Classic Gear

- [RB]

Following the release of Fender’s game-changing Precision Bass in 1951, most American manufactur­ers had introduced an electric bass guitar to the market by the mid-50s, but it wasn’t until 1957 that Rickenback­er introduced its own.

Although it was slow to arrive, the model 4000 ultimately became one of the most influentia­l bass designs ever. It was the first of its kind to feature a neck-through-body constructi­on and dual truss-rod system. This, along with its “extreme cut-away” body design and ‘cresting wave’ three-piece headstock profile, made the company’s fledgling bass appear altogether different.

Upon its launch in 1957, the Rickenback­er 4000 cost $279.50, which was $60 more than the Precision Bass. Evidently, Rickenback­er’s owner (and former business partner of Leo Fender) FC Hall was confident in the company’s new arrival. Production remained limited at first, but slowly began to speed up as the instrument caught on. This was in part thanks to endorsees such as James Kirkland of Ricky Nelson fame. “Mr Hall gave me the bass in early 1958,” he told Rickenback­er author Martin Kelly. “I was one of the first to get the Rickenback­er.”

In 1960, Rickenback­er changed from using mahogany or walnut for the instrument’s neck-through-body to maple, adding strength to the guitar, while also matching its glued-on maple body ‘wings’. In 1961, guitar builder Roger Rossmeisl further enhanced the body design by enlarging the horns and altering their shape. At this point, he then set about making a ‘deluxe’ version featuring a bound top and fancier fretboard inlays.

Inspired by his new creation, Rossmeisl went on to build the first model 4001 bass later that year. In addition to the existing ‘horseshoe’ pickup – the revolution­ary device that launched the electric-guitar market in 1931 – a second bespoke-designed four-pole ‘toaster’ pickup was added in the neck position. Additional volume and tone controls, along with a three-way selector switch, expanded the bass’s tonal range. A bound top (chequerboa­rd or plain) and bound rosewood fretboard with large triangular inlays further set the 4001 apart as something special.

Following Rossmeisl’s departure from Rickenback­er to join Fender in 1962, a series of changes were implemente­d by fellow craftsman Dick Burke. A cast aluminium bridge and tailpiece replaced the original covered sliding design, and the body depth was reduced from 1 5⁄8 inches to 1 ¼ inches, while the bass horn was also extended into the familiar ‘cresting wave’ profile.

By the late 60s, demand for Rickenback­er basses had grown considerab­ly and the instrument­s continued to evolve. In 1968, the 4001 received a Ric-O-Sound stereo output alongside its regular mono jack, and the original ‘horseshoe’ pickup was replaced with a Hi-gain unit (although a chromed plastic cover was retained as a nod to its predecesso­r).

1973 saw a further series of changes to the 4001. The model’s popular chequerboa­rd binding was replaced by a plain white type, a new cast zinc tailpiece appeared, and the front/‘toaster’ pickup was supplanted with another Hi-gain unit. At the same time, the triangular inlays were shortened – a measure implemente­d in order to strengthen the neck (along with a walnut centre strip introduced earlier in 1972). By this stage, the 4001 was already a classic, becoming Rickenback­er’s biggest seller of the decade. It was eventually dropped in 1986 while its successor, the 4003, became a Rickenback­er mainstay.

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