Gretsch Guitars: The Big Twang
Originally published in Guitar World, September 2009
From Bo Diddley to the Beatles to U2, Gretsch Guitars have been a key part of rock and roll’s big explosion. Guitar World celebrates more than 125 years of the company’s universal magic.
The infinite cool of Gretsch guitars operates on many levels. First there’s the look of the things: stylish, graceful, a little bit over the top in the ornamentation department but generally more proud than pimped. Bristling with gleaming, chunky control knobs and mysterious switches, a well-appointed Gretsch is a grown-up guitar. Classic Gretsch models, like the elegant White Falcon, the venerable Country Gentleman and the racy Silver Jet, are icons of American design. To use a word no longer in use, but very much current at the time these instruments were conceived, these are “snazzy” guitars.
Then there’s the tone—warm and round, but also edgy and commanding. Gretsches twang like nothing else on earth. They also purr seductively when you back off on the master volume control.
The Gretsch sound had a lot to do with launching rock and roll. These guitars were the choice of original Fifties hellcats like Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy. Gretsch’s popularity went ballistic in the Sixties when the Beatles’ George Harrison wielded a Country Gent and Tennessean on the group’s records and live shows. Gretsch guitars became standard equipment for British Invasion hit makers and their American counterparts.
Gretsch has been an essential part of rock history ever since, heard on landmark recordings by the Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and AC/DC, among others. Today you’ll find Gretsch guitars in the hands of new-traditionalists like Jack White, Bono, the Edge, Brian Setzer, the Jayhawks, Fountains of Wayne, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. These sleek instruments that never seem to go out of style have also been a vital part of country, jazz and other genres.
That’s a lot of music history for one company, but then Gretsch has been around for 126 years now. Although the company is presently part of the vast Fender empire, there’s still a Gretsch at the helm. Fred Gretsch III is the great grandson of the company’s founder, Friedrich Gretsch. In running Gretsch’s daily operations he is assisted by his wife of many years, Dinah.
Fred says, “There’s a very strong thread of family running throughout Gretsch history, from Grandpa, my dad, my uncle, and me and Dinah. We have a daughter who works in the office here with us as well, and grandchildren in college now who are also interested in working in the business. Growing up, I had a chance to work with the guys who developed the Gretsch guitar recipes of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties that turned out to be real hits. We’re being faithful to those recipes, which are now more than 50 years old.”
From Germany to Brooklyn
The origins of Gretsch are an archetypal New York story. Friedrich Gretsch arrived in the city from Mannheim, Germany, in 1873. He worked briefly for a drum and banjo manufacturer, but by 1883, he’d Americanized his first name to Fred, started the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn and began to build a product line that included drums, banjos, tambourines and toy instruments.
When Friedrich Gretsch died suddenly in 1895, leadership passed on to Friedrich’s eldest son, Fred—known as Fred Sr.—who was only 15 at the time. Fred III says, “Even though my grandfather was only 15 in 1895, my great grandmother brought him into the business, rather than closing it down. My great grandmother must have been a heck of a businesswoman: the mother of seven children and helping a 15-year-old son to run the company. Together they brought the business forward.”
Mandolins were added to the line in 1900, and in 1916 the Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co. built new headquarters for itself, a 10-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn. Like most other early 20th century manufacturers of string instruments, Gretsch became increasingly involved in guitar making during the Twenties and Thirties as guitars eclipsed banjos as the instrument of choice for dance band rhythm sections. During the Twenties, these Gretsch-made guitars were marketed under the Rex and 20th Century brand names. But in 1933, the first guitars bearing the Gretsch name hit the marketplace: the American Orchestra Series of archtops and a line of flattops that included the Broadkaster.