Author Archives: Jeff Owens
Posted: August 17, 2012
Gretsch guitars are fabulous-looking instruments. Always have been. So it’s no surprise that they often made their way onto the album covers of those who played them and put them to such great use. Here then, in no particular chronological order, are eight fine album covers notable for being graced with great Gretsch guitars:
1. A Session With Chet Atkins (Chet Atkins, 1961)
There are only about a bazillion Chet Atkins albums that feature a Gretsch guitar on the cover, usually in the hands of the master himself, and all of them look fabulous. So this one is kind of a tough call.
After much consideration, we’re going with the 1961 re-issue of 1954’s A Session With Chet Atkins because it must be the Gretsch-iest original-era album cover ever. The 1954 original cover somewhat somberly pictured Atkins himself, and while the ’61 re-issue cover doesn’t, what it does picture is three—count ’em, three—Gretsch guitars: a Tennessean, a Duo Jet and a 6120; the latter locked in the joyous embrace of a sultry brunette. Come to think of it, 1955’s Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions also has three Gretsch guitars on the cover, but since none of them are locked in the joyous embrace of a sultry brunette, A Session With Chet Atkins gets the nod here.
Posted: July 31, 2012
Among their many distinctive features, Gretsch electric guitars have been known for decades for a variety of highly individual bridge designs. The history of these bridges is as colorful and interesting as the Gretsch instruments they’re part of, and many of the original-era designs live on today in modernized form.
Today’s four most prevalent bridge types for Gretsch electric guitars and basses are the Adjusto-Matic™, Space Control™, Rocking Bar and Synchro-Sonic™ bridges. There are other types here and there, but those are the big four. Here, in chronological order, is a look at each one:
Introduced on Gretsch guitars in 1951, the Synchro-Sonic bridge was a welcome innovation in that it was one of the first guitar bridges—if not the very first—to feature independent intonation adjustment for each string (it preceded the Gibson Tune-O-Matic bridge by about a year).
Back in the early 1950s, it was originally named the “Melita” Synchro-Sonic after its designer, Sebastiano “Johnny” Melita, who built the distinctive-looking bridges for Gretsch in his own workshop. The Synchro-Sonic’s elaborate design is described in 50 Years of Gretsch Electrics as a “complex mass of chrome-plated metal that looks like it might be more at home on a saxophone.” Nonetheless, the book continues, “Gretsch immediately realized the Melita’s potential to provide the more accurate intonation that was required on electric guitars.”
Such accurate intonation is enabled by a sliding saddle for each string that can easily be moved forward and backward. Each saddle is topped by a thumbscrew that is easily loosened to allow saddle adjustment and then tightened to lock the saddle in place. No tools are required; all adjustment can be made using only the fingers. The Melita Synchro-Sonic bridge was largely superseded in the late 1950s by the simpler Space Control bridge (see below), but was revived in Gretsch’s modern era as a classic feature and remains in use today on several Falcon™, Country Club™, Jet™ and Penguin™ models.
“Rocking” Bar Bridge
Fixed solid-bar bridges were common on early Gretsch guitars; these were simple chrome-, nickel- or gold-plated brass bars seated on ebony or rosewood bases, with the entire assembly held in place only by string tension. There were no light-gauge electric guitar strings in the 1950s, and while the design straightforwardness of these bridges offered good sustain and tone, there was no means of adjusting individual string intonation (other than the entire bridge being positioned at an angle).
With impetus and input from Chet Atkins, Gretsch developed a new design for these bar bridges in the mid-1950s that featured cone-shaped postholes. This allowed the bar to smoothly rock back and forth on guitars fitted with Bigsby® vibrato tailpieces while still offering solid sustain and great tone. These “Rocking” Bar bridges became a hit with players and have been a Gretsch staple ever since.
While only a very few Gretsch guitar models use a vintage-style non-rocking bar bridge today (i.e., the G6120EC Eddie Cochran Tribute Hollow Body and G6120DSW Chet Atkins Hollow Body), the modern version of the Rocking Bar bridge is found on many contemporary Gretsch guitars—especially various Chet Atkins Country Gentleman®, 6120 Hollow Body, 6121 Solid Body and Tennessee Rose™ models.
