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Gretsch Guitars The History Of & Current Online Gretsch Prices.

Updated on September 25, 2013


Gretsch was founded in 1883 by a German immigrant named Friedrich Gretsch, who intended to manufacture banjos, tambourines, and drums. In 1895, Friedrich Gretsch died at the age of 39, and the already successful company was taken over by his son, Fred, who guided it into even greater profitabilty. By 1916, the company moved into a large 10-story building in Brooklyn, New York and became one of the most prominent American musical instrument makers. Guitar production began in earnest in the late 30s, and were extremely popular in the late 50s and early 60s. After sliding into disfavor and eventual bankruptcy in the 70s and 80s, Gretsch was successfully revived by Fred Gretsch III in 1989. Most modern-era Gretsch guitars are manufactured in the Far East, although US-made "Custom Shop" models are available. In 2003 Gretsch entered into an agreement with Fender Musical Instruments Company, in which Gretsch would continue to own the company, but FMIC would handle most development, distribution and sales. This agreement has proven to be very successful, and many Gretsch fans believe the company is currently experiencing a second golden era.

Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman
Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman

The 1950s and 1960s

Players and collectors of vintage guitars feel that Gretsch's "best" years started in the mid 1950s, after Fred's son Fred Jr. had taken the reins. It was during this time the company introduced several distinctive models, including the 6120 "Nashville," the Duo Jet chambered "solidbody", the Country Club, and the White Falcon.

However, the single biggest contribution to Gretsch's success was the addition of Chet Atkins as an endorser. Atkins was one of the pre-eminent guitarists of his day, and his endorsement gave Gretsch greater visibility in competition with Gibson and Fender. Gretsch ultimately sold thousands of guitars with Chet's name on the pickguard, most notably the 6120 Chet Atkins model, one of which was purchased in 1957 by a young guitar player named Duane Eddy. The worldwide success of Duane's "twangy" instrumental records, television appearances, and extensive touring helped expose the Gretsch guitar to a huge new market, that of the teenage rock and roll fan. George Harrison, years later, was to refer to this model as "the Eddie Cochran/Duane Eddy guitar". Other Chet Atkins models were the Country Gentleman (named after an instrumental hit for Chet) and the Tennessean , a lower cost version of the Country Gent.

Many rockabilly players had followed in the footsteps of Eddie Cochran, who also wielded a 6120 (though modified with a Gibson P-90 pickup in the neck position) and Gene Vincent's guitarist Cliff Gallup, who played a Duo Jet. Elvis Presley himself later owned a Gretsch Country Gentleman - (recently manufactured as "Gretsch Country Classic" but now renamed Chet Atkins Country Gentleman), playing it briefly both on stage and in the studio. Gretsch quickly became a legitimate competitor to both Gibson and its main rivals, Fender and Rickenbacker. Gretsch fortunes rose yet again in the early sixties when George Harrison played a Gretsch Country Gentleman on the Ed Sullivan Show. Despite popular belief, he acquired two Country Gentleman guitars; his first was destroyed when it fell out of the trunk of their car on the roadway. He would later switch to a Gretsch Tennessean and his Country Gentleman made its last appearance in the music video of 'You're Going To Lose That Girl' in the movie 'Help!' The Ed Sullivan Country Gent was given to Ringo Starr by Harrison's wife, Olivia. His favorite Gretsch, however, was undoubtedly the black Duo Jet he had bought in 1961 as his first good electric guitar (replacing his Futurama), and saw action from Hamburg and the Cavern to appearances on early Beatles records up to 1963. Harrison then either gave away or loaned the guitar to a friend, until he reacquired it in the 1980s when he used it on his 'Cloud Nine' album. In fact, the guitar appears on the cover of that album.

The British Invasion brought with it, in addition to an extensive use of Rickenbackers, further popularity to Gretsch models. In addition to the Beatles, Brian O'Hara of the Fourmost extensively used a Country Gentleman; it has been suggested that George Harrison gave him this guitar after acquiring the Tennessean. John Lennon at one point acquired a Nashville (double cutaway) The Animals' Hilton Valentine played a Tennessean on the classic House of the Rising Sun. Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones used a 1963 model 6118 Double Anniversary from late 1963 - mid 1964, used on the Stones' version of I Wanna Be Your Man as well as the Rolling Stones' first album as well as a few tracks on 12 X 5, notably It's All Over Now. Gerry Marsden from Gerry and the Pacemakers can also be seen using a Gretsch guitar.

