Which Gretsch for me? How to choose?
So you've decided you might want a Gretsch, but you're not familiar with Gretsch model names and features, pickups, components, and assorted unique Gretsch idiosyncrasies.
There are SO many models, and different versions of each model. Some are made in Korea and some in Japan. Which ones are good? Which one will suit you?
If we've heard it once here, we've heard it a thousand times: which Gretsch should I get? We can help answer that. We really can.
Note that the following information places new Gretsch instruments in their historical context, but is meant to help new Gretsch shoppers pick out new guitars from the current (or recent) lines. While some of the basic information about pickups and features transfers, this is not intended as a vintage buying guide.
Let me start with a scene from Joe Versus the Volcano.
Joe believes he has a terminal illness, and he's taken on a noble mission to save a small island society by sacrificing himself to their volcano. First he has to get to the island, and a rich benefactor is paying his expenses and sending him in style. He's being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce. A regal black gentleman, Marshall, is his driver.
Pretend you are Joe, the volcano is the great force of life, the island is your concert hall and its people are your fans. Clothes are the Gretsch you must pick, Joe's journey is your Gretsch quest, and Marshall is the GDP.
Here's the scene.
MARSHALL: Where would you like to go, sir?
JOE: I thought I might like to do some shopping.
MARSHALL: Okay. Where would you like to go shopping?
JOE: I don't know.
Marshall is aggravated, but hides it behind his reserve.
MARSHALL: Alright.Marshall pulls the car over and stops.
JOE: Where would you go shopping?
MARSHALL: For what? What do you need?
MARSHALL: What kind of clothes? What is your taste?
JOE: I don't exactly know.
JOE: Why'd you stop?They shake hands quite seriously.
MARSHALL: I'm just hired to drive the car, mister. I'm not here to tell you who you are.
JOE: I didn't ask you to tell me who I am.
MARSHALL: You were hinting around about clothes. It happens that clothes are very important to me, Mister...
MARSHALL: Banks. Clothes make the man. I believe that. You say to me you wanna go shopping, you wanna buy clothes, but you don't know what kind. You leave that hanging in the air, like I'm going to fill in the blank. That to me is like asking me who you are, and I don't know who you are, I don't wanna know. It's taken me my whole life to find out who I am and I'm tired now, you hear what I'm sayin'? What's your name?
MARSHALL: My name's Marshall, how you do?
MARSHALL: Wait a minute. I'm coming back.Marshall gets out of the driver's seat, goes back and gets in next to Joe.
MARSHALL: Now what's your situation? Explain your situation to me?Do you see what's going on here? Joe knows he needs clothes, but he doesn't know what clothes, and he doesn't even know where to go shopping. He doesn't even know his own taste.
JOE: I'm going away on a long trip.
JOE: I've got the opportunity to buy some clothes today.
JOE: Money's no object.
MARSHALL: Good. Where you going?
JOE: Well. I'm going out tonight in the city.
MARSHALL: Nice places?
JOE: I hope so. Then tomorrow I'm flying to L.A.
MARSHALL: First class?
JOE: Then I'm getting on a yacht and sailing to the South Pacific.
JOE: No. A really unknown little island.
MARSHALL: No tourists?
JOE: I don't think so.
JOE: Then I'll be on the island for a couple of weeks, then that's it.
MARSHALL: And what do you got in the way of clothes now?
JOE: Well, I've got the kind of clothes I'm wearin'.
MARSHALL: So you've got no clothes. We'll start with basics. We'll start with underwear. We'll start with Dunhill.
Marshall is a bit exasperated, because clothes are something he's given a lot of thought to. If he's to take on the tiring (if rewarding) job of helping Joe discover who he is, he has to know a lot more about Joe's situation. He has to ask Joe a lot of questions, because Joe isn't very forthcoming.
And that's our predicament here.
If you just ask "What Gretsch should I buy," and tell us little else, we're apt to get little testy, because you're asking us to reach through the anonymous ether of the internet, lay our hands on your forehead, and read your mind.
The more you can tell us about your situation – what your experience is, what other guitar(s) you have, the kind of sound you're looking for, guitarists whose tone you like, types of music you want to play, the progress of your search so far – the more likely you are to get good information from us.
If you've gone to the trouble to come and read the Common Questions forum, you're probably not the guy this topic is meant for, but before you ask anything, you might consider this a starting point.
Profile of the The Gretsch Quester
Many Gretsch neophytes are inspired by a particular artist or sound, and they at least think they want a particular model. They may or may not be aware that many models are available with different pickups, and there are more differences among Gretsch pickups than among those offered by many other makers.
Or they're inspired by a certain "look" – maybe a big orange guitar, a big white guitar, a big single-cut hollow-body, a big brown double-cut, a sleek little single-cut solidbody – but don't know much else about it.
