Whack Job: 1965 Ryder ES-16

Having only 18 frets, the ES-16 might not be of much use as a lead guitar, but it plays as well as any Rickenbacker you'll ever get your hands on.
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Years ago, I was lucky enough to meet the late, great Allan Holdsworth. I’d always heard he had freakishly big hands. When the opportunity arrived, I was surprised not only that he offered his hand but also at how my own became enveloped in his. But more on that later. The guitar pictured here has nothing at all to do with him.

This tiny-looking 1965 Ryder ES-16 is a student guitar made by Rickenbacker for the Ryder Music School. While the “student” status suggests a spartan feature set, don’t be fooled. This is a very cool guitar!


What I find weird is that, while the guitar is clearly a Rickenbacker, the company’s name isn’t anywhere on it. Once I got past that, I realized that this was made by the very same craftsmen who built the larger and more deluxe Rickenbackers we’ve come to love. I don’t know if that’s weird, but it’s certainly a pleasant surprise.


Having only 18 frets, the ES-16 might not be of much use as a lead guitar, but it plays as well as any Rickenbacker I’ve ever wielded. The skinny maple neck-through-body guitar has a lovely fast action, thanks to its low-profile frets and a highly varnished 1/4-inch-thick rosewood fretboard. In short, it has the very same quality you would expect to find in a Rickenbacker.


“Fine,” you may be saying, “but with just one toaster pickup, how versatile can it be?” Very! My buddy Gary Wineroth explained to me that its three-way tone selector is cleverly wired so that one position taps the pickup alone, another incorporates the tone control, and a third passes the signal through a filter capacitor, resulting in three distinct sounds. The pickup-only bridge setting is bright in the way that only a Ricky gets bright, while the mid position sounds chimey but fuller. The neck selection, which goes through the capacitor, is bassier and fine for playing jazz or strumming.

While the sealed Kluson tuners keep the guitar in tune, the intonation is a little squirrelly. However, you could easily trade out the set bridge for one that can be intonated, without hurting the guitar’s stock value.

And although the ES-16 may look tiny, it’s the same scale as my “John Lennon” Rickenbacker 325C, allowing me to make six- and seven-fret stretches, something I could never do on a traditional-sized guitar. No wonder Lennon liked it!

Which brings us back to Allan Holdsworth. Since owning a 325C, I’ve often fantasized that this is what it must be like to have hands the size that his were. Of course, the ES-16 had just 18 frets to the 21 found on the 325 and other 21-inch-scale Ricks. But, hey, it was much better than whatever Teisco and their ilk had to offer in the budget price range.


As of this writing, I haven’t been able to locate another Ryder ES-16 online. In fact, this very guitar is the only example I’ve ever seen, and it’s on display at Guitar Showcase in San Jose, California. Unfortunately, the price tag is marked NFS.


It’s an artifact, mostly. But if you are a rhythm player — especially a five-foot-seven rhythm player like yours truly — you might just love it. It’s superlight, easy to play and sounds terrific. Besides, my wife says I looked like I was five-nine when playing it.

Thanks to Gary Wineroth and Jack Van Breen at Guitar Showcase for the loan of this sweetie and for the technical info.

Have you got a “Whack Job”? Get in touch with me at rtcarleton@gmail.com and it could be featured here!