Space Control™ Bridge
Gretsch devised the Space Control bridge, so named for its method of adjusting the spacing between each string, in 1957. Gretsch had started making its own pickups by that year, and followed suit by beginning to make its own bridges in-house, too, as opposed to the original Synchro-Sonic bridges that Johnny Melita had been producing for Gretsch in his own workshop.
As noted in 50 Years of Gretsch Electrics, this would allow Gretsch to “dispense with Mr. Melita’s services … and thereby gain more control over the production and supply of key components.”
Designed by Gretsch’s own Jimmie Webster, the Space Control bridge was far simpler than the earlier Melita bridge, although it didn’t offer individual string intonation. What it did offer was simple adjustment of the spacing between each string, by means of six wheel-shaped saddles positioned along a threaded bar. This lets the player set a broad string spread for finger-style work or a narrow spread for pick and chord work. The Space Control bridge started replacing the Melita bridges in 1957 and remains a classic feature in the modern Gretsch era, appearing on several Gretsch Falcon, Country Club, Jet, Penguin, artist and bass guitar models.
The most commonplace modern Gretsch guitar bridge is undoubtedly the Adjusto-Matic bridge, which appears on roughly half the models in the current Gretsch electric instrument lineup.
Introduced in the early 1970s as the “Adjustamatic” bridge, it offered precise individual intonation for each string by means of six individually adjustable saddles. The design was considerably more modern and streamlined than the previous Gretsch bridge to offer individual string intonation, the Melita Synchro-Sonic of 20 years earlier, although, as with most electric guitar bridges, tools were required for fine-tuning with an Adjustamatic bridge. There’s also an element of the Rocking Bar bridge at work too, as the Adjustamatic—known today in its improved version as the “Adjusto-Matic” bridge—slightly rocks back and forth when used with a Bigsby vibrato, reducing friction and adding tuning stability.
Posted: July 21, 2012
Between the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and the British Invasion in the 1960s, Gretsch guitars were all over the place and all over the charts. And if we skip ahead a decade, we find Gretsch guitars very much in vogue during the 1980s, and they’ve remained so pretty much ever since, right through the 1990s and the early 2000s to the present day.
But what about that decade we skipped? Unlike any other decade in rock, the 1970s are a bit more of a challenge when looking for Gretsch guitar hits. Maybe it has something to do with the idea that in many ways and certainly more so than in any other decade, the 1970s was an anxious and uncertain period when rock tore itself down and rebuilt itself -an unusually turbulent adolescence for an art form no longer in its childhood.
Never mind all that, though – the ’70s still kicked ass, and while you might have had to look a little harder to find them between Let It Be and Built For Speed, Gretsch guitars were very much alive and well. Here are five 1970s hits that prove it:
1. Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, “Ohio” (1970). Neil Young and Stephen Stills both made extensive use of the Gretsch White Falcon in the 1970s, perhaps best exemplified by 1970 CSN&Y single “Ohio,” penned by Young that summer in response to the infamous Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970. Young’s instantly recognizable picked intro and main theme is a fine Gretsch moment all by itself, and the song peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
2. The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again (1971). Pete Townshend played a 1959 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body on this, the quintessential Who track of the 1970s and possibly even the quintessential Who track, period. Further, he played it on every song from monumental 1970 album Who’s Next – “Bargain,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Baba O’Riley,” everything. In fact, he used on just about every Who recording and solo track from 1970 to at least 1993. He still has it and he still loves it, even though he broke it in an “accident” during an October 1973 performance of “5:15” on Top of the Pops.
The guitar was a 1970 gift from Joe Walsh. Townshend was less than thrilled upon opening the case for the first time, but that soon changed. As he told Guitar Player magazine in spring 1972:
Oh, I used that guitar on every track on Who’s Next, it’s the best guitar I’ve ever had. It won’t stay in tune on stage but if it did, I would use it. It’s the finest guitar I’ve ever owned, it’s the loudest guitar I’ve ever owned. It is so loud, man, it whips any pickup that I’ve ever come across. It’s maybe six or seven times louder than anything I’ve come across. If I plugged it in my amp tonight, normally I’d be working on volume 6 or 7, but I would work this guitar on 1.
