Gretsch Guitars: The Big Twang
Under the agreement, signed in 2002, Fred Gretsch III still owns the Fred Gretsch Company, but Fender now handles manufacturing, distribution and marketing worldwide. Fred says, “In the seven years since we signed the alliance agreement with Fender, our business has just about tripled.”
One of the first tasks the Fender team set for itself was to analyze the elusive mojo of Fifties and Sixties Gretsches. The team made some progress, but the Gretsch mystery proved elusive. At this juncture, Ritchie Fliegler, Fender’s marketing manager at the time, visited his doctor for a CAT scan. Afterward, her asked the doctor if it was possible to place a guitar in the scanner to have a look at its innards. The doctor, an avid amateur guitarist, said it could be done and allowed Fender’s team to come in after hours, free of charge, and scan numerous old and new Gretsches.
Carducci says, “The common denominator we found in the Brooklyn-era Gretsches was that they all had tops, backs and sides made of three-ply maple in very thin layers, whereas the Baldwin era guitars ran to five and six ply. Those guitars are stiff, not as vibrant as the Brooklyn guitars, and they’re heavier. Discovering that was like discovering the Holy Grail.”
Fender had decided to continue manufacturing Gretsch guitars at the Terada factory, one of the Japanese facilities Fred Gretsch III had been using since revitalizing the brand in the Nineties. Now, however, Fender changed the manufacturing procedures to approximate the techniques used in Brooklyn half a century earlier. Carducci says, “The thing about the Terada factory is it’s very old-school. It was built in 1954 and specializes in hollow-body guitars, making high-end instruments for D’Angelico and others. There are no computers at the Terada factory, so all the tooling and stuff that makes the Gretsch body shapes, is completely old-school.”
The current line of Asian-made Gretsches is complemented by small quantities of American-made Factory Special Run (FSR) guitars from the Gretsch Custom Shop, under the direction of luthier Stephen Stern. These are sold thorough high-end boutique dealers. The Custom Shop also does one-off special order instruments.
With a direct descendant of Friedrich Gretsch at the helm and the marketing/manufacturing clout of one of the world’s largest guitar companies behind it, the Gretsch legacy seems in good hands in 2009. But what about the old Gretsch building in Brooklyn?
“Oh, that passed out of the family about 10 years ago,” says Fred Gretsch III. “It’s now condominiums. So, if you want, you can now live in the building where all those great old Gretsch guitars were made.”
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