The Gretsch G6120: the story of a rock ’n’ roll icon

Gretsch Brian Setzer
(Image credit: Future)

If you happened to have been at home on 19 February 1981 and living in the UK, you were probably watching Top Of The Pops. That night, you would have seen a trio of feral-looking kids blasting through their latest 45. 

Something called Rock This Town. It’s a brilliant performance, the sound of rockabilly at a time when New Romantic was all the thing.

Front and centre is this Brian Setzer character, with his sky-high pompadour and a big orange Gretsch G6120 Chet Atkins. First impressions: the kid can really play. And where the hell did he get that killer-looking guitar? 

“When I started out with the whole Gretsch thing I had no idea what it would sound like,” says Brian Setzer. “I just wanted to look like Eddie Cochran...”

Constant companion

The Gretsch G6120 might have had Nashville picker and producer Chet Atkins’ name on the pickguard but it was rock ’n’ roll rebel Eddie Cochran who made it famous. 

As his near-constant companion, Eddie took his relationship with his guitar to the next level when he made it his dance partner during a performance of Teenage Heaven in the 1959 jukebox flick, Go, Johnny, Go!. It was with him when he was involved in a car crash near Bath in England on 17 April 1960. The Gretsch survived. Sadly, Eddie didn’t. He was just 21.

Eddie bought his G6120 from Bell Gardens Music in Bell Gardens, California, in 1955 when he was 16. He soon personalized the guitar, scraping the gold paint and the Atkins signpost logo off the underside of his guitar’s pickguard, leaving the Perspex translucent. 

He also replaced the G6120’s neck pickup – a single-coil DeArmond - with a ‘dog-ear’ Gibson P-90.

The G6120 model was launched in 1954, just a year before Eddie bagged his. The double-bound 16-inch wide, 2 7/8-inch-deep laminated maple-bodied guitar was shipped in Amber Red and the now-iconic Orange finishes. You got bound f-holes, of course, either side of a pair of DeArmond single coils. 

I bought the thing for 100 bucks and it was all in pieces. I put it together and it was the best thing I ever heard. It still is

Brian Setzer

Electronics consisted of a volume for each pickup, a master tone, and a three-way pickup selector switch. The classic master volume knob was mounted near the cutaway.

Other features included a gold Bigsby vibrato with a fixed arm, an aluminum floating bridge and top nut, Chet’s signpost and signature gold pickguard, and a longhorn steer inlay on the headstock. 

The Western vibe continued with celluloid block fingerboard inlays featuring prickly cacti and cattle on the Brazilian rosewood ’board, and the conspicuous ‘G’ brand logo burned into the guitar’s top.

By the middle of 1956, the G6120 was tweaked with plain block fingerboard inlays, a moveable vibrato arm, and a horseshoe motif on the headstock in place of the steer. 

A year later, the ‘G’ brand was dropped and the block fingerboard inlays were given ‘humptops’. 1958 was a pivotal year for the G6120, and Brian Setzer. This is the first year we get Filter’Tron humbuckers. An ebony ’board loaded with neo-classical thumbnail inlays also makes its debut. 

The ‘love it or leave it’ preset tone switch joins the three-way pickup selector on the guitar’s upper bout joins the party, too. All that changed in ’59 was a Gretsch-stamped V Bigsby, metal to bone nut swap, and the zero fret that Brian took his chisel to on his Stray Cat G6120.

Gretsch Brian Setzer

(Image credit: Future)

That’s almost all the news that’s fit to print. The only other thing you need to know is that Gretsch reduced the depth of the G6120 in 1960 to the (2.5-inch) measurement you’ll find on Brian’s new signature models.

Eye of the beholder

Most of us get the aesthetic beauty of the G6120. Pete Townshend of The Who didn’t. When Joe Walsh gifted him a vintage model back in the day, he wasn’t especially grateful. 

As he remarked to Guitar Player magazine in 1972: “I said, ‘Great, cheers, man’. I was being polite. I opened the case and it was bright orange and I thought, ‘Ugh! It’s horrible, I hate it.’ I went home and went into my studio and plugged it in and it totally wrecked me out. It’s the best guitar I’ve got now.”

At the end of the day, it’s my drill and hammer, it’s my tool. I make a living with it. It’s gotta play in tune. It’s got to travel well

Brian Setzer

Weirdly, Townshend is an Eddie Cochran nut. The Who covered Summertime Blues live on countless occasions. The guitar did earn its keep, however, when it was used on Who’s Next (1971) and ’73’s Mod opera Quadrophenia. He smashed the guitar in 1973, but later had it repaired. He used it almost exclusively in the studio as it wouldn’t stay in tune on stage. Brian Setzer could help him out with that... 

45 years on from the purchase of his first ’59 Brian’s loyalty to the G6120 has never faltered. That commitment works both ways. 

“At the end of the day, it’s my drill and hammer, it’s my tool,” he says. “I make a living with it. It’s gotta play in tune. It’s got to travel well. That guitar has been through it all with me. I bought the thing for 100 bucks and it was all in pieces. I put it together and it was the best thing I ever heard. It still is.”

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