“That Great Gretsch Sound” first started taking shape more than 120 years ago. It all began in 1883 in Brooklyn, N.Y., when 27-year-old German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch founded a small musical instrument shop to make banjos, drums and tambourines.
After Gretsch’s untimely death in 1895, leadership of the fledgling company fell to his teenage son, Fred, who proved to be quite a businessman. By 1916 the company was one of America’s leading musical instrument importers and manufacturers, headquartered in one of the Brooklyn’s largest buildings.
Seeking growth and keenly aware of public demand, Gretsch began making archtop and flat-top acoustic guitars in the 1930s, and introduced the company’s first Spanish electric model in 1939. Fred Gretsch retired in 1942, and third son William served as company president until his (also untimely) death in 1948. Company treasurer Fred Gretsch Jr. then took over, leading Gretsch through its ’50s and ’60s heyday.
Gretsch flourished in the rock ‘n’ roll ’50s by offering many space-age guitar gadgets and becoming the first guitar maker to offer custom color finishes. Sales rocketed and players rocked—high-profile endorsers like Chet Atkins (the man behind a series of famous Gretsch models), Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy were all seen with their cool, great-sounding Gretsch guitars.
The ’60s heralded a second Gretsch golden age—Beatle George Harrison played several models, as did other talented British Invasion musicians, including the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, the Yardbirds’ Eric Clapton and the Who’s Pete Townshend.
Fred Gretsch Jr. retired in the late ’60s and sold the company to Baldwin Manufacturing, an unhappy marriage during which production was moved to Arkansas, where two disastrous factory fires hampered an already worsening situation. Gretsch limped through the ’70s, and with sales down and Baldwin increasingly disinterested, production ceased by 1983.
That wasn’t the end, though. Fred Gretsch III, great-grandson of Friedrich Gretsch, had vowed that the name would return. He bought the company in 1985 and engineered its return to glory through the ’90s with a successful series of re-issues and new models. A revived rockabilly/rock ‘n’ roll scene spearheaded by nimble-fingered artists such as Brian Setzer and Jim “Reverend Horton Heat” Heath chose Gretsch guitars just as their predecessors once did. Further, a wide variety of talented pop/rock guitarists such as Billy Duffy (the Cult), Malcolm Young (AC/DC), Jimmie Vaughan, Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Jack White (the White Stripes), Neil Finn (Crowded House), Garrett “G. Love” Dutton, Joe Perry (Aerosmith) Billy Zoom (X), Chris Cheney (the Living End) and many others are all often seeing playing their Gretsch guitars.
In late 2002 a deal was struck for Fender Musical Instruments Corp. to handle Gretsch guitar and amp manufacturing and distribution, ensuring that “That Great Gretsch Sound” would have Fender’s formidable resources solidly behind it, with tremendous commitment to quality and reverence for the Gretsch spirit.
Much has been written about “That Great Gretsch Sound” over the years, and the company continues to build—as it has throughout its long and legendary history—some of the world’s most visually stimulating and sonically captivating guitars. True, they are still unrivaled as the rockabilly guitars, but they’ve always been and remain much more than that, too—Gretsch instruments have carved out not only a musical identity of their own, but also a cultural identity. They’re for those with a certain sense of style, a certain love of the colorful and a certain way of standing out. Players who pick one up and play it understand—it’s not just a guitar. It’s a Gretsch.