Pardon, our roots are showing.
What do you think of when you hear “back to the roots of Gretsch”?
Well, when did you become aware of Gretsch? Fred Gretsch surely thinks of his great-granddad, a young German immigrant to NYC who started the company in 1883.
A newly-minted Gretsch player may think of Patrick Matera or Jack White, whose Gretschs carry the banner on big stages today.
So it all depends on where we came in. Guys of a particular certain age will think of George Harrison. A little older, and it’s Duane Eddy or Eddie Cochran. A bit younger, and you might think of Billy Zoom. When we learn the basics of Gretsch history, most of us will date the start of a golden age to Chet Atkins. And certainly an entire generation flashes on Brian Setzer.
And I bet 99% of us think of electric guitars. We aren’t wrong: that’s where Gretsch built its modern reputation in the post-war era of mass market pop music. The guys above – and so many others – are icons and legends, founders of the music we all love.
They’re OUR roots, sure enough. But they grew out of what came before, with roots going deep through the soil of American music, back to the immigrants whose interwoven lives in the new world created new musical hybrids here. Gretsch has been a part of that since 1883, in ways most of us seldom consider - but which Fred Gretsch thinks about every day, and which Mike Lewis has taken as a personal mission.
Let’s time-travel. Caution: objects in the mirror are much bigger than they appear. The past is always foreshortened when we look back. As kids, we naturally think the world began the day before we were born – and even after we learn better, we rarely think how much happened before we came onto the scene, and how long that took.
So yeah. We know Gretsch for electrics - but the Gretsch family had been thriving in the musical instrument business for over sixty years before anyone plugged one in. Think on that, huh? Fred has proudly shared with me photocopies of early Gretsch catalogs. (1912 sticks in my mind, and I seem to remember one from the 20s as well.) There were hundreds of items in nearly every conceivable category of music except pianos, organs, and violins.
By 1920, Gretsch was the largest Musical Instrument maker in the US. Read that again. 92 years ago. 1920.
And remember that the earliest stars of what would be country music, like the early blues artists, didn’t have their first heyday till the late 20s and early 30s. What we now recognize as the mainstream of “roots-related” American music – rock & roll and all its varied derivatives – was still 25 years in the future.
So before that, what were people listening to? And what in the world was Gretsch selling?
Drums, of course. From the very beginning, always and still, and with a proud heritage of technical innovations and great artists.
But among the myriad of things Gretsch offered were the stringed instruments that immigrants had brought to the US from all over the world. From Italy and Germany, mandolins and violins. From Spain, guitars. From Africa, banjos.
People listen to - and played - the music that came with the instruments. In the cities, in the mountains of Appalachia, on the plains of the West, on the plateaus of the Piedmont and in the fields of the Mississippi River valley down to the Delta. In concert houses and the parlors of the high-toned, you might hear classical music. Everywhere else you heard the music of the people: ballads, jigs, reels, mazurkas, polkas, waltzes, cowboy songs, hornpipes, hymns, parlor songs, rags. Music that had been passed down through generations, along with the new “popular music” coming out of Broadway shows and tin pan alley.
There were waves of national trends through the early 20th century for various kinds of string bands. My 2nd-generation German grandfather and his sisters, who lived along the Ohio River, put together a family band in the early 20s with guitar, mandolin, and banjo. They weren’t playing bluegrass - that bastard child hadn’t been born yet. They were playing what was called “string music.”
“String orchestras” were a popular pastime, some organized by music stores who would sell instruments “on the installment plan,” along with lessons and group sessions with the students performing together under the direction of the teacher. It was Harold Hill for instruments you pluck rather than blow into, and without uniforms. We think of one size of mandolin, two kinds of banjos, and maybe three guitar sizes. These orchestras combined bass, tenor, standard, and piccolo versions of all these instruments, all playing together in bewildering if glorious resonance.
One Fred and Joe show features jaw-dropping footage of a whole room full of banjos from tiny to bass-drum size, all played in locked-arm formation, as well as one Eddie Peabody, one of the first Gretsch “pop stars.” He was the clown prince, the Eddie Van Shredder King of the instrument - equal parts wacky showman (think Danny Kaye, Freddy of the Dreamers, George Formby) and virtuoso (think Paganini or Steve Vai). You’ll never see anything more entertaining. And he drove a Gretsch banjo.
By the early 30s, the resonator guitar had joined the party. This is the one acoustic American roots instrument that was born in the USA - to Czech immigrants in California in the late 20s. It was specifically designed to be louder than the “Hawaiian” slide guitars which had enjoyed their own national craze in the 20s and 30s. (Say hello to the ukelele as well.) I doubt George Beauchamp (the master Hawaiian player who inspired the resonator) or the Dopera brothers (who designed and developed it) or Adolph Rickenbacker (who was involved as machinist and manufacturer) had any idea resonator guitars would be adopted by Delta blues guys, or the bluegrass pickers who followed.
But how could anyone have predicted what would come from the swirling mix of instruments which came with new Americans from all over the world?
Gretsch has been a part of that story all along, offering all these instruments down through the years. The story of the Gretsch Roots Collection is in that sense the story of all those people – all of US – and of the music we’ve made together. Acoustic instruments, to be played in kitchens and on porches and under the tree in the park, and around the campfire while the brands heat up. It’s the story of the roots beneath the roots.
Only this time ‘round, the instruments are better than they ever were in the past. Through the pre-war era, Gretsch often sourced stringed instruments from other companies, notably from Harmony, Kay, and Regal in Chicago.
Enter Mike Lewis. Y’all who remember your recent Gretsch history will know that Mike was the first Gretsch product manager for FMIC, way back in 2000-and-two and for a few years thereafter. It was Mike who evaluated the entire line of electric guitars to see how they could be built more nearly like their antecedents from the 50s and 60s. Nearly every feature of every model was re-spec’ed to be more vintage-like, to improve quality and tone and playability. That the current Gretsch professional collection has grown into a garden of delights is thanks to the early tending Mike gave it.
And Mike is responsible for putting the Roots Collection together. He did the research, going back to original Gretsch instrument designs - dimensions (where they could be determined), logos, and appointments – then worked with FMIC’s acoustic woods guru to make the instruments better than they ever were “back in the day.” Designed from the inside out for tone and resonance. They LOOK like they could come right out of the 30s and early 40s. They sound timeless. (And I’m not just blowing smoke here. I’m a reso junkie, and as soon as I heard the brass-bodied biscuit-bridge model and the square-neck mahogany, I was smitten.)
Besides being a first-class good guy and a fanatic Gretsch enthusiast, Mike is a great player. Electric, acoustic, you name the instrument, he just nails it. He’s not only proud of the Roots Collection as a product developer - his joy in playing them is evident as well. It’s obviously been a project of passion for him.
The Roots Collection doesn’t just pay homage to the long fruitful years of Gretsch history from 1882 to the early 50s – it perfects the design and realizes the promise of those instruments. It pays respect to the long heritage of American music BEFORE rock & roll.
It’s part of the story that the Roots Collection instruments are not over-the-top in design or über-glossy in appearance. They’re plain more than fancy, with a certain quiet and humble elegance. That fits their price point (did I mention - like 99.00 - 750.00!), and it’s consistent with the original market for these instruments in the first half of the 20th century: all of us.
Details to follow, of course, on specific models and specs (yes, some are invisibly electrified), and the line won’t be at a dealer near you till 2nd quarter.
But they really caught me by surprise on this one, and now that I’ve thought it through I see how beautifully this historically-inspired line fits into Gretsch’s future.
I think we’ll all dig some roots!