In today’s world of digital effects, the sound of the pickup can be lost amid waves of delay and chorus. But it wasn’t always thus: in the 1950s, everything turned on the raw sound of the guitar. The sound had to lunge out of the juke box and grab you by the ears. It had to be the sonic equivalent the snarling, sexy, but clean-cut guy who was spanking it. This was the sound of 50s rock and roll. It was the sound of twang.
Of all the giants of American guitars, Gretsch is most associated with that rock and roll twang. Gretsch is behind some of rock’s most iconic sounds: think of Duane Eddy and Eddy Cochrane, Bo Diddley and (less cool, but undeniably influential) Chet Atkins. Gretsch was the sound of 50s rock and roll; and the company seemed to share in the self-destructive excess of the players themselves. Gretsch only barely survived the end of the rock and roll era.
Gretsch predates Gibson by a decade or so. Friedrich Gretsch, who had emigrated to the US from Germany aged sixteen, set up shop in Brooklyn, 1888. His son built up his music empire, getting into electric guitars around 1940 with the launch of the Electromatic. With a ten-storey factory on Broadway, Gretsch was big, and they built big guitars.
World War Two interrupted business. When he returned from the Navy, Fred Gretsch, Jr. (grandson of the founder) got the company stuck into new designs. Like Gibson and Fender, Gretsch wanted a cut of the growing electric guitar market.
Compared to Fender—whose names and designs were fixed on the science-fiction future as imagined by the ’50s — Gretsch guitars can seem old-fashioned. Compared to Gibson—who seemed too proud of the instruments to land them with silly names — Gretsch can seem kitsch. But Gretsch’s designs are rooted in the look and romance of 1950s USA.
Some designs show nostalgia for America’s Wild West past. An early post-war release (1951), for example, was the 6192 Country Club, a jumbo sunburst with Dynasonic pickups. That big-bodied cowboy look is continued and developed in the later models.
Other designs reflect the 1950s romance of cars and jet planes. 1954 was Gretsch’s biggest year for new designs. This saw the 1628 Duo-Jet, the 1929 Silver Jet, and the 6131 Jet Firebird. The Jets are single cutaway solid bodies, and are clearly aimed at the Les Paul market. But unlike the Les Paul, they have so much routing inside that they have the resonance of a semi-solid. Later Jets have dazzling modifications: double cutaways, sparkling finishes, SuperTron pickups, Burns vibratos and stand-by switches (though the latter is, arguably, a switch too far).
’54 was also the year of the 6136 White Falcon. The White Falcon was originally designed as a one-off ‘dream guitar’ for a trade show, an upholstered Cadillac of guitars that you could admire but never hope to own. The design attracted so much interest that a production line was quickly set up. Dave Grohl and Neil Young both play one today.
Gretsch’s most famous design, though, was the 1620 hollow body, which, in an inspired bit of cross-marketing arranged by Jimmy Webster, became endorsed by Chet Atkins. The 1620 Chet Atkins model had a maple body finished in orange or amber-red with bound f-holes, two single-coil DeArmond Dynasonics with individual volume controls, plus tone knob, master volume, pickup selector switch, and a Bigsby vibrato. Some models have a large and rather kabbalistic letter G branded into the top, the block inlays engraved with cows and cacti, and a Longhorn steer inlay design on the head.
Chet wasn’t happy with the guitar that bore his name; he complained that the Dynasonic pickups ‘sucked the tone right out of the guitar’, and said that Duane Eddy was the only person who could get a good sound out of them. He kept pressing Gretsch to redesign. Gretsch’s second big design wave, around 1957, includes the ultra-rare White Penguin, a beautiful development of the Duo-Jet in the manner of the White Falcon, and the 6122 Country Gentleman. The 6122 was the result of Chet Atkins hassling Gretsch to make a semi-hollow body with bound f-holes and a solid block down the centre, so giving less feedback and greater sustain. The guitar he got — the 6122 Country Gentleman — later became a favourite of George Harrison.