Gretsch Guitars: The Big Twang
Webster wasn’t working in a vacuum: Fred III gives a lot of credit to the boys on the shop room floor. Gretsch’s Fifties-era employee roster provides a vivid picture of New York’s working-class population in the mid 20th century: a cross section of first- and second-generation Italian Americans and European Jews, with a sprinkling of Irish and German immigrants. The Fifties Gretsches are the handiwork of no-nonsense, tool-and-die-maker types. New York was in the midst of a golden era of jazzy archtop guitar making, with D’Angelico and Epiphone also turning out masterpieces of Deco/Moderne guitar design in Manhattan. Great luthiery was in the air, and there was interaction among the city’s guitar makers.
Fred Gretsch III explains, “If you cross the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn onto Delancey Street and make the first right, that’s where John D’Angelico’s shop was. Around 1956–’57, we had a lot of premium wood. John would come over, and we had some carved tops and lumber for carved tops that we were happy to sell him. He got to pick through some of great wood.”
Meanwhile, rock and roll had begun to set the entire world on fire. As a glitzy New York guitar maker with a strong foothold in the country market, Gretsch was ideally positioned to become the ax of choice for the original rockabilly wild men. A Gretsch 6120 circa 1957 was the vehicle that Eddie Cochran rode to fame on classic tracks like “Summertime Blues” and “Something Else,” songs that were reprised in later years by the Who and the Sex Pistols. Duane Eddy opted for a red 6120 with a Bigsby tailpiece. He used it on instrumental hits like “Rebel Rouser,” which gave the word “twang” a permanent place of honor in the popular musicians’ lexicon. Lead guitarist Cliff Gallup wielded a circa 1955–’56 Duo Jet with a Bigsby on classic Gene Vincent hits like “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” a sound that made it all the way over to England and caused young fellows like Jeff Beck and John Lennon to flip their wigs.
But Gretsch’s impact on early rock and roll wasn’t confined to rockabilly. Sometime in the mid Fifties, R&B great Bo Diddley took a Gretsch neck and pickups and attached them to a simple rectangular guitar body he’d made himself, and a rock and roll archetype was born. Diddley also played a Jet Firebird in the studio and worked with Gretsch to create the rocket-shaped Jupiter Thunderbird, revived decades later by Gretsch’s current management and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons as the Billy Bo Gretsch.
Meanwhile, Gretsch poster boy Chet Atkins had been made the head of RCA’s Nashville recording studios in 1957. As part of the job, he played his signature model Gretsch on influential rock and roll recordings by Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. As Atkins’ prestige grew, so did Gretsch’s line of Chet Atkins signature models. Introduced in 1957, the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman was a thinline hollowbody guitar with a sealed body to provide better feedback control. Though the guitar had no sound holes, Gretsch painted on fake f-holes to make the archtop instrument look kosher. The following year, Gretsch added the 6119 Tennessean model to the Chet Atkins line. It was essentially an affordable, single-pickup version of the 6120, although this model, like all Gretsches, would evolve in the years to come.
The Country Gentleman was among the first Gretsch guitars to feature Filter’Tron pickups. These were created by a man named Ray Butts at the behest of Atkins, who was never crazy about the DeArmond pickups that Gretsch had been using up to that point. The Filter’Tron is a dual-coil, hum-canceling, or “humbucking,” design. It was introduced the same year that Gibson brought out its own humbucking pickups. It’s generally thought that Butts and Gibson’s Seth Lover made parallel discoveries at roughly the same time, but Filter’Trons have a different character—more glassy, less muddy. From ’57 onward they became standard gear on all Gretsch models except the budget Clipper guitar, which was outfitted with a Gretsch-designed single-coil called the HiLo’Tron. These pickups eclipsed the DeArmond DynaSonics used on previous Gretsches. The Filter’Tron is a highly revered pickup in Gretsch circles, although the earlier DeArmond-equipped instruments also have their passionate advocates.
The innovations kept coming as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties. In 1958 Gretsch began to outfit its fingerboards with the now-classic “half-moon,” or “thumbnail,” fret markers, a cosmetic detail that is part of the Gretsch mojo. The same is true of the engraved metal headstock plates that started to appear on Gretsch peg heads at this time. Also new in ’58 was the Project-O-Sonic stereo option on the White Falcon and Country Club models. But stereo guitars were never widely embraced, and as a result relatively few stereo White Falcons were produced. They are highly collectible today.
The year 1959 saw the advent of the “zero fret” on many Gretsch models. This was an extra fret placed about an eighth of an inch down from the nut and essentially taking over the nut’s duties. Purportedly this did away with the need to adjust bridge height, but whatever the truth, it’s just one more thing that makes Gretsch guitars the weird, wonderful and funky, things that they are.
Guitar historian Matthew W. Hill recently joked that every Gretsch guitar is a transitional model. While this is perhaps not literally true, Gretsch was constantly tinkering with features, functions, body widths, sizes and shapes, even on its best-selling models. Much of this was down to the fertile mind of Jimmie Webster, who seemed unable to leave well enough alone. Webster’s infamous muting device started appearing on Gretsch guitars around 1960. It was basically a set of foam pads fitted down near the bridge that could be flipped up to press against the strings and simulate the effect of palm muting, but it never caught on. Along with these gadgets and gizmos, there was a general trend toward slimmer bodies and more double-cutaway shapes as Gretsch attempted to stay on top of the market.
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