Archive for the ‘Gretsch News’ Category

Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Mark Guiliana: A Jazzer For Today

By Fred Gretsch

I want to start this article about Gretsch drum artist Mark Guiliana with a quote from a review of his 2013 recording, A Form of Truth, taken from Relix magazine: “There are musicians that the general public recognizes for their greatness, and then there are the musicians that other musicians stand in awe of. Drummer Mark Guiliana falls squarely into the second category.”

What places Mark at the forefront of today’s jazz drummers is the fact that he combines a genuine respect and reverence for the artistry of historic icons like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach with a totally fresh and contemporary approach all his own. Blending impressive technical skills on acoustic drums with electronic sounds and processing, Mark can—and does—cover all musical contingencies.

In addition to playing in his own quartet, in his band Beat Music, and in an electronic duo dubbed Mehliana (with keyboardist Brad Mehldau), Mark is a first-call drummer for artists as varied as Avishai Cohen, MeShell N’degeocello, Matisyahu, Gretchen Parlato, and the group Now Vs. Now. In 2014 Mark had the opportunity to play on the late David Bowie’s final album: Blackstar (released on January 8 of this year).

Noted for his ever-changing musical personas, Bowie’s last turn took him into acoustic jazz—albeit with a dark and moody tone—and he wanted a rhythm section that could support his concept. So he called on Mark, with the able assistance of bassist Tim Lefebvre.

Reviews of the album have repeatedly mentioned the contributions made by Mark and Tim, as with this one from Billboard magazine: “Blackstar is unmistakably a band record, showcasing a talented group of musicians who are comfortable navigating the songs’ harmonically twisty byways. Special credit goes to bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who lock into Bowie’s grooves, tilting the music in the direction of spooky funk.”

The Wall Street Journal added: “Mr. Guiliana’s staccato drumming pieces the band’s moody wash of sound under Mr. Bowie’s voice as he sings an ominous tale. With Blackstar the delicious conceit of David Bowie conspiring with modern jazz artists is fulfilled beautifully.”

In 2015 Mark “returned to his roots,” recording an acoustic-jazz album called Family First with his quartet. Commenting on that album, Rhythm magazine said: “Mark is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new jazzers out there, and after his more electronic-style recordings of previous years, in 2015 he embraced the classic quartet format for some truly brilliant small-group jazz playing.” The magazine went on to name Mark as one of the top jazz drummers of the year.

In addition to his performing skills, Mark is a dedicated educator, eager to share his distinctive musical concepts with other drummers. He conducts frequent workshops in the New York City area, as well as clinics in various locations around the country. He can also be contacted for private lessons through his Web site, MarkGuiliana.com.

On July 30 of 2014 I had a unique opportunity to take a step back into Gretsch Company history. I walked the streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, visiting several sites that mark the evolution of the Gretsch company from its inception in 1883 through 1969, some seven decades later.  I had the pleasure of being joined by more than twenty drummers who are fans of Gretsch drums and their history. I’m happy to say that Mark Guiliana was among that group. Following the tour, Mark had these kind words to say:

“I guess by most accounts I’m a jazz drummer, so my heroes are Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey—a long list of guys who made their names on Gretsch drums. It was cool to tie the research that I’ve done on those drummers to the history that Fred Gretsch was providing—oftentimes from his own first-person experience. I specifically remember Fred talking about one of the first buildings we saw—on South Fifth Street. He pointed to a window on the second floor and said that it was where they did some of the drum wraps back in the early 1960s. It was nice to imagine how, as he described, great drummers would come in all the time—some to get new drums, some to just bounce ideas off each other. That was really cool.”

I’ll conclude this piece in the same manner as I began it: with a quote, this time from Modern Drummer magazine’s November 2014 cover story on Mark. In it, they refer to him as “the guy to watch if you want to know where the great art of drumming is right now—and where it could be headed.”

YouTube Clips

Here is Mark performing during his clinic at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, held this past November in San Antonio, Texas.

In this clip Mark walks us through some tips and tricks for emulating drum samples with an acoustic kit and few toys.

Here is Mark with Beat Music, at New York City’s Zinc Bar in 2014.

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Seventy-five Vintage Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection Sparkle and Shine at Nashville Museum Exhibit

Monday, January 18th, 2016

A historical collection of vintage, rare, and one-of-a-kind Gretsch guitars is now on display at The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. The new exhibit, American Sound and Beauty: Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection, features 75 of the more than 300 Gretsch guitars amassed by Canadian musician Randy Bachman of The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive fame. It is the largest collection of guitars ever displayed at the Museum and marks the first time the public has seen a part of Bachman’s extensive Gretsch collection, considered the largest in the world. The Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, purchased the collection in 2008.

Several rare and one-of-a-kind vintage Gretsch guitars from the 1960s on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Photo by Ron Denny/The Gretsch Company.

Fred Gretsch, fourth generation Gretsch Company president, and wife Dinah, CFO and executive vice president, were joined by family, friends, and legendary musicians at a special preview and reception hosted by the Museum on Thursday night, January 14.

