Gretsch Guitars: The Big Twang
None of these early guitars attracted much attention, but in 1939 Gretsch brought out the Synchromatic Series—stylish archtops with flashy “cats eye” sound holes that did much to put Gretsch on the map. That same year saw the release of the first Gretsch electric, the Electromatic Spanish, which was actually manufactured by Kay. While Gretsch put their name on instruments made by Kay and Harmony, they also made instruments that were sold under the Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck brand names.
Gretsch underwent a series of managerial changes during the Forties. Fred Gretsch Sr. left the company in 1942, and leadership of the company passed to his son, William Walter “Bill” Gretsch, the father of the company’s current head. Bill Gretsch died in 1948 and was succeeded by his brother, Fred Gretsch, known as Fred Jr. In the booming economy that took hold in the year right after the end of World War II, Fred Jr. decided the time was right to stop messing around with subcontract work for other brand names and start getting serious about building and marketing high-quality guitars under the Gretsch name. As part of this impetus, Gretsch made a pact with Harry DeArmond, purveyor of state-of-the-art pickups at the time. With their individually adjustable pole pieces, DeArmond pickups graced some of Gretsch’s finest early Fifties guitars and were the forerunner of some of Gretsch’s own distinctive pickup designs.
Hail Hail Rock and Roll
The Fifties were a golden age for Gretsch. These years witnessed an explosion of Gretsch models and designs that have since become legendary. The year 1953 saw the introduction of the Gretsch Duo Jet, a guitar that would play an important role in several successive generations of rock music. It was developed in response to a new trend toward solidbody electrics, initiated by the Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul, which were both introduced around this time. But the Duo Jet differs from either of these guitars in that it isn’t really a fully solidbody instrument. Hollow sound chambers within the body give it a tone that is distinctively different from the Les Paul or the Tele, a difference that has found favor, over the years, with players ranging from George Harrison to Billy Zoom of X.
The Duo Jet was the first of many Gretsch models to feature a master volume knob mounted on the upper-body bout on the cutaway side of the body, separate from the guitar’s other tone and volume controls, which were mounted more conventionally, on the lower bout. The master knob sits conveniently under the picking hand, making it easy and comfortable to execute volume swells.
The original Duo Jet was issued in black, but in 1954 Gretsch guitars started to become available in a kaleidoscopic range of DuPont automotive paint colors. The varied and sometimes bizarre color schemes are one of the company’s hallmarks, with “Gretsch orange” remaining a favorite of guitar connoisseurs.
Also new in 1954 was the Gretsch Silver Jet, basically a Duo Jet done up in a flashy silver-sparkle finish taken from Gretsch’s drum department. As a major guitar manufacturer also very heavily into the drum business, Gretsch had a source of eyecatching materials that left its competitors in the dust. The idea of applying drum surfaces to guitars was the brainchild of a gentleman named Jimmie Webster, a key player in the Gretsch saga. An accomplished jazz guitarist who developed a system of fretboard tapping decades before Van Halen, Webster was what we might call an artist/endorser for Gretsch, and he was also very active in contributing design ideas and serving Gretsch in a variety of ways.
One of Webster’s contributions was bringing guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins into the fold. Atkins had already made a name for himself as a country player by the mid Fifties. His relationship with Gretsch was somewhat parallel with Les Paul’s Gibson association. In both cases the player and the brand became closely identified.
The first of many Gretsch Chet Atkins models, the venerable 6120 debuted in 1955. Created with design input from Atkins, the 6120 set the pattern for many Gretsch models to come. A hollowbody archtop initially adorned with Western styling, the instrument would grow and evolve with the company itself. Atkins was adamant that the instrument sport a Bigsby tailpiece and vibrato arm. This chunky piece of serious hardware would become a key factor in that legendary Gretsch tone and twang.
Nineteen-fifty-five was also the year that brought the Gretsch White Falcon into the world. The indisputable gold-trimmed Cadillac Coupe DeVille of the electric guitar universe, it was another of Jimmie Webster’s creations. With its winged headstock, gold-plated hardware and gold sparkle trim (appropriated from the Gretsch drum department), the White Falcon screams bling.