Posts Tagged ‘George Harrison’

The Gretsch Building

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

The Birthplace of Silver Jets, White Falcons, Round Badges, and “That Great Gretsch Sound” Turns 100

By Fred Gretsch

The Gretsch Building circa 1916.

From the outside, the renovated Gretsch Building, now the home of luxury condos in the chic, trendy Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, looks like it could be a factory, an office building, or even a hospital.

The renovated Gretsch Building; home to 120 luxury condominiums.

And considering how today’s generation of Gretsch guitars and drums (played by young artists like guitarist Russell Marsden of Band of Skulls and drummer Ashton Irwin of 5 Seconds of Summer) can trace their origins and DNA to the seventh floor of this big, gray building, the hospital comparison isn’t too far off.

Today’s Williamsburg has been called the “new” Brooklyn and is one of the most popular, hippest places to live and work. It’s no surprise Brooklyn was recently named the #1 city in the nation for Millennials. The revived neighborhood is bustling with creative energy much like it was 100 years ago when factories, foundries, and the nearby waterfront energized Williamsburg and made it one of the largest and busiest industrial areas in the nation.

1916 Gretsch catalog cover featuring the new factory.

In 1916 my grandfather, Fred Gretsch, Sr., was 36 years old and had a bold vision of growing Gretsch into the largest music manufacturing company in America. (Remember, he was only 15 when he took over the family business after his father died unexpectedly in 1895.) Along with his mother Rosa and brother Walter, he took a leap of faith and oversaw the construction of a large 10-story factory that, at the time, was the biggest building in Williamsburg. You couldn’t miss it when you crossed the Williamsburg Bridge.

The factory was a source of pride for my grandfather and I believe the tall building with his family’s name on top motivated him to achieve his dream. Within a few years, Gretsch was recognized as the largest musical instrument manufacturing company in the nation. Catalogs from the 1920s and 1930s boast of “Nearly 3,000 Articles To Choose From,” and an image of the Gretsch Building adorned catalog covers and advertising for years.

1928 Gretsch Dealer Catalog promoting over 3,000 band and orchestra instruments.

While skilled Gretsch craftsmen built a wide range of drums and stringed instruments like banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, and guitars, other instruments were purchased and distributed from major instrument manufacturers. And, since the factory was only a few blocks from the East River waterfront, Gretsch imported many top-quality violins, accordions, brass instruments, harmonicas, and other instruments and accessories from Europe.

Even though it was 10-stories high, Gretsch didn’t occupy the entire building. The 20,000 square-foot seventh floor housed the main factory and administrative offices, while the machine shop and plating department took up half of the ninth floor. The basement was used primarily for storing drum hoops, parts and accessories. And while today’s condo residents relax, tan, and enjoy the skyline views from the rooftop terrace, Gretsch used the roof for business purposes: tanning hides for drumheads!

A student sheet music holder from the 1940s. Image courtesy of Ed Ball.

My grandfather was an entrepreneur and recognized the importance of real estate in building a solid business enterprise. Like the smaller factory on Fourth Street the Gretsch Building replaced, my grandfather rented valuable office space in the building to a wide range of businesses – from bookbinders and publishers to vacuum cleaner makers. One of the largest tenants was Robert Hall, a national retailer of men’s clothes.

After 57 successful years as president, my grandfather retired in 1942. My uncle, Fred Gretsch, Jr., became president but soon left the company to serve as a commander in the Navy during World War II. My father, Bill, then became president and guided Gretsch through the scaled-down production war years. Unfortunately, my father’s tenure was cut short due to illness and he passed away in 1948. When Fred Jr. resumed the leadership role, he led the company’s new focus on building professional drums and guitars and into Gretsch’s “Golden Era.”

The 50s and 60s were decades of explosive growth and success for Gretsch. The best jazz artists playing the New York clubs chose Gretsch Round Badge drums, and with advances in guitar electronics and amplification, Gretsch electric guitars were getting noticed.  The 50s saw the introduction of the Duo Jet, Silver Jet, White Falcon, White Penguin, Anniversary, Country Club, and many other models still offered today.  And, thanks to our landmark endorsement with Chet Atkins in 1954, the rollout of the classic line of Chet Atkins 6120, Country Gentleman, and Tennessean guitars.

I sometimes wonder if the people currently living on what used to be the seventh floor of the Gretsch Building are aware of all the musical history that happened there (and all of the stars and legends that walked those floors when they visited the factory). By far the biggest innovation and game changer for the music industry was my grandfather’s invention of the multi-ply drum lamination process that he patented in the 1920s. This revolutionary new method not only made construction faster, but also made drum shells and hoops lighter, stronger, and more perfectly round. It soon became the drum industry standard for manufacturing drums and – 90 years later – is still the method used today.

Several books have been written about the iconic and historic guitars and drums built within the walls of the Brooklyn factory. Some of the most important drums in my opinion are the groundbreaking Gretsch-Gladstone and Gretsch-American drums, the first double-bass drum set built for big-band star Louie Bellson, and the kits we made for drumming legends like Chick Webb, Charlie Watts, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Mel Lewis, Philly Joe Jones, and Chico Hamilton.

On the guitar side, Chet Atkins’ ’59 Country Gentleman he used on all of his records and George Harrison’s Duo Jet, Country Gentleman, and Tennessean guitars are probably the most famous Gretsch guitars built at the factory. But, you can’t overlook the Chet Atkins 6120 models made famous by Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, and Brian Setzer; the White Falcons played by Stephen Stills and Neil Young, or Billy’s Zoom’s trademark Silver Jet. By far, the most unusual guitar was the rectangular-shaped guitar Gretsch custom built for Bo Diddley in 1958.