Gretsch President Fred Gretsch sharing remarks about the Bachman-Gretsch Collection. Ben Hall, Major Gifts Manager at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, holds the Gretsch Company’s 130th Anniversary history poster. Photo by Ron Denny/The Gretsch Company.

Gretsch shared that he never imagined a phone call made to Randy Bachman more than 30 years ago asking for his help would lead to this special exhibit. After buying back the family business from the Baldwin Company in 1984, Gretsch needed vintage Gretsch guitars to use as prototypes. “Randy was kind enough to share several of his guitars from his collection,” said Gretsch. “We are forever grateful for his assistance in helping launch that first generation of new Gretsch guitars.”

Gretsch also thinks “American Sound and Beauty” is an appropriate name for the exhibit. “The guitars on display are as American as it gets,” said Gretsch. “Most were built in Brooklyn, New York at The Gretsch Building, a building my grandfather Fred Gretsch Sr. constructed and opened 100 years ago in 1916.”

“These guitars also contributed their unique sound to the evolution of popular American music, including jazz, country, and of course, rock ‘n’ roll,” continued Gretsch, “Plus, Gretsch ushered in a new era of colorful and sparkly guitar finishes in the 1950s. The guitars on display are just beautiful and look like true works of art in the Museum.”

Gretsch closed his remarks at the reception by honoring Chet Atkins, the most important endorser of Gretsch electric guitars, and the musician that influenced a long list of artists including Duane Eddy, Paul Yandell, George Harrison, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Brian Setzer, Steve Wariner, Joe Robinson, Tommy Emmanuel, and Randy Bachman. (Fred Gretsch’s remarks in their entirety can be seen below.)

Steve Wariner Performs at Exhibit Opening Reception.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy followed Gretsch on the program and shared the important role Gretsch guitars had in developing his legendary “twangy” sound. Eddy bought his first Gretsch Chet Atkins Model 6120 in 1957, and Gretsch offers a current Duane Eddy Signature Model almost 60 years later. Country Music singer, songwriter, and guitarist Steve Wariner closed the program with a tasteful instrument tribute to his late friend and mentor, Chet Atkins.

During the exhibit’s opening weekend on Friday, January 15, and Saturday, January 16, Gretsch guitar expert and author Edward Ball conducted Gallery Talkback sessions entitled “The Gretsch Legacy” in the Museum’s Taylor Swift Education Center.  A variety of special programs will be scheduled throughout the length of the exhibit.

American Sound and Beauty: Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection will be on display through July 10, 2016. For more information about the exhibit, visit countrymusichalloffame.org. To learn more about Gretsch guitars, visit gretschguitars.com.

Fred Gretsch’s Reception Remarks:

On behalf of five generations of the Gretsch Family, it is my honor to welcome you as we celebrate the opening of the Exhibition titled:  American Sound and Beauty, Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection.  Thank you for joining us this evening.

We never imagined a phone call made to Randy Bachman 30 years ago asking for his help would lead to this special exhibit. After buying back the family business from Baldwin in the mid-80s, we had to literally start from scratch in developing the new line of Gretsch guitars. We had heard of Randy’s vast collection and asked him if we could borrow several of his vintage Gretsch’s so we could measure them, spec them, and use them to build prototypes as close to the original formula as possible. Randy was kind enough to say “Yes” and we are forever grateful for his assistance in helping launch that first generation of new Gretsch guitars.

We think “American Sound and Beauty” is an appropriate name for this exhibit. The guitars displayed here are as AMERICAN as it gets.  They were built in Brooklyn, New York, on the seventh floor of The Gretsch Building. A building my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr., constructed & opened 100 years ago in 1916 and it still stands today. (But instead of making guitars and drums that look like a million bucks, The Gretsch Building now is condos you can buy for a million bucks…)

And SOUND. These vintage guitars on display – as well as new Gretsch guitars that were shipped out today – have a special SOUND that is “Uniquely Gretsch”. It’s part of the recipe we want to preserve so “That Great Gretsch Sound” will continue for future generations to discover and enjoy.

And BEAUTY. Gretsch guitars have a long reputation for their cool, colorful looks. We were pioneers in the 1950s that added new palettes of colors and two-tones and sparkle to the guitar world that had long been dominated by natural and sunburst finishes. One of my memories of working at The Gretsch Building were seeing all the racks of finished, gleaming, and beautiful Gretsch guitars. They were handsome indeed.

It’s also ironic that 75 Gretsch guitars out of a collection of more than 300 instruments were selected to be on display for this exhibit. When I joined the Gretsch Company full-time in 1965, it was at the height of the guitar boom (thanks to Chet Atkins, George Harrison, and The Beatles), and we were scrambling to build and ship out our new goal of 75 guitars a day.

We are here tonight because of exceptional people – giants in my mind – that were and are exceptional influencers. My great-grandfather, Friedrich Gretsch, my grandfather, Fred Gretsch, Sr., my father, Bill Gretsch, my uncle, Fred Gretsch, Jr., Jimmie Webster, Duke Kramer, Phil Grant, and Dinah Gretsch; exceptional leaders all on behalf of the Gretsch business just to name a few.

