Meditate for a moment on the sound of The Beatles in the mid ’60s—those amazing three-part harmonies aside—and your mind’s ear is likely to land upon that stirring 12-string jangle and zing that was, for a time, a trademark of the Fab Four’s instrumental assault. In addition to being great and prolific songwriters, charismatic singers, and definitive pop idols, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison were consummate gearheads. They knew the power that a new sound could possess, the way a new instrument could be wielded as a tool to help a track jump right out of the groove and into the listener’s consciousness. For a period of a couple years from 1964, the Rickenbacker 360/12 12-string electric guitar served as exactly that for Harrison: it was the sonic attention getter, it helped many Beatles classics to really pop.
The acoustic 12-string guitar was a major fixture in folk circles in the early ’60s, a time when the folk boom helped the acoustic instrument to threaten the demise of the electric. Rickenbacker owner Francis Hall, at the helm of a company that had no competitive acoustic line, envisaged some crossover potential in a 12-string electric, and set his designers the task of producing one. Three prototypes received enthusiastic responses from the musicians who tested them, and he debut model settled into form as the 360/12 toward the end of 1963. Not long after this, in February 1964, The Beatles came to the USA for three concerts and a pair of appearances on the enormously popular Ed Sullivan show. Hall saw his chance: he took a 360/12 to The Beatles’ New York hotel to present to George Harrison to try out. Hall knew he had an in with the British beat-pop band, since Lennon had long played a short-scale Rickenbacker 325 six-string. Indeed, Harrison liked the new 12-string, and his approval—and subsequent use of the model—assured the 360/12’s success for all time.
Harrison used his new 360/12 on early tracks like “You Can’t Do That” and “I Should Have Known Better”, and brought it out for the majority of the songs on the 1964 album A Hard Day’s Night. The most famous Beatles Ricky 12-string moment is undoubtedly the title track to that outing, with its chimey intro chord and the stand-out lead break around the middle of the song. With exposure like this, every kid on both sides of the big pond was soon hankering for a 360/12, or just about any of those distinctive Rickenbacker designs that they could get their hands on.
Occasionally relegated to B-list status behind Gibson and Fender, and arguably Gretsch, Rickenbacker had struggled to retain a foothold in the early rock-and-roll market, despite having roots that extended to the very birth of the electric guitar. Having evolved out of the National company (famed for its metal-bodied resonator guitars), Rickenbacker was among the first to release a commercially available electric guitar, the Electro Spanish of 1932, and its distinctive “horseshoe” pickup was one of the first successful electro-magnetic pickup designs. Amidst its struggle for market share 30 years later, the success of the 360/12, and other 12- and 6-string models of the ’60s, assured the company’s survival. And this cleverly designed electric 12-string deserved the recognition it got, too. In rendering the 12-string acoustic template for the electric guitar, Rickenbacker introduced several ingenious design twists to make the instrument more appealing to pop and rock-and-roll players. Where most electrics required cumbersome, wide necks to accommodate all those strings, the Ricky designers kept theirs remarkably slim, making this a smooth, easy player. Also, rather than spoiling the elegant lines of the headstock by extending it to hold all those tuners, they positioned the six-a-side tuners alternately at right angles, with three posts per side extending outward in the traditional manner, and three extending into partial slots in the head, somewhat like the tuners on a classical guitar. A laminated “through neck” made from maple and mahogany offered strength and added sustain, while a semi-hollow maple body helped to keep the weight down. Along with all of this, Rickenbacker’s trademark single-coil “Toaster Top” pickups helped to project all the bright jangle and sizzle that these guitars are known for.
Through the years a Rickenbacker 360/12 (or similar model) would appear in the hands of Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Pete Townshend, Tom Petty and Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers, Peter Buck of REM, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, and many, many other notable star players. Harrison moved on from his own in the later mid ’60s, knowing that a novel sound only stays fresh for so long, and the electric 12-string craze itself faded similarly. It was even on the wane soon after big names like Gibson and Fender introduced their own versions—the ES-335-12 and Electric XII respectively — later in 1965, relegating these models to “also-ran” status. Nevertheless, that shimmering chime and thrang of the Rickenbacker 360/12 had made its mark, and would have a place in popular music forever after. It’s still a stirring sound, though, a guaranteed tonal attention getter and a legendary electric of the first order.