great and very underrated by some, Lemmy of Motorhead. He would bite it back if it got out of hand. And, of course, one of my favorite players, the very technical and creative Chris Squire of Yes.
Both of them coaxed greatness from this bass. The greatness that was always in the guitar. You just needed to find out how to unlock it and play it. Different styles, indeed. But they both achieved that in their own way.
There were other reasons why Rickenbacker bass guitars are so rare and only seen in the hands of the privileged few. One of which is that they were very expensive. Why was this? And why Are Rickenbacker Bass So Expensive, even today?
Handmade in America
That is usually the reason that most people try to justify the price tag. I am afraid that doesn’t cut it with me.
As far as I am concerned, the “Made in America is better” myth died a long time ago. About the same time that CBS bought Fender. Since then, they have ranged from quite good, through okay, to downright awful.
A persistent myth…
I went to buy an extra Precision from the Fender Soundhouse in London in the 70s. The ‘guitar technician’ as he introduced himself, brought me three ‘Made in America’ basses. They were great if you wanted firewood. That’s all they were fit for. So badly made, it was shocking.
These days, I use a Fender Precision, a 1983 Japanese-made model. It’s still better than any of the new ones I tried, and the last one was only two weeks ago. I also have a 1962 vintage, but that stays in its case where it belongs most of the time, so many memories…
Rickenbacker In The US
That said, America is where Rickenbacker makes their guitars, rather than using cheaper labor and materials costs that exist overseas. That means their costs are higher, therefore, the retail price is higher.
Companies that build overseas can afford to set competitive market rates. Everything is cheaper overseas. Whether the actual standards of work are better, I shall look at later.
Made in America, But Not Really
There are those companies who claim their instruments are made in America, but that is only partly true. With some, they might be ‘assembled’ in America, but that’s all. Most of the parts are sourced from cheaper overseas markets. Again, an attempt to keep down costs.
Not The Case
That doesn’t apply to Rickenbacker. Since its inception, everything has been made in-house. Today, the vast majority of the parts for Rickenbacker guitars are made at their factory, and only one part is outsourced.
The description “handmade” is also an anomaly these days. Machines and automated devices are used to create Rickenbacker and other makes of guitars. But that is the norm. The basic Rickenbacker shapes are created automatically. The finishing is all done by hand.
That includes sanding down, final shaping, color coatings, and the final polishing. All of this activity is labor-intensive by people earning far more than their counterparts overseas.
Therefore, Rickenbacker production costs are very high when compared with Fender in Mexico or Indonesia. Likewise for Epiphone, which is also built in the far east. From there, it is a simple equation. Higher Costs equals higher prices.
Rickenbacker Claim Excellent Build Quality
Being built in-house does allow them to make sure everything is made to a high standard. And that is an important selling point of Rickenbacker bass guitars.
However, that deduction implies that everything made overseas is of a lower standard, which is a very naive assumption to draw. My own experience in the Soundhouse taught me that.
Is Overseas That Bad?
I recently had the opportunity to write an article comparing a Mexico Fender Strat with an American-made Strat. The American came out fractionally ahead in quality, but it was a small amount.
Furthermore, it was not three times better, which was the price difference between them. The Mexican Fender offered far better value.
Not much difference…
I did the same with an Epiphone Les Paul and a Gibson LP. The same thing, the Gibson was better in some ways, but not four times better. The Epiphone was a better value for the money guitar.
There are overseas-made guitars that are dreadful, but certainly not all. And, I find the build quality of the good ones is equal to anything else.
On most brands, much of the circuitry for the guitars is made, assembled, and then imported to America. Rickenbacker, as we have seen, will build the majority of its fittings and circuitry in-house.
However, not all the components are American-made. These can come from a variety of overseas sources. The only complete unit that is sourced from overseas is the pots. These are made and imported from Taiwan.
For a long time, it was quite unique. Not so much now. Other manufacturers have recognized that the Rickenbacker sound has its place, and they have built similar versions.
