When a young Paul McCartney played the distinctive Rickenbacker electric bass guitar with the Beatles, teenagers and rock musicians everywhere wanted the instrument, including Town of Grafton resident Paul Boyer, who was playing in a rock band in Massachusetts at the time.
McCartney used the bass guitar more in the recording studio than on stage and its distinctive sound is evident in many Beatles albums, Boyer said.
The guitar has fascinated Boyer since he first heard it, and now he’s written a book for Rickenbacker bass aficionados and people interested in rock’s history. He devoted eight years to researching, writing, gathering photographs and designing the book.
“The Rickenbacker Electric Bass: 50 Years as Rock’s Bottom” was released in June by Hal Leonard Books in Milwaukee. It’s the only book devoted exclusively to the Rickenbacker bass guitar and was one of the music company’s top-selling books the last six months.
“The Rickenbacker is one of those iconic instruments. There has never been anything written about the bass before, and it’s doing quite well,” said Mike Hansen, senior sales and marketing director for Hal Leonard’s book division, who would not disclose sales numbers.
“What’s been amazing about it is a lot of these type of books have good sales in the beginning and then taper off, but it’s been quite consistent since June. It’s among our top sellers for the season it was released.”
The Rick, as Boyer calls it, became the darling of progressive musical groups that loved its ultra-modern look as much as its bright sound. It made the Fender electric bass look old-fashioned, Boyer said.
In an astute marketing campaign, Rickenbacker owner Francis Hall, gave a 12-string guitar to George Harrison in February 1964 when the Beatles first came to the United States and played the Ed Sullivan Show. John Lennon was already playing a Rickenbacker six-string guitar he bought in England.
Hall also offered a left-handed bass to McCartney, but he passed on the gift. When the Beatles returned to the U.S. in 1965, Hall tried again and this time McCartney accepted the Rick bass and used it to record the later Beatles albums. It also was used as an on-stage backup to McCartney’s old Höfner bass, but became his primary bass on tour with Wings in the 1970s.
Boyer played a cheap bass guitar until he bought a used 1972 Rickenbacker bass in 1975. Over the years, he bought and sold numerous Ricks, adding to his collection that once numbered in the 20s but now is down to a dozen or so. The one he won’t sell is the cherished first one he bought.
When he married and embarked on his career as a journalist, Boyer put his Rick away.
His quest to learn all he could about his favorite instrument started in 2002, when he was editor of FineScale Modeler magazine at Kalmbach Publishing Co. in Waukesha.
“Kalmbach had a pickup band and needed a bass player, and I had a bass,” Boyer said. “I pulled it out from underneath the guest bed and was curious about what I had.”
He researched the instrument on the Internet and joined Rickenbacker chat groups. The information he found was often contradictory.
“I decided to figure out what was really correct,” Boyer said. “I realized this ought to be written in a book because there is all this legend and lore.”
By the time he retired from Kalmbach in 2006, Boyer had accumulated hundreds of photographs, lots of information and quite a few guitars.
Initially, Hal Leonard wanted the Rickenbacker company to be involved in the book project.
“I couldn’t get much help,” Boyer said. “They’re a privately held company and were one to two years behind in orders. They couldn’t devote much time to help with a book that would likely increase demand.”
However, the guitar manufacturer did supply photographs and answered some of Boyer’s questions.
Boyer decided to proceed with the project on his own and photographed as many Rickenbackers as he could at guitar shows and conventions, documenting the different bass models, features and colors.
He obtained photographs of McCartney and other musicians playing Rickenbackers from photographers scattered around the globe.
When he was almost finished with the book, Boyer contacted Hal Leonard again to see if the company would be interested in selling or publishing it. He wanted to provide camera-ready copy rather than work with a designer who would likely make changes. The company accepted the book as he designed it, and Boyer converted the copy to the company’s publishing format.
The 144-page softcover book is organized in chronological order beginning with the first single-pickup 4000 model in 1957 and its evolution into the popular two pickup 4001/4003 series in the 1980s and current models.
There are photographs of custom-made and refinished Rickenbackers, including Boyer’s very first Rick.
The first night Boyer played his Rick, he said, his fingers were cut and bloody.
“I had been playing a Japanese copy of a Höfner, which is short scale with flat-wound strings. The Rick is long scale and has roundwound strings that chewed up my fingers,” he said. “I got callouses eventually, and got to the point where I was no longer uncomfortable.”
It was worth the pain.
“The sound was just what was needed,” Boyer said.
Image Information: Paul Boyer played his first Rickenbacker bass guitar, which he bought used in 1975 and inspired him to write a book on the iconic instrument. Photo by Sam Arendt