Sunday, October 23, 2005

Because I'm all about the guitar Pt 3.5

Okay, this is a .5 post because, well, primarily because ... look at the name of the blog dammit! Secondly, because instead of focusing on a guitarist I'm focusing on a guitar company.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comInspired by my post on The Reverend Horton Heat, I want to talk a little bit about Gretsch guitars. Guitarists are known to be particular about getting certain sounds. They attach themselves to certain pieces of equipment -- guitars, pedals, strings, amps, speakers, etc. Gretsch, every bit as much as Gibson and Fender, are responsible for a lot of those cool guitar sounds we grew up loving.

Some of the biggest names in guitar ever have played Gretsch: Chet Atkins, George Harrison, Bo Didley, Chris Cornell, Django Reinhardt, Neil Young, Brian Setzer among others. There's something cool, undeniably Gretsch about those Filtertron pickups. You can hear it in strumming, in the decay of those single notes. Sure, some guitars sound similar, but nothing sounds exactly like a Gretsch.

Founded, in 1872 by German-immigrant Friedrich Gretsch, the company started as a drum and banjo manufacturer in New York. They later added lutherie (guitar manufacturing) to their company and in the 1930s offered acoustic archtops and flat-top guitars. Their first amplified models, the "Electrified Spanish" guitar, appeared in 1940. The 1950s saw the introduction of well-received, though conservatively designed electric archtops.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comIt was in 1956 that Gretsch cut a marketing deal with Chet Atkins and created his "Country Gentleman" guitar.

UPDATE: I made the Country Gentleman picture a hyperlink to the full-size image. Click it to check out the tuners on this baby. I meant to mention this when I was originally writing this. Look at how cool those little art deco things are. It's a little touch, but the kind of cool thing Gretsch does on their instruments. For an example of where these tuners became popular, click here.

This guitar has moved on to Gibson. Unfortunately. Not that I personally have anything against Gibson as a company. In fact, I probably admire them more than any other American lutherie company. But they have had quality control issues. They acquired Epiphone and with the exception of the high-end models, Epiphone is now a manufacturer of low-end Gibson knock-offs. Gibson has also acquired Kramer and Steinberger and the quality of those instruments has declined extremely. It's cool that they try and make affordable instruments, but I wish they'd still offer the level of quality they offer under their own name.

This is not to say that the Country Gentleman is not a quality instrument under Gibson's helm. It is a fantastic instrument, it just doesn't have that same Gretsch kitschy cool. Oh well. I'll write more about Gibson another day.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comGretsch has had some amazingly cool players. Out of the list above, their most famous player must be George Harrison. While John Lennon was playing his huge Epiphone Emperor, Harrison knocked out some cool sounds on his Gretsch Duo Jet. Of course, all the Beatles played a variety of brands, the Gretsch Duo Jet is a mainstay of Harrison's sound. At least as much as Rickenbacker.

The modern Gretsch company has gone through some changes. It is now located in Savannah, Ga. (three hours down the road from me! I hope they give tours!), and their company was acquired by Fender Music Company in 2002. While this would normally spell the end of quality and manufacturing integrity for a company if Gibson had done it, Fender is known for letting their subsidiaries continue to produce their instruments at the same level of quality. They may cut into production levels, but the heart of a company generally remains the same. Fender acquired Jackson about the same time and if anything, quality has gone up for them.

I find this slice of Americana so interesting. When you think about the industrial background of America's youth, what images come to mind? I think about railroads and car manufacturers. Seldom did instrument makers enter my mind, but obviously they did their part to keep our economy going. And they more than did their part to ensure we produced some of the coolest music ever.

I got a heck of a lot of the information for this piece from The Guitar & Rock Equipment by Nick Freeth. If you've not seen it, check it out. And I didn't even talk about the coolness of the Bigsby vibrato unit. Some time in the future, I guess.

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