Havana Moon: The Rolling Stones’ Historic Journey & Untold Gretsch Connection

September 16th, 2016

By Dinah Gretsch

A record-breaking event of historic magnitude deserves nothing less than a “one night only” film screening at thousands of cinemas around the world. The film Havana Moon was shot during The Rolling Stones’ March 25, 2016 concert in Cuba—which was attended by an astonishing 1.2 million adoring fans. The highly-anticipated September 23 screening will not only allow audiences to enjoy the epic concert but will also include exclusive content only to be seen in the theatre. With this upcoming screening, we reflect on a special connection Gretsch had with the historic journey—and has with the equally historic band. (Gretsch has enjoyed a long association with legendary Stones drummer Charlie Watts.)

In early March we were contacted by a member of The Stones’ staff asking if we “would be interested in helping The Rolling Stones provide products to Cuban musicians.” He went on to say that “These incredible musicians have not had the luxury of decent gear for many years and we would love to change that with your help.”  We jumped at the chance to help.

We carefully looked through our personal family drum collection for just the right instruments to donate for this great cause. We selected a Gretsch USA Custom 16″ x 18″ Satin Maple bass drum and 5″ x 14″ snare (seen in the front of the photo below, which was taken in the Gretsch studio in Pooler, Georgia shortly before shipping). We knew that these special pieces were perfect for this very special musicians-helping-musicians initiative. We got the drums packed and quickly sent down to Florida to make their own historic journey to Cuba. Along with other donations that The Stones organization had received, it was reported to be the first time a shipment of instruments of that size was being sent into Cuba since the blockade.

Fred and I are very passionate when it comes to the mission of the Gretsch family: enriching lives through participation in music. Although we focus a lot of our efforts on young musicians—from providing scholarships, donating instruments, and establishing music education programs for disadvantaged children, to sponsoring a long list of musical and educational events—we also recognize other initiatives such as this one undertaken by The Rolling Stones, where we can help to enrich the lives of others.

We hope these special, hand-picked drums are now helping to keep a uniquely Cuban beat on the stages in clubs and halls in Cuba, and that they will continue to do so for many years to come.

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Enjoy The Rolling Stones – Havana Moon Cinema Trailer:

Chris Siebold: Lessons This Guitar Virtuoso Learned

September 15th, 2016

The versatile, Chicago-based musician reflects on his Elmhurst College days, and how the Gretsch Foundation helped him grow as a student, teacher, and professional musician.

By Ron Denny

Chris Siebold is one of the most versatile musicians working in the business today. Pick a genre–be it rock, jazz, swing, blues, or even bluegrass–and Chris can play it with authority on his guitar or any number of other stringed instruments: mandolin, mandocello, hammer dulcimer, banjo, or even lap steel. Oh, and he can also sing, produce, and is a highly gifted composer and arranger.

The Howard Levy and Chris Siebold Duo. Levy (left) is a legendary harmonica and piano virtuoso.

This versatility, along with his deep knowledge of music, especially Chicago jazz and blues, has kept this working musician very busy the past 20 years. Chris admits he has a lot of outlets for creativity: solo work, leading the group Psycles that he formed in 2010 with some of Chicago’s finest musicians, performing with legendary harmonica master Howard Levy, and playing with The Unknown New, an instrumental folk group or with Lennon’s Tuba, a new two-man guitar and bass duo he just recently formed.

Without a doubt, Chris’s biggest test of his musical chops and versatility has been as a member of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show band the past two years. “It’s been a dream job, playing and traveling with a world-class band and creating music each week that is truly Americana in feel and texture,” Chris said. “That’s the music I absolutely adore. My heroes were Chet Atkins and Les Paul, and Charlie Christian on the jazz side of things. They were just fantastic pickers. And, Willie Nelson. I was also a huge Willie Nelson fan growing up.”

Performing with the House Band for A Prairie Home Companion.

A HOME FILLED OF MUSIC

When asked to describe his home and childhood, Chris summed it up in two words: very musical.

“I owe all of my musical inspiration, identity, and ambition to my parents,” he said. “My mother was a piano player and my dad was a professional drummer at one point. He also played guitar. He was a folkie, but he was also a jazz drummer. I grew up with Buddy Rich and Chick Corea and Santana and the Beatles. Music was always on. Pretty much all the time.”

