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Gear Spotlight: Rickenbacker 360/12 MG 

On a blustery day in March, I finally did it—I trekked out to Burlington on GO Transit and procured my dream guitar. I present to you the Rickenbacker 360 electric 12-string guitar in a Mapleglo finish:

Rickenbacker makes its guitars to order, one at a time, at their factory in Santa Ana, California. If you're in Canada and you order through Rickenbacker's Canadian dealer, Long & McQuade, it takes up to a year for the instrument to arrive, and you can't try before you buy. The guitar comes in three colours: Jetglo (basic black), Fireglo (a sunburst red), and Mapleglo (the gorgeous woody beige you see here).

Sometimes, I suppose, people order a Rickenbacker and, for whatever reason, bail when it comes to making the purchase. These rare birds end up hanging on the racks at various Long & McQuade locations throughout Canada till someone snaps them up. For months, I'd been checking stock as I madly saved every dollar I could. I had my eye on the Mapleglo all along, as it's the variety played by two of my folk-rock heroes: Paul Kantner and Roger McGuinn.

By the time March rolled around, I'd saved up enough to justify financing the rest, and L&M had two 360/12s in stock in the whole country: a used Jetglo at their North York location and a brand-new Mapleglo in Burlington, a bedroom community about 60 kilometres from Toronto. I called Burlington long-distance to place a hold on the MG and hustled over there the same day.

Now, I'd also been looking at this (cheaper) Gretsch 12-string, which the Burlington store happened to have in stock as well. My heart was set on the Rick, of course, but I'd heard that its narrow neck could cause problems for those with big hands; in other words, the Gretsch might be easier for someone like me to play. So, it was fortuitous that I could try both out during the same trip, then decide.

I tried the Gretsch first. It was okay, though it felt a little clunky to play and I had to keep re-tuning. It had its own chime, but not that chime—the one you hear on those '60s classics that were all played on, you guessed it, Rickenbacker 360/12s. The bass pickup sounded a touch muddy as well, but all told, the G5422G-12 is certainly a decent guitar. If I were on a budget, I'd have considered it. However: then I plugged in the Rickenbacker, played the opening lick to The Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and promptly acquired a first-class ticket to jingle-jangle nirvana. Wow! The Rickenbacker felt great to play and was a lot easier to tune than the Gretsch, but most importantly, it had that chime.

I'm not a technical guitar person, so I can tell you very little about the 360/12's specs or even what kind of wood it's made of. Okay, I looked it up: maple body, maple neck, rosewood fingerboard. Perhaps all that means something to you. It has two pickups and a three-way toggle switch for bass, treble, or a combination of the two in the middle position. Each pickup has its own dedicated volume and tone controls. Then there's the mysterious fifth knob, which really isn't so mysterious once you experiment with it. It's a blend knob, used when your toggle switch is in the middle, that adjusts the ratio of treble pickup and bass pickup in the signal.

Rickenbacker's guitars come in two varieties: 330 and 360. Cosmetic differences aside—and there are a few—what differentiates the deluxe (360) from the standard (330) model is the addition of a separate stereo pickup. This allows you to route the signal through separate effects chains or amplifiers. Rickenbacker calls this Rick-O-Sound, and I have successfully used it on a recording. I had the toggle switch in the middle position and routed the treble pickup through my Vox amp on the AC-30 setting. The bass pickup went through the "Black Panel + Trem" preset on my Pocket Pod, and voila: one guitar, one take, two different sounds. Fabulous!

To me, the 360/12 is the crown jewel of guitars. I've wanted one for years, and as I've gotten to know it over the spring and summer, I'm loving it even more. I don't know how Rickenbacker does it, but there's something about the way they build their guitars that gives them ... that chime. One thing I know they do differently with their 12-string guitars is reverse the usual course of the strings, with the lower octave of each pair on top. Also, their clever design makes the headstock a lot more compact than that of other 12-strings, the Gretsch included. And yes, the neck is thinner and my stubby fingers occasionally block strings I don't intend to block, but I've not found it to be such a problem as to render the guitar unplayable. I need to be mindful of it, that's all.

Amazingly, the guitar has that same magical chime and ring even when I play it unplugged. I've been copping some of Paul Kantner's licks from Jefferson Airplane's Woodstock set, and when I play the opening bars of "Eskimo Blue Day," my guitar sounds exactly like Paul's. And in true Kantnerian tradition, the Rickenbacker 360/12 MG will be my go-to rhythm guitar on most of my recordings from this point on. As Roger McGuinn will attest, though, it's not merely a rhythm instrument; in the Byrds, McGuinn used it as more of a lead guitar, with David Crosby holding down the rhythm on a Gretsch six-string.

I suppose I'll finish up by talking price. Rickenbackers in general don't come cheap, and the 360/12 is the most expensive of all, coming in at a cool $3,225 Cdn. before taxes. By comparison, the Gretsch G5422G-12 retails for $1,280. To my mind, the Rickenbacker blows its competitors away in build quality and sound, and there truly is no substitute. If you want to check it out, here's its Long & McQuade page ... but know that at the moment, there are no Rickenbacker 360/12s in stock anywhere in Canada. And here it is on Rickenbacker's website, sans pricing info for the United States or the rest of the world. I guess you'd have to find a dealer in your country, then go from there.

"In the jingle-jangle morning, I'll come following you" - Bob Dylan, "Mr. Tambourine Man"