From Bo Diddley to The Beatles to U2, Gretsch Guitars Have Been a Key Part of Rock and Roll’s Explosion

by Alan Di Perna
Posted Dec 30, 2013 at 12:57pm

From the GW Archive: This story originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Guitar World.

From Bo Diddley to the Beatles to U2, Gretsch Guitars have been a key part of rock and roll’s big explosion. Guitar World celebrates more than 125 years of the company’s universal magic.

The infinite cool of Gretsch guitars operates on many levels. First there’s the look of the things: stylish, graceful, a little bit over the top in the ornamentation department but generally more proud than pimped. Bristling with gleaming, chunky control knobs and mysterious switches, a well-appointed Gretsch is a grown-up guitar.

Classic Gretsch models, like the elegant White Falcon, the venerable Country Gentleman and the racy Silver Jet, are icons of American design. To use a word no longer in use, but very much current at the time these instruments were conceived, these are “snazzy” guitars.

Then there’s the tone—warm and round, but also edgy and commanding. Gretsches twang like nothing else on earth. They also purr seductively when you back off on the master volume control.

The Gretsch sound had a lot to do with launching rock and roll. These guitars were the choice of original Fifties hellcats like Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy. Gretsch’s popularity went ballistic in the Sixties when the Beatles’ George Harrison wielded a Country Gent and Tennessean on the group’s records and live shows. Gretsch guitars became standard equipment for British Invasion hit makers and their American counterparts.

Gretsch has been an essential part of rock history ever since, heard on landmark recordings by the Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and AC/DC, among others. Today you’ll find Gretsch guitars in the hands of new-traditionalists like Jack White, Bono, the Edge, Brian Setzer, the Jayhawks, Fountains of Wayne, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. These sleek instruments that never seem to go out of style have also been a vital part of country, jazz and other genres.

That’s a lot of music history for one company, but then Gretsch has been around for 126 years now. Although the company is presently part of the vast Fender empire, there’s still a Gretsch at the helm. Fred Gretsch III is the great grandson of the company’s founder, Friedrich Gretsch. In running Gretsch’s daily operations he is assisted by his wife of many years, Dinah.

Fred says, “There’s a very strong thread of family running throughout Gretsch history, from Grandpa, my dad, my uncle, and me and Dinah. We have a daughter who works in the office here with us as well, and grandchildren in college now who are also interested in working in the business. Growing up, I had a chance to work with the guys who developed the Gretsch guitar recipes of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties that turned out to be real hits. We’re being faithful to those recipes, which are now more than 50 years old.”

From Germany to Brooklyn

The origins of Gretsch are an archetypal New York story. Friedrich Gretsch arrived in the city from Mannheim, Germany, in 1873. He worked briefly for a drum and banjo manufacturer, but by 1883, he’d Americanized his first name to Fred, started the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn and began to build a product line that included drums, banjos, tambourines and toy instruments.

When Friedrich Gretsch died suddenly in 1895, leadership passed on to Friedrich’s eldest son, Fred—known as Fred Sr.—who was only 15 at the time. Fred III says, “Even though my grandfather was only 15 in 1895, my great grandmother brought him into the business, rather than closing it down. My great grandmother must have been a heck of a businesswoman: the mother of seven children and helping a 15-year-old son to run the company. Together they brought the business forward.”

Mandolins were added to the line in 1900, and in 1916 the Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co. built new headquarters for itself, a 10-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn. Like most other early 20th century manufacturers of string instruments, Gretsch became increasingly involved in guitar making during the Twenties and Thirties as guitars eclipsed banjos as the instrument of choice for dance band rhythm sections. During the Twenties, these Gretsch-made guitars were marketed under the Rex and 20th Century brand names. But in 1933, the first guitars bearing the Gretsch name hit the marketplace: the American Orchestra Series of archtops and a line of flattops that included the Broadkaster.

None of these early guitars attracted much attention, but in 1939 Gretsch brought out the Synchromatic Series—stylish archtops with flashy “cats eye” sound holes that did much to put Gretsch on the map.

That same year saw the release of the first Gretsch electric, the Electromatic Spanish, which was actually manufactured by Kay. While Gretsch put their name on instruments made by Kay and Harmony, they also made instruments that were sold under the Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck brand names.

Gretsch underwent a series of managerial changes during the Forties. Fred Gretsch Sr. left the company in 1942, and leadership of the company passed to his son, William Walter “Bill” Gretsch, the father of the company’s current head. Bill Gretsch died in 1948 and was succeeded by his brother, Fred Gretsch, known as Fred Jr.

In the booming economy that took hold in the year right after the end of World War II, Fred Jr. decided the time was right to stop messing around with subcontract work for other brand names and start getting serious about building and marketing high-quality guitars under the Gretsch name. As part of this impetus, Gretsch made a pact with Harry DeArmond, purveyor of state-of-the-art pickups at the time. With their individually adjustable pole pieces, DeArmond pickups graced some of Gretsch’s finest early Fifties guitars and were the forerunner of some of Gretsch’s own distinctive pickup designs.

Hail Hail Rock and Roll

The Fifties were a golden age for Gretsch. These years witnessed an explosion of Gretsch models and designs that have since become legendary. The year 1953 saw the introduction of the Gretsch Duo Jet, a guitar that would play an important role in several successive generations of rock music.