Beginning in 1966, Gretsch had weekly television exposure when the company supplied the guitars and drums for The Monkees, extending the demand for guitars. Both Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground used a Gretsch Country Gentleman during the bands' lifetime (although not simultaneously - they shared the same guitar), as did Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. As the sixties waned into the seventies, Gretschs were seen in the hands of Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Pete Townshend of the Who also used a '59 orange Gretsch 6120 (given to him by Joe Walsh) on their 1971 Who's Next and 1973 Quadrophenia albums, including their hits, "Bargain", "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "5:15".

Gretsch electric twelve-string and The Monkees

Mike Nesmith of The Monkees
Mike Nesmith of The Monkees

According to the audio commentary by Michael Nesmith for the episode "I've Got A Little Song Here" on The Monkees: Season One DVD set, prior to The Monkees, Nesmith liked twelve string electric guitars. At the time, only Rickenbacker and Vox mass-produced them. Nesmith, however, preferred the bluesy twangy sound of a Gretsch over the distinctive pop sound of a Rickenbacker. According to Nesmith, there was a luthier in Los Angeles that converted six string electric guitars into twelve string guitars. Nesmith bought himself a Gretsch Country Gentleman to convert into a twelve string, and that is the guitar he used in the pilot episode of The Monkees, "Here Come The Monkees". (Note: Upon close examination of the film footage, the guitar Nesmith identifies as a Country Gentleman is actually a Gretsch Tennessean. When the pilot episode aired, the music scenes were re-shot. As a result, Mike is holding the original Gretsch as the band is setting up, but has the famous blonde Gretsch once they start playing.) Once the pilot was sold as a series, and Gretsch made the deal to supply the group with instruments, Nesmith contacted Fred Gretsch, and asked if he could make him a twelve-string electric guitar. Gretsch agreed, and the result is the famous blonde electric twelve string that Nesmith used during the Monkees' entire run, on the series, in the recording studio, and in concert. Meanwhile, Fred Gretsch liked the finished instrument so much, he put the electric twelve string into production. One of the first was given to George Harrison and was later known as the "George Harrison Model" (Harrison, preferring his Rickenbacker twelve-string, gave the guitar to a friend).

From 1966 through 1968, Gretsch also produced the Gretsch 6123, which was a Monkees signature electric six string guitar. However, since the Monkees' target demographic was preteen-aged girls, the guitar (bright red in color, with a dubious "Monkees" logo on the pickguard) was not a sales success, since few of these girls played guitar, and even fewer had the cash to cover $469 price tag.

Gretsch G5135N
Gretsch G5135N

Sale, Gretsch family regains interest

Fred never found an adequate successor, and in 1967 Gretsch was sold to Baldwin Pianos, becoming a subsidiary.

The "Baldwin era" is not generally considered a high point in Gretsch history, though new models were introduced through the seventies and old favorites soldiered on. Solidbody guitars rose to prominence in rock, with the harder styles of the era favoring Stratocasters and Les Pauls, and hollowbodies fell in popularity. At the same time, buyers felt Gretsch quality slipped as production moved from Brooklyn to Arkansas. In 1979, after Fred Jr's death, Chet Atkins withdrew his endorsement in response to quality problems and Gretsch's unwillingness to pursue his vision of a solidbody nylon-string guitar. Factory fires in the early 1970s caused serious problems, and production was finally halted by Baldwin in 1981.

In 1989, another Fred Gretsch, nephew of Fred Jr., and his wife Dinah once again acquired their namesake company. The first new model was the very unGretsch-like Traveling Wilburys model, an Asian import which looked much like a Danelectro; the model was suggested by George Harrison, who wanted to honor his own Gretsch history (in addition to the fact that all five Wilburys are pictured with a Gretsch in the album artwork and promotional photos) with a unique graphically-treated guitar whose introduction would be timed to help promote the Traveling Wilburys album. While the guitar did little credit to Gretsch classics of the past, it served notice that Gretsch was back.