I had the fortune of literally growing up in the Gretsch factory during its heyday of the 50s and 60s, and I started there full-time in the Industrial Engineering Department in 1965. But, things changed after my uncle sold Gretsch to the Baldwin Company in 1967. Within a few years, guitar and drum production moved from the Brooklyn factory to Arkansas. The sales office stayed in the building for several years, but by 1972, all Gretsch connections to the historic Brooklyn factory were gone.

The building remained mostly empty for several decades as the Williamsburg area experienced a cycle of decline, but by the 1990s, the area bounced back with a new infusion of galleries, clubs, music, art, and young people. Although our family still owned the Gretsch Building, we decided the time was right to sell it in 1999. Several years later, the old factory was the first condo conversion in the area, and more have followed in Williamsburg’s transformation and rebirth from an industrial area to a popular, desirable residential area.

Interior of a multi-million dollar loft apartment in the Gretsch Building. Photo courtesy of Corcoran Group Real Estate.

One hundred years later, I think my grandfather would be amazed at how the neighborhood has changed, and would be proud that the factory he and his family built in 1916 has survived and is still a vital part of the Williamsburg community. He would also be proud that we’re still making guitars and drums using the original recipes invented at his factory so many decades ago. It’s ironic that the building that made beautiful guitars and drums that looked like a million bucks, now has condos that sell for well over a million bucks. That’s left the Gretsch Building with a brand new pedigree for the next 100 years or more.



Guitar Legend Duane Eddy

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

How a simple introduction by a Beatle 25 years ago led to two Gretsch signature models, and a long friendship with “The King of Twang.”

By Fred W. Gretsch

Back in 1991, my wife Dinah and I attended a music trade show in London with friends from the Hohner Company, Gretsch’s distribution partner in the UK at the time. Hohner had created an impressive display to showcase the new line of Gretsch guitars we had just introduced. They even commissioned an artist to paint a 40-foot mural featuring several Gretsch guitar players and the Traveling Wilburys band.

When we arrived in London, we reached out to George Harrison and suggested getting together, and he responded that he would like to see us while we were in town. We had gotten to know George several years earlier after Dinah sent him a thank-you note for featuring his vintage ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet on the cover of his Cloud Nine album. That led to a call from George thanking Dinah for the note, chatting about guitars, and inviting us to a recording session to see the vintage Gretsch guitars being used for the upcoming Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 album. George was also involved in helping design the Gretsch Traveling Wilburys electric guitar.

London Mural 1991

Fred Gretsch, London 1991

You can imagine how surprised we were when a member of the trade show’s management team came to the Gretsch booth to say George was at the front door of the exhibition hall asking to see us. Dinah and I literally ran to the front door and happily arranged credentials for George and two friends he had brought along: Jeff Lynne and Duane Eddy.

It was the first time I had met Duane, who, like George, was a fan of the sound and looks of Gretsch guitars. He shared the story of the Chet Atkins 6120 model guitar he had bought at Ziggie’s Music in Phoenix back in 1957. It was the guitar he used on all of his “twangy” instrumental hits like “Rebel Rouser,” “Forty Miles of Bad Road,” and “Peter Gunn”, and he still performed and recorded with it 34 years later.

After meeting in London, I corresponded and stayed in touch with Duane for several years and shared my interest in offering a Gretsch Duane Eddy signature model. He was intrigued, met with me and our team at our Ridgeland, SC facility, and brought his original ’57 Gretsch along so we could measure and document the details of his iconic guitar.

In 1997, 40 years after purchasing his ’57 Chet Atkins 6120 guitar, Gretsch proudly introduced the G6120-DE Duane Eddy signature model. It was a reproduction of Duane’s famous ’57 6120 and was available in both a Western Orange finish and a cool-looking Ebony Burst finish that Duane suggested.

Duane and Ted McCarty, 1997

We kicked off the release of the new Duane Eddy 6120 at the 1997 Summer NAMM Show in Nashville. Gretsch sponsored a gala dinner that paid tribute to both Duane and guitar industry veteran and family friend, Ted McCarty. With Mr. McCarty getting the recognition he so rightfully deserved, and Duane and his band of Nashville session pros playing a rollicking hour-long set, it was a memorable night and one of the highlights of my 51-year career in the music business.

Today, Gretsch offers a second generation Duane Eddy signature model that is even closer to the sound and feel of the 6120 Duane purchased as a teenager nearly 60 years ago. So close, in fact, that Duane finally retired his ’57 6120 because he said his new signature model has the same sound and punch of his ’57 Gretsch, along with the slim-profiled neck he always liked on his original guitar. Duane worked very closely with Gretsch Custom Shop Master Builder Stephen Stern and his team to both faithfully reproduce Duane’s legendary ’57 6120, and add some modern improvements like trestle bracing and a new Tru-Arc rocking bar bridge for more “twang” and sustain. In Duane’s words, the current Duane Eddy model is the best of the old world and the new world.

Duane Eddy Performing at Fred Gretsch's 50th Anniversary Event in Brooklyn

Over the years, Duane and his wife, Deed, have become very dear friends to Dinah and me. We visit with them often and have seen him perform many times. He even performed at my Fiftieth Anniversary Bash in Brooklyn last year and appeared with me recently at a special event that kicked off the opening of the Bachman-Gretsch Collection Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

It’s always special to see Duane and enjoy his dry sense of humor, colorful stories, and, of course, his music. He is a true living legend and an original. Duane’s twangy guitar instrumentals sold millions of records, influenced thousands of young guitarists (like George Harrison) – and helped sell a lot of Gretsch guitars. It’s hard to put a price tag on all of that. It’s even harder to put a price tag on a friendship that has lasted more than 25 years. Thank you again, George, for introducing me to Duane Eddy “all those years ago.”

The Eddys and the Gretsches at the Bachman-Gretsch Collection Exhibit Opening, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, January 2016

To read an exclusive interview with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy where he shares stories about Gretsch guitars, his friendships with George Harrison and the Gretsch family, and his nearly 60-year music career, please visit



How The Beatles Forever Changed Gretsch

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Fond memories of February 1964 and how The Beatles forever changed the Gretsch Company

By Fred Gretsch

Check out Fred Gretsch’s interview with Lindsay Lowe of Parade Magazine!!

