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