This is a very rare lap steel guitar just after second world war.
According to Noah Miller from Old Frets the Second World War is considered by many to be a watershed period for the electric guitar. Little changed in guitar design between 1940 and 1950, but the experimentation of the 1930’s was toned down as manufacturers started to converge on what would become standardised features. Factories focused on designs that were easier and faster to produce in large quantities, having gained experience building military supplies during the war years.
From 1942 onward, most musical instrument production in the US essentially ceased. Crucial supplies such as magnets, wire, sheet metal and even wood were sequestered by the military to build anything from tents to bombers, and guitar builders ran through their existing stocks pretty quickly. Many were awarded contracts to build military equipment, thus saving them from bankruptcy. This wartime work often introduced new skills and equipment into factories. For example, the Valco factory made cast clear lucite nosecones for B-24 bombers; after the war ended, many Valco steels sported pickup covers created from the same material, possibly to use up existing stock. As a builder of resonator guitars, Valco was hit particularly hard by wartime rationing of metals and was only able to ship a few instruments cobbled together from existing parts.
Rickenbacher suffered a similar problem. Their lap steel bodies were made of aluminum, steel and bakelite, and the pickups used cobalt-steel magnets and copper wire – all hard to come by in the early ‘40s. Material shortages continued for a while after the war ended, so that Rickenbacher (like most guitar manufacturers) didn’t get back up to full production until 1946 or 1947. By that time, though, some changes had been made. The pre-war “horseshoe” magnets were changed from 1.5” to 1.25”, which had a subtle effect on their sound. Lap steels now had the strings anchored in a metal tailpiece instead of through the body. The finishing process was changed and economised – no more expensive chrome plating of entire instruments, paint was sufficient. In the mid 1950s, Rickenbacker finally bowed to convention and introduced lap steels made out of wood.was That was the model 100 in 1955.
These were not the first wooden Rickenbacher steels. The first “frying pan” prototype was made of wood, but production instruments were made from metal or bakelite. About 15 years later, just after the end of World War II, the factory shipped a small number of steels with conventional wooden bodies like the one pictured above. As far as Noah Miller can tell, there is no information available at all on them; they were never catalogued, and they don’t appear in any official list of models. Very few were produced; which seem to baffle both steel and Rickenbacker aficionados whenever they appear.
The early decal logo combined with the 1.5” horseshoe magnets places the steel in the first years of production after the war, most likely 1946. In terms of features, it could be described as a wooden equivalent of the S/NS model introduced about the same time. Volume and tone controls are located on the same side, with the pots attached to black plastic diamond plates that Noah Miller has not seen on any other model. The nut and bridge are bakelite, and the tuners are identical to ones used on other late '40s Rick steels. There is no certitude what kind of wood comprises the body, but it is probably ash or a similarly inexpensive species. The entire instrument is surprisingly light.
Noah Miller’s theory is that these were built as soon as production restarted in 1946. Rickenbacker probably had spare pickups laying around, but not the materials to make new metal or bakelite bodies. They built a few steels out of wood just to use up the existing pickups, quickly switching back to the old materials once supplies became available.
The few other examples all have similar features, but there are slight differences between each one suggesting that the factory was winging it to a certain extent. The placement of the controls varies slightly, as if they were routing by hand instead of using a jig. The workmanship is surprisingly crude for a Rickenbacker product, as if they were still learning how to work with wood. The strings go through the body (as with the bakelite models) and there are ferrules at the back but not the top. As a result, the strings have carved their way into the wood. The diamond plates holding the pots are different sizes, as if someone realised too late that he couldn't fit the tone control next to the pickup and had to cut another plate.
The serial number on the headstock is meaningless as were all serial numbers prior to 1954. It is probably a transitional model or a prototype that never went into mass production.
The sound is reminiscent of other 1940’s Rickenbacker steels. It has the clear, round, bell-like tone you'd expect from the horseshoe pickup, but without the shrill highs you sometimes get from a bakelite body. The sustain is in between the bakelite and metal models. There is a bit of mud in the lower mid-range that reminds you it's based on 1930s electronics. The guitar has enough output to make David Lindley blush, and better string balance than most Ricks.
These are extremely rare, and according to Jerry Byrd are some of the very best sounding steels Rick ever made, which means this steel is one the best ever.