I remember February 9, 1964, vividly. I was a teenager living in the New York City area and for weeks, all the great AM rock ‘n’ roll radio stations like WABC with Cousin Brucie and WINS with Murry the K had been shouting “The Beatles Are Coming!” and saturating the airwaves with Beatles music. Their single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” had just reached #1.

Yes, The Beatles were making their American debut in New York–still the center of the music world–and would be performing live on America’s top show for showcasing new talent: The Ed Sullivan Show. I couldn’t wait. Local media were in a frenzy and the city was abuzz in anticipation of seeing and hearing these four lads from Liverpool.

Like millions of teenagers, I watched The Beatles with my family (my three sisters, in fact) on the black and white TV set in the living room of our Forest Hills, NY home. The home my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr., had built in 1916. The Beatles opened and closed the show and performed five songs live. Seventy-three million viewers also tuned in to see what the excitement was all about. The Beatles didn’t disappoint. In fact, they knocked it out of the park.

Even on a small black and white TV screen, The Beatles didn’t look or sound like any other rock ‘n’ roll group. They were cool in so many ways, but the coolest part for me was that George, the one in the middle, played a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar. I was really proud of that.

As you know, the world of music literally changed overnight as did the fortunes of the Gretsch Company. The day following The Beatles’ performance on the Sullivan show, the guitar boom of the 1960s officially started. We were flooded with orders, letters, and catalog requests – even people wanting to tour our relatively small factory. Like other musical instrument makers, we were not prepared for the British Invasion.

When I joined the Gretsch Company full time in 1965, I saw the impact Beatlemania was still having firsthand. We could barely keep up with the demand for guitars and drums and at one time there was a six-month waiting period. Six months! The two guitars George Harrison played at the time – the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman and Tennessean models – were especially popular. We even moved drum production out of the Gretsch factory to a building a Gretsch cousin owned several blocks away in order to expand guitar production. Without a doubt, the mid-60s were busy and exciting times at Gretsch.

George Harrison was a lifelong fan of Gretsch guitars. Chet Atkins was a huge influence on him and was the reason George purchased a Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar in 1963. George had been playing a ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet up to that time. He bought his black Duo Jet used in 1960 from a Liverpool sailor who had purchased it at New York’s legendary Manny’s Guitar Shop. Since my summer job was helping deliver Gretsch guitars to area music stores, I probably delivered George’s Duo Jet to Manny’s. According to George, it was his sentimental favorite guitar because it was his first American guitar and his first good guitar.

Dinah and I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know George in the late 80s. Dinah wrote George a thank you letter for showing his ’57 Duo Jet on his Cloud Nine album. Two weeks later he called her to thank her for the letter, told her how much he loved Gretsch guitars, and talked about the Traveling Wilburys project he was working on with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. George even invited us to a recording session at Dave Stewart’s home studio and showed us the 20 vintage Gretsch guitars they were using on the album. He also wanted to share an idea for a special Traveling Wilburys guitar. We liked George’s idea and introduced the special-edition Traveling Wilburys TW-500 guitar a year later.

Looking back, I have fond memories of February 1964, The Beatles, and George Harrison. Next to Chet Atkins, George was the other guitar superstar that helped put Gretsch on the map and changed our company forever. The Beatles’ debut led to the formation of countless new rock n’ roll groups. Fortunately for us, and thanks to George Harrison, these new groups also wanted instruments like The Beatles played. I’m grateful George was a Gretsch guy.

Fifty years later, improved versions of George’s favorite classic Gretsch guitar models are available and remain as popular as ever. In 2064, I’m sure we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival to the U.S. I’m also sure a sixth generation family member will be running the business my great-grandfather started in 1883 and offering even better versions of Gretsch Country Gentleman, Tennessean, and Duo Jet guitars. Long live The Beatles. And long live rock ‘n’ roll!



The Gretsch Duo Jet: Still Rockin’ at 60

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

By Fred Gretsch

In January 1951, Gretsch let the music world know it was a serious contender in the quickly evolving electric guitar business when it introduced the Electromatic and Electro II models at a three-day promotional show at New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel.

Meanwhile, on the west coast in Fullerton, California, the Fender Company was manufacturing a groundbreaking concept: a solid body electric guitar with a bolt-on neck. A year later in 1952, my uncle and Gretsch president Fred Gretsch Jr., was more than surprised when rival Gibson introduced the Les Paul “Gold Top” solid body electric guitar.

Seeing the sales success of these new, untraditional guitars, my uncle realized solid body guitars were more than a passing fad. He assembled his guitar brain trust of Jimmie Webster, Duke Kramer, and Phil Grant and the team worked diligently to develop the Gretsch Duo Jet, one of the most desired guitars of the 1950s that’s still going strong 60 years later.

Introduced in 1953, the Duo Jet had a cool name (“Duo” for its two Dynasonic pickups and “Jet” which reflected the most advanced aircraft technology of the day) to go along with its cool, elegant looks and great sound.

The single-cutaway Duo Jet featured a gleaming black arched top — some made from Nitron plastic drum material — with mahogany sides, back and neck. Other Gretsch firsts included truss rod adjustments through the headstock (concealed with a bullet-shaped cover), a master volume control knob on the cutaway, and a pickup selection switch. With two DeArmond Dynasonic pickups, a Melita Synchro-Sonic bridge, chrome hardware, white and black binding, and hump block inlays, the Duo Jet’s upscale black and chrome look was simply stunning.

