The Lore and Legend of Gretsch Guitars (Part 2)
March 23, 2005
"For the guitarist who has everything except the ultimate guitar"
- 1965 advertising copy
Gretsch Guitars in Retrospect (Part Two)
I mentioned earlier that the success of Gretsch guitars during the mid-1960s ultimately led to both the downfall of the entire Gretsch guitar line and worse, a general distain for all Gretsches that has really only changed during the last decade or so.
Because Gretsch was selling a lot of guitars, it was eventually purchased by Baldwin in 1967 - yes, the company that built (and still builds) Baldwin pianos. The company also bought out British guitar manufacturer Burns in about 1965. In an odd twist of fate, Baldwin was also among the few companies that expressed serious interest in Fender guitars before CBS ultimately acquired Leo Fender's company. The Burns guitars eventually carried the Balwin name for a short time, but by 1970, all guitar production ceased.
Not so with Gretsch guitars. They continued to be built by Baldwin all the way until 1981. And in truth, many of the guitars built during those years were fine instruments. The company even tried to revive some early Gretsch features, in particular real "f-holes." Some of these Balwin era Gretsch guitars can still be purchased at a reasonable price. A few, like the Tennessean, remained remarkably unchanged for years.
The real problems began with a number of models that began to be introduced in the late 1960s and early '70s. These include the Blackhawk, the Streamliner, the Broadkaster, the Super Chet, the Deluxe Chet and (taa-dah!) the Atkins Super Axe. The final three were the very last guitars produced with the Chet Atkins name. The late 1970s Atkins Super Axe went all out, trying to be all things to all players with controls for an onboard compressor, sustain and built-in phaser along with a BadAss bridge, not very subtly dubbed "The Terminator."
By about 1979, Chet Atkins decided enough was enough. It was his ball, and he decided that Gretsch could no longer play with it, so he took his personal model names, which included the Country Gentleman and the Tennessean) and signed a deal with Gibson. But by that time, the writing was already on the wall. With a series of failed solid body guitars - one even named after what it appeared to be designed by, the "Committee" - along with an overall perception that early 1980s Gretsch guitars were pretty awful - Baldwin called it quits.
And here's where we'll pick up the story of my wonderful old Tennessean.
The 1964 Gretsch Tennessean (Final Verse)
Way at the beginning of this article, I mentioned the fact that my all-time favorite guitar was a burgundy Tennessean. It's only now that I have all the facts (thanks to authors like Jay Scott and Tony Bacon) that I know my Tennessean was a 1964 model that likely arrived at North Miami Music in 1965, where it languished.
|"The ultimate recreation of the 1962 Gretsch Tennessean with HiLoTron pickups as produced today by FMIC. Can anyone really tell the difference?"
So what exactly was so great about that guitar? After all, the bridge was a fairly straight forward affair that often fell off the guitar when you changed strings. The tailpiece was a standard B-6 Bigsby (though manufactured with "Gretsch by Bigsby" stamped into the metal). The pickups were the low end HiLoTrons. The f-holes were painted on. Who could love a guitar like that? One with so many obvious design flaws?
Okay, since I don't actually have the guitar in my posession, perhaps I am painting a picture of the instrument in my mind as something more than it actually was. But here's the deal: That guitar would feed back - infinitely sustain - on any note! Not just certain notes or positions, but every single note! And personally, I like the feel of a Bigsby. Unlike modern vibrato units, whose arms terminate somewhere around the middle of the neck pickups, causing all manner of contortions to access if you're playing close to the bridge, the Bigsby arm terminates comfortably in the middle of the treble pickup.
Did I sometimes have tuning problems? Of course, as I tended to abuse that guitar to no end, including once when I bent the Bigsby all the way up until every string snapped! That's abuse, folks! Yet surprisingly, despite the huge amount of pressure that had to exert on the wood - and there is no center piece of maple running down the middle as there is on a Gibson ES-335 - that guitar kept coming back for more punishment.
Even a talent the stature of Jimi Hendrix was amazed by the Tennessean's sustain. Just imagine how history might have been rewritten if Hendrix decided in 1969 to switch to a Gretsch.
Sadly, during a rough point in my life, I had to sell that guitar. And all I got for it was a lousy $150. I look back now and wonder why on earth I would have parted with it for such a pittance, but I do recall a time when I actually had to tap a few co-workers for enough money to carry me through until my next payday and to purchase a few cans of dog food for my Border Collie named Woof.
I suppose that things usually work out the way they're supposed to. You get nowhere in life by dwelling on such mistakes. My friend (and former rhythm player) Pete Bartels still bemoans the loss of his 1954 Gibson Custom "Black Beauty," so I don't feel that alone. And many Sweetwater customers have written to share similar stories. So we are a rather special brotherhood whose only ultimate connection comes from losing a treasured instrument.
Gretsch Guitars Today.
There is some good news, because today Gretsch guitars are again being built "like they used to be" under the watchful eye of another major guitar manufacturer, Fender Musical Instruments (FMIC). In April of 2004, while up in Fort Wayne for a photo shoot to launch the company's Guitar Gallery, I had the opportunity to very briefly play a few of these new Gretsches and I must say I was impressed. They played well, felt solid and looked great. The hard part seems to be getting enough of them, as these new instruments are gaining a fairly significant following.
A few people who wrote to me after my Sweet Notes column expressed disappointment that the new Gretsch guitars don't carry a "Made in the USA" stamp. While I can understand that, I also remind people that there was a time when buying a Japanese car was a joke. People laughed at those early Datsuns and Toyotas, but look where the car industry has ended up today. Many major innovations are coming out of Japan, as well as some surprises from Korea. And certainly those early imports made US car manufacturers sit up and take notice.
The same thing happened with cameras in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Kodak cameras were pretty sophisticated back then and the German-built Leicas were the best cameras being built at the time. But eventually, we saw names like Nikon, Canon and Minolta taking the lead in photo imaging, while industry giant Kodak ended up producing cheap "Instamatics." And how about TVs? The top HD brands today are all from overseas: Panasonic, Toshiba, JVC and Hitachi.
Finally, let's all remember that the late 1970s and most of the 1980s were a tough time for all domestic guitar manufacturers. If it weren't for overseas competition that sent a wake-up call to builders here in the States, who knows where the industry could have ended up. Thankfully, the biggest and best names like Gibson and Fender were able to turn things around, while new companies, like Paul Reed Smith, went on to make guitars that silenced all the critics.
As for me, I'll admit that I am still looking for a Gretsch Tennessean that will rival my 1964 model. Maybe I'll find a reasonably priced vintage instrument. Maybe I'll pick up one of the new generation of Gretsch guitars and feel that magic. In the end, all that matters is the music we make as our fingers move up and down the fretboard, not whose name is on the headstock. And that's the way things ought to be. Because music is universal. It doesn't matter whose hands built a particular guitar. What does ultimately matter is that listeners get chills when they hear us play. Amen to that!
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