Thanks to his dad’s vast record collection, Chris admits to rifling through it on a regular basis; sneaking albums up to his bedroom for a closer listen and to read the liner notes. “Yes, I would steal my dad’s records. Chuck Mangione, Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello, Miles Davis, The Modern Jazz Quarter, and many big bands. I’ve had the big band sound in my head for a very long time,” Chris shared. “I think a lot of people rebel against the music their parents listen to, but I was all over it. I just thought it was wonderful.”

MEETING HIS MENTOR

When Chris was a high school senior, his band teacher invited Doug Beach from nearby Elmhurst College in for Career Day. Beach was the Director of the college’s Jazz Studies and its internationally-acclaimed Jazz Band, and was also well known for his work as a composer, arranger, and publisher of educational jazz music.

“I was familiar with Doug’s name. His specialty was writing material for student ensembles and big bands, and I had been playing his charts since the eighth grade,” Chris said. Although Chris had received a scholarship from Berklee College of Music in Boston, he decided to stay in the Chicago area and enrolled at Elmhurst. It was a decision he never regretted.

Chris auditioned for the Jazz Band his first year and made it. The following summer, the band participated in a tour of Europe playing the North Sea Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Umbria Jazz Festival, and more. Chris enthusiastically described his days in the Elmhurst College Jazz Band as a fantastic and amazing learning experience.

Chris in 1995 playing with jazz legend Clark Terry at the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival.

Elmhurst is also famous for their annual Jazz Festival, bringing in the best college bands in the country, along with legendary musicians, for three days of performances and education. “The school brought in these amazing artists to collaborate with the Jazz Band,” Chris said. “I was playing with pretty fantastic players like Clark Terry, Randy Brecker, Conte Candoli, and Pete Christlieb. It was just a remarkable experience. “

One of the many benefits of attending Elmhurst was the close friendship Chris formed with Doug Beach, who became not only his teacher, but a mentor and role model as well. “I learned from the absolute best,” Chris shared. “Doug established such a culture of excellence at Elmhurst and really led by example. He helped me after college, too, with all the connections and relationships he has established over the years. Looking back, I’m so glad Doug spoke at my high school’s Career Day. I’m also glad I wasn’t sick that day.”

THE GRETSCH ELECTRIC GUITAR ENSEMBLE

Chris playing his Gretsch Duo Jet--his main guitar for the past year.

After graduating in the spring of 1998 with a degree in Music Performance, Chris was asked to join Elmhurst’s Music Department, where he taught jazz guitar and led both the guitar ensemble and the school’s jazz combo.  “I was teaching mainly jazz improvisation. Teaching fret board theory and harmony and obviously chord/scale relationships, and learning tunes as well,” Chris said. “I also led the guitar ensemble; finding or writing charts or having the students write charts. I loved the ensemble. We did two recitals a year. I also ran a jazz combo which was a lot of fun too.”

Several years into his teaching career, Chris and one of the college’s Trustees arranged a meeting with Fred Gretsch, President of the Gretsch Company and an Elmhurst College alumni, at Fred’s office in Savannah, Georgia. Chris was eager to meet Fred because he had been a fan of Gretsch guitars since he was nine-years-old. He’d grown up admiring George Harrison, Neil Young, and especially Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats, who were all over MTV when Chris was growing up in the 1980s.

Chris shared that he and Fred really hit if off and the meeting went better than expected. “Fred agreed to fund the existing guitar ensemble,” Chris said. “Not only that, but he donated a guitar to the college and let me hand pick it from his studio guitar collection. I’d much rather Fred had donated it to me, because it’s a beautiful Gretsch Country Gentleman Jr., just a fantastic sounding guitar.”

With the donation, Elmhurst’s guitar ensemble was officially named the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble, which Chris led for the next seven years. “Having the Gretsch name attached to the ensemble really helped to establish it and give it an identity,” Chris said. “The funding also helped publicize our concerts, which were two per semester, and get exposure and recognition. There wasn’t YouTube or social media around in those days.”

LIFE LESSONS LEARNED

In addition to learning what he called the “nuts and bolts” of music theory, Chris said his four years at Elmhurst and being around his mentor, Doug Beach, also prepared him for becoming a working musician. “The discipline of playing music to the best of your ability; playing in an ensemble, being a member of the team in a sense, and then feeling what it’s actually like to be a working musician,” Chris explained. “Doing gigs. Getting there on time. Having a good attitude. Making sure you’re prepared with the material you’re about to play. Making sure you’re professional. Making sure you do your fair share of lugging equipment afterwards. I did that for four years. It was a remarkable experience. One that I am so thankful for.”

