Gretsch Guitars was Founded in the 1880s by a German immigrant named Friedrich Gretsch. The company initially focused on drums and tambourines, and didn’t begin producing guitars until the 1930s. It was in the 1950s, however, under the leadership of Fred Gretsch Jr. (great grandson of Friedrich), that the Gretsch renaissance truly began.
A Gretsch guitar is as emblematic of the 50s as a pink Cadillac. One of the first artists to wield one was the inimitable Bo Diddley, who played a Red Fire Jet. Bo was a musical genius whose experimentation with the electric guitar opened up a vast universe of sonic possibilities. Given the amount of tremolo and gain he favored, the chambered solid-body design with its signature twang was the perfect fit (although he later commissioned a rectangular model that harkened back to the homemade cigar box guitars he played early in his career).
Unlike the Fender Telecaster, the Jet guitars have open cavities in the mahogany back and sides, which lends them an earthiness that honors the country roots of Rock & Roll. They have a warmth and bass reminiscent of early P-90 Gibson Les Paul’s, but cut much more aggressively through a loud mix. Gretsch has never been afraid of innovation. The master volume knob included near the picking hand enables the player to execute volume swells smoothly and swiftly. As for sheer aesthetics, they have access to a myriad of DuPont classic car colors originally reserved for drum wrappings. They dress their growing lineup of instruments in vivid, strange, sometimes sparkling finishes.
One of the integral figures during Gretsch’s formative years was a man named Jimmy Webster. An accomplished jazz guitarist himself, Webster was able to tap into the art-deco zeitgeist of the era. Not only did he design the famous White Falcon, with its winged headstock and gold/sparkle trim, but he also drafted the super-star picker, Chet Atkins, as Gretsch’s primary endorser. The first guitar to bear his name was a fully-hollow model known as the 6120. This became popular amongst rockers like Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy. It later evolved into a thinner, sealed body guitar known as the Country Gentleman. This version was much more feedback resistant, but still sported painted on f-holes to maintain the arch-top vibe. It also boasted the newly designed Filter’Tron pickups which were hum-cancelling, but more articulate than the Humbucker pickups that Gibson was producing. This was the guitar that rose to universal acclaim by way of a little band from Liverpool called The Beatles.
Although his first Gretsch guitar was a duo jet that he bought second-hand off a sailor, it was the Country Gentleman that George Harrison acquired in 1963 that would change music history. When the Beatles took the stage on the Ed Sullivan show, the signature twang and warm bass of his Brown Country Gentleman supplied the perfect contrast to John Lennon’s jangling Rickenbacker. Due to the Beatles’ popularity, Gretsch sales soared. Throughout the rest of the 60s, you would frequently find Gretsch Guitars in the hands of the rock elite, including Neil Young, Steven Stills, David Crosby, and Lou Reed.