It also lived up to its “Great Gretsch Sound” reputation thanks to the Duo Jet’s unique construction. Although it looked like a solid body, the inside was actually chambered to allow for wiring and components and to make the Duo Jet lighter and more comfortable to play. This “semi-solid” approach also gave the Duo Jet a unique sound that ranged from jangly and twangy to smooth and mellow. A perfect guitar for playing country and western, pop, and jazz music in 1953, as well as rock ‘n’ roll which was about to explode onto the music scene.

Some of the most influential guitarists who played early Duo Jets were Hank Garland, rockabilly great Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, and the Beatles’ George Harrison. George’s ’57 Duo Jet was his sentimental favorite and he described it as his first “good guitar” when he bought it used in 1960. It’s unique tone shaped the sound and energy of the Beatles’ early recordings. We honored George’s famous ’57 Duo Jet in 2011 with a limited edition Custom Shop Tribute Duo Jet.

The popularity of the Duo Jet continues to ascend to new heights. From legends like Jeff Beck and David Gilmour, to some of today’s hottest players like Nick 13 and Alex Trimble, there’s no slowing down the Duo Jet Express. In fact, we offer more than 20 models including the George Harrison and Malcolm Young Signature models, Jet Firebirds, Silver Jets and Sparkle Jets.

In retrospect, it’s been 60 years since my uncle and his talented team wrote an important chapter in the Gretsch Company’s guitar history book: creating and marketing a successful solid body electric guitar. One only has to look at the longevity and success of the Duo Jet — which has changed very little over 60 years — to know they found the right recipe within the walls of the Gretsch Factory at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn way back in 1953.



Gretsch: 130 Years and Four Generations . . .

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

An Excerpt From The Savannah Morning News:

Gretsch: 130 years and four generations of strummin’ and drummin’

The small forest of guitars is tucked into what Fred W. Gretsch calls his “studio.”

To anybody who can play even a few chords, it’s more a Shangri-la.

Colorfully decorated Gretsch Super Axes flank richly wooded acoustic guitars and stylish Thunderbirds. Renowned Chet Atkins models dot the rows.

One instrument in particular garners Gretsch’s attention. The banjo is perhaps the most unassuming of the lot. The strings and head reflect its great age — it is a 1920s model — and the aluminum rim doesn’t shine like the metal parts of its peers in the collection.

But to Gretsch, the instrument signifies what has sustained his family’s business for 130 years.

Innovation and dedication.

“We started using aluminum for banjo rims in the 1920s, and the advances we made from there we drew on in building drums in the 1930s and 1940s,” Gretsch said. “What we learned from drums we put into practice at the dawn of the rock and roll era in the 1950s and on and on. We are a company that’s consistently built on its past.”

The company is celebrating that history this year. Gretsch is the fourth generation of his family to head the Pooler-based business since his great-grandfather, German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch, opened a small music shop in Brooklyn in 1883.

The original shop specialized in banjos, drums and tambourines. The company grew as the accordion and other band instruments gained popularity in the first half of the 1900s. Rock and roll guitars and drums made Gretsch a household name starting in the 1950s.

Fred Gretsch expects the company to thrive for several more generations and continue to be renowned for the “great Gretsch sound” made famous by music legends such as Chet Atkins, George Harrison, Charlie Watts, Davy Jones, Bono, Bo Diddley and Brian Setzer.

“Antonio Stradivarius also made amazing stringed instruments and led a prosperous life,” Gretsch said of the famed violin maker. “But his family did not benefit from his name and his designs. I want to ensure that the Gretsch family remains a key part of this company for the next 100 years of business.”

See Photos and Read the Entire Article at


1883 Friedrich Gretsch, 27, who emigrated from Germany at 16, opens a small music shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., making banjos, drums, and tambourines.

1883 - Friedrich Gretsch Opens Small Music Shop in Brooklyn.

1895 Friedrich Gretsch becomes ill while traveling in Germany and dies at age 39. Fifteen-year-old son, Fred Gretsch, Sr., takes over family business.

1916 Company moves to 10-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn, N.Y.

1916 - Gretsch Opens Ten-Story Building at 60 Broadway, Brooklyn (sketch).

1918 Fred Gretsch, Sr. develops revolutionary multi-ply drum lamination process resulting in the world’s first “warp free” drum hoop.

1920 Gretsch’s manufacturing facility expands to become the world’s largest music instrument manufacturing factory.

1927 Company introduces historic Gretsch-American drum series, featuring the industry’s first multi ply drum shell. Gretsch uses its own name on guitars for the first time, rather than just selling to wholesalers.

1935 Broadkaster drum line introduced. Duke Kramer begins his 70-year career at Gretsch. Known as “Mr. Guitar Man,” Kramer would become pivotal in making Gretsch® electric guitars what they are today.

"Mr. Guitar Man" Duke Kramer

1937 Historic partnership with master drummer and inventor Billy Gladstone begins. The Gretsch-Gladstone drum line is introduced.

1939 Gretsch introduces its first electric guitar – the Electromatic – and the Synchromatic archtop guitar series. Jimmie Webster, guitar innovator and player, joins Gretsch. Distinctive triangle sound hole appears on Gretsch acoustic guitars.

1942 Fred Gretsch, Sr. retires from the company, leaving the day-to-day operations to his sons, Fred Gretsch, Jr. and William “Bill” Gretsch, both of whom had been active in the business since 1927. Gretsch stops instrument production to assist in war efforts. After a brief term at the company’s helm, Fred Gretsch, Jr. leaves the company to serve as a commander in the U.S. Navy. Bill Gretsch becomes president.

William "Bill" Gretsch and Fred Gretsch, Jr. pictured with Brother Richard Gretsch.

1946 Gretsch resumes instrument production. Phil Grant, master percussionist and innovator, joins Gretsch. Gretsch and Louis Bellson team up to introduce first production double bass drum kit.

Louie Bellson with his 1946 double bass kit.

