Friedrich Gretsch and the Beginning of a Musical Legacy
In the late 1800’s Friedrich Gretsch set sail for New York from Mannheim, Germany. When he arrived he began working for a company producing parts for banjos, drum kits and other musical instruments and in 1883 decided to set up his own shop in Brooklyn, New York selling musical instruments parts. Friedrich Gretsch passed away on a trip back to his homeland and the company was left to his enterprising and energetic fifteen year old son, Fred Gretsch, who successfully built the business up over two decades making the company the world’s largest music instrument manufacturer by 1920. Fred Gretsch Sr. retired in 1942 and the company was left in the more than capable hands of his sons Fred Jr. and William “Bill” Gretsch who’d both been active in the business since 1927. 1927 was also the year Gretsch first used its own name on the guitars they were building rather than selling to wholesalers.
Gretsch Guitar Timeline
Big band jazz was hugely popular in the 1930’s and the guitar was an important part of the rhythm section. One such player was Freddie Green “Mr Rhythm” who was part of Count Basie’s Orchestra. At this time, two guitarists in particular, Charlie Christian in America and Django Reinhardt in Europe, were pushing the guitar to the forefront of the genre. In response to the rise in popularity, Gretsch’s 1933-34 catalogue was full of new archtop guitar models like the 25, 35, 50, 65, 100, 150 and 240. The catalogue also featured the Hawaiian 40, a flattop acoustic designed for the burgeoning Country music scene. The model range stayed much the same throughout the thirties with the addition of the Gretsch “Electromatic” Hawaiian lap steel guitar and Gretsch “Electromatic” amplifier.
The war effort halted production for much of the forties but on resuming, many instrument manufacturers prioritised the development of amplification to cope with larger theatres and halls. In Gretsch’s 1948 brochure the Gretsch Console “Standard” and “Student” Hawaiian lap steels came with pickups. Also featured in the catalogue was the Electromatic 6185 Spanish arch top that had a neck mounted pickup with volume and tone controls mounted on the pickguard. A comprehensive range of D’Armond pickups and Gretsch Electromatic instrument amplifiers were also available. With Country stars like Hank Williams becoming ever more popular, some additional flat top acoustic models were introduced like the Sierra 100, 125, 160 and the Model 400F all featuring the unmistakable Gretsch triangular soundhole.
The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a new era; Rock ‘n’ Roll was born and fast became a global phenomenon. Regarded as the “Golden Years” for Gretsch, the nineteen-fifties marked some significant changes in the Gretsch product range. In 1951 the first cutaways appeared on guitars like the 6192 Country Club and the 6193 Electro II.
Gretsch’s DynaSonic single-coil pickup (introduced in the late 1940’s) started to appear on more models and is still popular choice to this day due its superior fidelity and power. 1957 saw the introduction of the humbucking Filter’Tron developed by inventor and engineer, Ray Butts for Nashville guitar legend, Chet Atkins. A year later the HiLo’Tron single-coil was introduced offering a full wide tonal range with its “brilliant highs” and “mellow lows”.
The 1950’s saw the rise of solid-bodied electric guitars which were less cumbersome than their hollow-bodied cousins and were capable of being amplified at high volume without feeding back. Gretsch introduced its solid-body Duo Jet range in 1953. Notable Duo Jet players include George Harrison, Keith Richards, Bo Diddley, David Gilmour and Pete Townshend.
In 1955 Gretsch published its “Guitars For Moderns” catalogue; a milestone in the company’s history featuring the now iconic 6128 Duo Jet, 6131 Roundup, 6129 Silver Jet, 6136 White Falcon, 6120 Chet Atkins, 6121 Chet Atkins, 6192 Country Club available in new vibrant finishes like Silver Sparkle, Cadillac Green, Jaguar Mist and the famous Western Orange. The catalogue also features a host of Gretsch artists of the day – most significant perhaps being guitar legend Chet Atkins who struck a deal with Gretsch ambassador Jimmie Webster to develop a Chet Atkins designed signature guitar.
The 1960’s and Beyond
The fifties was a hugely successful decade for Gretsch and it continued into the sixties with Beatle George Harrison causing a frenzy amongst aspiring guitarists playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman on the Ed Sullivan show. By this time George already owned a ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet and would later add a Tennessean to his collection. With electric guitar music becoming hugely popular Gretsch sales continued increasing. In 1967 Fred Gretsch Jnr. retired and sold the company to Baldwin music but without the family dedication and spirit the company just wasn’t the same.
The early 1980’s saw rockabilly guitar slinger Brian Setzer strutting his stuff with his 1959 Gretsch G6120 helping to revitalising the interest “retro” rock ‘n’ rock in an age of pointy shred guitars. In 1985 Fred W. Gretsch bought the company back from Baldwin Music returning it to the family as its fourth-generation president.
Under Fred W.’s leadership the company has a firm footing with international appeal. Gretsch’s core models are produced in Japan with American and European parts while the more affordable “Electromatic” range (introduced in 1998) is made in Korea. In the USA, Gretsch Custom Shop makes stunning replicas, relics and guitars with incredible hand-painting finishes. A number of popular signature models have been produced for artists such as Brian Setzer, Billy Gibbons, Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy, Billy Duffy, The Reverend Horton Heat, George Harrison and Eddie Cochran. In 2008 the company celebrated it’s 125th Anniversary by releasing a few highly collectable anniversary models.
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Gretsch today continues to expand it’s product range offering players basses, acoustic flat tops, resonators, ukuleles, banjos, lapsteels and mandolins. More recently the new “Streamliner” series, a range of instruments manufactured in Indonesia, is available at even more affordable prices making “That Great Gretsch Sound” accessible to everyone.