Chris also realizes how much he and other music students have benefitted from Fred and Dinah Gretsch’s generosity to Elmhurst College. By leading the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble, Chris knows it made him a better arranger; tackling complex, advanced works ranging from jazz standards to Mozart.  And, Chris admits he also continued learning as he taught students the importance of listening, blending in, and knowing and finding your place within an ensemble of up to six guitars and a rhythm section. Not an easy skill to learn.

The Gretsch Foundation also funded the Sylvia and William Gretsch Memorial Recording Studio, named in memory of Fred’s parents. This state-of-the-art studio is considered a central element of Elmhurst’s music education program and played a critical role in Chris’s education. “When I was a student, I worked in the studio quite a bit for other people and on some of my own music,” Chris said. “And, when I was a teacher, I would sometimes have rehearsals in there or I would sit in and produce some sessions that students would do. I used it a lot. And, learned a lot about the art of recording.”

Chris is just one of hundreds of Elmhurst College alumni to be positively impacted by Fred and Dinah Gretsch’s goal of supporting music education and enriching lives through participation in music. When asked to reflect back on his years at Elmhurst, Chris said, “My Elmhurst College days, both as a student and a teacher for nine years, were quite an experience. It’s very much responsible for me being where I’m at today. It’s who I am. A lot of the culture that I participated in has really made me the musician that I am. Without a question.”

About The Gretsch Foundation and Elmhurst College

The Gretsch Foundation is the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, whose mission is enriching lives through participation in music. In addition to funding the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble and Sylvia and William Gretsch Memorial Recording Studio, the Gretsch Foundation also funds scholarships for students of music and music business, provides Gretsch drums for all music department ensembles, and is a major supporter of the annual Elmhurst College High School Invitational Jazz Festival, which is a regular part of the nationally-acclaimed Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. In honor of his longtime commitment and generosity to his alma mater, Fred Gretsch received an honorary Doctor of Music degree at the school’s Spring 2016 Commencement Ceremony.

Video Clips:

Chris performing his beautiful song “Amor Afastado (for Britt)” on A Prairie Home Companion.

Playing with The Renegades, a popular, entertaining Chicago-area jazz-fusion band. Give a listen to Chris’s blistering solo starting at 2:12.

Chris performing “Friday Night at the Cadillac Club” with Chicago’s David Polk Project, a blues, jazz and funk band. Check out Chris’s impressive solo starting at 3:25.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

August 24th, 2016

Matt Sorum: The Quintessential Rocker

by Fred Gretsch

Look in the dictionary under “rock drummer” and you’re likely to see a picture of Matt Sorum. With a long and stellar career playing with a “who’s who” of bands and artists, Matt literally defines the genre.

Born in Orange County, California in 1960, Matt gravitated to the drums early. By the age of fourteen he was playing with his own band at The Whisky-A-Go-Go and Crazy Horse West in Los Angeles, alongside the likes of Van Halen and Devo. He went on to develop his skills, supporting artists like Belinda Carlisle (of the Go-Gos), Shaun Cassidy, and Solomon Burke. This earned him a reputation as a first-call drummer for virtually any gig…which, in turn, brought him in contact with singer/songwriter Tori Amos. Matt and Tori formed a synthpop group humorously dubbed Y Kant Tori Read. Two years later the group signed with Atlantic records. Tori went solo shortly thereafter, but the effort brought Matt into the world of recording…and he hasn’t looked back since.

In 1989 Matt joined The Cult to tour in support of their fourth studio album, Sonic Temple. On the final show of that tour, Matt was spotted by Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan. He was invited to join GN’R in 1990, forming what subsequently became one of the most powerful and enduring rhythm sections in rock.

Matt’s tenure with GN’R lasted seven years, during which he recorded the massively successful albums Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) and The Spaghetti Incident? (1993). He also was part of two side projects: Slash’s Snakepit and Neurotic Outsiders. (Matt’s work with Guns N’ Roses earned him induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012.)

In 2001, Matt rejoined The Cult to perform on their reunion album, Beyond Good and Evil (2001) and on the tour that followed. Then in 2002 he re-united with Slash and Duff in the hard rock Grammy Award-winning supergroup Velvet Revolver (which also included guitarist Dave Kushner and former Stone Temple Pilots vocalist Scott Weiland.) The band released two successful studio albums: Contraband (2004) and Libertad (2007) and became a sensation at music festivals around the world.