1947 Gretsch forges relationship with legendary Birdland Jazz Club in New York, N.Y.

1948 Bill Gretsch dies from illness. Fred Gretsch, Jr. assumes control of the business, kicking off a new age of prosperity for the company–the age of rock ‘n’ roll.

1951 First cutaway bodies appear on Electromatic and new Electro II guitar models.

1953 Duo-Jet production starts, sparking the entire Jet line of Gretsch solid-body guitars.

1954 Jimmie Webster strikes a deal with guitarist Chet Atkins to develop a Chet Atkins-designed Gretsch guitar. Gretsch begins its eye-catching “color revolution” by introducing sparkling Silver Jet and famous Western Orange, Cadillac Green and Jaguar Tan finishes. First Bigsby® vibratos offered on Gretsch electrics.

1955 Gretsch introduces White Falcon and 6120 Chet Atkins models.

Gretsch White Falcon

1957 Gretsch begins production of Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar model. The model would soon rise to popularity with other legendary guitarists.  Twang is born: Duane Eddy purchases new 6120 at Ziggie’s Accordion & Guitar Studio in Phoenix, AZ.

The King of Twang Duane Eddy

1959 Project-O-Sonic stereo guitar system introduced. Gretsch builds Bo Diddley his futuristic Jupiter Thunderbird guitar. Gretsch drum endorsee Jimmy Cobb records “Kind of Blue” with Miles Davis.

1960 George Harrison buys a used ‘57 Gretsch Duo Jet, the guitar featured during The Beatles’ earliest recordings and tours. “Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland” is recorded by four legendary Gretsch drum endorsees: Art Blakey, Charlie Persip, Elvin Jones and “Philly” Joe Jones.

Harrison Tribute Duo Jet

1962 Double-cutaway Electrotone thinline series introduced.

1964 “Beatlemania” is born on The Ed Sullivan Show. George Harrison’s use of a Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar ignites frenzy among aspiring guitarists.

1965 George Harrison adds a Gretsch Tennessean to his guitar collection.

1967 Fred Gretsch, Jr. retires and sells The Gretsch Company to Baldwin Music Company. His nephew, Fred W. Gretsch, vows to buy the company back.

1969 The Rolling Stones tour the U.S. with Charlie Watts playing Gretsch drums.

1970 Baldwin moves Gretsch drum & guitar production to Booneville, Ark.

1972 Baldwin moves Gretsch’s New York business offices to Chicago. Chet Atkins’ “Super Chet” guitar introduced.

1973 Baldwin signs over production duties to Bill Hagner and his newly formed Hagner Musical Instrument Corp. Two major fires damage Arkansas guitar & drum plant.

1977 Chet Atkins’ “Super Axe” guitars introduced.

1978 Gretsch drum & guitar production reverts from Bill Hagner back to Baldwin.

1979 Baldwin moves Gretsch sales and administration offices to Chanute, Kansas.

1980 An attempt by Baldwin to re-launch guitar production in Juarez, Mexico fails after only a handful of guitars are built. Baldwin shuts down Gretsch guitar production.

1982 Rockabilly returns with Gretsch guitar slinger Brian Setzer and The Stray Cats releasing their first U.S. single, “Rock This Town.” The group also features Slim Jim Phantom on Gretsch drums.

1985 Eighteen years after the company was sold to Baldwin, Fred W. Gretsch, great-grandson of the company founder, fulfills his promise to buy the company back and return it to the family fold. Gretsch establishes drum manufacturing center in Ridgeland, S.C.

1988 George Harrison collaborates with Gretsch to produce the unique Traveling Wilburys collector guitar.

1989 Modern Gretsch guitar production begins in earnest. Gretsch introduces professional line of Gretsch electric and acoustic guitars.

1993 Gretsch begins production of Brian Setzer signature guitar model.

Setzer Signature Guitars

1998 Gretsch announces budget-priced “Electromatic,” “Synchromatic,” and “Historic” guitar lines.

1999 Gretsch purchases Bigsby Accessories from owner and former Gibson CEO Ted McCarty. Bo Diddley signature rectangular guitar re-introduced.

1999 - Gretsch Acquires Bigsby

2000 Kaman Music (KMCMusicorp) becomes exclusive Gretsch Drums worldwide distributor.

2002 Gretsch grants Fender Musical Instruments Corporation exclusive rights to develop, produce, market, and distribute Gretsch Guitars worldwide.

2006 Gretsch teams up with legendary Bo Diddley and Billy F. Gibbons to design the “Billy-Bo” Jupiter Thunderbird guitar. Stephen Ferrone signature series drums introduced.

2007 Chet Atkins’ name once again adorns extensive line of Gretsch electric guitars.

2008 Gretsch celebrates 125th anniversary.  Endows scholarship at Berklee College of Music in honor of Jimmie Webster.

For Gretsch's 125th Anniversary in 2008, a Portrait of Four Past Presidents was Commissioned. Artist: Amy Hahn-Lind.

2011 Gretsch introduces George Harrison Duo Jet tribute guitar. Chet Atkins Exhibit opens at The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum.

Chet Atkins Exhibition

2012 New Brooklyn drum series, Rancher Acoustics, and Roots Collection introduced.

2013 Gretsch celebrates 130th Anniversary.  Iconic Round Badge returns to Gretsch Drums.




German Guitar Heroes–Legendary Craftsman from Germany to America

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

By Fred Gretsch

Not long ago I was on a visit to New York City. While there, I took the opportunity to attend an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled: “Guitar Heroes—Legendary Craftsmen From Italy to New York.” The exhibit showcased the history of guitar making in Italy, and how Italian luthiers brought their craft with them when they emigrated to New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As the namesake of one of America’s premier guitar brands, I was fascinated by the Met’s exhibit. However, as an individual of German heritage, whose family has been keenly involved with guitar production for four generations, I felt that an important part of history was not being represented.