Equally as tall are our artist partnerships that started with Billy Gladstone back in the 1930s. We think you will agree the most important partnership – and the one that put Gretsch guitars on the map – was our endorsement with Chet Atkins. A partnership that endures 60+ years later.

The 130 year Gretsch history poster I have here lets me use pictures to say a thousand words. The left half of the poster from your perspective is popular music from the 1880s until Rock and Roll was born. Think even before radio when the player piano and the phonograph were the high tech products of their day.  The Gretsch business in that era was primarily all about supplying instruments for music education, marching bands, and making banjos and parlor guitars.

Chet Atkins stands out right in the middle of this poster. He ushers in a new era of popular music at the forefront of Rock and Roll when the electric guitar was now becoming the star, both in the recording studio and on stage. His partnership with the Gretsch family was to influence a long list of artists including Duane Eddy, Paul Yandell, George Harrison, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Brian Setzer, Steve Wariner, Joe Robinson, a six-year-old boy in Australia named Tommy Emmanuel, a teenager in Canada named Randy Bachman, and thousands more.

In closing, it all comes full circle now in our celebration here this evening.  We are reminded how important it is for us to welcome and encourage new generations of musicians & their music to keep the circle unbroken.  How important it is to be a positive influence to others, and how important it is to support music education – something that is very near and dear to Dinah and me, and is the primary mission of the Gretsch Foundation, who incidentally has owned the Bachman-Gretsch Collection since 2008.

And speaking of music education, I would be remiss by not recognizing Andy Mooney, the new CEO of Fender Musical Instruments who is here with us this evening.  He is our partner in the worldwide marketing and distribution of Gretsch guitars. Andy not only leads the number one guitar company in the world, but has initiated a new digital products division dedicated to making it easier and more fun to play the guitar, to help players connect with other players, and to help beginners who pick up a guitar get through the crucial first 12 months of the learning cycle to make a lifelong commitment to enjoying the guitar. Thank you, Andy.

On behalf of Dinah and me, we would like to congratulate our partners, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, for their world-class presentation of this historic exhibit.  Special thanks also go out to Carolyn Tate, Kyle Young, Steve Turner, Mick Buck, and John Reed.  And just as important, we salute their work on behalf of musicians of all ages showcased in their distance learning programs and in the work of the Taylor Swift Educational Center.

Thanks again for joining us this evening.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Cindy Blackman-Santana: A Woman For All Seasons

by Fred Gretsch

A gifted writer named Nicole Williams Sitaraman said of Cindy Blackman-Santana: “Hearing Cindy play the drums is like a rapturous percussive tornado of sound. You just get swept away.”

That’s about the most succinct—and accurate—description of Cindy’s talent and versatility that I’ve ever heard. From the highest level of jazz improvisation to the most down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll grooves, Cindy plays it all—and does so with a unique cross-pollination of styles. That is to say, her jazz playing rocks, and her rock playing swings. It’s a musical marriage made in heaven.

And speaking of marriage, Cindy added the “Santana” to her professional name when she married legendary Carlos Santana in 2010—following an on-stage proposal by Carlos at the conclusion of Cindy’s drum solo during a Santana Band concert in Tinley Park, Illinois. (Cindy had been sitting in with the band when Dennis Chambers took a leave of absence.)

However, long before Cindy connected with Carlos Santana, she had established herself as one of the most successful drummers around. In particular she gained recognition and respect among the drumming community as the long-time touring drummer for rocker Lenny Kravitz.

But Cindy actually started out as a jazz drummer. She grew up in a musical household where jazz was the main fare, and she had the benefit of parents who encouraged her interest in drums rather than being daunted by it. She attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied with Alan Dawson—the legendary teacher of jazz icon Tony Williams.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Cindy often cites Tony Williams as one of her greatest influences. From listening to him she learned how to be innovative and to allow the drums to speak with impact. After she moved to New York as a young woman she learned from the top jazz drummers who performed there, including Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones. In particular, Art Blakey became a significant figure in Cindy’s life. “He was like a father to me,” she once said. “I learned a lot just watching him, and I asked him a lot of questions about the drums and music. He answered all of them. He was fantastic.”

Regrettably but predictably, Cindy initially encountered resistance as a black woman playing drums on the jazz scene. She had to deal with racial and gender bias, as well as prejudice against her musical opinions. But she had a simple response: “I learned to completely ignore all that.”

Ignoring negative opinions led Cindy to very positive musical experiences, including work with a list of stellar jazz artists like Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Don Pullen, Hugh Masakela, Pharaoh Sanders, Sam Rivers, Cassandra Wilson, Angela Bofill, Bill Laswell, and many more. In 1987 the first of her own compositions appeared on trumpeter Wallace Roney’s Verses album. This led to her debut recording as a bandleader: 1988’s Arcane, which featured a lineup of jazz luminaries including Roney, Kenny Garrett, Joe Henderson, Buster Williams, Clarence Seay, and Larry Willis.

