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Gretsch Guitars: The Big Twang

Originally published in Guitar World, September 2009

From Bo Diddley to the Beatles to U2, Gretsch Guitars have been a key part of rock and roll’s big explosion. Guitar World celebrates more than 125 years of the company’s universal magic.

The infinite cool of Gretsch guitars operates on many levels. First there’s the look of the things: stylish, graceful, a little bit over the top in the ornamentation department but generally more proud than pimped. Bristling with gleaming, chunky control knobs and mysterious switches, a well-appointed Gretsch is a grown-up guitar. Classic Gretsch models, like the elegant White Falcon, the venerable Country Gentleman and the racy Silver Jet, are icons of American design. To use a word no longer in use, but very much current at the time these instruments were conceived, these are “snazzy” guitars.

Then there’s the tone—warm and round, but also edgy and commanding. Gretsches twang like nothing else on earth. They also purr seductively when you back off on the master volume control.

The Gretsch sound had a lot to do with launching rock and roll. These guitars were the choice of original Fifties hellcats like Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy. Gretsch’s popularity went ballistic in the Sixties when the Beatles’ George Harrison wielded a Country Gent and Tennessean on the group’s records and live shows. Gretsch guitars became standard equipment for British Invasion hit makers and their American counterparts.

Gretsch has been an essential part of rock history ever since, heard on landmark recordings by the Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and AC/DC, among others. Today you’ll find Gretsch guitars in the hands of new-traditionalists like Jack White, Bono, the Edge, Brian Setzer, the Jayhawks, Fountains of Wayne, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. These sleek instruments that never seem to go out of style have also been a vital part of country, jazz and other genres.

That’s a lot of music history for one company, but then Gretsch has been around for 126 years now. Although the company is presently part of the vast Fender empire, there’s still a Gretsch at the helm. Fred Gretsch III is the great grandson of the company’s founder, Friedrich Gretsch. In running Gretsch’s daily operations he is assisted by his wife of many years, Dinah.

Fred says, “There’s a very strong thread of family running throughout Gretsch history, from Grandpa, my dad, my uncle, and me and Dinah. We have a daughter who works in the office here with us as well, and grandchildren in college now who are also interested in working in the business. Growing up, I had a chance to work with the guys who developed the Gretsch guitar recipes of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties that turned out to be real hits. We’re being faithful to those recipes, which are now more than 50 years old.”

From Germany to Brooklyn

The origins of Gretsch are an archetypal New York story. Friedrich Gretsch arrived in the city from Mannheim, Germany, in 1873. He worked briefly for a drum and banjo manufacturer, but by 1883, he’d Americanized his first name to Fred, started the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn and began to build a product line that included drums, banjos, tambourines and toy instruments.

When Friedrich Gretsch died suddenly in 1895, leadership passed on to Friedrich’s eldest son, Fred—known as Fred Sr.—who was only 15 at the time. Fred III says, “Even though my grandfather was only 15 in 1895, my great grandmother brought him into the business, rather than closing it down. My great grandmother must have been a heck of a businesswoman: the mother of seven children and helping a 15-year-old son to run the company. Together they brought the business forward.”

Mandolins were added to the line in 1900, and in 1916 the Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co. built new headquarters for itself, a 10-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn. Like most other early 20th century manufacturers of string instruments, Gretsch became increasingly involved in guitar making during the Twenties and Thirties as guitars eclipsed banjos as the instrument of choice for dance band rhythm sections. During the Twenties, these Gretsch-made guitars were marketed under the Rex and 20th Century brand names. But in 1933, the first guitars bearing the Gretsch name hit the marketplace: the American Orchestra Series of archtops and a line of flattops that included the Broadkaster.

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.

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.

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.