Even with all the craziness of touring with Velvet Revolver, Matt found the time to record his first solo record, Hollywood Zen—which featured him singing lead as well as playing guitar and drums. On the live drumming front, he joined what critics dubbed “LA’s coolest cover band”: Camp Freddy, with Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro. That band’s shows became famous for guest appearances including Ozzy Osbourne, Corey Taylor of Slipknot, Juliette Lewis, and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park.

Matt enjoyed the “band with guests” format so much that in 2012 he founded a project initially dubbed the Rock N Roll All-Stars, but ultimately named Kings of Chaos. The group’s core lineup includes Matt’s former GN’R bandmates Duff McKagan on bass and Gilby Clarke on guitar, then features a revolving lineup of members of Def Leppard, Deep Purple, Aerosmith, Extreme, ZZ Top, and more. Since 2012 the band has played shows in Australia, South Africa, and Central America as well as the US.

Most recently Matt has been touring as part of the Hollywood Vampires—yet another supergroup, this time featuring Alice Cooper (vocals), Joe Perry (of Aerosmith; lead guitar), Tommy Henricksen and Johnny Depp (rhythm guitar/vocals), Robert DeLeo (of Stone Temple Pilots; bass), and Bruce Witkin (keyboards/vocals).

In addition to all of his musical endeavors, Matt is an active supporter of animal-rights causes, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), AnimalsAsia, and The Dolphin Project. In a recent YouTube post Matt said, “My main stance is against [animal] abuse and wildlife in captivity. I care for all animals, but I focus on things I can bring attention to and hopefully help solve some of the issues. I can’t preach my particular beliefs, but what I can do is stand [against] certain situations that are blatantly barbaric practices, like circuses, whale and dolphin entertainment, and poaching.”

Matt is also a co-founder of Adopt the Arts whose mission is to bring together well-known artists, public figures, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and the general public to save the arts in America’s public schools.

Matt is a relatively new member of the Gretsch roster of drum artists. But considering his talent, his impressive musical credits, and his involvement in so many worthy social causes, we’re proud to welcome him into the family!

Video Clips

Matt’s trademark hard-rock groove is displayed on the Rolling Stones classic “Brown Sugar,” performed with the Hollywood Vampires at the Rock In Rio festival in 2015.

Playing with Velvet Revolver at a huge outdoor music festival in Germany in 2007.

Matt shows a slightly different side of his playing—but still with his trademark rock drive—playing in the studio with the Buddy Rich Big Band for the Burnin’ For Buddy album. The song is “Beulah Witch.”

Matt discusses his drumkit setups over the years.

Stay connected with Matt via his various social media channels:

Website

Twitter

Instagram

Facebook

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The Gretsch Drumkit That Made Olympic History

August 8th, 2016

By Fred Gretsch

As the world focuses on the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, I’d like to share a story that took place the last time that the Summer Olympics were located in the Americas. North America, in fact, exactly twenty years ago.

It was 1996, and the games were being held in Atlanta, Georgia. As always, the athletes of the world had assembled to compete in dozens of events. Also as always, thousands of people had come to view those competitions. And in the evenings, after the competitions had concluded, those thousands of people were enjoying concerts in Centennial Olympic Park, which served as the “town square” for the Olympics.

On the evening of July 27 there was a midnight concert scheduled, featuring Jack Mack & The Heart Attack. This high-energy R&B band was anchored by long-time Gretsch drummer Alvino Bennett. Prior to coming down to Atlanta for the show, Alvino called the Gretsch office to say that the band wasn’t carrying a drumkit for their tour, and to ask if Gretsch might be able to loan him one for the Atlanta show. My wife Dinah and I had a great relationship with Alvino, and as it happened it was Dinah that he spoke with when he called.

Dinah was eager to help Alvino, and she also realized that having a Gretsch kit seen and heard at the Olympics would be a pretty historic situation. So she decided to loan Alvino an already historic set of drums: the iconic yellow kit played by drumming legend Tony Williams during the latter part of his career. When Alvino called, that kit was proudly on display in the Gretsch museum at the company’s headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.

Tony Williams' iconic yellow Gretsch drums are on display at Gretsch Company headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.

As most drummers know, Tony Williams was arguably the single most influential drummer of the 20th century. Initially identified as a “jazz” drummer—mainly because he arrived on the scene as a member of Miles Davis’s legendary 1960s quintet—Tony quickly demonstrated that he was not to be pigeonholed within any style. His playing encompassed elements of jazz, rock, R&B, and Latin music. He combined these with formidable technique and unbridled passion to create dynamic performances that electrified audiences around the world—and sent millions of drummers racing to their practice rooms. Many of today’s greatest drum figures cite Tony Williams as their most important influence.

