What is it?
There was a time when you could turn the radio on and all you would have heard was a Rickenbacker 330. It was the electric guitar of choice for all the "The" bands – Beatles, Who, Byrds... Tom Petty, too. What started in Liverpool, England, translated well to Laurel Canyon, California.
What has changed? All those bands have left an indelible mark on popular music. If the Rickenbacker has become something of a niche instrument, the music-buying public should still recognise its distinctive silhouette – they'll definitely recognise its tone.
This one is quite special. As Rickenbacker 330s go, it's a rare thing indeed, with only 25 instruments available as a UK exclusive release. The Pillar Box Red finish, however, is so bright it could be seen from space.
Might this be the guitar to make players reconsider the 330's charms and make its rich chime a flavour that today's players find as inspiring as their counterparts did when the Ed Sullivan Show was essential viewing for young record collectors?
Well, such prognostication is beyond the remit of a gear review. What we can say, however, is that the Rickenbacker has lost none of its charm.
The body shape and style still catches the eye of the individualist players. It's funny when you read through the roll call of all the great players past and present who have played them, all have instantly recognisable tones and styles. No one would get Tom Petty mixed up with the lush chord work of Johnny Marr.
Options in the range are more plentiful and available across different regions. Choose from the classic trifecta – Fire Glo, Jet Glo and Maple Glo – or Midnight Blue.
But Pillar Box Red is having a wee moment, with the Rickenbacker's UK distributor Rosetti commissioning a special run for the 330 we have here, plus the 360 PBR, the 4003 PBR bass, 4003S PBR bass and 4003S/5 PBR bass. There are 25 units of each, except the 4003S/5 PBR, which is limited to 10.
Build-wise, it is a familiar double-cutaway semi comprising a solid maple top and sides glued to a solid maple back. A set maple neck, carved into a medium C profile, joins the body with an extended tenon that almost reaches the bridge, while a maple fingerboard with a 10" radius completes the all-maple menu.
Betwixt bridge and neck, you'll find a pair of Rickenbacker Hi-Gain pickups with the usual dual-volume, dual-tone controls plus 3-way pickup selector and a blend control for the neck pickup that comes in very handy in the mix position.
It's a reasonable 8lb, and seated or standing with a strap, you'll find it a perfectly balanced instrument.
The white plexiglass (acrylic) pickguard looks the business against that PBR finish, but it's the Rickenbacker "R" tailpiece that typically weakens the knees and makes the heart race. It really is a work of art.
Performance and verdict
Besides the unique look, what makes the Rickenbacker so different from other semi-acoustics is the clarity in its tone. The Hi-Gain pickups are scatterwound and offer such an abundance of detail that it seems they were voiced specifically for open chords.
That said, the treble-forward chime has substance to it. It's not a brand of treble that's like a Tele or Strat. There's a more mellow quality to the Rickenbacker's voice. It will let you dig in, too. Through a tube combo that's running hot, there's a crisp immediacy about chord work.
• Guild Starfire I DC
If you are looking for a semi-hollow build that's a little more suited to blues and rock, the Starfire offers great value and some deep vintage character.
• Gibson ES-335 Premiere Figured
Plugged in, it's like all our Christmases have come at once. It takes that oh-so-Gibson voice of the ES-275, cleans up the lower end, but still does effortless jazz or hugely vocal blues and fusion lead and we're still on the neck pickup.
While it was the pop and rock acts of the 60s that made the Rickenbacker their own, you could play a little jazz or blues on this. The 10" fingerboard radius and neck profile makes light work of string bends – they only thing would be that it looks a little incongruous. But why not subvert those audience expectations?
Rolling back the tone is where you can find those voicings that work well for jazz. But taking the treble off the 330 is a bit like having a race car and not taking it out of second gear – you've got to cut it loose.
There is a lot of magic in the mix position. The gnarly sharpness of the bridge pickup allied to the ameliorating diplomacy of the neck pickup makes for some truly evocative tones. A chorus or six-stage phaser works beautifully for adding some movement and swirl in the tone.
Of course, all this calls for a small tube combo. Wearing the suit, having your hair cut into a mop-top is entirely optional. Perhaps ill-advised. After all, in 2021, that's pastiche, and the original '60s Rickenbacker players were anything but.
MusicRadar verdict: The Rickenbacker 330's beguiling tone soundtracked the '60s, but the classics never go out of style. In the 21st century, the Ricky chime has lost none of its magic; it's just waiting for the next generation to pull the songs out of it.
The web says
“Plug into something like a Vox AC15 or Fender Blues Junior, make sure you set aside enough time to get used to how it plays and works, and odds on you’ll be pulled across to the dark side. 'Is the Rickenbacker 330 still relevant?’, you betcha! In fact, we reckon it might be time for the next Who, Jam or REM to come along and upset today’s all too predictable musical applecart. Kerchang!“
- PRICE: £2,879
- ORIGIN: USA
- TYPE: Double-cutaway semi-acoustic
- BODY: Solid maple top and sides routed for pickups, controls, etc, with glued-on maple back
- NECK: Maple, medium C profile, glued-in
- SCALE LENGTH: 629mm (24.75”)
- NUT/WIDTH: Black phenolic, 41.4mm
- FINGERBOARD: Thick maple, unbound with black dot inlays
- FRETS: 24, vintage-style small
- WEIGHT (kg/lb): 3.6/8
- HARDWARE: Chrome plated ‘R’ tailpiece, adjustable bridge with chrome cover, Schaller tuners and strap lock buttons
- STRING SPACING, BRIDGE: 51mm
- ELECTRICS: 2x Rickenbacker Hi-Gain pickups, 2x tones, 2x volumes, blend control operating on neck pickup only, 3-way pickup selector
- OPTIONS: None
- RANGE OPTIONS: Rosetti approached Rickenbacker to do a limited run of Pillar Box Red (PBR) guitars and basses with maple fretboards across 5 models. The others include the 360 PBR (25 only, £3,520); 4003 PBR bass (25 only, £3,265); 4003S PBR bass (25 only, £2,880); 4003S/5 PBR bass (10 only, £3,959). The standard 330 comes in at £2,398
- LEFT-HANDERS: Yes
- FINISHES: Pillar Box Red (this model only). Fire Glo, Jet Glo, Maple Glo, Midnight Blue (Standard 330)
- CONTACT: Rickenbacker