Gretsch Guitars: The Big Twang
Gretsch guitar production was moved out of Brooklyn, relocated first to Cincinnati and then to Booneville, Arkansas. Along the way, many of the classic Gretsch models were discontinued and the old manufacturing techniques discarded. Fred Gretsch III says, “The piano guys at Baldwin just weren’t real adept when it came to dealing with the changing guitar marketplace. Baldwin lost track of the guitar recipes that had been so important to the music of the rock and roll era. They failed to recognize that those recipes were a key part of musical history, so old best sellers were dropped from the line and some weird new models were introduced. That combination was not good for the brand.”
The old Gretsches were still valued by some players, particularly Sixties rock vets whose careers extended into the Seventies and beyond. Pete Townshend played an old 6120, given to him by Joe Walsh, on Who’s Next and Quadrophenia. Neil Young’s White Falcon had a prominent role on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hits like “Ohio” and in the band’s live shows. And by the end of the Seventies, Malcolm Young’s modified Sixties Jet Firebird had become the bedrock foundation of AC/DC’s sound. But by the dawn of the Eighties, production of Gretsch guitars had ceased completely.
Back in the Family
After leaving Baldwin’s Gretsch operation in 1971, Fred Gretsch III continued to work in the musical instrument industry, mainly manufacturing banjos and importing gear from overseas. He did well enough that he was able to buy Gretsch back from Baldwin in November 1984. He notes, “By then, the only thing being made were Gretsch drums. I was very concerned about getting the guitars back into production, but it took me five years to do it. Fortunately, there were still some key people around to help us. Duke Kramer, who had gone to work for my dad in 1935 and retired from Baldwin around 1980, was able to help us find as many of the old tools as we could and get the guitars back into production again.”
Gretsch established manufacturing deals with factories in Japan and Korea, and by the early Nineties Gretsch guitars were back on the market. For legal reasons, however, some of them had slightly different names. The Country Gentleman had become the Country Classic, and the Tennessean was now the Tennessee Rose. In 1986, Chet Atkins had ended his decades-long association with Gretsch and formed a new alliance with Gibson. It was the end of an era, but a new one was just beginning.
Fred Gretsch’s acquisition of the Gretsch brand was a timely move. The late Seventies/early Eighties era had focused attention on Gretsch guitars once again. The period was marked by a renewed interest in the rebellious rock and roll of the Fifties and early-to-mid Sixties. Guitarists like Billy Zoom of X channeled his rockabilly roots on a Gretsch Silver Jet, and Matthew Ashman of Bow Wow Wow used a White Falcon. Gretsches were also seen in the hands of post-punk heroes like the Cure’s Robert Smith and Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore.
But it was the rockabilly revival of the early Eighties that elevated Gretsch adulation to a form of worship. The Stray Cats were among the premiere retro rockabilly acts. Brian Setzer, their guitarist and a longtime Gretsch aficionado, struck up a relationship with the company that resulted in the first Gretsch Brian Setzer model in 1993, based on the guitarist’s 1959 6120. Setzer became a visible and effective spokesman for the newly revitalized Gretsch.
“There were three ‘big bangs’ in the history of Gretsch guitars,” says Joe Carducci, Gretsch’s current marketing manager. “One was Chet Atkins in 1954. The other was the Beatles in ’64. And the third was Brian Setzer in the Eighties and Nineties.”
The Fender Alliance
Other signature models soon followed, including a Malcolm Young model in 1996 and a Duane Eddy guitar the following year. But as the new decade dawned, Fred Gretsch came to the realization that he needed some extra firepower to help the Gretsch brand go truly global. So he approached Fender Musical Instruments.
“We knew the Fender people really well,” he says. “Bill Schultz, the CEO of Fender at the time, had gotten his start on the wholesale side of the music business working for Duke Kramer out of Gretsch’s Chicago office in the early Sixties. I approached Bill and asked if Fender would be interested in distributing Gretsch in Europe, where Fender has its own sales force, warehouse and distribution network. Bill went back to his people, talked about it, came to me and said, yes, they wanted to do Europe, but they really wanted to do it worldwide. We thought about that for a while and figured that partnering with Number One was a good idea.”
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