Fred Gretsch and Alvino Bennett in 2012.

“I was so honored,” says Alvino today. “The Gretsches didn’t have to loan me that particular kit; they could have given me any drumkit. But they gave me Tony Williams’ drums—that yellow drumkit that was so identified with Tony himself.”

So there was Alvino Bennett, playing with Jack Mack & The Heart Attack at the 1996 Summer Olympics, sitting behind a historic drumkit that had been previously owned and used by an even more historic drummer. But the history doesn’t stop there.

Many people might remember the significance of the date—July 27, 1996—but for those who don’t, Alvino picks up the story, saying:  “We were on stage, and I was playing Tony’s drumkit, which was a big thrill for me. We’d only played two or three songs when we realized that something had happened out in the park. I was sitting directly under the Jumbotron that showed everything that was going on. It was moving. We saw the audience running in all directions. We thought one of the big power amplifiers for the sound system had gone out. We were sitting there wondering what was happening when all these authorities came up to us yelling, ‘Get off the stage. A bomb has gone off!’”

Hearing those terrible words would likely send anyone running to seek safety. But Alvino Bennett isn’t just anyone. He’s a drummer. He continues the story, saying, “There I was, thinking, ‘This is the kit that Tony Williams played; they’re his drums. And I’m responsible for them.’ So I started trying to take the drums down and get them someplace safe. Then a security person walked up and said, ‘Get your ass off stage.’ I told him, ‘I’ve gotta get my drums off first. These are really historic drums.’ I was trying to explain the situation to him. And finally he said, ‘Listen partner . . . These drums, or your life? You think about it for a few seconds.’”

Alvino laughs, and then says, “I actually did think about it. I thought, ‘If anything happens to these drums I’m going to feel really bad. All of us in the musical world love Tony Williams, and I’ve got his drums!’ But the security guy insisted, so I had to go. In fact, we had to leave everything on stage, because the investigators had to do their sweep of the whole Centennial Park area. We went back to the hotel, and it was surrounded by TV trucks, as well as ATF, FBI, and other agencies. We gave interviews that were broadcast from the Atlanta stations all over the country. And all the time I was still thinking, ‘God I hope those drums are gonna be okay.’”

Fortunately the drums were okay, and after all the investigations were concluded they were returned to Gretsch headquarters. They’re still displayed there today, representing a combination of musical, sports, and political history unrivaled by any other drumkit ever made.

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Young Thumbs Keep Chet Atkins’ Music and Legacy Alive

August 1st, 2016

By Fred W. Gretsch

There was a noticeable and refreshing youth movement at this year’s 32nd annual CAAS (Chet Atkins Appreciation Society) Convention held July 13-16 in Nashville. According to John Knowles CGP, there was one young performer at last year’s event, but this year’s lineup expanded to more than eight young performers on stage – some not even old enough to drive.

Many of these young men and women, who came from all over the U.S. – as well as Denmark, New Zealand, and Japan – visited the Gretsch Room to plug in and play a Gretsch Chet Atkins model guitar. Not only was I impressed with their mastery of Chet’s fingerstyle playing technique, I was also impressed by their deep knowledge of Chet Atkins’ music and legacy. Many of them even include Chet quotes on their business cards and websites.

Parker Hastings

One Young Thumb who caught my eye and ear was Parker Hastings from Richmond, Kentucky. Parker, who turned 16 during the CAAS event, has won not one, but two Gretsch guitars through the International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Competition, which is held each year in Powderly, Kentucky. In 2014, he was the youngest person to be crowned Grand Champion, winning both traditional and contemporary categories, and won a Chet Atkins 6120 electric guitar. Parker was also inducted into the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame in 2014 by winning their “Horizon Award” and recently received their “Thumbpicker of the Year” Award in 2015. He has played at numerous Chet Atkins Tributes and recently performed a fingerstyle guitar demonstration with John Knowles at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that explored the acoustic and electric guitar styles of Chet Atkins. (Read a special Gretsch interview conducted with Parker during the CAAS event. I know you’ll be impressed with this rising young guitar star.)

Katelyn Prieboy

Another Young Thumb, 19-year-old Katelyn Prieboy, performed for the first time at CAAS and delivered an impressive “Chet Set” on her Gretsch 6120. The Belmont University student was inspired to play the guitar by Taylor Swift and Brad Paisley. Paisley led her to discover Garth Brooks, whose duets with Steve Wariner opened her eyes to Steve’s music and, according to Katelyn, used Google and YouTube to discover this guy named Chet that Steve Wariner was always talking about. Once Katelyn found her way to Chet Atkins, she was hooked. She got her first thumbpick and a Gretsch guitar, because she says that’s the way to get Chet’s tone, and has been working the past four to five years to learn Chet’s technique and style.

