The company was founded as the Electro String Instrument Corporation by Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp in 1931 to sell electric "Hawaiian" guitars designed by Beauchamp. These instruments, nicknamed "frying pans" due to their long necks and circular bodies, were the first solid-bodied electric guitars, though they were not standard guitars, but a lap-steel type. They had huge pickups with a pair of horseshoe magnets that arched over the top of the strings.
Rickenbacker continued to specialize in steel guitars well into the 1950s, but with the rock and roll boom they shifted towards producing standard guitars, both acoustic and electric. In 1956 Rickenbacker introduced two instuments with the "neck through body" contruction that was to become a standard feature of the company's products - the Combo 400 guitar and the model 4000 bass.
In 1958, Rickenbacker introduced its "Capri" series, including the double-cutaway semi-acoustic guitars which would become the famous 300 series. In 1960 in Hamburg the then-unknown John Lennon bought a 325 Capri, which he would use throughout the early days of The Beatles. By 1963 George Harrison had bought a 425, but continued to prefer his Gretsch "Country Gent". In 1964 Rickenbacker developed a twelve-string guitar with an innovative arrangement of tuning-pegs that fitted all twelve onto a standard-sized headstock. The second model 360/12 ever made was given as a gift to Harrison. This instrument became a key part of the Beatles' sound on A Hard Day's Night and Help, and was used by Harrison throughout his life.
Rickenbackers were adopted by other 1960s notables, including Roger McGuinn of The Byrds and Pete Townshend of The Who, but they fell out of fashion in the 1970s, while Rickenbacker basses remained in favour. Later Rickenbacker guitar players include Paul Weller of The Jam, Peter Buck of R.E.M, and Johnny Marr of The Smiths.
The 4000 series were the first Rickenbacker bass guitars. The 4000 was followed by the very popular 4001 (in 1961), the 4003 (in about 1980), and most recently the 4004 series. These basses, along with the Fender basses, were a staple of 1970s and 1980s rock. The instrument has made a major instrument to rock music, having been used by artists including Chris Squire from Yes, Geddy Lee from Rush, Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead and Paul McCartney, to name a few.
The Rickenbacker basses have a distinctive tone. The 4000 bass has neck-through construction for more solid sustain due to more rigidity. The 3000 series made from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s were cheaper instruments with bolt-on necks.
Many Rickenbackers - both guitars and basses - are equipped with a "Rick-O-Sound" stereo output, which allows the different pickups of the instrument to be connected to different effects units or amplifiers. Another idiosyncrasy of Rickenbackers is the use of two truss rods (rather than the usual one) to correct twists, as well as curvature, in the neck.