The Story of the Gretsch White Penguin

[Original photo of Gretsch White Penguin by Abalone Vintage]

Whether in the world of nature or the world of collectible, vintage guitars, one fact is for sure: seeing a white penguin up close and personal is a rare event. Okay, more like an extremely rare event.

And even though the word "rare" can be overused in describing guitars, the Gretsch White Penguin deserves that moniker. It is, indeed, rare; the Holy Grail of Gretsch guitars. Why? Because only a handful were produced over a span of a few years, it was an expensive guitar even when new, and far more is not known about the mysterious Gretsch Model 6134 than is known.

Only a few dozen White Penguins have surfaced over the years and on the rare occasion (there's that word again) that one does come up for sale, prices are in the six figures. Pink Floyd's David Gilmour bought a very clean 1958 White Penguin for his personal collection back in 1980. It recently sold at auction for $447,000, a new record paid for a Gretsch guitar.

The 1958 White Penguin formerly owned by David Gilmour. Photo via Christie's.

Gretsch's Gold and White Jet Takes Flight

Just like the Gretsch 6121 is a matching solidbody version of the orange, G-Branded, Western-themed Chet Atkins Hollowbody Model 6120, the White Penguin is a solidbody companion to its hollowbodied big brother, the flashy and gold-sparkled White Falcon.

1959 Gretsch White Falcon 6136

The Jet's 13.5" wide, single-cutaway body consists of a heat-pressed contoured maple top glued to a heavily-chambered mahogany base. Although Jets were marketed as a solidbody, they were more of a semi-solidbody in reality.

The Penguin and White Falcon had many of the same glitzy components: gold-plated hardware, jeweled G-Arrow control knobs, gold sparkle binding from Gretsch's drum department, and a smaller version of the classy "G" Cadillac tailpiece. Plus like its big brother, the White Penguin was painted with multiple coats of hand-rubbed glossy white lacquer but used white Nitron drum material on the headstock surface. (This explains why many vintage White Penguin and White Falcon painted bodies have yellowed with age to a cream color, while their headstocks remain a bright white.)

And speaking of headstocks, because the White Penguin used the large, wide, V-shaped White Falcon headstock instead of the narrow headstock found on Gretsch Jet models, it appears a limited batch of guitar cases were manufactured for the White Penguin. As you can imagine, original examples of these cases are rare as well.

Low Production and No Promotion

Unfortunately, there are no surviving records of how many White Penguins actually left the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. Since they were probably produced during the small batch runs of White Falcons, Gretsch guitar and production guru, Ed Ball, speculates that perhaps fewer than 50 White Penguins were made from 1956 to 1962 (with only a handful featuring the Project-O-Sonic stereo option) before the Model 6134 was quietly retired and reassigned to the inexpensive solidbody Corvette model.

Regarding the marketing of the White Penguin, it doesn't appear Gretsch put much effort into promoting their third-most expensive guitar behind the White Falcon and Chet Atkins Country Gentleman. The White Penguin listed for a whopping $490 in 1959 compared to $265 for a Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul.

Gretsch's rare bird never appeared in a catalog, was only mentioned briefly in a 1958 brochure, and was only seen in a few price lists in the '50s. It was also never played by any big-named artists of the era or featured on an album cover, and no photos have surfaced of it being shown off at any trade shows. There's even speculation that the few White Penguins produced were actually custom orders from dealers. Again, we'll probably never know.

Circa 1956 Gretsch Price List, showing a White Penguin for $475.

Who Names a Guitar a White Penguin?

Good question. It's anybody's guess why a cuddly, aquatic flightless bird was chosen as the name for a high-end guitar (and was even featured in outline form on the guitar's pickguard). Perhaps Jimmie Webster, the creator of the White Falcon and Gretsch's main guitar designer, knew about the rarity of all-white penguins in the wild and saw the irony of naming his limited-production guitar after these rare, elusive birds. Just add this to the growing list of many yet-to-be-answered questions about vintage White Penguins.

Three Evolutions of a Rare Bird

During its initial run, three generations of White Penguins were produced and, for the most part, mirrored the White Falcon in regard to electronics, hardware, and pizzazz. The first generation of '56-'57 Penguins featured dual DeArmond Dynasonic single-coil pickups, a Melita bridge, and feather-engraved mother-of-pearl hump-block markers on a bound ebony fretboard.

The second generation of '58-'61 Penguins followed Gretsch's 1958 switch to humbucking Filter'Tron pickups, the new Space Control bridge, Neo-Classic Thumbnail fretboard markers on a bound ebony fretboard, a 3-position tone switch added to the upper bout, and a gold-sparkled horizontal block-letter Gretsch "T-Roof" logo on the headstock.

The third generation of '61-'62 Penguins were the lowest quantity produced and followed the new double-cutaway body style that appeared on most of the Gretsch guitar lineup. Other additions included a standby switch and a gold-plated Burns, not Bigsby, vibrato unit.

The White Penguin "Flies" Again 30 Years Later

After more than 30 years of retirement, the White Penguin surfaced again for a brief return in 1993–1994 and has been a regular member of the Gretsch lineup since 2003. The Penguin line has been expanded over the years to include an all-black Black Penguin model and even a parlor-sized White Penguin Rancher acoustic/electric guitar.

Currently, Gretsch offers a '58 White Penguin as part of their Vintage Select Professional Series. With TV Jones Filter'Tron Classic pickups and a gold Bigsby, today's Penguin is a flashy, faithful recreation of the 1958 model that Gretsch describes as "a finely crafted new take on that rarest of Gretsch birds."

Penguins are also a popular model requested at the Gretsch Custom Shop. Dozens of one-off Penguins in every color and configuration imaginable have been created over the past 15 years. It's ironic that probably more custom Penguins have been produced than the actual number of original White Penguins.

Authentic, vintage White Penguins occasionally come up for sale and sometimes even make appearances at guitar shows. You can also see two of the rarest White Penguins, a '58 Project-O-Sonic Stereo model and a double-cutaway '62 model, on display at the impressive Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

With more questions than answers, the elusive Gretsch White Penguin will probably continue increasing in price and being shrouded in mystery. More than sixty years after its quiet birth and "retirement," it's still anybody's guess how many White Penguins were actually made, how many survived, and when any of these elusive birds will surface again for air.

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