So, why the increase of young guitar players performing at CAAS this year? You can start with two of Chet’s CGP award recipients: John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel. In an effort to fill the CAAS pipeline with young, teenage pickers and introduce them to the music of Chet Atkins, they formed the Young Thumbs group. Through a dedicated Facebook page, social media, and events like CAAS, these young musicians can meet and connect with other young guitarists. It was cool seeing these Young Thumbs socializing, jamming, and exchanging guitar licks and tips in the hotel lobby over the four-day event. Chet would’ve loved seeing that.

Kirby Easler

In addition to talented teenagers, there were plenty of young “twenty-something” performers that impressed me as well, including Kirby Easler, Brooks Robertson, Dan Bankhurst, and my and Dinah’s friend, Joe Robinson, who showed up with his Gretsch Country Gentleman and wowed the audience with a terrific 45-minute set. While in Nashville, Joe also participated in the Gretsch Sounds/Guitar Pull performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Joe was onstage with Tommy Emmanuel (playing Chet’s famous “Dark Eyes” prototype Gretsch guitar), fingerstyle legend Eddie Pennington, and Striking Matches, the impressive guitar duo of Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman. The artists performed a superb mix of Chet songs, thumbpicking classics, and fresh, original songs. It was a classy way to bring the “American Sound and Beauty: Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection” exhibit to a close.

Joe Robinson

All told, it was a great week in Nashville for fans of Chet Atkins and Gretsch guitars. I believe Chet would be pleased that his music and fingerpicking style of guitar is being passed down to so many young, talented players today. He would also be happy that many of his friends – especially John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel – are investing so much of their time to mentor, guide, and help these young artists succeed. After all, Chet did the same for John and Tommy years ago. They obviously learned from the best and are now “paying it forward” to the next generation of guitar players. That’s how Chet would want it.

Evan Twitty

Tanner Duckworth

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Six Degrees of Separation–Gretsch Style!

July 17th, 2016

Question: What does a nearly century-old guitar have to do with a college in the Chicago area, a country music artist from New York, and a classic building in Williamsburg?

Answer: More than you might think.

In a classic example of “six degrees of separation,” a Rex brand “parlour guitar” made in the early 1900s was recently purchased at an estate sale. Parlour guitars” were affordable models designed for personal use in the days when families played music at home for recreational purposes.

Rex Parlour Guitar

Rex Guitar Headstock

Rex guitars were originally made in the Gretsch Musical Instruments factory at 60 Broadway, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and distributed by the Gretsch Company from the early 1900s through the late 1930s.  The Gretsch Company was a fixture in Brooklyn from 1883 until it was sold in 1967. Though the factory is no longer there, the Gretsch building still is. Currently housing some pretty upscale condos, the building is celebrating its centennial this year.

Gretsch Catalog Page From Early 1900s Catalog

Gretsch Factory Building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn

The buyer of this Rex parlour guitar was Mark Vincent Sica, who is the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist in the New York City-based country music band Nashville Attitude. In 2015 Nashville Attitude performed at the Street Sounds guitar store in Brooklyn, at the store’s annual Gretsch Day event. (Street Sounds, owned by Rocky Schiano, is America’s largest retailer of Gretsch guitars, and Mark Vincent Sica is a Gretsch guitar artist.) That particular year’s Gretsch Day had a special theme: celebrating Fred Gretsch’s 50th year in the musical instrument business. Fred is the fourth-generation president of the Gretsch Company, which was founded in Brooklyn in 1883.

Nashville Attitude's Mark Vincent Sica

Fred Gretsch & Rocky Schiano in 2015

Fred Gretsch is a 1971 graduate of Elmhurst College, which is located in the suburbs of Chicago. This past May he was presented with an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the college in recognition of his and his family’s long-time generous support of Elmhurst’s music and music business programs, as well as the annual high-school band competition portion of the Elmhurst Jazz Festival.

Fred Gretsch Elmhurst Commencement 2016

But Fred Gretsch isn’t the only Elmhurst alum to feature in this little story. A gentleman by the name of Edward Paetzold graduated from the college in 1918, some ninety-eight years ago. (Possibly around the same time that Mark Vincent Sica’s guitar was made in the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn.)

