How Gretsch Guitars Came Back from the Brink

It's 30 years since Gretsch was reborn. In 1989, a line of revived models was announced, marking the first availability of new Gretsches since the early '80s. In charge of the revitalized operation was Fred Gretsch—and anyone familiar with the Gretsch story will at this point say, "Yes, but which Fred Gretsch?" Let me explain.

Cleary, it wasn't Fred Gretsch Sr. or his father, Friedrich, who founded the Gretsch company in New York City in the late 19th century. And it wasn't Fred Sr.'s son, the pioneering Fred Gretsch Jr., who'd seen the brand through its glory years in the '50s and '60s with all those lovely 6120s and Falcons and Jets and Gents and the rest. Fred Jr. had died in 1980 at the age of 75.

A 1989 catalog cover from the freshly revived Gretsch.

Our "new" Fred Gretsch was a nephew of Fred Gretsch Jr. and the son of Bill Gretsch, who ran the company from 1942 until his premature death six years later. New Fred worked at Gretsch himself for six years from 1965, but following the sale of Gretsch to Baldwin in 1967, he began to look elsewhere, and in 1971 began his own business, importing and wholesaling instruments. In 1980, he bought the Synsonics brand from Mattel, using it for acoustic and electronic percussion and electric guitars.

Fred meanwhile kept an eye on the deteriorating state of Gretsch under Baldwin ownership. Neither Gretsch nor Baldwin benefitted much from their deal, and eventually Baldwin's bosses decided they'd had enough and would stop production of Gretsch guitars. Not much was manufactured beyond the start of 1981. In early 1982, Charlie Roy bought the business from Baldwin and set up offices in Gallatin, Tennessee, just outside Nashville.

Charlie continued to sell existing stock of Gretsch guitars probably as late as 1983. Baldwin then regained control of Gretsch. Jerry Perito at Gretsch came up with an idea to make Country Gents renamed as Southern Belle models (and a few years earlier, the Gent was briefly renamed the Country Squire). Perito then led a last-ditch plan to revive Gretsch guitar production at a Baldwin piano-action factory in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border in Mexico, but the idea was soon dropped.

Baldwin United, as it was now known, went bankrupt in late 1983, and in summer '84 the company's CEO, Dick Harrison, and a partner bought the musical elements of the business. Their new Baldwin Piano & Organ Co. sold on the Kustom brand and then turned their attention to Gretsch.

It's worth remembering that in the '80s, there was relatively little interest in Gretsch guitars much beyond those on a quest to complete their sets of Beatle-related collectables. Dealers sold the occasional old Falcon or 6120 for over $1,000, but other Gretsches went for much less. There was Poison Ivy in The Cramps with her '50s 6120 and Brian Setzer of Stray Cats heading up a rockabilly revival with another vintage 6120, but there wasn't too much more visible action for the brand.

The Cramps - "People Ain't No Good," Live on Belgian TV, 1986

Baldwin brought in Duke Kramer, a longstanding Gretsch executive, to handle the sale of Gretsch. At first he tried Fender, but management there was busy preparing to buy Fender from CBS. So he turned to Fred Gretsch, who bought the business in January 1985. Fred's plan was to continue making Gretsch drums for a year and then to revive the guitar business.

Duke and Fred drew up specifications for a set of Gretsch guitars—and then had to find a factory to make them. Duke met with several American firms, including Heritage, Guild, and Gibson. Those ideas proved unworkable, so the next option was to go offshore. Duke went to Japan and chose Terada, an experienced firm in Nagoya that was used to making quality hollowbody guitars.

In the meantime, though, Gretsch produced an unusual stopgap with a series of Korean-made electrics named for the Traveling Wilburys, the fictional family supergroup of George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. The guitars were apparently based, rather loosely, on some old Danelectro instruments. The few short-lived models were without Gretsch markings and all boldly finished in various "original graphics" with an appropriate travel theme.

Fred Gretsch Enterprises Ltd announced its first line of proper new Gretsch guitars in the second half of 1989. The company was unable to use the names of Chet Atkins and the associated models, because of Chet's defection to Gibson in 1980, so some model names had to be modified.

Gretsch listed five hollowbodies in that first lineup—Tennessee Rose (the revised name for a Chet Tennessean), Nashville (a plain 6120 using its post-'66 model name), Nashville Western (a 6120 with G-brand), Country Classic I (the revised name for a Chet Country Gent single-cut), and Country Classic II (a Gent double-cut)—along with four solids (Duo Jet, Silver Jet, Jet Firebird, and Round Up). A later '89 catalogue added a few White Falcons to the list.

This was a good start for the revived Gretsch brand, and more reissues would appear along in the coming years as the firm got into its stride, including Anniversary models, Country Clubs, and a White Penguin, as well as signature models for Bo Diddley, Elliot Easton, Duane Eddy, Keith Scott, Brian Setzer, Stephen Stills, and Malcolm Young.

A postcard from 1992 for the Gretsch 6120-1960.

New twists appeared, too, such as Falcons finished in black or with silver-colored metalwork, scaled-down versions of various models, several colored sparkle-finish Jets, a 12-string or two, a double-neck Jet, and some new Spectra-Sonic models (six- string, baritone, and bass) designed with TV Jones, who devised pickups and consulted for Gretsch.

Gretsch first began to consider more accurate re-creations of old designs in 1992, when it attempted a vintage-style 6120, calling it the Nashville 6120-1960. It was a commendable effort, with thumbnail markers, zero fret, three knobs and two selectors, and a body two-and-a-half inches deep, but details like the Bigsby and the bridge seemed adrift. Further bids for vintage veracity came with oldie-style takes on the Country Classic (Gent), Country Club, Duo Jet, Falcon, Nashville (6120), Silver Jet, and Tennessee Rose (Tennessean).

It was Gretsch's alliance with Fender, starting officially on the first day of 2003, that seemed at last to make the most of what Gretsch had to offer. Fred was keen to explain that this was not a takeover. "We still own and control the brand," he told me at the time, "and Fender does the marketing, manufacturing, and distribution."

Fender made a complete overhaul of the line, overseen by Mike Lewis, who had worked at Fender since the early '90s and now became Gretsch's marketing manager. Mike changed virtually every specification of every model, and in 2007 he supervised the return of the Chet Atkins name to Gretsch, which allowed the reintroduction of the original model names (except the Tennessean, because Gibson still owned the trademark on that one).

Since its rebirth 30 years ago, the Gretsch line has flourished, especially since the alliance with Fender (look for a serial number starting with two or three letters to indicate a Gretsch from the Fender era). Today, there are dozens of model variations to choose from, although the core models survive, not only in broad feature styles but also in ever-more-accurate Vintage Select Edition versions. There are some interesting newer model families, such as the Center Blocks, while the Custom Shop, established at Fender's US factory in 2004, caters for individual fancies—a pink paisley Duo Jet, anyone?

Vintage fans will argue that an old Gretsch can still offer a sonic and ergonomic charm all its own, but for many players, the brand and its new guitars have never seemed in better shape.


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Gretsch Electric Guitar Book, History Of The American Guitar, and Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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