A Brief History of Gretsch Drums

The word “legacy” gets thrown around a lot in some industries. But after more than 130 years, few, if any, companies can match Gretsch’s long-standing reputation for quality and innovation.

Founded in 1883, Gretsch is one of the oldest American music companies still operating today, and its early history reads like a classic American success story. At the age of 27, German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch opened a music store in Brooklyn, New York, where he made and sold drums, banjos and tambourines.

Gretsch Catalina Maple Drum Kit in Dark Cherryburst

Gretsch quickly became known as an innovator in the field of drum-making and changed the face of modern drum production — for the first of many times — by creating the first “warp free” drum hoop in 1918. In 1927, Gretsch produced the Gretsch-American drum series, the first drums produced with multi-ply shells, which would become part of Gretsch’s signature sound and remain so to this day.

“I love Gretsch drums. The aesthetic, the vibe and sound of the drums are all world class,” says Stanton Moore, drummer for the jam band Galactic. “Being a Gretsch Artist, I feel like I’m part of a long history that includes some of the best — and some of my favorite — drummers in the world. I’m thrilled to be a part of that lineage. The sound? It’s instantly recognizable. The craftsmanship? It’s classic.”

Moore owns several Gretsch kits and his love for the brand runs deep. “I have an early ‘60s Round Badge Bop kit, 12”, 14”, 18”; a ‘70s Stop Sign Badge big sizes kit, 14”, 16”, 18”, 26”; three USA Custom kits, one lacquer, one wrapped and one with glass glitter. They all have the same maple/gum shell formula with die cast hoops. Whether it’s the small drums tuned higher for jazz or the big drums tuned medium/low for heavier stuff, they all sound great and fit all the various musical situations I find myself in.”

Gretsch Broadkaster

Gretsch introduced its legendary Broadkaster series in 1935, which would remain its flagship line through the 1950s, and it’s this series that’s responsible for the company’s iconic tagline, “That Great Gretsch Sound.” To the delight of fans, the Broadkaster series was reissued in 2014 and is made in America, featuring thin North American maple/poplar/maple shells, known for creating deep, warm tones.

Gretsch Broadkaster Modern Bop 4pc Drum Kit

After WWII, Gretsch began to lay the groundwork that would result in a period of growth and prosperity. Gretsch partnered with jazz drummer Louis Bellson in 1946 to develop a double bass drum kit, another first for Gretsch and the music industry. The following year, in ‘47, Gretsch established a relationship with the iconic Birdland Jazz Club in New York City, a partnership that would serve the company well for years to come.

It was also around this time that Gretsch introduced its USA Custom line of drums. The handmade drums are made of the Gretsch six-ply formula: maple/gum shell with die-cast hoops and some of the highest quality finishes available, Gretsch says. These kits are considered to be among the finest in terms of quality, durability and styling.

Michael Miley, a Gretsch Artist and drummer for the band Rival Sons, currently plays USA Customs, a Silver Sparkle four-piece consisting of 14”x26," 10”x14," 15"x16" with a custom aluminum 6.5"x14" snare that he describes as basic, bold and super bad to the bone.

“Tone is everything for what I'm going for,” Miley says. “My soundman is basically flat EQ-ing my sound on stage. What you hear is what you get: ‘phat’ drum sounds! That’s special!”

Gretsch’s Golden Age

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the company enjoyed a “golden age.” A number of legendary musicians became Gretsch Artists, including Max Roach in 1950, Art Blakey in ‘54, and Tony Williams in ‘66. And the drums were featured on iconic recordings. Jimmy Cobb played them on Kind of Blue with Miles Davis in 1959, and Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland was recorded in 1960 with Art Blakey, Charlie Persip, Elvin Jones and "Philly" Joe Jones.

"The aesthetic, the vibe and sound of the drums are all world class. The sound? It’s instantly recognizable. The craftsmanship? It’s classic."

The Gretsch golden age came to an end in 1967, when Fred Gretsch Jr. retired and sold the company to Baldwin Music Company. Fred W. Gretsch, the nephew of Fred Gretsch Jr., vowed to purchase the company back. In the meantime, in 1969, Charlie Watts played Gretsch drums on The Rolling Stones tour for the first time and continues to play them with the band nearly 50 years later.

In 1985, 18 years after the company was sold to Baldwin, Fred W. Gretsch made good on his word to purchase the Gretsch company back and restored it to family ownership. The company partnered with Fender in 2003 to handle development, distribution and sales.

Gretsch Brooklyn Series

Gretsch Brooklyn 2014 Limited Edition

In 2012, Gretsch introduced the American-made Brooklyn Series. The drums are six-ply North American maple/poplar shells, yet thicker than Gretsch’s USA Custom Drums. While the set is considered “classic Gretsch,” the sound is considered distinctive from the other Gretsch series, with its own unique sound personality. In 2013, with the release of several limited-edition drum sets, the company brought back the Gretsch Round Badge and celebrated its 130th anniversary. Finally, in 2015, Drum Workshop (DW Drums) acquired the rights to develop, produce, market and distribute Gretsch Drums.

So, what does the future hold for Gretsch Drums? Brand manager, Mike Nieland, spoke to Reverb about the partnership between Gretsch and Drum Workshop.

“The future of Gretsch Drums is in a better place than it’s ever been under the stewardship of Drum Workshop Inc.,” Nieland says. “There’s a lot of synergy between DW and Gretsch in that they are both family-owned, American musical instrument brands with a shared passion and dedication to creating world-class drums. But there’s also an inherent respect for Gretsch’s 133-year heritage and uniqueness that we will continue to foster and build upon. It's always been about ‘That Great Gretsch Sound.' But now with the advent of the Brooklyn and Broadkaster series and the larger array of options we offer, we can cater to an even larger palette of tastes, styles and, of course, sounds!”

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