Go Ahead and Ask: Gretsch
September 21, 2010
Fred Gretsch III (left) and Joe Carducci (right)
The Gretsch legacy represents one of the more interesting stories in instrument manufacturing. It all started in 1883 when a German immigrant named Friedrich Gretsch started making instruments in Brooklyn, New York. His untimely death 12 years later left the company in the hands of his son, Fred. Within 20 years, Gretsch was one of the biggest instrument importers and manufacturers in the country. Gretsch family members continued to run the company on through the ’60s, and by that time Gretsch guitars and amps had played a major role in the evolution of popular music. The Gretsch name and design aesthetic had become synonymous with endorsers like Chet Atkins, Eddie Cochran, and Duane Eddy. Gretsch gear continued to be played on stages and in studios by notable artists including members of the Beatles, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, the Who . . . and then things changed. The company was sold to Baldwin. Manufacturing moved to Arkansas. Quality control dropped. Endorsers split and dissociated themselves from the brand. Factory fires devastated the company. Eventually, production slowed to a crawl. It finally stopped in 1983.
Then Friedrich’s great-grandson, Fred Gretsch III, came along and swore that the company would rise out of the ashes. It did. He bought the company in ’85 and engineered one of the biggest gear company turnarounds in history. A new generation of players and a fondness for the designs, styles, and tones from Gretsch’s glory days spurred the production of reissues and new models that found themselves in the hands of Brian Setzer, Malcolm Young, Billy Gibbons, Jim “Rev. Horton Heat” Heath, and many others.
Subsequent generations of guitarists have grown up in a world where playing or aspiring to play G5120s, 6120s, Duo Jets, Country Gentlemen, White Falcons, etc., is just part of being a gearhead. They may not fully appreciate the journey between point A and point B, but that legacy is actually a big part of the company’s appeal. Anyone drawn toward Gretsch guitars learns that there’s this amazing history there and becomes as intrigued with the particulars of the old models as they are with the cool and often jaw-dropping guitars that are being made today through a manufacturing and distribution partnership with Fender. If you’re familiar with Premier Guitar’s NAMM videos, you know that Joe Carducci is a key keeper of the Gretsch flame, in terms of bringing new and reissued models to the world, working with artists, and basically being the guru to ask anything—and we’re talkin’ anything—when it comes to Gretsch guitars and amps. He and Fred Gretsch III himself were thrilled at the opportunity to answer some questions from Premier Guitar readers.
1. Does your custom shop offer a Tennessean electric 12-string with a natural maple top, walnut back and sides, chrome appointments, and a combination of vintage and modern pickups? —Lem Genovese, Holmen, WI
Absolutely! The Gretsch Custom Shop can create pretty much whatever Gretsch enthusiasts dream up. We’d love to build you one. Please see your local Gretsch dealer for details. —Joe Carducci
2. What happened to the Electromatic version of the White Penguin? —Jasper Brey, Tallahassee, FL
If you’re referring to the Pro Jet with the white top and gold hardware, it was originally a special offering available in Japan. Stay tuned, because we’re considering making it available in the United States. —Joe Carducci
3. My fantasy guitar would be a Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, but I am a little perplexed with the tone-switching feature. Can you briefly explain that? Thank you! —Joel Trumbach, Tampa, FL
The mysterious tone switch, often referred to as the “mud switch,” was Chet Atkins’ idea. He wanted to be able to quickly change the tone of the guitar on the fly. It’s indeed a hip idea when used in that context. When holding the Country Gentleman in the playing position and looking down on the two switches on the upper bout, the tone switch is on the right (the pickup selector is on the left). In the center position, the tone switch is completely out of the circuit and the overall amplified sound will be as bright as possible in all pickup combinations. In the down position, the sound is like setting a rotary tone control on about is similar to setting a rotary tone control on about “5,” creating a warm, bass-y tone ideal for your favorite jazz licks, fingerstyle pickin’, or rhythm comping. —Joe Carducci
4. I have a 1993 Gretsch White Penguin that was number 16 made that year. I was told when I bought it that it was a gift to the man who wrote a book about Gretsches. After looking at a few vintage guitar guides, it seems that there were no production White Penguins for sale to the public that year. Is it possible that what I was told is true? The guitar looks totally unplayed. —Michael Allison, Mesa, AZ
