Rickenbacker Basses: Are They Worth The (High) Money?

Many bass players dream of owning a Rickenbacker bass, an iconic instrument that has been played by some of the most legendary bassists since the 1970s. Rickenbacker basses are highly coveted and often seen as a holy, beautiful, one-of-a-kind bass with a unique and legendary tone.

Rickenbacker basses don’t come in cheap, and is only worth the price if you’re heavily into prog/classic/metal rock, or if you’re obsessed with the legendary Rickenbacker tone.

If you’re looking for a highly playable and versatile bass for all situations, a high-end Fender Jazz bass might be a better choice.

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How much do Rickenbacker basses cost?

New Rickenbacker basses are typically priced between $1,700 and $2,200 – the list price on a new 4003 is $2249 – though they often retail lower, sometimes as low as $1500-1600.

So the (official) price range is roughly comparable to high-end basses such as Music Man U.S. Stingrays, U.S. Fenders, or Jackson USA basses ($2000+).

In Europe, the average price of a new Rickenbacker is a lot higher than in the U.S. at 2200-2600 euros – about $2400-2850. Quite pricey for a mass-produced bass.

Check out the Rickenbacker bass guitars on Guitar Center

Rickenbacker worth the money?

Rickenbacker bass fans see it as a great instrument with a pretty unique sound that is very reliable and more versatile than people think, with a high “wow factor”.

Others feel Rics are not worth the price and that high-end customs are better options for the budget. They point out the Rickenbacker has important ergonomic flaws, a difficult to adjust mute, and variable quality control.

Detractors also point out the Rickenbacker’s impractical truss rod and bad bridge design, the need for a pro setup twice a year to keep the neck straight, the old-fashioned hardware, and the mediocre customer service from the factory.

Rickenbacker basses are love or hate. For some, it’s their dream bass. For people who are really into them, these basses are worth every penny. you have to really want (even be obsessed with) the Rickenbacker growl – if so, there’s no equivalent to it.

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Owning a Rickenbacker is often compared to owning a classic Italian sports car – pricey and impractical but with a unique feel, especially if you know how to drive/play it.

Although Rickenbacker bass owners (particular vintage ones) generally cherish their instrument and would not part with it, because of its utterly specific character it may not be the best guitar for those who own only one bass.

Rickenbacker bass sound: what goes?

Rickenbacker basses have their own character that can’t be easily duplicated. They have two pickups, two volumes, and two tones. Newer basses have a vintage/modern switch that gives them added versatility without losing their recognizable tone.

Most bassists agree the Rickenbacker has a specialized rock sound and produces some of the best tones for rock and metal. For psychedelic and progressive rock bands, nothing comes close to the Ric’s mid/treble rich tone, especially for solos enhanced with delays and other effects.

The Rickenbacker is not really an all-purpose bass. It takes a lot of EQ tweaking e.g. to get a boomy P-bass type sound for Reggae or Motown R&B. The very mids and highs-focused tone it’s famous for isn’t best-suited for modern tones. Achieving a completely different sound is not so easy.

Some bassists, however, find the Rickenbacker to be a quite versatile bass if you know how to use its capabilities. One of the reasons people generally think it’s very specialized is that they don’t produce the Fender tone everyone has come to expect.

The Rickenbacker’s unique tone also fits best in a mix that includes old-school instruments, another reason why some musicians have mixed feeling about these basses.

For these reasons, freelance bassists tend to choose a jazz bass over a Rickenbacker as a single bass for both studio and live sessions.

Pickups

The pickups on older (70s and 80s) Rickenbackers are lower output than the 2000s basses – which also have the vintage/modern switch. By boosting the middle pickup, all Rics old or new will render a great aggressive full tone that drives tube amps in a remarkable way.

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One great feature of the Rickenbacker is the ric-o-sound stereo output. Using two different amplifiers or DI setups allows you to get incredible sounds out of the bass.

For all the special tone they offer, the Rickenbacker vintage pickups do come with their quirks, including some noise due to both being wired in the same direction. This can be an issue for getting a clean signal when recording. In contrast, on a Fender Jazz, using the two pickups together tends to cancel the hum.

Rickenbacker playability & ergonomics

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As much as fans love the looks and sound of the Rickenbacker, bassists often rant about the Rickenbacker’s ergonomics. The wide body with almost flat back can be uncomfortable to hold and play.

The absence of contoured body is hard on the underarms, and the sharp-edged body binding (e.g. on the 4003, though not on the 4003s) hurts your forearms. Older models can also be quite heavy.

One of the most common qualms about the Rics is the bridge pickup cover which prevents you from resting the thumb and plucking over the bridge pickup, or for fingerstyle or pick playing.

Many players choose to remove the bridge cover, but this leaves a gaping hole around the pickup. A bezel can be used to fill it. Some also opt for a Zero-Mod Thumbrest as these fit Rickenbackers really well.

The Rickenbacker’s neck and fretboard are sticky, and the shorter scale results in very tense strings which are harder to play. Many Rickenbacker basses have really high action – a pen can sometimes fit between strings and frets. While they can be set up with almost flat relief and low action, it’s not to everyone’s taste.

It’s important to note that there are significant variations between Rickenbacker versions depending on production year. Neck thickness and weight, namely, vary considerably from year to year.

So yes, Rickenbackers look and sound fantastic but are not the easiest and most ergonomic basses to play. If you choose to buy one, be sure to try the specific version you’re getting before forking out the cash.

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Rickenbacker basses construction

Rickenbacker bass owners are generally impressed by their craftsmanship, they often feel like they’re holding a historical piece.

The Rics are known to be very sturdy and highly resistant to humidity, heat, even beverage spills. Rickenbacker bass owners rarely need to adjust the action due to weather variations. These basses will also stay in tune for years.

Quality-wise, older Rickenbacker models often had varying quality control and some neck issues due to being mostly hand-made. production quality, however, has improved significantly over time.

That said, some bassists feel the neck is too sticky and grabby for the price. Some Rickenbacker bass finishes, although attractive, are very soft and easily scratched, e.g. in comparison with the super strong finish of an American Standard P Bass. 

Detractors also mention that modern Rickenbacker bass models are very similar in design and hardware to vintage ones, while Fender designs always kept improving over the years.

Finally, Rickenbacker customer service is not always reactive, and some owners have not had much help from the factory. You may find yourself having to solve the issue on your own with replacement parts.

Rickenbacker bass maintenance

Here again, the classic sports car analogy applies: the amazing sound and looks of the Rickenbacker bass often comes at the cost of significant upkeep and modding.

Post-1985 Ric basses have dual truss rods, which gives them a wide range of adjustment but makes it a pain to set up.

Intonation on older models also requires taking the bridge completely apart – although the hipshot has been much improved in more recent models. Pickup pole piece adjustment is also a challenge on the Rickenbacker.

Final words

So are Rickenbacker basses worth the money? They are if you’re a hardcore rocker heavy who dreams to own a historical instrument played by some of the greatest rock bassists of history. Be sure to play it before you buy though, as there is a lot of variation from year to year.

Otherwise, your budget may be better used on an MIA Fender J bass that will work seamlessly for most live and recording gigs, be much easier to play, and require much less maintenance.