It was developed in response to a new trend toward solidbody electrics, initiated by the Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul, which were both introduced around this time. But the Duo Jet differs from either of these guitars in that it isn’t really a fully solidbody instrument. Hollow sound chambers within the body give it a tone that is distinctively different from the Les Paul or the Tele, a difference that has found favor, over the years, with players ranging from George Harrison to Billy Zoom of X.

The Duo Jet was the first of many Gretsch models to feature a master volume knob mounted on the upper-body bout on the cutaway side of the body, separate from the guitar’s other tone and volume controls, which were mounted more conventionally, on the lower bout. The master knob sits conveniently under the picking hand, making it easy and comfortable to execute volume swells.

The original Duo Jet was issued in black, but in 1954 Gretsch guitars started to become available in a kaleidoscopic range of DuPont automotive paint colors. The varied and sometimes bizarre color schemes are one of the company’s hallmarks, with “Gretsch orange” remaining a favorite of guitar connoisseurs.

Also new in 1954 was the Gretsch Silver Jet, basically a Duo Jet done up in a flashy silver-sparkle finish taken from Gretsch’s drum department. As a major guitar manufacturer also very heavily into the drum business, Gretsch had a source of eyecatching materials that left its competitors in the dust.

The idea of applying drum surfaces to guitars was the brainchild of a gentleman named Jimmie Webster, a key player in the Gretsch saga. An accomplished jazz guitarist who developed a system of fretboard tapping decades before Van Halen, Webster was what we might call an artist/endorser for Gretsch, and he was also very active in contributing design ideas and serving Gretsch in a variety of ways.

One of Webster’s contributions was bringing guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins into the fold. Atkins had already made a name for himself as a country player by the mid Fifties. His relationship with Gretsch was somewhat parallel with Les Paul’s Gibson association. In both cases the player and the brand became closely identified.

The first of many Gretsch Chet Atkins models, the venerable 6120 debuted in 1955. Created with design input from Atkins, the 6120 set the pattern for many Gretsch models to come. A hollowbody archtop initially adorned with Western styling, the instrument would grow and evolve with the company itself. Atkins was adamant that the instrument sport a Bigsby tailpiece and vibrato arm. This chunky piece of serious hardware would become a key factor in that legendary Gretsch tone and twang.

Nineteen-fifty-five was also the year that brought the Gretsch White Falcon into the world. The indisputable gold-trimmed Cadillac Coupe DeVille of the electric guitar universe, it was another of Jimmie Webster’s creations. With its winged headstock, gold-plated hardware and gold sparkle trim (appropriated from the Gretsch drum department), the White Falcon screams bling.

Webster wasn’t working in a vacuum: Fred III gives a lot of credit to the boys on the shop room floor. Gretsch’s Fifties-era employee roster provides a vivid picture of New York’s working-class population in the mid 20th century: a cross section of first- and second-generation Italian Americans and European Jews, with a sprinkling of Irish and German immigrants.

The Fifties Gretsches are the handiwork of no-nonsense, tool-and-die-maker types. New York was in the midst of a golden era of jazzy archtop guitar making, with D’Angelico and Epiphone also turning out masterpieces of Deco/Moderne guitar design in Manhattan. Great luthiery was in the air, and there was interaction among the city’s guitar makers.

Fred Gretsch III explains, “If you cross the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn onto Delancey Street and make the first right, that’s where John D’Angelico’s shop was. Around 1956–’57, we had a lot of premium wood. John would come over, and we had some carved tops and lumber for carved tops that we were happy to sell him. He got to pick through some of great wood.”

Meanwhile, rock and roll had begun to set the entire world on fire. As a glitzy New York guitar maker with a strong foothold in the country market, Gretsch was ideally positioned to become the ax of choice for the original rockabilly wild men. A Gretsch 6120 circa 1957 was the vehicle that Eddie Cochran rode to fame on classic tracks like “Summertime Blues” and “Something Else,” songs that were reprised in later years by the Who and the Sex Pistols. Duane Eddy opted for a red 6120 with a Bigsby tailpiece.

He used it on instrumental hits like “Rebel Rouser,” which gave the word “twang” a permanent place of honor in the popular musicians’ lexicon. Lead guitarist Cliff Gallup wielded a circa 1955–’56 Duo Jet with a Bigsby on classic Gene Vincent hits like “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” a sound that made it all the way over to England and caused young fellows like Jeff Beck and John Lennon to flip their wigs.

But Gretsch’s impact on early rock and roll wasn’t confined to rockabilly. Sometime in the mid Fifties, R&B great Bo Diddley took a Gretsch neck and pickups and attached them to a simple rectangular guitar body he’d made himself, and a rock and roll archetype was born. Diddley also played a Jet Firebird in the studio and worked with Gretsch to create the rocket-shaped Jupiter Thunderbird, revived decades later by Gretsch’s current management and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons as the Billy Bo Gretsch.

Meanwhile, Gretsch poster boy Chet Atkins had been made the head of RCA’s Nashville recording studios in 1957. As part of the job, he played his signature model Gretsch on influential rock and roll recordings by Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. As Atkins’ prestige grew, so did Gretsch’s line of Chet Atkins signature models. Introduced in 1957, the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman was a thinline hollowbody guitar with a sealed body to provide better feedback control.

Though the guitar had no sound holes, Gretsch painted on fake f-holes to make the archtop instrument look kosher. The following year, Gretsch added the 6119 Tennessean model to the Chet Atkins line. It was essentially an affordable, single-pickup version of the 6120, although this model, like all Gretsches, would evolve in the years to come.

To read the rest of this story, head here.

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