My feelings were made all the more acute by the fact that my granddaughter Chelsea (a sixth-generation Gretsch) was at the Met with me. I wanted her to know and appreciate how important the contributions of German immigrant craftsmen—including members of her own family—were and still are to guitar innovation and production in America. So I decided to prepare this examination of those contributions.

Using the format of the Met’s exhibit as a basis for my look at German Guitar Heroes, I discovered a fascinating array of comparisons, contrasts, and connections. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

It Starts With C.F. Martin

To begin with a contrast: Significant emigration of Italian luthiers to New York took place between 1880 and 1920. But German luthier Christian Frederick Martin arrived half a century earlier, in 1833. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Christian Martin was the founder and namesake of C. F. Martin & Company, makers of world-famous Martin flat-top acoustic guitars. Christian Martin was born on January 31, 1796 in Markneukirchen, Germany. Born into a family of cabinetmakers and woodworkers, he eventually moved to Vienna, where he apprenticed to noted Austrian guitar maker Johann Georg Stauffer.

At that time European craftsmen operated under the guild system. The guitar (as we know it today) was a relatively new instrument, and most guitar makers—including C.F. Martin—were members of the Cabinet Makers’ Guild. But the Violin Makers’ Guild claimed exclusive rights to manufacture musical instruments. They filed appeals on three occasions to prevent cabinet makers from producing guitars. The cabinet makers successfully defended their right to build guitars, but Martin felt that the guild system was too restrictive. He wanted to work where his skill could advance his personal success without limitations. So in 1833 he emigrated to New York City.

Martin established a shop at 196 Hudson Street on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, with a workshop in the back and a small retail music store in the front. He remained in New York City for five years, then relocated to Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The company is still family-owned and operated to this day.

In an example of German craftsmanship and innovation, the Martin company employed the X-bracing system for guitars during the 1850s. In fact, X-bracing was used by several guitar makers in the 1850s—all German immigrants who knew each other—and there is no evidence that C. F. Martin invented the system. But the Martin Company was the first to use it on a large scale.

What makes this important is that from the 1860s on, fan bracing was the standard in Europe. Martin and other American builders (including such forgotten German names as Schmidt & Maul and Stumcke) used X-bracing. The sound produced by X-bracing on a guitar with gut strings may be considered less delicate. But it prepared the American guitar for steel strings, which emerged in the first quarter of the 20th century and eventually dominated the acoustic guitar market.

The German-heritage family leadership of the Martin company continued to result in important innovations as time went on. When the Great Depression of 1929 drastically reduced sales, the company came up with the 14-fret neck, which allowed players to reach higher notes more easily. Martin intended it to appeal to banjo players interested in switching to guitar for increased work opportunities. The longer neck became so popular that Martin made it standard on all of its guitars, and the rest of the guitar industry soon followed. Classical guitars, which were evolving on their own track largely among European builders, retained the 12-fret neck design.

Martin’s second major innovation within the period between 1915 and 1930 was the dreadnought guitar. First designed in 1916 as a collaboration between Martin and prominent retailer Oliver Ditson Co., the dreadnought body style was larger and deeper than most guitars. It took its name from the British Royal Navy’s HMS Dreadnought, which at the time was the largest battleship ever built.

HD-28 Dreadnought in moulded case

The greater volume and louder bass produced by the dreadnought design was intended to make the guitar more useful as an accompaniment instrument for singers working with the limited sound equipment of the day. Martin gave the dreadnought X-bracing in 1931, and two years later gave it a modified body shape to accommodate a 14-fret neck. From there it quickly became their best-selling guitar. Today the dreadnought size and shape is a “standard” acoustic guitar design, highly regarded for its usefulness in a wide variety of musical genres.

Enter Gretsch

The appearance of the Gretsch name as part of the German Guitar Heroes story also pre-dates the Italian emigration to the U.S. It happens in 1872, when my great-grandfather Friedrich Gretsch moved from Germany to Brooklyn at the age of sixteen. Very shortly thereafter he went to work at Albert Houdlett & Sons—a musical-instrument manufacturer that specialized in drums and banjos.

By the time 1883 came around, Friedrich was in his mid-twenties and had been married for four years. He had done many different music-related jobs, including expanding his skills to include guitars. That’s when he founded his own business, operating out of a small shop in Brooklyn.

Sadly, Friedrich didn’t remain at the helm of the business he founded for very long. In 1895, while on a trip to his German homeland, he died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-nine.

The Second Gretsch Generation

Friedrich’s death left the leadership of the company to the enterprising mind of his fifteen-year-old son, Fred Gretsch, who was still in knickers at the time. Energetic as he was enterprising, Fred Gretsch, Sr. built the business on a reputation for precision and quality. In 1916—two decades after assuming direction of the company—Fred Gretsch Sr. moved the factory and sales operation into a ten-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn. From this headquarters he responded to the growing demand for more specialized instruments, including guitars.

In one of the contrasts I mentioned earlier, New York’s Italian luthiers worked on a local, artisan basis. By 1920 Gretsch was the world’s largest instrument manufacturer, making and selling guitars across the country. (At that time, guitars were sold to wholesalers, who put their own brands on them.) And, in one of the connections I mentioned earlier, Gretsch was also distributing Martin guitars.

In 1927 the popularity of Gretsch-made guitars prompted the company to officially create their own brand of guitars. Thus the Gretsch name appeared on guitars for the first time. Back in 1918 Fred Gretsch Sr. had developed a revolutionary multi-ply lamination process that resulted in the world’s first “warp-free” drum hoop and led to the development of multi-ply drumshells. (Prior to that time drum shells and hoops had been made of steam-bent single-ply boards.) This historic innovation later had a major impact on guitar manufacturing, as we’ll see in a bit.

