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Gretsch designs are suspended between acoustic and electric, between nostalgia for the cowboy past and indulgence in the high-tech (50s) present. And that link with the acoustic is reflected in the sound: The sound is tight and powerful, with an initial kick to each note: Gretsches can growl, even played clean. With the tone set low the guitars produce jazz tones with a little more grit than a Gibson; as you ascend the frequencies you pass through blues, country, and into twanging 50s rock.

You get all that range without any processing. Yet even under blistering distortion, all the strings of a Gretsch come through clearly. It’s a Gretsch 6120 (possibly a 1622) that produced the big final chord at the end of The Who’s ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again’: the high A ringing out over the explosive distortion on the bass strings. On lesser guitars, the treble strings would be overpowered. The core of the early Gretch sound is the pickup. Until 1957 Gretsch guitars came fitted with DeArmond Dynasonics. These are powerful single coil pickups, with a solid cast bakelite bobbin and a heavy metal housing. Like the Gibson P-90, Dynasonics are sometimes mistaken for humbuckers, as they have six screws through the middle as well as the six pole pieces. The power comes from its sheer size, and the quantity of metal running through the coil. Dynasonics go deep into the body of the guitar—they look like bits out of a car engine, the underside a mass of metal rods and springs.The secret of the Dynasonic sound is those six screws which make people think it’s a humbucker. Those screws are not for mounting the pickup on the guitar, but for adjusting the height of the spring-loaded poles. Although the mounting screws aren’t magnetised, they add to the inductance in the coil, increasing its output. The sound is raw and very clear, as powerful as a P-90 but with extra high end. All that metal gives the pickup an initial spike—that’s the twang—but the strength of the pickup also tends to suck out the sustain of the strings by dampening string vibration. This was what wound up Chet Atkins, who wanted sustain without feedback, and why he thought it was better suited for Duane Eddy. But the DeArmond Dynasonic is one of the great pickups.

Towards the late 50s the Dynasonics were replaced by evolving humbucker technology in the various FilterTron pickups. These are also great pickups; thicker, like humbuckers, though with higher fidelity (‘Don’t Get Fooled Again’ is a Filtertron).

Technology was moving on, and those raw days of the unprocessed Gretsch and its postwar growl were slipping away. After the revolutions of the 1960s those 1950s rockers looked too clean-cut, too polite, too patriotic. Fingerpickin’ Chet Atkins himself was airbrushed from mainstream guitar history: George Harrison called his 1622 Country Gentleman model his ‘Eddie Cochrane/Duane Eddy’ guitar; and in the 1960s the original Chet Atkins 1620 was renamed the Nashville.

Gretsch itself took a dive in the late 60s. After three generations family-run, no descendent wanted to take it on. It was bought out by a multinational that cut corners, costs and quality. Chet withdrew his sponsorship. The company limped on to the millennium in various states of half-life, until it was bought over by Fender and the designs brilliantly revived.

Maybe the problem for the twangy guitar is exactly that the sound is distinctive of the 50s: you play a Gretsch 6120, clean, loud, digging into the strings, and people will think you’re Eddy Cochrane. Or perhaps the sound was too raw and too striking for an era of rising commercialization and digitalization. But the sound is making a comeback, and those early Gretch guitars are still loved and played by the best players around.

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