You are correct. No White Penguin guitars were available in 1993. In fact, it sounds like you have a very early example of the modern era of production of this very special Gretsch guitar. —Fred Gretsch III
5. How did the Masterbuilt series come about and how are these guitars different from both regular production models and the original models they replicate? —Greg Kishaba, Eau Claire, WI
How did it come about? Well, it’s sort of like the amplifier that goes to “11.” It’s one louder! With that in mind, instead of a Custom Shop instrument built by a team of luthiers—each responsible for specific duties of guitar building—the Masterbuilt version is meticulously created by one person. In the world of Gretsch, the kingpin guru daddy with that prestigious title is Stephen Stern. How are they different from regular production models and the original models they replicate? Every detail of the one-off guitar is personally attended to by Stern. Extra attention to detail is painstakingly considered by the man whose signature will appear on the back of the headstock. It’s one thing to own a Gretsch Custom Shop guitar. It’s “one louder” when the guitar is personally built by Stephen Stern. —Joe Carducci
6. What are the chances of doing a special- edition Electromatic Duo Jet with a Bigsby B70 tremolo and TV Jones pickups? I’m sure there are loads of us who would buy one! —Mike Riddle, Kennington, Oxford, England
If you’re confident there are loads of players who would buy one, the chances are favorable. See your favorite Gretsch dealer and let them know what you want. The dealer should then contact their Gretsch sales representative with the request. If we can get enough dealers to come onboard with the same specs, the guitar could very well turn into a regional special offering. —Joe Carducci
7. My uncle has a Silver Duke Corvette that is amazing but he won’t let me touch it. What should I do? —Scott Dudley, San Antonio, TX
You should order one from the Gretsch Custom Shop built by Stephen Stern with a set of TV Jones Super’Tron pickups, a Tru-Arc bridge, custom graphics by JimmyC, and a custom tweed case lined in Lilac crushed velvet plush. Then your guitar will be more amazing than your uncle’s. And be sure not to let him touch it! —Joe Carducci
8. I own #26 of a seemingly rare 7594B double-cutaway Black Falcon II. I have read that only 100 were made. I’d love to hear your take on the history of this awesome guitar. —Robert Heyl, Santa Rosa, CA
Cool colors are part of the Gretsch DNA going back to the 1930s. Collaborations with terrific artists and musicians are another key element of the Gretsch psyche. It was the suggestion of a good friend from Germany who got us to try out black for the Falcon. Similarly, Bono energized us to do green for his Irish Falcon. —Fred Gretsch III
9. What’s the difference between similarly priced high-end Gretsch guitars (like the White Falcon) made in the US and those made in Japan?—Larry Dubin, Williston, VT
For starters, the Custom Shop G6136CST White Falcon is $12,000, while the comparable G6136DS White Falcon from Japan is $4425. What’s the difference? The Custom Shop version is crafted by Stephen Stern and his crew. These guys build Gretsch guitars from scratch, by hand, one at a time. With the exception of specific requested components, they utilize the same OEM hardware found on the Professional Collection guitars produced at our Terada factory located in Nagoya, Japan. Most of the hardwoods used at the Custom Shop are sourced from Northern America. The DynaSonic pickups are specially designed and built by Seymour Duncan. Features also include a spruce top, three-ply maple back and sides, and nitrocellulose lacquer finish.
The Professional Collection G6136DS White Falcon guitars are built at the Terada factory, which is the original facility Fred Gretsch found to produce his guitars after obtaining the Gretsch company back from Baldwin. These guitars are created by skilled luthiers who specialize in producing high-end hollowbody electric guitars in an old-school, batch-run style. They source the majority of their woods from Asia. They feature OEM DynaSonic pickups, three-ply maple tops, backs, and sides, and gloss urethane finishes. —Joe Carducci
10. I understand that Gretsch has a family museum here in Savannah, Georgia. Is it open to the public or available to be viewed by appointment? —Jim Wadsworth, Savannah, GA
The Gretsch family has resided in Savannah since 1978. Stay tuned for more news on opportunities to view parts of the Gretsch family’s collection of instruments and artifacts covering three centuries of production of musical instruments of all types. —Fred Gretsch III
For next month’s “Go Ahead and Ask,” head to premierguitar.com/goaheadandask and let us know what questions you’d like to ask Andy McKee.