In 1935, Fred Gretsch Sr.’s son Bill was managing the company’s Chicago distribution office when he met a nineteen-year-old saxophonist named Charles “Duke” Kramer, who was playing in local clubs. Bill saw something special in the teenager and offered him a job polishing horns for $11 a week. Duke—himself of German heritage—accepted the job and never left the company. His career with Gretsch spanned an amazing seventy years, during which time he came to be known as “Mr. Guitar Man” for his pivotal role in making Gretsch electric guitars what they are today.

Gretsch Sychromatic Guitar

And what they are today began in 1939 with the introduction of the first Gretsch electric guitar—the Electromatic—along with the Synchromatic archtop guitar series. In that same year guitar player and innovator Jimmie Webster joined the company. Meanwhile, Gretsch acoustic guitars appeared with a distinctive triangle-shaped sound hole.

The Third Gretsch Generation

In 1942 my grandfather, Fred Gretsch, Sr., retired, leaving the day-to-day operations of running the company to his sons, Fred Gretsch, Jr. (my uncle) and William “Bill” Gretsch (my father). Both had been active in the business since 1927. After a brief term at the company’s helm, Fred Gretsch, Jr. left to serve as a commander in the US Navy. Bill Gretsch became president, and during his tenure the company forged a musical relationship with the legendary Birdland jazz club in New York City.

The company lost its president, and I lost my father, to illness in 1948. Fred Gretsch, Jr. assumed control of the business, just in time for the dawn of rock ’n’ roll at the beginning of the 1950s. While other guitar manufacturers held to traditional designs tied to older musical styles, Gretsch embraced rock ’n’ roll as an opportunity for innovation and expansion. The early years of the decade saw the first cutaway bodies appear on Electromatic and new Electro II guitar models, as well as the introduction of the legendary Duo-Jet model (which sparked the entire Jet line of Gretsch solid-body guitars).

In 1954 Jimmie Webster struck a deal with guitar great Chet Atkins to design and develop a Gretsch guitar. In this same year the first Bigsby vibratos—designed by inventor, machinist, musician, and engineer Paul Bigsby—were offered on Gretsch electrics. The two brands have since become inseparably identified.

Special Connections

The 1950s featured several fascinating connections between Gretsch and one of the Italian guitar makers showcased in the Metropolitan Museum’s Guitar Heroes exhibit: John D’Angelico. In the 1950s D’Angelico’s Manhattan shop and Gretsch’s Brooklyn factory were at opposite ends of the Williamsburg Bridge. John used to take the subway from Delancy Street over to the Brooklyn side, then walk down to our building, where we sold him our remaining stock of solid-wood tops, backs, sides, and wood blocks for neck-making. That material was surplus to us, but it was the basic ingredient for his stock in trade. Gretsch was a large buyer of wood and wood products; John was a small buyer. And he was able to buy things from us, including ebony and rosewood, which we were importing in large quantities. So John D’Angelico was a customer of ours.

Chet Atkins' D'Angelico Guitar. Courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Photo by Bob Delevante.

The lead picture on the Met exhibit calendar is a D’Angelico guitar built in 1959. It’s a beautiful blonde spruce-top guitar, and I’m pretty certain that we sold John some or all of the wood that he used to build that instrument. And the August 2012 page of the calendar depicts a 1950 D’Angelico guitar that was owned and played by Chet Atkins prior to his coming on board with Gretsch. It’s currently on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. That guitar is also probably made of wood obtained from Gretsch. And it features an early Bigsby bridge and pickups—characteristic elements of Gretsch guitars.

More Innovation

In 1955 the multi-ply drum construction method introduced by my grandfather back in 1918 had its impact on guitar design. Up until that time, virtually all hollow-bodied electric guitars were made with one-piece tops and backs. When these instruments were played at the new volume levels of rock ’n’ roll music, they tended to feed back. In 1955, with input from Chet Atkins, Gretsch pioneered three-ply tops and backs on their guitars. This resulted in the White Falcon and 6120 Chet Atkins models, and set the stage for artists like Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, and Beatle George Harrison.

Gretsch 6120 Nashville Guitar

As the 1950s continued, Gretsch began production of the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar, as well as the futuristic Jupiter Thunderbird guitar designed for Bo Diddley. And as the decade ended and a new one began, an event took place that changed the course of musical history. That was when, in 1960, a young British guitarist named George Harrison bought a used 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet guitar. He used that guitar on the earliest recordings and tours by his band, The Beatles.

Only four years later “Beatlemania” was born on The Ed Sullivan Show. George Harrison’s use of a Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar ignited a frenzy for that model among aspiring guitarists. And, in yet another connection to German guitar manufacturing, Harrison’s bandmate Paul McCartney performed on a German-made Hofner “violin” bass . . . an instrument that has since become a Beatles icon.

The Fourth Gretsch Generation

In 1967 my uncle, Fred Gretsch, Jr. retired. At the same time he sold The Gretsch Company to the Baldwin Music Company. Over the next eighteen years instrument production facilities and sales offices were moved around the country. Guitar production was limited, and was ultimately shut down completely in 1980. During all that time, it was my fervent desire to return the company to Gretsch family ownership. I was able to achieve that goal in 1985, when I bought the Gretsch Company back from Baldwin.

Shortly after the reacquisition of the company, Gretsch guitar production was started up again. This was helped immeasurably by the resurgence a few years earlier of the rockabilly sound of Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats—a sound that depended largely on Brian’s classic hollow-body Gretsch electric guitar.  In 1988 there was another boost when George Harrison collaborated with Gretsch designers to produce the unique Traveling Wilburys collector guitar. By 1989 Gretsch guitar production had begun in earnest, with full professional lines of Gretsch electric and acoustic guitars.

From the early 1990s through today, Gretsch guitar innovation has continued. This innovation includes the introduction of the Brian Setzer signature model (1993), budget-priced Electromatic, Synchromatic, and Historic guitar lines (1998), the purchase of the Bigsby Accessory company and the re-introduction of the Bo Diddley rectangular signature guitar (1999), the Bo Diddley/Billy Gibbons Billy-Bo Jupiter Thunderbird guitar (2006), a reintroduced line of Chet Atkins models (2007), an Eddie Cochrane tribute model (2010), the George Harrison Tribute Duo-Jet (2011), and a Duane Eddy signature model (2012).