They have gone for the single-coil toppy sound, but some have added a bit of depth as well. The lack of bottom-end was what turned a lot of players off the 4001.
There are also some very good copies these days that are very hard to tell from the originals. Sometimes the only apparent difference is the lack of body edging.
But for all their efforts, it isn’t quite the same sound. It is very close to some of them, it has to be said, but not quite. The 4000 and 4001 are still unique in that department. And if you want ‘that’ sound, you are just going to have to hand over the cash.
What Helps That Sound?
There is a unique element to this, though, that plays an important role. There are two pickups – one at the neck and one at the bridge. Quite normal, but what isn’t is that the bass has a stereo output.
This allows the neck and bridge pickups to have their own mono outputs which means they can be played through two different bass amps, with one pickup connected to each. In terms of creating a sound through a single amp, that is a big issue.
Is A Rickenbacker Just A Luxury Item?
At first, there wasn’t much of a difference between Rickenbacker and Fender basses in prices. But then some bright spark at Rickenbacker decided to reduce production and make fewer guitars available to buy.
Shrinking the supply…
That caused the price to skyrocket, and people just weren’t prepared to pay the money. In my opinion, Rickenbacker misplaced themselves. They were not as good as Fender for one reason. A Fender bass, a decent one, especially the Precision, will fit just about any style of music. It has a range of great sounds that can be sharp and piercing or warm and lush.
A guitar for all seasons, if you like. And it plays beautifully, providing you didn’t get one from Fender Soundhouse.
One Sound, Good As It Might Have Been
The Rickenbacker was none of those things. It had only one great sound, and it was great, but that was it. You could tweak the stereo output, but it still lacked the bottom-end. Making it hard to get, as well as expensive, put more people off than attracted them.
Bass players got fed up going into guitar shops, and they didn’t have one. They bought something else instead, and co-incidentally, that actually saved them a lot of money. Someone at Rickenbacker needed to join the real world.
Rare is better?
Some people think it worked in their favor to have a product that was hard to get. I disagree. It turned what was a good guitar into a collector’s item, a luxury bass for the few that could afford it. A fashionable prop.
It should have and could have been one of the most popular bass guitar models. So, what is the point of making it hard to get? That is a poor business model.
They also tend to rely on testimonials from bass players who clearly do not view it as their favorite. Geddy Lee always seemed to prefer his Jazz bass; McCartney is still using the Hofner.
Chris Squire and Lemmy were the people who marketed it for them. But that isn’t any good unless you can actually get one.
They Are Expensive
I have tried to answer the question, “Why are Rickenbacker bass so expensive?”. However, they are still great bass guitars and something very special. But, like all things, guitars can sometimes need replacing.
Have you got a Rickenbacker bass with pickups that need replacing? Or maybe want to try and get that edgy sound from whatever you play? If, so, these might help:
- Basslines SRB-1 Pickup for Rickenbacker Bass Neck
- Basslines SRB-1 Pickup for Rickenbacker Bass Bridge
- Seymour Duncan SRB-1 Humbucker Pickup Set for Rickenbacker 4003 Bass
Worth The Money Or Not?
For the vast majority of people, probably not. It can be too limited in its sound to offer any great variety that may be needed. It has become a luxury item for those that can afford it. I must say, though, I would buy one if I found one at a reasonable, not completely ludicrous, price.
Rickenbacker has always been one of the best bass guitars around. But, when you can’t get one because someone thinks it is better to make them in short supply, that isn’t much good.
That is the main reason Rickenbacker bass guitars are so expensive. People want them and are willing to pay over the top to get one.
Why Are Rickenbacker Bass So Expensive – The Bottom Line
If you can afford it, get a 4000 or 4001 as a second bass guitar, maybe just to give you an alternative sound. If you see one, buy it. They have one real sound, but it is a good one. And the design? That might be worth the cash alone.
Until next time, let your music play.