Cindy pursued her jazz leanings until 1993, when she connected with Lenny Kravitz. She was in New York; he was in Los Angeles, so she played drums for him as he listened on the phone. At Lenny’s insistence she flew out to LA the next day. She stayed for two weeks and appeared on the video for Kravitz’s mega-hit “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” She became his touring drummer virtually from then on, apart from 2004.

Having previously only played jazz shows in clubs and small festivals, Cindy was unprepared for the experience of playing at the stadium level. Her first gig with Kravitz was at an outdoor festival for 70,000 people. “It was in the summer,” she recalls, “so most people had just t-shirts or tanks on. I just saw skin and hands all doing this wave thing. I wasn’t used to seeing that many people. I was disoriented, and my equilibrium was teetering. I had to stop looking and start focusing.”

Explaining the difference between playing rock and playing jazz, Cindy says, “My job with Lenny is to play a beat for hours, make it feel good, and tastefully add some exciting fills and colors. My job in my own band or any creative jazz situation is totally different. We may start with a groove that feels great, and I may play that for hours, too. But I’m going to explore and expand and change it—play around with the rhythm and interact with the soloists.”

Even while anchoring Lenny Kravitz’s shows Cindy has also maintained her role as a jazz composer and bandleader. Her albums have included Telepathy (1994), The Oracle (1996), In The Now (1998), Works On Canvas (1999), Someday (2001), Music For The New Millennium (2004), and Another Lifetime (2010). She also has an instructional drum video called Multiplicity to her credit.

Photo: Dino Perucci

In addition to being a fabulous drummer, Cindy Blackman-Santana is an intelligent, articulate, and gracious person. I’m proud that Cindy is a great Gretsch drum artist. I’m also proud to say that my wife Dinah and I consider her a personal friend.

More information about Cindy Blackman-Santana is available on her website. You can also find a selection of audio clips from her various albums there. In the meantime, you might also enjoy the following video clips.

Here’s a great drum solo from Cindy’s appearance at the 2009 Montreal Drum Fest, demonstrating her versatile rock and jazz abilities:

Another solo, from the 2009 Tam Tam Drum Fest.

Here’s Cindy soloing and also playing with her own band at the Leverkusener Jazztage, in 2013.

Cindy gives her own account of growing up on the drums.  This clip includes a killer brush solo.

Finally, Cindy and husband Carlos Santana performed the national anthem this past June 7 before Game 2 of the NBA finals. The performance was aired live on ABC.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Mary McClanahan: Gretsch’s Female Pioneer

by Fred Gretsch

The November 1939 edition of Metronome magazine—which, at the time, was the bible of the music business—included seven percussion-related advertisements. Each ad featured a well-known performer promoting a recent product release. There was Ray Bauduc for WFL’s “Twin Strainer” snare drum, Buddy Schultz for Avedis Zildjian cymbals, Ray McKinley for Slingerland drums, Jimmy Adams for Ludwig vibes, Chauncy Morehouse for Leedy drums, and Jack Powell for Ludwig drums.

But perhaps the most noteworthy item was placed by the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company: a full-page ad featuring Mary McClanahan, the drummer with Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm All-Girl Orchestra. It reads: “’Charmed with the tone and beauty of my new Gretsch-Gladstone ensemble,’ says charming Mary McClanahan.” This was the first-ever appearance by a female drummer in a major percussion company ad.

Mary McClanahan may, indeed, have been charming. But she was much more than that. By the time she was hired by Spitalny, she was already a respected professional musician. Over 1,000 carefully screened women musicians auditioned for the twenty-two spots in Spitalny’s orchestra. There were several positions available for horn, string, and woodwind players—but only one for a drummer. That coveted spot went to Mary.

For women percussionists who feel unappreciated and unrecognized in today’s predominately male profession, think of what it was like for Mary in 1939. She had to overcome unimaginable hurdles to land the Spitalny gig, to say nothing of earning an endorsement and a full-page ad from a major drum company.

Just as one example, women encountered more difficulties than men when it came to appearance. Regardless of how far they had traveled or how little sleep they’d managed to get on a tour bus, all-girl bands had to appear onstage looking gorgeous, in long dresses and heels. (Never mind that it’s virtually impossible to operate bass drum and hi-hat pedals while wearing heels.) Ironically, while this hard-to-achieve glamour was expected of them, this very attention to appearances was one of the things that led some people to dismiss All-Girl bands as not being “serious” musicians.

By all reports, however, Mary McClanahan was indeed a “serious” musician. In fact, the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company was so impressed with her talent and fame that they not only featured her in magazine advertisements, but also on the cover of their 1941 full-line catalog. There she shared the spotlight with such male drumming stars of the era as Count Basie’s drummer Papa Jo Jones, Artie Shaw’s Nick Fatool, Horace Heidt’s Bernie Mattinson, and Xavier Cugat’s Alberto Calderon. Heady company, indeed.

