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The Story of Gretsch Guitars

A History and Overview of the Gretsch Company

The Gretsch Company is one the longest-lasting musical instrument companies in America, founded over 125 years ago. Over the years, their guitar and drum lines have been the instruments of choice for many of the world’s top musicians. In this article, we will review the history of this storied company, with the emphasis on their renowned guitars.

The story of Gretsch Guitars

The Early Days

The Gretsch Company was founded in Brooklyn in 1883 by Friedrich Gretsch, a 27-year-old German immigrant. He manufactured banjos, tambourines and drums. Upon his death in 1895, his son Fred took over. Fred Gretsch moved the successful company to a 10-story building in 1916, where he continued to make percussion instruments.

The first Gretsch guitars came off the line in the early 1930s. These included a few archtop models and Hawaiian guitars. Although they sold respectably, Gretsch was not a leader in the electric guitar market. In the 1950s, however, that would all change.

The Golden Era

By the mid 1950’s, Fred’s son, Fred Jr., had taken over the company. This was a period of great innovation for the company, which coincided with the birth of rock n’ roll. Bo Diddley played a Duo Jet, as did Chuck Berry on his first hit, “Maybelline.”

Legendary guitarist and producer Chet Atkins began endorsing Gretsch guitars in the 1950s, and sales went through the roof. Thousands of guitars with his name on the pickguard were sold. A Chet Atkins 6120 was purchased by Duane Eddy, and the twangy style of his hit records had other guitarists searching to duplicate the sound. Eddie Cochran and Cliff Gallup (Gene Vincent’s guitarists) also used Gretsch guitars extensively. The Country Gentleman guitar (a Chet Atkins model) was one of the most successful guitars in history. Elvis, the King himself, owned and played a Country Gentleman.

Gretsch had become a true competitor with Gibson, Fender, and Rickenbacher. Another guitarist helped to push the company’s fortunes even higher. George Harrison of the Beatles used a Country Gent during the band’s appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and also during filming of the movie HELP! He would continue to use Gretsch guitars frequently over the years.

The Gretsch name also got heavy exposure as the supplier of drums and guitars for The Monkees, whose TV show became a ratings hit. At the request of guitarist Michael Nesmith, the company made its first 12-string electric, which Nesmith played frequently on the show and onstage.

Changing Times

In 1967, Fred Jr. sold the Gretsch Company to Baldwin Pianos. The “Baldwin Era” company was beset by numerous management, marketing and production problems. This was made worse by the general downturn in sales of hollowbody electric guitars in favor of solidbody guitars in the late 1960s. As hollowbodies were Gretsch’s specialty, the company’s fortunes took a steep dive. Fires at their guitar factory in the 1970s appeared to seal the company’s fate, and Baldwin ceased production of Gretsch guitars in 1981.

Fred Jr.’s nephew, also named Fred, acquired the company in 1989 and set to work revamping the company with the help of his wife, Dinah. Due to the resurgence in popularity of hollowbody guitars, the company began a huge turnaround.
In 2003, Gretsch entered into an agreement with Fender. Fender now handles the manufacture and marketing of Gretsch guitars and drums, although the Gretsch family still owns the company.

Among the other artists who have played Gretsch guitar are Brian Jones, Hilton Valentine (on The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun”), Lou Reed, and Brian Setzer. Will you join them?

Phone Glenn Sutton at: 619-306-3664.

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