Some just know they've wanted a Gretsch since they were kids, and now it's time. Or someone has recommended a Gretsch: "you sound like you oughta be playing a Gretsch."
There have even been new buyers who just wake up one day with the mystical certainty they're meant to be Gretsch players, but have no clue beyond that.
A few – a very few – seem to know exactly what they want, and why, and have only detailed questions about differences among models.
But no matter which category you fall in, the method of discovery outlined below will help you get where you want to be.
Part One: What Kind of Quester Are You?
Gretschs look cool, and I want to look cool.
No problem! You can buy a guitar for this reason and none other. We don't care how well you play or don't play, and neither does the guitar.
If you're buying just for the classic appearance of a guitar that says "Gretsch" on the headstock (usually a big hollowbody), get the one that looks just the way you like. Gretsch is fresh out of the business of making lousy guitars, Japanese and Korean versions are both well-built and handsome, and whatever you buy will be a nice axe. In case you change your mind later, be assured that (assuming you buy smart), Gretschs hold their value better than many other guitars.
Gretschs are really premium, prestigious, iconic guitars with lots of image mojo, and I'm all about that.
So ok, same like the version above. Get the one that you think has the most mojorific image.
I'm a [Chet/Duane/George/Setzer/Neil/Pete/Byrds/Animals/Bo/Billy/Chris/Rev whomever] fan, and I want a guitar that looks and sounds just like theirs.
Great. Our work is nearly done, as each of these plays primarily one version of one model. If you're buying for a special connection with a particular artist, get the model the artist plays. That way your hero picks your guitar for you - and after all, he's the expert in sounding like himself.
Whether you're a player or a hobbyist, you'll get something to be proud of. They're all nice guitars, you'll be happy, and you need not concern yourself with technical details.
I don't know what I want, but I want that Great Gretsch Sound.
Alright, now we're to the meat of the matter. The number one feature that separates Gretsch guitars from lowly ordinary guitars – and Gretsch models from each other – is the pickups. Each of the three types is at the heart of a Great Gretsch Sound – all classic and distinctively, unmistakably Gretsch. And each has been associated with particular guitars, artists, and genres. You may find just one flavor that lights you up; you may find all three essential.
Say hi to the Dynasonic single-coil, Filtertron dual-coil (yeah, humbucker), and Hilotron single-coil.
If you're after a Gretsch for its tone, this is where you start, and where you should focus a lot of attention. First, listen to artists using each of the three. You might dig around using the search feature of the GDP to find sound samples some of us have posted.
It would be nice to have the opportunity to play all three types, though it's not completely necessary – more than one of us has ordered a guitar based on what we learned and heard here and elsewhere.
Once you've picked the sound you're after, then consider secondary feaures like body type, scale length, appointments, etc. (Note: If you know you have a hankerin' for a specific body - a 16" singlecut, a 17" doublecut Gent, a Falcon, a Jet, etc - then you can start your search for pickups within that model line.)
Part Two: Gretsch Pickups in Words
So. What about the pickups?
Dynasonic. Made originally by DeArmond, installed on all Gretsch electrics starting in 1953, if not earlier. Top-mount single coil with adjustable pole-pieces. Full-sounding, with a fat low end and crisp but rarely ice-picky highs. Great for 50s-60s rockabilly and roots rock, jazz, any country, contemporary alt rock, fingerpicking. Responsive, sensitive to dynamics of attack, and extremely adjustable via tone and volume controls. Articulate, smooth, authoritative.
Code words: twang, karrranggg, knock, punch, bite. Think mid-50s Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, Cliff Gallup – but useful far beyond those guys' genres. Dynasonics are the original Gretsch signature sound, most notably installed in 54-57 Chet Atkins 6120 models (also called Nashvilles), original Country Clubs and Falcons, and Jets.
Filtertron. Developed by Ray Butts with and for Chet Atkins; introduced mid-1957 and used on most models through the early-mid 60s. If Dynasonics are among the fattest single coils going (along with P90s), then Filtertrons are among the brightest dual-coil hum-"filtering" pickups. Two smaller bobbins than Gibson's hum"buckers," which were introduced at the same time. Filtertrons mount on the bracing rails inside the guitar, rather than in mounting rings like Gibson buckers; pickup rings are only decorative. The pickups are also a different size and shape than Gibson buckers OR Dynasonics. More complex midrange tones than Gibson, with a tighter, lighter low end and more details in the highs. Lower output than Gibson buckers, which translates to humbucking without being muddy. Articulation, detail and texture retained under distortion.