We don’t know much about Mary’s career following her stint in Phil Spitalny’s orchestra. But there is one intriguing item that appeared in 1946. It’s a newspaper review of a variety show at the Esquire nightclub in Montreal, Canada, and it included the following: “Mary McClanahan, the champion girl drummer, put over an original drumming act with a great deal of savoir faire. Judging by her routine, it would seem that all the ginger-thatched Mary needs to knock out rhythm is a pair of drumsticks, as she pounded out a number of neat paradiddles on everything from an ordinary kitchen chair to the Esquire’s hardwood floor.”

Video Clip:

Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm All-Girl orchestra was exceptionally talented and versatile, as is amply demonstrated in this rare 1937 movie short titled Queens Of Harmony. Mary McClanahan can be seen at the 2:30 mark, kicking off a blazing version of “Tiger Rag.”

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Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Stefanie Eulinberg:  Rockin’ With The Kid

by Fred Gretsch

Stefanie Eulinberg is a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, she’s petite (just five feet tall), bubbly, smart, outspoken, funny, and sassy. On the other hand, she’s the hard-hitting drummer for Twisted Brown Trucker—the band behind the ultra-macho superstar known as Kid Rock.

Born on December 11, 1967, Stefanie grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. She displayed an early talent for music on a variety of instruments, including the trombone and the cornet. It wasn’t until she spent a summer at the Percussion Institute of Technology in Los Angeles that she gravitated to the drums.


Starting at the age of fifteen, Stefanie worked in cover bands all over the country. Playing different songs for a living was fun—but more importantly it gave her the opportunity to develop her drumming skills. Her influences included Jack DeJohnette, Dave Weckl, Tony Thompson, Chester Thompson, Neil Peart, Dennis Chambers, and Terry Bozzio. That’s quite an eclectic mix, and it helped her develop a slamming style that fuses Sly Stone funk with Bonham-esque heaviness.

After laboring for more than a decade in cover bands and less-than-successful “original” acts, Stefanie found herself in Milwaukee in 1998. That’s when she got a call from her friend DJ Swamp. He told her, “This Kid Rock guy in Detroit has a record out on Atlantic. He needs a drummer for his touring band…right now.” After playing phone tag for a while, Stefanie and the Kid finally connected. “We’ve narrowed it down to three drummers,” Rock told her. “You’re one of them.” (He hadn’t even heard her play yet.)

Stefanie shipped a tape overnight, and within days was the drummer in Twisted Brown Trucker. Kid Rock told her she got the job because she doesn’t play drums like a girl. (A classic understatement if ever there was one.)

In the early days, Kid Rock’s music was a testosterone-fueled brand of punk-meets-rap. In order to anchor the band, Stefanie had to make adjustments in her playing style—adapting from the fluid chops she’d used in cover bands to the rigidity of sequencer-and-click-based music. But over the ensuing years and million-selling albums, Kid Rock’s style has evolved dramatically. After fusing hip-hop and hard rock seamlessly on the 11-times platinum Devil Without A Cause in 1998, the self-described “Bullgod of trailer trash” went from rapper to country balladeer with his 2001 album Cocky. From there it’s been anything goes…and Stefanie has been going right along with it.

Kid Rock’s music now incorporates as much classic rock and country as R&B and rap. (The 2007 Grammy-nominated hit “All Summer Long” was an undisguised homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”) In addition to powering the band from the drums, Stefanie also performs as a vocalist on live shows, and she adds her talents on several other instruments in the studio.

Here’s a bit of Stefanie Eulinberg trivia that you might not know: In addition to her skills as a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, Stefanie is also a vocal actress. Along with Kid Rock and other members of Twisted Brown Trucker, Stefanie voiced a character in the Farrelly Brothers’ 2001 animated movie Osmosis Jones. She also writes theme music for the Disney studios.

Video Clips

You can see and hear dozens of examples of Stefanie’s work by searching for “Kid Rock” on YouTube. In the meantime, though, here are two clips you might particularly enjoy:

Stefanie talks about Gretsch drums (while on tour with Kid Rock in 2008).

Here’s a great clip of Stefanie rocking with the Kid on “All Summer Long” from a music awards show in 2010.

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Remembering the 50th Anniversary of Ted McCarty Buying Bigsby Accessories

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

…and Leaving the Gibson Company

The Gretsch-McCarty-Bigsby family legacy still going strong today.

By Fred W. Gretsch

I was thinking recently about how three well-timed telephone calls forever linked three families and changed the history of Gibson Guitars, Bigsby Accessories, and the Gretsch Company.

Bill Gretsch

The first call was placed in 1948 from my father, Bill Gretsch, to Maurice Berlin, the Chairman of the Board of Chicago Musical Instruments, the company that purchased Gibson Guitars in 1944. My father called Mr. Berlin because his good friend, Ted McCarty, who was visiting in my father’s office, had shared that he was resigning from the Wurlitzer Company, getting out of the music business, and waiting on a job offer from the Brach Candy Company.

