The Gretsch company had been manufacturing musical instruments since the late 1800s, and became one of America’s largest producers of everything from the banjo to drum kits, but they only really gained any recognition for their guitars in the 1950s. During the fifties Fred Gretsch Junior took over from his father, and introduced among others the ‘White Falcon’, one of their most famous guitars. While Buddy Holly was busy being the ‘frontman’ for Fender models, it was Chet Atkins who help to shape Gretsch’s fortunes and his visibility led to the creation of the ‘6120 Chet Atkins’.
In this era Duane Eddy, with his distinctive Gretsch sound, and also Eddie Cochrane gained popularity, both along with Gene Vincent’s guitarist Cliff Gallup helping to shape the future sound of Rockabilly. The importance of the guitar in a stars hands shouldn’t be underestimated, and when George Harrison was seen playing a Gretsch in ‘Help!’ that further increased Gretsch’s fortunes in the 1960s. Aside from the Beatles, other British Gretsch players of the sixties included Hilton Valentine of the Animals, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and Gerry Marsden of Gerry And The Pacemakers.
As the U.S. was paying attention to these British bands on live tours and television programs like the Ed Sullivan show the guitars were also being noticed along with Rickenbackers that were all part of a new sound that was a departure from much of the previous 4/4 straight rock.
Stateside though, the Monkees who were a massive hit, and probably the first ‘Television band’, were always seen with Mickey Dolenz sat behind a Gretsch drum kit, and Mike Nesmith with a Gretsch twelve string in his hand. Nesmith’s twelve string was actually a converted six string ‘Country Gentleman’. After this Gretsch started producing their own twelve string model.
During the seventies when music suffered generally, Gretsch didn’t fare any better, and they’d been taken over by Baldwin Pianos, and guitar production was stopped altogether when the factory was burnt down. A relative of the deceased Fred Gretsch, also named Fred Gretsch got hold of the right to use the trading name again, and started production again in 1989. Produced in Japan, and of good quality, the guitars were ‘un-Gretsch like’, and didn’t have the features of earlier vintage models.
Brian Setzer gave Gretsch a massive boost during the 1980s when he spearheaded the Rockabilly movement, and along with the Cramps, gave birth to literally hundreds of Gretsch wielding bands. If you were a psychobilly or rockabilly band, a Gretsch was as important as an outlandish quiff, not just for the sound, but also the look.
Since Brian Setzer, other guitarists as diverse as Angus Young of AC/DC and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have been using Gretsches. The most notable guitarist of recent years however is the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl who uses a White Falcon, and Fire Bird. Brian Setzer was the first player to have a signature guitar made.
Gretsch got together with Fender in 2002 to help re-establish the ‘Gretsch Brand’, which included Fender taking over the marketing. Fender’s commitment to the ‘original values’ of guitars also meant that newly produced guitars contained materials and components that were more like the originals. This was probably due to Fender’s experience with the highly successful Stratocaster, and Telecaster, both of which had barely changed in any real sense for over fifty years.
Fender’s involvement with Gretsch has perhaps ensured Gretsch’s guitar making future, as models that have been produced since 2002, both new and reissues have not suffered any of the criticism that previous guitars had. The Gretsch sound is unique, and although it is mainly a rockabilly guitar, there are many other big name players who continue to use one, and as long as there’s an influential guitarist, or even just a big name such as Bono seen with a Gretsch in their hands, they will still be a rock and roll guitar of note.