Gretsch musical instrument production began in 1883 when Friedrich Gretsch, a German immigrant, set up a shop in Brooklyn for the manufacture of banjos, tambourines and drums. The company was immediately prosperous, but in 1895 Friedrich Gretsch died at 39 and his 15-year-old son, Fred, took over.
By 1916 Fred Gretsch had moved the company into a 10-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn and become one of America's leading importers and manufacturers of musical instruments. At this time, Gretsch still produced very few guitars, because there was little market for guitars. The banjo reigned supreme until well into the big-band era, when the archtop guitar came to the fore. Gretsch responded with the Synchromatic line.
When Fred Gretsch retired in 1942 his son William took over until Fred Gretsch, Jr. took the helm in 1948. Fred Jr. went on to lead the company through its guitar heyday.
The golden years...
Gretsch had dabbled in electric guitars prior to 1955, producing a limited number of Hawaiian lap steels and the Electromatic arch-tops, among other models, but around 1954 the Golden Age of Gretsch guitars began. In quick succession the Electromatic evolved into the Country Club, the Jet solidbodies were introduced and two of Gretsch's best-loved models, the 6120 Chet Atkins model and the White Falcon hit the market.
Retailing for $385 new, the 6120 featured twin DeArmond pickups, a Bigsby vibrato, and a big G brand on the top. Although the 6120 was originally directed at the country market, it has been favored by rock and rollers from Eddie Cochran to Pete Townshend to Brian Setzer.
The 6121 Chet Atkins model, released at the same time, followed the Jet model: it looked like a solid body, but underneath the cap, the mahogany body was extensively routed.
By 1959 western trim had gone off into the sunset. Both models had switched from block markers to "humped block" markers in 1957 to semi-circle markers (also called neo-classic or thumbnail markers ) thereafter. Pickups changed from DeArmonds to "FilterTron" pickups and the G brand was gone. Other than the Chet Atkins models, the 1955 line-up consisted of:
- The 6136 White Falcon and Country Club two-pickup hollow bodies
- Three single-pickup hollow bodies; the Convertible (Ivory and Copper with a Lucite pickguard), a hollow Corvette model and the Streamliner
- The black Duo-Jet, the Jet Fire Bird (Oriental Red), the Silver Jet (silver sparkle finish) and the Round-Up solid bodies
The biggest news of 1955, besides the Atkins guitars, must have been the 6136 White Falcon. Initially intended to be a strictly promotional item, it was dubbed "The Guitar of the Future," and proved so popular at trade shows it found its way into the model line. The Falcon was like a six-string General Motors Motorama dream car: pure flash. It had a 17-inch body, four knobs, one switch, a Melita bridge, 24 karat gold plating, two DeArmond pickups and a special "Cadillac G" tailpiece with a V shaped crossbar and a metal G suspended between two metal rods. Falcons cost $600 new, $200 more than a 6120. Think five figures for one nowadays. The Falcon created enough of a stir that the entire line remained relatively stable until about 1958:
- The Chet Atkins range expanded to four models, the 6120, the 6121, the 6122 Country Gentleman and the 6119 Tennesseean.
- The White Falcon was available in Project-O-Sonic stereo and non-stereo versions, as were the Anniversary models.
- The Round-Up was dropped.
Sal Salvador and Clipper models also joined the lineup by 1958, providing entry-level Gretsches.
Gretsch had become a major player by this time. They offered a distinct tone and flashy finishes at a time when Gibson and Fender considered anything other than sunburst a custom finish, as well as technical innovation (some would say gadgetry) and a distinctive sound.
In the mid-sixties George Harrison played a Country Gentleman on the Ed Sullivan show and sales went through the roof. Gretsch found themselves a year behind filling orders.
Unfortunately, the success was not to last. In 1967 Fred Gretsch, unable to find a suitable heir, sold the company to Baldwin Pianos, which reorganized it as a subsidiary. Baldwin moved the New York guitar production to Booneville, Ark. in 1970, in an attempt to consolidate its factories and find cheaper and more reliable labor than was available in New York at the time. In '72 the New York offices were shut down and relocated to Chicago.
The Baldwin years...
Fortune turned against Gretsch in the late '60s as their guitar guitars fell out of favor. The guitar heroes of the late '60s were playing Stratocasters and Les Pauls, and millions of kids followed them to other brands. Gretsch's own efforts increasingly looked old-fashioned and out of touch.
Baldwin never seemed to fully grasp guitar production, either. Both the design and execution suffered through the '70s, and precious resources were squandered on bad ideas and mismanagement.
Guitar production moved from Brooklyn to Boonville, Arkansas in 1970, which also proved disastrous. Many veteran employees refused to move, while those who did move were unsure about the new workers' ability to make guitars. To top it off, in 1973 the Arkansas plant suffered two disastrous fires.
Through the '70s, Gretsch become a pale reflection of the glory years. Quality control suffered under Baldwin's disinterested reign — there were even rumors of intentional sabotage by disgruntled employees — and the corporate lords began systematically cheapening some of Gretsch's best-loved models. A disgusted Chet Atkins withdrew his endorsement in 1979.
By that time, the collapse was nearly complete. Employees rallied enough to continue guitar production into 1981 before Baldwin finally shut it all down. A few attempts were made to start up production again over the next few years, and a handful of guitars were made in various places (including Mexico) but none of the attempts were successful.
Despite the many failures of Baldwin management, it should be noted that while the Baldwin-era instruments are not widely sought by collectors, many of them were fine instruments, nonetheless. Today, Baldwin-era instruments are often a bargain-price way to get a good vintage Gretsch.
And not all of ideas were bad: the 7686 Chet Atkins Super Axe and Atkins Axe are two of the better examples the company's efforts during that period.
In 1985 Fred W. Gretsch, great-grandson of the company founder, regained control of the company. At the time, he wasn't buying much — little more than a name, really. There was no factory, inventory, no tooling, nothing. Fred was starting from scratch. He opened business offices in Savannah, Ga. and began putting the pieces back together.
The first sign of a Gretsch revival came in 1988, with a series of inexpensive Traveling Wilburys commemorative guitars. While these are hoarded avidly by a few collectors, they bear little resemblance to any Gretsch models. In fact, they are more like Danelectros.
But they did provide a much-needed cash infusion, allowing Fred to begin Gretsch production on a large scale in 1989.
In 1989, with the company again in Gretsch family hands, guitar production restarted on a large scale. Production of new guitars, based on classic Gretsch models, would be based at the Terada factory in Japan, using a mixture of American and European parts.
Through the '90s, Fred continued to build the company, introducing new models and aquiring high-profile endorsements, such as Brian Setzer.
He even offered a "custom" line of American-made guitars in 1998 and 1999, but prices were astronomical and few sold.
And in 1999, he added to the bottom of the line as well with a cheaper series of Korean-made guitars sold under the "Historic", "Electromatic" and "Sychromatic" names.
As a new century began, Gretsch's product line still consisted primarily of reissues of past successes, although several models showed some new thought, including a White Falcon Rancher, a 6120-type bass and the TV Jones hot-rodded 6114 New Jet.
The Fender era
In the fall of 2002, Gretsch began yet another new era as Fender Musical Instruments Corporation secured an agreement that basically gave them all control over the manufacturing and distribution of Gretsch. Fender immediately went to work addressing some longstanding complaints of Gretsch fans, and quickly began introducing a full range of new and improved models.
Gretsch bloomed under Fender's thoughtful stewardship. Quality improved, the product line grew stronger, and sales expanded dramatically. This is a second golden age for Gretsch.