Ted McCarty

My father told Ted he was too well known and respected, and that the music business couldn’t afford to lose him. Before Ted could leave my father’s office, my father called Mr. Berlin and arranged a meeting between Ted and Mr. Berlin. As you know, that meeting lead to Ted being offered the position of President at Gibson Guitars. His leadership and keen business and engineering skills turned Gibson around and guided them through their golden years of innovation and production in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Paul Bigsby

The second call was placed a little over 50 years ago in 1965 (the year I started to work at the Gretsch Company) by Paul Bigsby from his small factory in Downey, California to his good friend, Ted McCarty, who was in his 17th year as President of Gibson Guitars. Paul had been manufacturing his innovative guitar vibratos since 1952, but he was 65, having health issues, and looking to retire and sell his business.

Ted had helped Bigsby grow in the 1950s by being the first company to put Bigsby vibratos on Gibson’s factory-built guitars. Ted even used his engineering skills to design the swing away handle to replace Bigsby’s original fixed-handle design. When Paul Bigsby called that day, he was calling to offer his business to Ted, not to the Gibson Company. Bigsby felt his business would be in better hands with his friend Ted McCarty and wasn’t interested in selling it to a company.

In 1965, Ted was 57 and very unhappy with recent management changes at Gibson’s parent company. He also probably sensed more changes coming to the guitar industry. Fender had been purchased by CBS Corporation for $13 million in January and Ted knew the guitar boom years couldn’t continue forever.

So, in November 1965, Ted flew out to California, met with Paul Bigsby and bought his company the same day. On New Year’s Day 1966, a truck loaded everything from Bigsby’s shop and drove back to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Ted resigned from Gibson in March and became owner of Bigsby Accessories for more than 30 years.

I was more than happy to contact Ted in 1989 (he was a longtime friend of the family and even attended my baptism) after I bought the family business back from Baldwin and was ready to roll out the new lineup of Gretsch guitars. Even at 80 years old, Ted had a razor-sharp memory and was the world’s leading authority on Bigsby vibratos.

Fred Gretsch with Ted McCarty, NAMM 1995

I always felt Ted McCarty didn’t get the proper recognition for all the contributions he made to the guitar industry. With the Gretsch-Bigsby relationship reestablished, Dinah and I were pleased to host a gala dinner to honor Ted (as well as our friend, Duane Eddy) at the 1997 Summer NAMM Show in Nashville. Hundreds of Gretsch retailers, distributors, and guests attended this special tribute to an unsung giant of the guitar business. It was a night all who attended will never forget.

Ted McCarty and Fred Gretsch, 1999

The third call is special to me because it continued the McCarty-Gretsch family friendship started by my father more than 70 years ago in Chicago. In 1999, I was delighted to get Ted’s phone call offering to sell Bigsby Accessories to me. It was a great opportunity since Gretsch guitars and Bigsby vibratos had been inseparable since the 1950s. We were more than happy to purchase Ted’s company on May 10, 1999, and in October 1999, Ted retired at the age of 89 after a long, successful 63-year career in the music industry.

There have only been three keepers of the Bigsby brand the past 60 years and Dinah and I are proud to be the current keepers. Hopefully both Paul Bigsby and Ted McCarty are looking down and smiling at how the Gretsch family has grown the business and preserved the Bigsby heritage. We’re continuing to follow the successful formula established more than 60 years ago, using the same hand-made processes and as many of the original machines and suppliers as possible. There is no better way I can think of to honor friends of the family and keep their legacy alive. I think the previous three generations of Gretsch Company Presidents – my father, uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather – would agree.

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Chet and Paul: Playing Side-By-Side for 25 Years

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Remembering the 40th Anniversary of Paul Yandell becoming Chet Atkins’ right hand man

By Fred Gretsch

Forty years ago, three of the finest fingerpickers–Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Paul Yandell–participated in a friendly band member swap. Yandell, a guitar virtuoso and the consummate sideman, had been in Jerry Reed’s band for nearly five years. By 1975 though, Jerry was focused more on growing his acting career than recording and touring, and no longer needed a band.

Chet Atkins

Paul visited his friend and mentor, Chet Atkins, and asked if he needed a guitar player. Chet said he might, but would need Jerry’s permission first before hiring him. Fortunately, Jerry gave Chet his blessing and told Chet something Mr. Guitar already knew: Paul Yandell was the best rhythm guitarist and accompanist in the business.

A week later, Paul was in a rented tuxedo and playing onstage alongside his guitar hero, Chet Atkins, with The Jackson Symphony in Mississippi. It would be the first of countless shows Chet and Paul would play together over the next 25 years.

I was fortunate to be friends with both Chet Atkins and Paul Yandell. It was amazing how similar their backgrounds, interests, and personalities were. They could have easily been brothers. Like Chet, Paul came from a humble, rural upbringing and had a passion–some might call it an obsession–for guitars, music, and electronics. In fact when Paul was a teenager, he built his own radio device and first heard Chet Atkins playing “I’ve Been Working On The Guitar” on a Cincinnati radio station. Chet’s fingerstyle playing had a huge impact on Paul and he started buying as many Chet Atkins records as he could afford.