After numerous attempts to acquire facilities or contract production in the United States failed, Fred Gretsch and long-time Gretsch employee Duke Kramer, who advised Gretsch, turned to Terada of Japan, and production began anew. A range of reissues appeared throughout the nineties to mixed reviews. They were of generally high quality, but with notable non-vintage details and features; occasional US-built "Custom Shop" models were offered at significantly higher prices. A confusing array of lower-priced Korean-sourced Electromatic and Synchromatic lines paid homage to earlier Gretsch models, but varied even further from classic Gretsch design and features.



In the 1980s, rockabilly revival player Brian Setzer rekindled interest in the brand with his band The Stray Cats. His influence continued through the 1990s with The Brian Setzer Orchestra and its fusion of "hyperbilly" guitar and powerful big band arrangements. In 1990, he became the first player since Chet Atkins to be honored with a signature-model Gretsch, the Brian Setzer 6120, which is now one of an extensive line of Setzer signature models. Setzer has been as important to Gretsch's fortunes in the 1990-present reissue period as Chet Atkins was in the fifties and sixties, and the visibility of Gretsch in his hands has led to the brand's becoming a prominent choice of rockabilly revivalists and psychobilly artists alike.

Jim Heath, aka Reverend Horton Heat has been an important Gretsch proponent in the modern era, and has also been honored with his own signature model. In 1997, the Australian punk/rockabilly band The Living End rose to popularity, with guitarist Chris Cheney using a number of Gretsches, including a White Falcon, Duo Jets and his own Signature Gretsch Guitar. This was not the first use of Gretsch guitars in punk; since the late 1970s, Billy Zoom of X has used a 1955 Gretsch Silver Jet.

Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers used a double-cutaway 6120 Nashville in the music video for the Heartbreakers' hit "You Got Lucky", and both Campbell and Tom Petty use various Gretsch models including two Tennesseans, a Country Gentleman, a White Falcon and a Duo Jet.

In rock, Malcolm Young of AC/DC played a double cut Jet Firebird (with the top finish stripped off and one pickup removed), and White Falcon (as seen in the video "Back in Black") during the band's career. In the 1990s, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden used a Duo Jet, and could be seen in the video for "Black Hole Sun". In the music video for "Malibu" by Hole, lead singer Courtney Love can be seen playing a Gretsch.

Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong consistently uses a Country Club, which has been customized with various coats of black spray paint, at live performances. Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist, John Frusciante played a vintage 1955 White Falcon for two songs on the Californication album. Frusciante played his White Falcon on songs Otherside and Californication, he also used to use this guitar when these songs were played live. John's White Falcon can be seen on the Californication music video, Off The Map DVD and Slane Castle DVD.

Dave Grohl uses a white falcon with the Foo Fighters in the video for Monkey Wrench and also uses a red Gretsch Fire Bird. U2 lead singer Bono's signature guitar is an "Irish Falcon", green in colour with the phrase 'The Goal Is Soul' printed on the pickguard in black text. Billy Duffy of The Cult has prominently used the White Falcon over decades. Depeche Mode guitarist Martin Gore plays a Gretsch in most live performances. Reid Paley uses a 1955 Gretsch hollowbody electric that was made a few blocks away in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Jack White of the White Stripes and the Raconteurs also uses Gretsch guitars. In the White Stripes he is now using a very rare 1957 Gretsch White Penguin. One of the rarest guitars in the world, it can be seen in the video for the song "Icky Thump." For the Raconteurs, he designed a Gretsch clone, which he has dubbed the "Triple Jet". It is a double-cutaway Duo Jet with a pickup booster (which appears as a third, middle pickup), and features a solid copper top. It also has a Gretsch logo that was only used on a few guitars in 1912. However, the guitar is not a factory Grestch, as it was built by luthier Randy Parsons of Seattle. Parsons has since been asked by Gretsch to design a signature guitar.

Gretsch Silver Jet
Gretsch Silver Jet

The Fender Musical Instrument Company era

In late 2002, Gretsch and Fender reached an agreement giving Fender most control over marketing, production and distribution of guitars (although the Gretsch family still owns Gretsch Guitars).

