Rickenbacher, Electro Spanish Tenor Electric Guitar, 1936


Electro Spanish Tenor Electric Guitar
Serial Number: 
The Story Behind

The Spanish Electric guitar was first solid body electric guitar ever made with a round neck- not a square lap steel neck. Furthermore it is played as a regular guitar and not as a lap steel. This model by Rickenbacker is often referred to as the first real solid body electric guitar. The Electro-Spanish Tenor version (there was also a 6 string version) was introduced in 1935 at the same time as the famed Bakelite "Model B" Hawaiian Guitar. The Electro Spanish was not successful and was produced in comparatively limited production for just a few years. 
While all "Model B" Hawaiian six-string guitars were built with short-scale moulded Bakelite necks the Tenor guitar features a conventional neck. The neck was either in Bakelite with moulded Bakelite frets or it was a wooden neck with a rosewood fingerboard. This one has a Bakelite neck.

The guitar is a variation on the Bakelite "Model B" Hawaiian six-string guitar, with the volume and tone knobs on opposite sides of the pickup and output jack on the bass side. The moulded body has five cavities covered by decorative metal plates and an aluminum bridge notched for four strings. The guitar has the same horseshoe magnet pickup wraps over the strings as the six-string version. The neck joins the body at the fourteenth fret, has twenty-three frets with inlaid dot markers and is bolted in by two large screws.

A particularly interesting feature of this guitar is the complete original Kauffman Vibrola tailpiece. Clayton Orr "Doc" Kauffman is one of the more unsung early electric guitar pioneers, and this invention - the earliest vibrato tailpiece - was his first major contribution to the electric guitar. The Kaufmann Vibrola was designed to create Hawaiian-style vibrato effects for Spanish guitar players, and was on the market by 1933 with Epiphone in New York boasting exclusive distribution rights. Not surprisingly, the unit proved more effective on electric guitars than acoustic archtops with heavy strings, and by 1936 Rickenbacker had taken over as marketers of the device. From that year onwards the few Bakelite Spanish guitars built featured the unit, even though installing it involved milling off the body's moulded integral string guide. Soon enough, Doc convinced Rickenbacker to market the motorised "Vibrola Spanish" guitar, which replaced the player's hand on the bar with an electric motor and flywheel in the body…but that's another story!

"Doc" Kauffman played his personal Vibrola Spanish guitar for some years afterwards, and interestingly the Fender Broadcaster - designed not long after Kauffman's 1944-5 partnership with Leo Fender - carries on several features of the Electro-Spanish guitar. The bolt-on neck (considered an easily replaceable part) the thru-body stringing and the bridge-mounted steel-guitar position pickup are all Electro-Spanish inspired features. The Electro-Spanish can be seen as the first progenitor of the solid-body guitars to come.

Although today perhaps primarily thought of as a museum-grade collectors piece, this Electro-Spanish Tenor Guitar is also a wonderful musical instrument, albeit an eccentric one. While the electric tenor guitar has never been particularly popular the astounding thing about this little guitar is how good it sounds. The heavy Bakelite body and horseshoe magnet pickup combine to produce an extremely powerful singing tone familiar to steel guitarists but virtually unique in a Spanish guitar.

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