By Jennifer Koehler
Charles “Duke” Kramer, also known as “Mr. Guitar Man,” was pivotal in making Gretsch electric guitars what they are today – for guitar aficionados, they are synonymous with quality workmanship and a unique acoustic, breathy sound. Artists such as Chet Atkins and Brian Setzer have made the guitars famous.
Even though he couldn’t play a lick, “The Silver Duke” Gretsch guitar was named after him. Need a Gretsch guitar? No problem. An out-of-commission silver or gold knob? No problem. Mr. Kramer was the man who knew anything and everything about Gretsch guitars.
Mr. Kramer died July 28 after a long illness surrounded by family and friends. He was 88.
Mr. Kramer worked with Gretsch guitars for 70 years. He started out as a horn polisher with the Fred Gretsch Co. and worked his way up to salesman, finally ending his time with them as vice president of the Cincinnati Gretsch Division in 1980. After retiring he opened his own business selling vintage Gretsch guitar parts.
“He would get calls from all over the world,” said his daughter Susan Hamilton of Nantucket, Mass. “George Harrison left a message on his answering machine looking for help with a Gretsch guitar. People who collected vintage guitars would send him pictures of guitars asking for information, and he would always give that freely.”
At age 19 in 1935, Mr. Kramer started out at the Fred Gretsch Co. making $11 a week in the repair department polishing horns. After polishing, it was on to the purchasing department, and before long Mr. Kramer was traveling the south and Midwest selling Gretsch instruments.
It was during these travels that Mr. Kramer, as the youngest salesman in the company, took the time to talk to store owners and musicians to get an understanding of what they needed in their instruments. Mr. Kramer took the information he collected back to the Gretsch Co. and was instrumental in creating the famous sound of Gretsch.
Mr. Kramer met his future wife, Fritzie, when she asked him to a Halloween costume party in 1936. She dressed up as a clown and he didn’t dress up as anything but himself. They married in 1944 and were together for 62 years.
In 1941, Mr. Kramer had to leave Gretsch when he was drafted into the Army. While in the Army he served in the Special Service Music Division and was in charge of bringing entertainment to troops stationed in the Pacific Islands.
When he was discharged in 1947, Mr. Kramer returned to the Fred Gretsch Co. and eventually became vice president of the Chicago Division.
In 1967, Baldwin Piano and Organ bought Gretsch Co., and in 1972, Mr. Kramer and his wife moved to Cincinnati. They settled in Watch Hill in Anderson and lived there for 30 years until moving into the New England Club retirement community in 2002. Mr. Kramer ran the Cincinnati Gretsch Division until his retirement in 1980.
In the late ’70s, Baldwin stopped making guitars, and after retiring, Mr. Kramer bought the remaining inventory for Gretsch guitars. With that inventory Mr. and Mrs. Kramer started Duke & Fritzie Products. D&F Products, as it became known, specialized in vintage Gretsch guitar parts.
They ran the business from home and Mr. Kramer worked until his last week of life.
“He was a man that really loved life,” said Hamilton. “He was dedicated not only to the company but the family. He always left people smiling and feeling good. He was a lot of fun.”
In 1995, Mr. Kramer was asked to be part of a symposium on the development of the electric guitar at the Smithsonian Institution.
He was an honorary life director of the Gamma board, a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity of America, a long-time member of the Cold Stream Country Club and an avid golfer.
“We have a lot of wonderful memories of a great man, father and husband,” said his daughter Mrs. Hamilton. “Of everybody that we run into one phrase keeps coming up, ‘there is only one Duke.’ ”
Besides his wife and daughter, survivors include his sons, Ken Kramer of St. Augustine, Fla. and Scott Kramer of Fredricksburg, Va.; sister, Doris Haight of Perth, Australia; four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
May he rest in peace.