The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

50 Years Ago: Beatlemania and the Instruments that Conquered America

Friday, February 7: 10:53 a.m.
Posted by Andy Babiuk
The Beatles rehearse before appearing on Ed Sullivan in 1964

Sunday, February 9, 1964 was the day that changed music and pop culture forever. The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the most popular television programs in the United States and at 8pm Eastern Standard Time, the Beatles made their live debut on American national television before an estimated 73 million people. This single television appearance mesmerized an entire generation. How many future musicians’ dreams began that day? How many kids were inspired to form bands and be like the Beatles? Virtually every famous American rock musician would say later: “When I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan it changed my life.”

It was on that Sunday night that the Beatles conquered America and Beatlemania had taken hold of the nation. Their music, mop-top hairstyles, matching suits and "Beatle" boots all helped create the image that we all know and love, but it was their instruments that also made a huge impression on everyone watching. Paul McCartney’s Hofner 500/1 bass, John Lennon’s 325 Rickenbacker guitar, George Harrison’s Gretsch Country Gentleman and Ringo Starr’s Ludwig drum set, all became extensions of each of their personalities.

This instrumental lineup was a major part of America’s first impression of the Beatles, an image permanently etched on the minds of US youth. The instruments that they used that night on TV instantly became known as “Beatle instruments” and provided a shopping list for every aspiring group, thousands of which sprang up in the days and weeks following the Ed Sullivan broadcast. Gretsch, Hofner, Rickenbacker and Ludwig could not have asked for a better advertising campaign, nor could they have imagined what the future held. Every music store throughout the US was soon clamoring for the so-called Beatle instruments. The demand was far greater than the supply. It was every manufacturer's dream.

Be part of the Beatles 50th Anniversary Celebration at the Rock Hall on February 9, 2014

The Beatles backstage with Ed Sullivan in 1964Prior to the group’s arrival in the US, Capitol Records had orchestrated a large press campaign and media blitz to prime America for their coming. One shrewd businessman who saw an opportunity in the Beatle invasion was Francis Hall, then owner and president of the Rickenbacker guitar company. During the Beatles stay in New York, Hall arranged a meeting with the group and presented a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar to George Harrison. While it is widely believed that John Lennon too received a new guitar at the Rickenbacker meeting in New York, documents from the company’s archives show that Lennon’s new model 325 guitar, intended to replace his original, was not present then. In fact, it was shipped from the Rickenbacker factory in California on February 13th to Lennon at the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, as the group prepared for another Ed Sullivan appearance. The new-style Rickenbacker 325 must have been intended for the New York gathering, but presumably was not ready in time.

After the TV success in New York, the group travelled by train to Washington DC for their first US concert, on February 11th at the Washington Coliseum, where they played in the round. It seems laughable now, but at several points during the set Starr was forced between songs to spin his drum set on the pedestal to different sides of the audience in order to give everyone an equal view of the Beatles. This first American Beatles concert also provided the nation’s introduction to Vox amplifiers. To their fans, the group themselves were a phenomenon – but they had brought with them these new never-before-seen Vox amplifiers, made in Britain. At the time, Gibson and Fender guitars and amps were the standards among most professional American musicians, and the “big two” brands dominated the market. But here were the Beatles presenting an excitingly different range of equipment. With Beatlemania came completely new choices for musical gear. Because of the Beatles, America’s hopeful teen musicians would want Rickenbacker, Gretsch and Hofner guitars, Ludwig drums and Vox amps. These instruments and amplifiers would become as strong a part of Beatle identity as the group’s mop-top hairstyles.

The Beatles at Deauville Hotel in Miami, in 1964 backstage rehearsal

Following their DC performance, the group travelled by train back to New York City for two shows at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Tickets were oversold for the theatre and some of the audience ended up sitting on stage behind the group. Fans would never get this close to the Beatles again. The equipment used at Carnegie Hall was the same as in Washington, although photographs from this performance reveal that McCartney’s original ’61 Hofner bass was present as a spare. After the two Carnegie Hall shows, they flew to Miami Beach, Florida, where they stayed at the Deauville Hotel. It was from this location that they would make their second live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

On Friday February 14th and Saturday 15th, the group spent time relaxing, enjoying the fine weather in Miami and rehearsing for their upcoming TV show. Photographs taken during the first day of the rehearsals in a meeting hall at the Deauville Hotel reveal Harrison using his new Rickenbacker 360/12 model electric 12-string guitar. McCartney has his ’63 Hofner bass and Starr the Ludwig set. Lennon plays the original ’58 Rickenbacker 325, but it was at the Deauville that he took delivery of his new Rickenbacker guitar. According to the original receipt in the Rickenbacker archive, the new black model 325 guitar was sent directly to the hotel from the Rickenbacker factory in California. The following day’s rehearsals on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show marked the first time that Lennon played his new Rickenbacker 325 guitar with the group. 

So it was that on Sunday February 16th the group made their second live appearance on American TV. Across the nation an estimated 70 million viewers tuned in to the show. The Beatles performed "She Loves You," "This Boy," "All My Loving," "I Saw Her Standing There," "From Me To You" and their hit "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Starr performed on his now famous oyster black pearl Ludwig drum set and the guitars used were the ’63 Hofner 500/1 bass, the new ’64 Rickenbacker 325 and the second Gretsch Country Gentleman with the dual flip up mutes (note: Harrison had two Gretsch Country Gentleman guitars, one first with screw down mutes and the second with flip up mutes. Harrison later gave one away and the other fell off the back of a car and was run over by a truck!) The Vox amplifiers were again set off to the sides of the stage. 

Many a music retailer and manufacturer had Sullivan and the Fab Four from Liverpool to thank for a very good season as crowds of teenagers rushed to buy Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars, Hofner ‘Beatle’ basses and Ludwig drum sets. Gretsch, Ludwig and Rickenbacker greatly expanded operations. Virtually overnight Gretsch, Rickenbacker and Ludwig tried to increase production to meet the demand, while in Germany Hofner worked to set up US distribution. Calls and telegrams started to pour in to Jennings Musical Industries back in England requesting the Vox ‘Beatles’ amplifiers. It was the dawn of a golden age for garage bands.

Andy Babiuk is the author of the books Beatles Gear, The Story of Paul Bigsby and the new book Rolling Stones Gear. He is a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and owner of the boutique guitar shop Andy Babiuk’s Fab Gear. Contact Andy here.


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