Edward Paetzold 1918

Elmhurst Commencement 1918

Edward Paetzold is the grandfather of a lovely lady named Lynne Riordan—who happens to be married to a New York-based vocalist and guitarist by the name of…wait for it…Mark Vincent Sica.

And this entire story came to light this past June 4, when Mark and Lynne attended the 2016 Gretsch Day at Street Sounds in Brooklyn, and related the tale to Fred Gretsch himself.

You can’t make this stuff up!

Gretsch Day at StreetSounds 2016

Fred Gretsch at StreetSounds Event

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Chet Atkins’ Little Black Book (of Songs)

June 27th, 2016

By Fred W. Gretsch

From the outside, it looks like an everyday, ordinary pocket-sized memo book. The kind you can still buy at any office supply store. Its black leather cover is worn around the edges and it’s scuffed from years of being put in coat pockets, briefcases, suitcases – and even guitar cases. Just like the man who bought it, the book’s cover is understated and unassuming. But once opened, you’re given a fascinating glimpse into the musical journey of the book’s original owner: Chet Atkins.

Chet bought this memo book in 1950 when he played with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters act on KWTO, a radio station in Springfield, Missouri. You see “Chester A. Atkins, Feb. 12, 1950, Springfield” written in pencil on the first page. Chet started out using this book to select songs for the daily morning radio show, and the many public appearances Chet and the Carter family made across Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

When Chet first created his list, the songs were typed on loose-leaf paper and organized in alphabetical order. Many included the songwriter and if it was licensed through BMI or ASCAP. As new songs were added, Chet wrote them down by hand with whatever ink pen or pencil he had on him at the time. Some of the songs were written neatly, others hurriedly, and some included the key they were played in. It’s also heartwarming to see several scribbled pencil drawings throughout the book made by Chet’s young daughter, Merle.

“Caravan” and “Country Gentleman” were two popular songs Chet added; young daughter, Merle, made the pencil drawing. Photo by Ron Denny.

In addition to being a master guitarist, Chet was famous for the vast number of songs and song styles he could play. There are 475 songs listed in this book alone. 475! And they include a wide range of genres: classical, blues, country, ragtime, bluegrass, pop, and even Spanish-influenced. It’s mind blowing.

It’s also a treat seeing songs listed that played a part in launching the successful Gretsch – Chet Atkins guitar endorsement in the mid-1950s. “Mr. Sandman” and “Silver Bell,” two instrumental hit singles from 1955, were hand-written in the book along with “Country Gentleman,” a signature song that became both Chet’s nickname and the name of his top-of-the-line Gretsch guitar model introduced in 1958.

You also recognize dozens of songs in the book that made their way onto Chet’s RCA Victor albums of the 1950s and early 1960s. These songs would have been recorded on a variety of Gretsch Chet Atkins Model guitars built at our Brooklyn factory: 6120s, prototype 6120s custom-built for Chet, and, of course, his iconic 1959 Country Gentleman, considered the most recorded guitar in music history.

Chet liked surprising his friends with little gifts and tokens of appreciation, and no one was more surprised than his longtime bandleader and confidant, Paul Yandell, at the 1996 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. After awarding John Knowles with a CGP (Certified Guitar Player) Award, Chet pulled the black book out of a hat, which had been placed on a stool onstage, and presented it to an unsuspecting Paul.

Paul’s wife, Marie, and son, Micah, have been friends of mine for years, and shared that Paul had no knowledge of the song book until Chet gave it to him and told him the story behind it. When Paul got home that night, he sat down and looked through the book page-by-page, astonished at all the songs Chet had played through the years.

Marie also shared that the book was a sentimental treasure to Paul, and felt Chet gave it to her husband in appreciation of the deep friendship the two guitarists had formed from playing together for more than 20 years. Micah added that it represented the bond, respect, and love his father and Chet had for each other. They were as close as two brothers, and his father always looked up to Chet and considered him a father figure.

Chet Atkins and Paul Yandell performing together in 1979.

The book is an interesting diary of the most important decade in Chet Atkins’ musical career. In the summer of 1950, just a few months after creating his song book, Chet was lured to Nashville and never looked back. In the 10 years that followed, Chet established himself as a successful recording artist, producer, and record executive; created the sophisticated “Nashville Sound;” and had his name on a popular line of Gretsch guitars. He also earned the nickname of “Mr. Guitar.”

