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Guitar of the Month: 1959 Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 Hollowbody

March 15, 2011

“Chet signed the guitar 1 in ’91 and added ‘CGP’ after his signature,” says Fred Stucky, owner of April 2011’s Guitar of the Month. “I always thought it meant ‘country guitar player,’ so when Brian signed it in ’92 I had him add ‘RGP’ after his name. He asked why and I said “because you’re a rockabilly guitar player.” It wasn’t until many years later that I learned ‘CGP’ meant ‘certified guitar player,’ so ‘RGP’ always makes me smile when people ask about it.”

Plenty of marquee guitarists have used the Chet Atkins-endorsed Gretsch 6120, including Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, and Jim “Reverend Horton Heat” Heath—in fact, all the aforementioned players eventually had signature models built off the 6120 platform. But Brian Setzer is probably the guitarist most associated with the 24.6"-scale hollowbody. And his iconic instrument—which features Filter’Tron humbuckers, a flamed-maple neck with an ebony fingerboard, and laminated maple top, back, and sides—is of the same vintage that several collectors in Edward Ball’s book Gretsch 6120: The History of a Legendary Guitar call the perfect iteration of the guitar. Setzer’s famous 1959 6120, serial number 33024, was bought in pieces and then reconstructed. It’s the guitar he used to fuel both his initial success in the ’80s with the Stray Cats and the massive rockabilly resurgence that the band’s popularity fired. And it’s been with him on virtually every project since—from his ’90s big-band boom with the Brian Setzer Orchestra to his current reign as the king of modern swing and rockabilly.

Along the way, that famous orange-stained axe has inspired many tribute projects—from amateur home jobs to a Gretsch Custom Shop replica. But Fred Stucky, guitarist/singer for the Philadelphia-based garage-country band Gas Money, had something more authentic in mind for his 6120 project.

“I was looking for my first ’59 6120, and I wanted it to be close in serial number to Setzer’s,” Stucky says of the serial-number 33002 hollowbody he purchased at the Dallas Guitar Show in 1990 for $2500. “I knew even back then, 20 years ago, that Gretsches within certain production batches were better than others. That 33000 batch is pretty special. It was the last batch of 2.75"-deep 6120s with an enamel-faced B6 Bigsby vibrato. They also have the light trestle bracing and, purportedly, a slightly thinner top.” (In 1960, the 6120 was temporarily changed to a 2.5" depth and the Bigsby was changed to a V-style version. However, Gretsch eventually returned to the 2.75" body depth—including on current production models—and made the enamel-faced Bigsby an option. Many current Gretsches, including Setzer’s signature guitars, also feature 1959 trestle bracing and top thicknesses.)

Stucky took the time modify the guitar into a near-perfect homage to Setzer’s 6120 almost two decades before the Gretsch company even thought of it. (In 2007, Gretsch had a limited run of 59 Custom Shop Limited Edition Brian Setzer Tribute 1959 6120 Nashvilles.) “I loved Setzer’s early-’80s dirty tone,” he explains, “so, in an effort to mutate what he did and make it my own, I took out the zero fret and put in a graphite nut, added some Schaller tuners, and removed the tone switch on the upper bout.” (Setzer removed the tone switch on his ’59 and moved the pickup selector switch to the vacant spot, which gave the appearance that his guitar lacks a pickup-selector switch.) Stucky was even lucky enough to secure signatures from both of the 6120’s most famous users— Atkins and Setzer—which are located on its top between the Bigsby B6 trem and its Volume knobs.

“Pete Townsend said his ’59 6120 was the loudest guitar he’s ever owned—and he was right.” Stucky says the guitar is his main gigging axe and that, paired with a ’58 tweed Deluxe, it enables him to easily cover everything from classic George Jones to souped-up Sun Studio-era Elvis.

“There is no equal in tone, and it’s all I know,” says Stucky. “The pure magic of these vintage instruments being used in the proper honkytonk settings is just right.”