Fender quickly set about improving the line by upgrading substandard electrical components and bringing modern production more closely in line with designs and practices of the classic era. Body and headstock shapes, which on reissues from the 90s and early 00s had varied from 50s-60s practice, were made more vintage-correct. Hollowbodies were returned to 3-ply construction rather than the 5-plies of the 1990-2002 period. Filtertron double-coil pickups were redesigned by TV Jones to sound more like vintage pickups. Duo Jets were more extensively chambered, again in accordance with vintage practice, and the trestle bracing of the 1959-1961 era was re-introduced on the Setzer line and other selected models.

An array of models based on vintage designs has been introduced, with widespread approval among players and even collectors. While such judgments are always subjective and sometimes contentious, many feel FMIC-era Gretschs exhibit the highest level of overall build quality, attention to detail, and consistency in Gretsch's long history.

Gretsch has also introduced new models consistent with their heritage but aimed at modern players, with features like premium pickups manufactured by TV Jones, locking Sperzel tuners, and ML bracing designed by Mike Lewis of FMIC and Masao Terada of the Terada company in Japan, where all Gretsch pro-line guitars are now built.

In January 2007, upon an agreement with the Atkins family, Gretsch announced the return of Chet Atkins as an endorser. The Country Classic models became Country Gentlemen once again, the name "Chet Atkins Hollowbody" returned to the 6120 Nashvilles, and the Tennessee Rose became the Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose. In July 2008, a limited run of Chet Atkins 6120 Stereo guitars was introduced, based on a famous prototype from 1956 which featured in several landmark Atkins recordings, but was never produced in series.

Billy Zoom, of the Los Angeles punk band X, was honored with a limited-edition Gretsch Custom Shop Jet model in 2008; this guitar is based on Zoom's own vintage Jet, and includes more extensive internal chambering than any other modern Jet, exactly reproducing the construction revealed when Zoom's original guitar was CAT-scanned at a medical facility during development.

At the same time, FMIC has refined and improved the mid-priced Electromatic line by discontinuing the low-end bolt-neck models of the late 90s and early 2000s, which incorporated generic humbucking pickups and wraparound bridges. The Electromatic Hollowbody line has proven particularly successful, from the 5125 - 5129 series with its US-made DeArmond 2000 pickups (which honor the vintage Gretsch combination of powerful full-range single-coil pickups in a hollowbody guitar) and the similar 5120 series. The 5120, a single-cutaway model inspired by the 6120, has become the best-selling guitar in Gretsch history, with an active after-market in replacement pickups from TV Jones and other makers for players who feel they provide a more characteristic tone than the stock "Gretschbucker" double-coil pickups. The double-cutaway 5122 model, introduced in 2008 and inspired by the 6122 Country Gentleman, fills out the Korean-built Electromatic Hollow line.

The Electromatic line also includes Pro Jet and Double Jet chambered solidbodies based on Gretsch's venerable Duo Jet line; these are equipped with Gretsch mini-humbuckers unavailable on any other guitar. Final members of the Electromatic line are the Corvette series, thin mahogany solidbodies based on the identically named and same-shaped model of the early sixties – but with the newly designed Mega'Tron double-coil pickups exclusive to the Corvette line. Both G. Love and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy have been honored with signature-series Electromatic Corvettes, the G. Love introduced in January 2008 and Stump's "Stump-o-matic" in January 2009.

Gretsch Silver Jet on eBay

My favorite Gretsch Guitar is The Silver Jet model, with it's sparkling silver paint job and classic solid body look similar to the Gibson Les Paul. With a sweet tone live or in the studio, and killer looks under the stage lights it's definitely a legend in it's own right.

Pick up one on through this lens and a portion of each sale goes to the Charity Guitars For Vets.

Gretsch's Progressive Jazz kit
Gretsch's Progressive Jazz kit


Gretsch Drums were/are also in high demand with drummers playing both jazz and rock. During the 1950s and 1960s, many renowned Jazz drummers, such as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, and even Billy Cobham (during the early 70's in the early Mahavishnu days.) They were all playing the now classic "round badge" kits. Micky Dolenz also used Gretsch drums during the filming of the Monkees TV series. Phil Collins used a Gretsch drum kit for many years while touring with Genesis, also legendary studio and all around drummer Vinnie Colaiuta plays Gretsch. Charlie Watts (the Wembley Whammer) of the Rolling Stones has played Gretsch drums for forty-five years. Brad Wilk from Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine has also used Gretsch Drums. Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters and Steve Ferrone of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers also use Gretsch Drums.


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