This guitar is an example of one of the most unusual experiments in early electric stringed instrument production. The instrument features the Doc Kauffman motorised vibrato tailpiece designed to create vibrato effects. It consists of a motor, flywheel, and solenoid assembly that when activated is supposed to subtly shift the pitch to create a vibrato effect.
The Rickenbacker Vibrola Spanish Model Solid Body Electric Guitar was produced between 1938 and 1942 in Los Angeles. It features a polished black finish, Bakelite body and neck. One of most unusual and interesting fretted instruments ever produced, the Rickenbacker Electro Vibrola-Spanish Guitar is a truly unique fretted creation. Based on the already radical Electro Spanish guitar marked in 1935, this variant features California inventor Doc Kauffman's motorized vibrato tailpiece, designed to create Hawaiian-style vibrato effects for Spanish guitar players. The Bakelite Electro-Spanish guitars are rare enough already, with or without the original Kauffman Vib-rola (see examples in our TYS Collection), but the motorised version is at another level of eccentricity. No more than 90 guitars of this type were produced between 1938 and 1942, and this was a very expensive instrument in its day, selling for nearly $200,00 including the amplifier.
The body is double width, essentially two hollowed-out Bakelite bodies screwed together containing (along with the regular guitar electronics) a small electric motor, flywheel, and solenoid assembly. The motor activates the vibrato unit and the guitar's pitch is shifted subtly, creating a vibrato effect while the guitar is played...at least in theory. All this hardware makes the guitar heavy enough that a stand was usually provided to mount the instrument to the amplifier. The 1-1/2" horseshoe magnet pickup is stamped with patent number 2089171.
The hollow areas of the body are covered with five decorative chrome plates, with six small holes on the upper bass plate and 16 small holes on the upper treble plate for ventilation. The bridge is set much higher than the standard Electro-Spanish unit and has individual roller saddles for the strings. The Kauffman tailpiece is stamped "Vib-Rola" and is the same as the standard hand-operated version except for a piece of heavy-gauge wire running from inside the body that replaces the handle. A flying saucer knob on the lower base bout controls vibrato speed and the knob on the lower treble bout controls the pickup volume. The bolt-on Bakelite neck has integral moulded fret ridges and 6 individual open backed tuners. The headstock plate reads "Richenbacher Electro Los Angeles" with a lightning bolt logo.
Richard R. Smith, author of "The History of Rickenbacker Guitars", commented on this instrument: "The advertising literature read like a catalog for a modern day guitar synthesizer: 'The vibrola guitarist can simulate the organ's majestic diapason, the resonance of the vibraharp, and in slow moving melodies, the accordion's reedy tone, or for beauty and elegance, amplify and swell a crystal harmonic in amazing crescendo'".
Although this guitar was really a success, Rickenbacker continued to use the manual version of the Vib-Rola tailpiece until 1961 and "Doc" Kauffman went on to partner with Leo Fender in his early commercial electric guitar venture. The Vibrola Spanish is one of the most ambitious and unusual American guitars ever, as well as one of the most historically interesting.