Paul’s dream of being a professional musician came true when he joined the Louvin Brothers in the mid-1950s. He was an accomplished guitarist with a style similar to the popular Chet Atkins. Paul even played a Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body electric in honor of his guitar hero.

After a brief stint in the Army, Paul joined the Kitty Wells band in the early 1960s and even wrote her 1965 hit “I’ll Repossess My Heart.” By 1970, Paul was tired of the road, burned out, and looking for a new musical challenge. That challenge came from Jerry “Guitar Man” Reed. Jerry and Paul were Army buddies and Jerry was a rising guitar and singing star whose biggest admirer was Chet Atkins.

Joining Jerry Reed’s band turned out to be an important career move for Paul. In addition to learning new guitar techniques from the second best fingerpicker alive, Jerry also taught Paul the art of recording and engineering, and helped Paul get session work in Nashville. The biggest prize Paul received from being in Jerry Reed’s band was the opportunity to be around and become better friends with Chet Atkins. Jerry and Chet were very close and Chet produced several of Jerry’s albums and the two also recorded together. Paul said he “went to college” working for Jerry Reed, and all he learned from Jerry helped qualify him to work for Chet.

About the only difference between Paul and Chet was that Paul didn’t want the spotlight or the fame; he preferred being a sideman and just playing music. That was the role he loved. Paul had outstanding rhythm and timing and was a good improviser. He knew exactly what to play and was there to complement Chet onstage or in the studio, not to get in his way or upstage him. Paul said many times that working for Chet Atkins was a dream job. He said he never got over the thrill of going out on stage with Chet and that no one had a better job or worked for a nicer, more caring person. In their 25 years together, Paul and Chet became very close friends, as did their families. Chet was quoted as saying that next to his wife, Leona, Paul probably knew him better than anybody.

Paul Yandell

Being Chet Atkins’ right hand man required Paul to have many valuable roles: accompanist, bandleader, songwriter, guitar technician, guitar and amp repairman, and more. Like Chet, Paul was self-taught and very knowledgeable of electronics and enjoyed tinkering with guitars and amplifiers at his home workbench. Paul and Chet spent countless hours exploring ways to improve the sound and playability of the electric guitar. Paul always carried tools with him whenever he and Chet toured and fixed many amps and guitars that were damaged inflight. Paul even built Chet a solid body guitar he called “The Peaver”, and when Chet wanted his priceless 1950 D’Angelico guitar restored back to an electric, he trusted his friend Paul Yandell with the project because he knew it would be done right.

After Chet passed away in 2001, I wanted to honor Chet’s legacy by working with Paul to faithfully recreate Chet’s famous 1959 Country Gentleman, the guitar on which he recorded most of his RCA hits. Paul loved the idea because he thought it was a great way to remember Chet and also gave guitar players a chance to own a copy of one of the world’s most historic guitars. Paul worked diligently to measure Chet’s original guitar, read the pickups, and spec everything for the Gretsch production team. The result was the G6122-1959 Nashville Classic, a name Paul suggested. We were both very satisfied with the end result.

Chets Guitars. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

We are forever grateful to Paul for his important role in bringing Chet Atkins’ name back to Gretsch guitars. Chet’s family trusted Paul’s advice and like many music fans, Paul believed Chet’s best work was performed on Gretsch guitars and that Chet and Gretsch should be reunited. Announcing the release of new Gretsch Chet Atkins signature guitars in 2007 was one of my personal career highlights.

It was fitting that Paul received the fifth and final Chet Atkins CGP Award in 2011, only a few months before he passed away. Chet’s family presented the award to Paul during a ceremony at the Gretsch-sponsored Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. With Paul’s passing, we lost a good friend, and the music world said goodbye to one of the most unassuming master guitarists that ever put on a thumb pick.

From left: Fred Gretsch, Paul Yandell, and Dinah Gretsch together at the August 10th reception celebrating the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum’s new tribute exhibit Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player. (Donn Jones Photography)

Remembering Bill and Sylvia Gretsch

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

A Tribute To A Remarkable Couple

By Fred W. Gretsch

September is an especially significant month in my family’s history. September 10 is the date on which my father, William “Bill” Gretsch passed away in 1948. And September 14th is the anniversary of my mother Sylvia’s birth in 1917. Both of these remarkable individuals played a major role not only in my life, but also in the legacy of the Gretsch Company.

Gretsch has always been a family business. My great-grandfather, Friedrich Gretsch, founded the company in 1883. Upon his sudden passing in 1885 his son, Fred Gretsch Sr., took over–at the age of fifteen along with his mother, Rosa. Fred Sr. brought his sons Fred Jr. and William into the business when they each turned ten years of age—around 1915 and 1916, respectively. (A third brother, Dick Gretsch, did not join the business and lived until the age of 102 and influenced the business as the best Gretsch cheerleader of all time.) Fred Jr. and Bill started at the bottom, of course, packing phonograph needles in boxes on the weekends, 100 years ago now.

