Gretsch Guitars: The Big Twang
Britain Invades America by Way of Brooklyn
None of this mattered by early 1964, when the Beatles became one of the world’s most successful musical acts. George Harrison, the group’s lead guitarist, was a longtime Gretsch fan. He’d grown up admiring country and rockabilly players, like Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy, and had bought his first Gretsch instrument, a secondhand ’57 Duo Jet, back in 1960, before the Beatles had hit it big. This was the guitar he played throughout the band’s early days in Liverpool and Hamburg, and which he kept until the end of his life.
In April 1963, Harrison bought a brand-new Country Gentleman at the Sound City music shop in London. He famously played the guitar on the group’s early hit single “She Loves You.” It was damaged shortly afterward, and Harrison bought a second Country Gent from Sound City in October 1963. This is the one he used on many of the Beatles’ earlier recordings and brought to America for the group’s first U.S. tour, in 1964. That momentous pop-culture moment included a February 9 performance on the Ed Sullivan television show that was viewed by some 73 million people. Though Harrison’s Country Gent was stained a very dark brown, it often appeared to be black, particularly in the black-and-white photography common at that time. The instrument seemed an extension of Harrison.
He purchased a fourth Gretsch, a two-pickup Tennessean, over the 1963 Christmas holiday. Harrison’s Gretsch instruments were integral to his guitar approach in the first half of the Beatles’ career. While he used a Rickenbacker 360 12-string electric for chiming melodic parts, he tended to use his Gretsches for grittier leads and on passages that showed off the strong country influence in his playing, such as the concise, eloquently terse solo in “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
In 1964, hoping to sign Harrison to an endorsement deal, Gretsch made a custom 12-string electric and presented it to him, but he found the neck too wide and promptly gave it away to John St. John of Sounds Incorporated, who were touring with the Beatles at the time. Gretsch’s plans to name the 12-string the George Harrison Model were quickly scrapped.
By that point, however, it no longer mattered. In the wake of the Beatles’ rise to superstardom, every guitar player in a rock group wanted a Gretsch, and the guitars were conspicuous in the hands of the Beatles’ fellow British Invaders, like the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and Small Faces’ Steve Marriott.
American bands were also quick to jump on the bandwagon. Neil Young and Steven Stills sported Gretsches in their popular mid-Sixties group Buffalo Springfield and carried them into their Seventies fame with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Prior to joining CSN&Y, David Crosby strummed a Gretsch during the Byrds’ mid-Sixties pop chart ascendancy, while frontman Jim “Roger” McGuinn picked a Rickenbacker, thus replicating the Gretsch/Rickenbacker pairing that George Harrison and John Lennon employed as the foundation of the Beatles’ guitar sound. And down in the cellars of New York’s underground, Lou Reed led the Velvet Underground with a Country Gent hanging from his shoulder. The great variety among different years and models of Gretsch guitars allowed players to find their own unique niche.
In 1965, with demand for its guitars growing, Gretsch moved drum production out of the 60 Broadway building to make room for increased guitar production. The same year, Fred Gretsch III went to work for the company on a full-time basis as a full-fledged member of the guitar engineering department. Demand held steady throughout ’66 and into ’67. But on July 31, 1967, Gretsch underwent a substantial reversal of fortune. Fred Gretsch Jr. sold the company to Baldwin, a leading piano manufacturer. Baldwin had been itching to get into rock band gear in the late Sixties and had brought out a line of amps and combo organs. According to some accounts, Baldwin paid Fred Jr. four million dollars to acquire Gretsch.
“My uncle had come into the business in 1926 after he graduated from Cornell University,” Fred Gretsch III says of Fred Jr.’s decision. “I think that selling Gretsch was just part of his retirement plan.”
Fred III stayed on with the Baldwin-owned Gretsch until 1971. But by then Gretsch guitars were well on their way down in the world.
Surviving the Seventies
guitars, such as the majority of Gretsches, producedIt’s easy to lay all the blame for the decline of Gretsch guitars at Baldwin’s door. But by 1967, the sound of rock was rapidly changing. Highpowered acts like Cream, the Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience had come to the fore, hauling stacks of 100-watt Marshall amps onto stages and into recording studios. When played through such powerful amps, hollowbody too much feedback. Guitarists switched to solidbody guitars, like the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster.
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