Sound code words: sparkle, chime, sweet, ring, smooth, rich, dimension. Think late 50s-60s Chet, Brian Setzer, Who's Next, 1962-63 George Harrison, British invasion, Neil Young & Steve Stills. Also far more versatile than that list suggests, and applicable to anything you might want to play. Most famously installed in 6120 Nashville models from mid-1957 onward, 6122 Country Gentlemen (also called Country Classics), Jets, and Falcons. (Note that Filtertrons are a family, including Gretsch's "High-Sensitive" model and a range of TV Jones versions. But they all share the family resemblance.)
HiloTron. Single-coil pickups in a FilterTron-sized housing; introduced ca 1962 and installed in about half of Gretsch's models through the 60s. Unusually low output - resulting in very detailed, possibly delicate tone. Surfy but a bit thinner; more plink than twang, but not in a bad way. Probably not a good jazz pickup, but ideal for mid-60s jangle and similar forms. Hilos distort, but still sound clean - will icepick at sufficient volume. Very even across all registers, almost "hi-fi" balanced in response.
Code words: jangle, shimmer, clean clean clean. Think the intro to "House of the Rising Sun," 64-66 Harrison, "8 Miles High." Most famously installed in the Tennessean (now called Tennessee Rose). When used with flatwounds, much more body, excellent detail and note definition.
Other Gretsch pickups you might run across: DeArmond 2000. Single-coil top-mount pickups used in the Electromatic 5125-5129 series. See Dynasonic description above, and subtract 10%. The 2000 can be thought of as "Dyna Lite," as it has that basic character. With eq, it can be juiced up to sound as close to Dyna as most guys couldn't tell the difference. But it's a fine pickup with its own character in its own right.
Gretsch Mini-Humbucker. Top-mount "TV-Jones designed" small-footprint mini-bucker, as used in Electromatic Pro Jets and Double Jets. Not as fat (or muddy) as a humbucker, not as bright as a Filtertron. Medium output. It has a fine balance of lows, mids, and highs - not heavy in any range. Think "smooth." Unmistakable Gretsch character - but not quite the sparkle of Filtertrons. Like the 2000, it stands as its own thing and is quite versatile. For some it's an entré to Great Gretsch Sound and they go on to other pickups; for others it's fine as is.
Gretsch Humbucker. Sometimes called the Dumbucker in these parts. Used on various Korean models, including the 5120. This is the mini-humbucker's big brother. It's bigger and warmer than the mini in every way, with some corresponding decrease in relative high end – but it retains enough Gretsch character that you'll know you're not playing generic humbuckers. You might think of it as halfway between Gretsch and Gibson.
Gretsch Pickups ranked roughly from thin/bright to warm/fat.
• Hilotron. • DeArmond 2000. • Dynasonic. • TV Jones Magnatron. (A humbucker that sounds very Dyna-like...) • Filtertron, High-Sensitive & TV Jones versions. • Gretsch Mini-Humbucker. • Gretsch Humbucker.
Remember, all Gretsch pups are not the same size and shape, and only one (the Dumbucker) is exactly the dimensions of a standard humbucker. They also don't all mount in rings like standard humbuckers.
Hilotrons and Filtertrons fit the same size & shape hole, and mount similarly. 2000s, Dynasonics, and the Mini-Humbucker are surface-mount, and are roughly the same size and shape.
Swaps among the types are possible with some minor tweaking, and both TV Jones and other aftermarket builders (notably Guitar Fetish/GFS) make pickups of all the types which can be fitted to most any Gretsch, regardless what it came with.
It's just not as easy as swapping humbuckers. Information about doing these conversions is elsewhere on the GDP.
Part Three: Everything Else
OK, I have the pickups sussed and I know what sound I want – now what about all the other stuff?
After body style and pickups, most of the other features don't matter much – some because they really just don't matter much, and others because they can very easily be changed later without doing violence to your new guitar.
(Yes, some features that are technically or musically irrelevant may be important to you because you like them. In that case, you already know more than Joe did and you've got a punch-list started. Good!)
Features that matter most.
After pickups (the biggy) here they are: Scale length. Some Gretschs are 24.6" (similar to most Gibsons); some are 25.5" (similar to most Fenders). You may be more comfortable with one over the other; you may find a slight difference in tone and feel between them. If you do, then watch for scale length when choosing a Gretsch. It can't be changed later. If scale doesn't matter to you (and it neither should nor shouldn't), then it doesn't matter.
Body size. Hollow-body Gretschs come in depths from 2" to 2.75", and in widths from 14" to 17". You can rarely get an otherwise identical model in two different sizes, so it's hard to tell how much depth contributes to tone. Size DOES matter somewhat to tone, though, and it definitely affects playing comfort. If you think you'll have an issue with one size or another, best to check the suspects out in person.
As a very rough way to guesstimate how "big" a Gretsch will sound in comparison to other Gretschs, you can multiply the body depth by the body size. All other factors being equal, the bigger the answer, the bigger and more "open" – the more hollowbody the guitar will sound.