By 1933 my father was a young man looking to make his mark in the music business that his grandfather had started and his father was now running. Thinking that that the company’s office in Chicago offered more room for his younger son’s energies than did the staid headquarters in Brooklyn, Fred Sr. transferred Bill to Chicago. Two years later, he met Maxine Lois Elsner.

My mother was a bright and ambitious person in her own right. In 1935 she filled out a questionnaire upon entering Northwestern University, outlining her plans for the future: “When ten years old, I started taking lessons in dramatics. From then until now I have studied speech with the idea of making it my career. I chose Northwestern University because of its superior speech division and its radio courses. When I finish college I plan to do both writing and speaking for radio.”

Perhaps it was Maxine’s insistence about pursuing her career that attracted Bill. When they first met he was not himself interested in getting married. So the couple dated for two years—largely by telegram correspondence, since Maxine was at Northwestern and Bill was in Chicago. During this period Bill gave Maxine the pet name of “Sylvia”—a name by which she became known to friends and family thereafter.

Bill and Sylvia on July 12, 1940

My mother graduated from Northwestern University on June 10, 1939, with a Bachelor of Science degree in speech. After a brief tenure as a high school speech teacher in Webb City, Missouri, in June of 1941 she became a copy writer at radio station KWFT in Wichita Falls, Texas. By October of that year she had taken a job as editor of Western Hotel and Restaurant Reporter, the west’s oldest hotel magazine.

But by this time my father had had enough of job-related separation from Sylvia. So around the time of his birthday in 1942 he called her on the phone, telling her, “You know what I want for my birthday? I want you.” The two were married in California, Missouri, on December 14, 1942—the day after my father’s birthday.

In that same year my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr., retired from the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company. My uncle, Fred Jr., became president in New York, while my father ran the company’s office in Chicago. But America had just entered World War II, and shortly thereafter my uncle left to serve in the navy. So my father moved his family to New York, where he took over as president of Gretsch.

My father brought the Gretsch Company into the war effort with enthusiasm. Under his supervision Gretsch made thousands of “entertainment kits” for the Red Cross to ship to servicemen overseas. Those kits included harmonicas, ukuleles, and ocarinas. The factory also manufactured non-musical war-related products, including wooden parts for gas masks.

According to Duke Kramer, who served as a Gretsch executive for almost seventy years, “Bill was a man with a subtle talent for inspiring people to do their best . . . and [he had] a genius for constructive counsel. His sense of humor was irresistible. When he passed away in 1948, a legion of individuals felt they had lost their best friend.”

Bill Gretsch and his family, the Christmas before his passing. (I'm the smiling youngster in the center.)

Of course, when my father passed away my mother lost more than her best friend. She lost her husband and the father of her four small children (my sisters—Katherine, Charlotte, and Gretchen—and me). In February of 1950 my mother started working for the Gretsch Company on various projects. The first was an editorial for a music publication, which she wrote on behalf of Fred Gretsch Jr. She also worked on a guitar booklet and a manual for retailers.

A Gretsch Family Portrait. From left Dick, Bill, Bill's wife Sylvia, Fred Sr., and Fred Jr.

With the support of the extended Gretsch family—including my grandfather, my uncle, and their respective families—this extraordinary woman provided a loving and nurturing environment that allowed my sisters and me to pursue our dreams through childhood and into our adult years.

One of my personal dreams was to bring the Gretsch Company back into family ownership after it was sold to the Baldwin Company in 1967. In 1984 I was able to realize that dream—largely through the inspiration I received from the examples of my father and my mother. That, in turn, led me to consider how I might best honor their memories.

Fred Gretsch with University of Michigan Tribute Marching Drum

Throughout the decades in which my father worked at Gretsch—the 1920s, 30s, and 40s—jazz and big band music were the popular styles of the day. But there were also marching bands, concert bands, and other musical organizations, many of which were connected to schools and other educational institutions. My father was a strong believer in the value of music education. In 1946 he personally established a scholarship for a talented clarinet player at the University of Michigan. (In the mid-1950s a complete set of marching drums, finished in the school’s colors, was donated to the Michigan band by the Gretsch Company in honor of my father.)

Since a focus on music education was a large part of my father’s business philosophy, it seemed to me only fitting to memorialize him and my mother in a way that would support that philosophy. With that in mind, several years ago my wife Dinah and I established the Sylvia and William Gretsch Memorial Foundation. Its mission is to provide financial support for projects that promote music education in a variety of ways.

One of those projects was the construction of the Sylvia and William Gretsch memorial recording studio at Elmhurst College (my own alma mater) near Chicago. This studio is a central element of the extensive music-education program offered at Elmhurst.

More recently, the foundation provided a grant for a five-year program at Georgia Southern University, partnering with the Boys & Girls Club of Bullock County (Georgia). In this program, GSU students studying to become music teachers actually serve as teachers for children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to receive music lessons.

I think of my father and mother every day. Their lives revolved around music, as does mine. It’s simply a Gretsch family tradition, and it’s one that I’m proud to be a part of.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

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