In the world of bass, Rickenbackers are known as high end items. They are all hand-made, a bit less ubiquitous than Fenders, and have a very specific sound. They have an instantly recognizable curvy shape with a headstock to match. Pictured below is a Rickenbacker 4001.
Rickenbackers are not the most commonly used basses but they have definitely made their mark in rock and roll and music in general. They have been used widely by a host of famous rockers across genres, from The Beatles all the way to Metallica.
What makes these particular instruments unique? Well it should come unsurprisingly that basses tend to have a deep, bassy tone. After all, they underpin the music as the backbone of the song on the low end. Rickenbackers of course fill this role but their musical niche actually comes from their high end capabilities. Rickenbackers have a far greater range of high tones, and the bassists who are known for their heavy use of Rickenbackers tend to make use of this ability. Here’s an example of this in the metal genre. Cliff Burton of Metallica, bassist known for his legendary talent and songwriting as well as his tragic death in a car accident, solos on the high end of his Rickenbacker (Rick solo starts at about 0:50 seconds, the first solo is pretty killer too).
Cliff is running his bass through a smattering of distortion effects to achieve his intense tone, however at the bottom of it is the Rickenbacker’s natural high-end depth as well as its marked sustain.
Beyond metal, Rickenbackers are also known as prog-rock basses for the fact that many of the biggest progressive rock bands seem to pick Rickenbackers, probably because the Rickenbacker’s unique sound suits the demands of progressive rock’s musical unorthodoxy.
Three of the biggest progressive rock bands in most prog fans’ books all use Rickenbacker basses. These are Yes, Rush, and Genesis. They all manage to extract a different tone out of there Rickenbackers, all of which suit the individual musical niche of each band. Yes is the jazziest of the three while still maintaining a core rock sound. Rush is more hard rock oriented, at times seeming to cross the threshold into metal, and Genesis seems to sit pretty much between the two, dipping into jazz at some times and harder riffs at other times. Their Rickenbacker tones mirrors this genre alignment.
Chris Squire, the bassist of Yes, has an extremely high, poppy bass tone, and plays the high notes of bass more than the low notes. This is well demonstrated in more or less the entire Yes catalog, and in this performance.
Geddy Lee gets an extremely grinding, growly tone that is impossible to ignore. Geddy used the Rickenbacker primarily in the early days of Rush, which were marked by first hard-rock that slowly transitioned into ever more complex hard-progressive rock. Geddy Lee is considered by many to be one of the best bassists of all time, and his tone reflects it. It’s very prominent and distinctive, and strangely seems to be higher in treble than in bass without losing any of the underscoring qualities that bass of course needs. A good example of this would be the Rush song “The Trees” off of the 1978 album “Hemispheres”.
Mike Rutherford has more of a traditional bass tone and showcases the Rickenbacker’s versatility as not solely for incredibly unorthodox tone. He plays it prominently but much bassier than Geddy Lee and Chris Squire, and thus more traditionally. In Yes and Rush, it could be said that the bass playing is one of the lead draws to the music, but in Genesis the bass takes more of a traditional role to enhance the entire musical experience. Genesis is known for their philosophical art-rock concept albums, where much of the focus is on the lyrics and singing, and Rutherford plays his part perfectly for this purpose while still demonstrating his chops in his own right. A good demonstration of this would be on the title track “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”.
While not used as commonly as their Fender counterparts, Rickenbacker basses have cemented themselves in rock history as a unique craftsman’s tool. Many of the top bassists known for their distinct tone and playing style have used Rickenbackers, and that fact in my opinion speaks for itself. If you are chasing a specific bass tone, have a listen to any of the bassists above and give the Rickenbacker 4000 series a try.