The Legacy Continues

I now represent the fourth generation of Gretsch Company ownership, dating back to my great-grandfather Friedrich. And when it comes to the subject of guitar manufacturing, I’m proud to represent not only my own family’s contributions, but also a legacy of craftsmanship and innovation brought to this country from Germany over 175 years ago.

For exclusive souvenirs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Guitar Heroes exhibition please visit the following links:



Calendar & Postcard Set

Remembering the “Quiet Beatle”

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Remembering George Harrison

Ten years ago today, the world lost George Harrison–the Beatles’ “quiet” lead guitarist and spiritual explorer who added both rock ‘n’ roll flash and a touch of the mystic to the band’s timeless magic.

Harrison died on November 29, 2001 in Los Angeles following a battle with cancer.  “He left this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends,” the Harrison family said in a statement shortly after his passing. “He often said, ‘Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.’”

George accomplished much during his life.  He was a guitarist, singer-songwriter, actor, film producer, humanitarian, and avid gardener.  In the early 70s he grew “tired of people saying, ‘But what can I do?’” and organized hugely successful benefit concerts for Bangladesh.  George also had a keen sense of humor, as could be seen when he made a cameo appearance as the Interviewer in Eric Idle’s 1978 film, All You Need Is Cash, about a rock band called “The Rutles”.  According to George, the parody told the Beatles’ story “much better than the usual boring documentary.” Of course, at millennium’s end George–along with Paul and Ringo–took part in one of the biggest documentary projects ever with the Anthology film/disc/book series.

Among George’s other accomplishments was the formation of the successful group the Traveling Wilburys in 1988 with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison.  In 2001, he also oversaw the reissue of his great solo work, All Things Must Pass, marking its 30th anniversary. The double-disc included a new version of the classic “My Sweet Lord”, which remains a masterpiece today.

Earlier this year, Gretsch proudly introduced a special limited-edition instrument—the Gretsch Custom Shop G6128T-GH George Harrison “Tribute” Duo Jet—in his honor.  Producing the replica of George’s prized Duo Jet, the guitar he often referred to as his first truly good guitar, was a labor of love for those involved.  With only 60 pieces produced, the guitar meticulously replicated the all-black 6128 Duo Jet George purchased in the summer of 1961 and used with the Beatles through the spring of 1963.  Every scratch, ding, and rust spot of George’s guitar can be found on the tribute model including a black Phillips head pivot bolt on the Bigsby® B6C tailpiece arm and the offset strap button on the lower bout relocated to accommodate the Bigsby.

George and his Duo Jet can be heard on many early Beatles’ recordings.  And although George used other guitars during his career including a Gretsch Country Gentleman and Tennessean, when it came to deciding on a guitar to be pictured with on the cover of his 1987 album Cloud Nine, George selected his beloved Duo Jet.

George earned an Academy Award with the Beatles in 1970 and received the first Billboard Century Award given out in 1992.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 and also given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2009.  His impact on music and the world will not soon be forgotten.

Upon learning of George’s passing ten years ago, the Gretsch family had this to say:
We sadly mourn the tragic loss of our good friend and brother. Thanks for making our world a better place, George.  We love you.

Cover of the new LIFE magazine commemorative book about George Harrison. Credit: LIFE Magazine

Fred Gretsch & Randy Bachman Together In Edmonton

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Two Music Greats Meet In The North

Every so often fate aligns to bring major figures in music history together unexpectedly. Such an alignment occurred this past September 26.

Two Icons of The Music Industry: Randy Bachman and Fred W. Gretsch.

It happened when Gretsch Company president Fred W. Gretsch and Canadian rock great Randy Bachman (founding member of The Guess Who) met in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Fred was there—in tandem with Gretsch Guitars product manager Joe Carducci—for the pair’s popular “Fred & Joe Show”, Canadian tour edition. Randy was there to sign copies of his recently released book, Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories.

“The Fred & Joe Show” is the only event of its kind in the music industry. Where else can guitarists and music fans learn about the history of Gretsch instruments, the Gretsch Company, and the Gretsch family—all directly from the man whose name is on the products? The show combines rare film clips and photos with Fred’s personal reminiscences and anecdotes, creating a direct connection between the past, present, and future of Gretsch guitars.

Guess Who Founding Guitarist Randy Bachman (Center, Left) and Gretsch Company President Fred W. Gretsch (Center, Right) are Flanked by Angela Owen and Al Dobish, Owners of Edmonton’s WestEnd Rock Shop.

Over the past four years Fred Gretsch and Joe Carducci have logged thousands of miles, taking their uniquely educational and entertaining presentation to music stores and guitar shops across North America. The Canadian tour included stops at GuitarWorks in Calgary, the Edmonton Fall Guitar Show, and Edmonton’s WestEnd Rock Shop.  These shows were extra special due to the addition of a George Harrison tribute–a traveling exhibit of George Harrison memorabilia commemorating the Gretsch G6128T-GH George Harrison signature Duo Jet guitar.  View more tour pictures.

Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories
features tales and anecdotes taken from Randy’s popular Saturday-night show on Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) radio. Included are stories about making music, discovering new guitar licks, and the often meandering route to achieving commercial success in the music business. Randy’s stories are told with humility and a folksy charm. Though a star in his own right, he describes the euphoria associated with meeting his own music idols, including Gretsch guitar great Chet Atkins. To bring the reader more closely into the musical context of the book, each chapter ends with a suggested playlist, while other individual cuts are referenced throughout.

Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories is full of incredible stories about many of rock’s greatest artists—taken from the memory vault of one of the best-known among them.  Read a review.