Trestle or conventional bracing. This applies to hollow-bodies. Most Gretschs have parallel braces running lengthwise under the tops as well as a narrow "tone post" between top and back under the bridge. This is "conventional" in Gretsch parlance.
A few (Setzer models and a new 6120-59) have trestle bracing, which consists of two fairly heavy u-shaped braces between top and back. Trestle-braced guitars are more rigid, which means they sustain a little better and are theoretically less susceptible to feedback caused by body resonance. They also have less acoustic response, and are quieter when played unamplified. They're Gretsch's version of Gibson semi-hollows with a plank down the middle, and have similar performance characteristics.
A very few (some Country Club models) have spruce tops and no tone post. (Everything else has maple tops.) These are the most acoustically live and resonant guitars in the line, and are somewhat more susceptible to feedback.
For the most part, these bracing differences are subtle. But they ARE structural, and while tone posts can be removed or added with modest difficulty and extreme care, trestle bracing is forever. So if bracing matters to you, pay attention when you're buying.
Stuff that can't easily be changed, but doesn't matter much.
True f-hole vs simulated (fake, painted-on) f-hole. Some models have one, some have the other. Closed bodies have a little tighter sound (they're also thinner guitars) and a bit more feedback resistance. And they look different. I accept the configuration that comes with the guitar I want – this feature isn't make or break for me - but I mention it here because it's obviously hard to change later. (Note: hollowbody feedback on any model can be dealt with in a number of ways. Don't worry much about it unless you're a VERY loud player.)
Neck joint. The necks on most Gretsches join the body at the 18th fret. A few 60s reissues join at the 14th, arguably making access to upper frets more problematic. For most fans of these guitars, this isn't an issue. If you like the guitar otherwise, ignore this. You can learn to deal with it.
Tone switch or tone pot circuitry. A Gretsch with a tone pot has a tone knob just like every other guitar you've played. The tone SWITCH looks like an extra pickup-selector. Its three positions switch between wide open (no tone control in circuit) and two different capacitor values which cut highs to varying degrees. This is also called the "mud switch" by those who don't like it.
In actual practice there's less difference between playing the two types than it might appear, but some players vastly prefer one over the other. Technically, it's not insurmountable to change a guitar from tone-switch to tone-pot circuitry, but you might have to drill a hole in a tone-pot guitar to install a tone switch.
Features that make a difference but can be easily changed later:
Bridges: Synchro-Sonic (Melita), Rocking Bar, (aluminum) Bigsby Compensated, Space Control Roller, Adjusta-Matic. Bridges make a difference in tone and playability, and (arguably) in accurate intonation. But don't choose or reject a model based on what bridge it has, because bridges can VERY easily be swapped. You can obsess about your bridge later.
Tailpiece, Bigsby or otherwise. Just don't buy a Gretsch without a Bigsby. But if you do (and I have), you can add a Bigsby. Later you can switch back. There are four different Bigsby handles as well, but they can easily be swapped, so no problem there either.
Tuners: Sta-Tite, Grover Rotomatic, Grover Imperial, Sperzel locking. They all work perfectly well; they can be swapped for each other if you insist. (Small holes might be left in the back of the headstock.)
Features that make a small difference
These features are so unimportant – or are so entirely a matter of taste – that they may be left out of your consideration entirely. (Unless you have firm and immovable opinions about them already.) If a model you want otherwise has a feature from this list, you'd be silly to discount the guitar because of it. If you're looking specifically for any of these features when choosing a guitar, you must be a collector and this article isn't meant for you.
Zero fret. Zero difference.
Fingerboard material. Gretsch generally puts rosewood with Dynasonic single-coils and ebony with Filtertron humbuckers. It's a good match. (Fingerboard material MIGHT make a tonal difference, but it's probably not a feature worth choosing or rejecting a guitar over.)
Binding. It's pretty, unless you don't think it is. But it's irrelevant.
Mutes. They're useless and ugly, and you won't use them. But they don't hurt anything.
Standby ("kill") switch. It's useless except for that stutter thing, but it doesn't hurt anything if you don't use it. It does make a place to put some other kind of control later, should you want to.
Back pad. In order to protect the finish on the back of the guitar, a genuine simulation leatherette-oid vinyl pad is bolted to the back. With trailer-park gold piping. Silly? You bet. But it doesn't hurt a thing, and you'd be fool to pass up a guitar because of it.
Appearance features are a matter of taste.
Don't ask us if Falcon regalia or Western trim are appropriate for you, or if fake f-holes aren't just the cheesiest thing. We all have opinions, and they're meaningless.
OK! Now go shopping,
And come back later to ask detailed questions.