Chet influenced and inspired thousands of young guitarists. In fact one of the songs Chet typed in the book, “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Guitar,” was heard on the radio one night by a young guitarist in Kentucky. Chet’s song changed the teenager’s life, and he became obsessed with Chet’s trademark fingerpicking style and bought as many Chet Atkins records as he could afford. The name of that Kentucky teenager was Paul Yandell.

How fitting that 40 years later, Chet would entrust Paul with his old song book which included not only “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Guitar,” but dozens of other songs Chet and Paul had performed together for decades. What a gesture of friendship and love to the man Chet described as not only a great guitar player, but also someone who knew everything Chet had done and could do it better. Classic Chet.

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Darrel Higham: Rockabilly Brit

June 14th, 2016

Darrel Higham.

The recent Gretsch Day at Street Sounds in Brooklyn was made particularly special by the headlining appearance of rockabilly guitarist and singer Darrel Higham. While all of the other acts on the day’s roster were based in the New York City area, Darrel came all the way from the UK to entertain the crowd. So how did a native of Bedford, England get involved in a decidedly American style of music like rockabilly?

“It goes back to when I was a child in the mid-’70s,” Darrel replies, “flipping through my mom and dad’s record collection.  I discovered an album called Singing To My Baby by a singer and guitarist named Eddie Cochran.  It was the only album released during his lifetime. The front cover had two head shots of Eddie, and between them a picture of him holding this beautiful orange guitar—a Gretsch 6120. I fell in love with the guitar. From that moment onwards I grew up wanting to be Eddie Cochran. And thirty-six years later I still have the same feeling.”

Darrel had the look, the feel, and—most importantly—the authentic rockabilly sound. He credited a large part of that authenticity to the great sound of his Gretsch guitars.

Rockabilly was a pioneering style of the 1950s that influenced every genre of rock that came after. But it’s not exactly at the forefront of popular music today in terms of current recordings and radio airplay. Where does Darrel perform, and how much opportunity does he have to be a torchbearer for the style?

“I’ve been playing since I was about fourteen years old,” says Darrel.  “I’ve always been able to keep my head above water by playing professionally, which I consider a blessing. I’ve toured the world, and I’ve met some fantastic people through being a musician—and through my love of Eddie Cochran and rockabilly and Gretsch guitars.

“Rockabilly is a form of music that—once it left the southern states of America and spread around the world—had a profound effect on young musicians wherever they heard it. Of course those musicians then had their own interpretations of it. So now there are different styles of rockabilly depending on what countries they’re emanating from. There’s British rockabilly, Japanese rockabilly…German…French, and so on. Everyone plays it the way they hear it.

“The fact is,” Darrel continues, “rockabilly has morphed into something bigger over the years. It’s like any form of music: It goes through phases. Sometimes it modernizes, and then it harks back to its roots and perhaps regresses. Rockabilly is, essentially, a retro music. But when contemporary musicians experiment with it, it can be very progressive. We have guitar players like Brian Setzer, Reverend Horton Heat, and Paul Pigat—who can do such wonderful things with the music. Players from other genres will hear someone like Brian or Paul and think, ‘My goodness, rockabilly is to be taken seriously.’”

How did Darrel connect with the Gretsch company as an artist endorser?

Fred Gretsch was pleased to have UK rockabilly star Darrel Higham headlining Gretsch Day 2016.

“I bought my first Gretsch guitar in 1989, when I was nineteen years old,” Darrel explains. “I played that on everything I did until it got stolen in the late ’90s. I went through a brief period of not using Gretsch guitars, and then I went back to them—and it just felt like I was home again.

“Starting in 2008 I was working with my wife, Imelda May. We were doing a lot of TV and radio appearances. I was using Gretsch guitars exclusively, and I just felt that with what we were doing I might be able to contribute in some way to the brand. So I wrote to [Gretsch Guitars national sales manager] Joe Carducci. He put me in touch with the Gretsch people in London, and it went from there. I’d already bought a Black Falcon, and I had a 6120 Custom Shop model. So I basically had the guitars I needed, and I was using them on everything I was doing.”

Darrel concludes by saying, “Playing a guitar and being a musician is no different from being an athlete. It’s all about confidence. If you have confidence in the instrument that you’re playing and you feel that you can play to the best of your ability with that instrument…that’s half the battle. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re walking onto; doesn’t matter how many people you’re playing for…ten, twenty, two hundred, two thousand, ten thousand. And I’ve played in front of all of those numbers in my career. As long as I’ve got my 6120 with me, I feel like I can get away with it. I’m armed and dangerous.”

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