Gretsch guitar production was moved out of Brooklyn, relocated first to Cincinnati and then to Booneville, Arkansas. Along the way, many of the classic Gretsch models were discontinued and the old manufacturing techniques discarded. Fred Gretsch III says, “The piano guys at Baldwin just weren’t real adept when it came to dealing with the changing guitar marketplace. Baldwin lost track of the guitar recipes that had been so important to the music of the rock and roll era. They failed to recognize that those recipes were a key part of musical history, so old best sellers were dropped from the line and some weird new models were introduced. That combination was not good for the brand.”

The old Gretsches were still valued by some players, particularly Sixties rock vets whose careers extended into the Seventies and beyond. Pete Townshend played an old 6120, given to him by Joe Walsh, on Who’s Next and Quadrophenia. Neil Young’s White Falcon had a prominent role on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hits like “Ohio” and in the band’s live shows. And by the end of the Seventies, Malcolm Young’s modified Sixties Jet Firebird had become the bedrock foundation of AC/DC’s sound. But by the dawn of the Eighties, production of Gretsch guitars had ceased completely.

Back in the Family

After leaving Baldwin’s Gretsch operation in 1971, Fred Gretsch III continued to work in the musical instrument industry, mainly manufacturing banjos and importing gear from overseas. He did well enough that he was able to buy Gretsch back from Baldwin in November 1984. He notes, “By then, the only thing being made were Gretsch drums. I was very concerned about getting the guitars back into production, but it took me five years to do it. Fortunately, there were still some key people around to help us. Duke Kramer, who had gone to work for my dad in 1935 and retired from Baldwin around 1980, was able to help us find as many of the old tools as we could and get the guitars back into production again.”

Gretsch established manufacturing deals with factories in Japan and Korea, and by the early Nineties Gretsch guitars were back on the market. For legal reasons, however, some of them had slightly different names. The Country Gentleman had become the Country Classic, and the Tennessean was now the Tennessee Rose. In 1986, Chet Atkins had ended his decades-long association with Gretsch and formed a new alliance with Gibson. It was the end of an era, but a new one was just beginning.

Fred Gretsch’s acquisition of the Gretsch brand was a timely move. The late Seventies/early Eighties era had focused attention on Gretsch guitars once again. The period was marked by a renewed interest in the rebellious rock and roll of the Fifties and early-to-mid Sixties. Guitarists like Billy Zoom of X channeled his rockabilly roots on a Gretsch Silver Jet, and Matthew Ashman of Bow Wow Wow used a White Falcon. Gretsches were also seen in the hands of post-punk heroes like the Cure’s Robert Smith and Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore.

But it was the rockabilly revival of the early Eighties that elevated Gretsch adulation to a form of worship. The Stray Cats were among the premiere retro rockabilly acts. Brian Setzer, their guitarist and a longtime Gretsch aficionado, struck up a relationship with the company that resulted in the first Gretsch Brian Setzer model in 1993, based on the guitarist’s 1959 6120. Setzer became a visible and effective spokesman for the newly revitalized Gretsch.

“There were three ‘big bangs’ in the history of Gretsch guitars,” says Joe Carducci, Gretsch’s current marketing manager. “One was Chet Atkins in 1954. The other was the Beatles in ’64. And the third was Brian Setzer in the Eighties and Nineties.”

The Fender Alliance

Other signature models soon followed, including a Malcolm Young model in 1996 and a Duane Eddy guitar the following year. But as the new decade dawned, Fred Gretsch came to the realization that he needed some extra firepower to help the Gretsch brand go truly global. So he approached Fender Musical Instruments.

“We knew the Fender people really well,” he says. “Bill Schultz, the CEO of Fender at the time, had gotten his start on the wholesale side of the music business working for Duke Kramer out of Gretsch’s Chicago office in the early Sixties. I approached Bill and asked if Fender would be interested in distributing Gretsch in Europe, where Fender has its own sales force, warehouse and distribution network. Bill went back to his people, talked about it, came to me and said, yes, they wanted to do Europe, but they really wanted to do it worldwide. We thought about that for a while and figured that partnering with Number One was a good idea.”

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.”