3. New York Dolls “Personality Crisis” (1973). Honestly, almost any track off the New York Dolls’ hugely influential eponymous 1973 debut album qualifies here – “Trash,” “Looking For a Kiss” and “Jet Boy” all leap to mind – but if the Library of Congress could only preserve one number as the quintessential Dolls track, “Personality Crisis” wins for sheer glammy New York proto-punk majesty.
And OK, calling it a hit might be a bit of a stretch, but c’mon – you can’t talk about Gretsch guitars in the 1970s without at least a special honorable mention for the Dolls, because while David Johansen and Johnny Thunders stole more camera time trying to out-preen the Stones and the Stooges, Egyptian-born guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and his oft-wielded Gretsch White Falcon were the real bedrock of the group’s relentless lawnmower guitar sound.
4. Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “Takin’ Care of Business” (1974). Randy Bachman is one of the world’s great Gretsch guitar collectors, and believe it or not, he sold pretty much his entire phenomenal collection – almost 400 guitars – to the Gretsch museum in Savannah, Ga., in 2008. Unfortunately, the collection didn’t include the late-’50s orange 6120 he used to record universally beloved classic Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit “Takin’ Care of Business,” because the guitar was stolen from a Toronto hotel room in 1976.
Bachman once referred to the 6120 as his “first real professional guitar,” and he played it on the Guess Who’s first hit, a 1965 cover of “Shakin’ All Over,” so it was dear to him, to put it mildly. He has spent years searching for it without success. As for recording the hit in 1973, Bachman himself told us that “‘Taking Care of Business’ was my 6120, played through a 15-watt Garnet bass amp with a 15” speaker that was on a chair facing me. I had to use a lot of hand dampening to stop the squeals, but when I wanted the B.B. King-kind of feedback, I’d just let the lead notes sing out.”
5. AC/DC, “Highway to Hell” (1979). Hell, any AC/DC song from any decade is a shining Gretsch moment thanks to the rock-solid rhythm guitar work of Malcolm Young, but this is where things get going in earnest for Australia’s finest, which formed in Sydney in 1973. “Highway to Hell” comes from the 1979 album of the same name, which was AC/DC’s first million-selling record and first to break the U.S. Top 100, but its last with original vocalist Bon Scott, who died several months after its release.
Malcolm Young co-authored “Highway to Hell” with Scott and younger brother Angus Young, and of course, as on most AC/DC songs before and since, played his modified 1963 double-cutaway Gretsch Jet Firebird on it. He has remained pretty much exclusively devoted to the guitar, which was handed down to him by elder brother George Young (whose own group, the Easybeats, scored Australia’s first international rock hit with 1966 classic “Friday on My Mind”). The guitar was originally red, but Young stripped the top finish down to the maple top sometime around 1977’s Let There Be Rock.
Posted: July 2, 2012
On both sides of the Atlantic during the 1960s, the British Invasion created a golden age of rock and pop music on prime time TV that really hasn’t been equaled since. In addition to the big, long-running U.S. and U.K. variety shows of the era—The Ed Sullivan Show and Sunday Night at the London Palladium, respectively—it saw a proliferation of pop/rock programs that televised the invasion as it happened, such as Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go! in the United Kingdom, and Shindig! and Hullabaloo in the United States.
One particularly happy result of all that great live and lip-synched programming was that, as never before, millions of viewers got a good up-close look at Gretsch guitars and basses in action. Here then are five great televised Gretsch moments from the British Invasion, beginning with the phenomenal landmark performance that started it all.
P.S. – If anybody knows where we can find a Yardbirds TV clip that shows Eric Clapton playing his double-cutaway Gretsch 6120, let us know, would you? We searched all over and can’t find it, but we’re convinced that it exists and would love to see it …
Tags: Beatles, British Invasion, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Gretsch 6070 bass, Gretsch Anniversary, Gretsch Country Gentleman, Gretsch Tennessean, Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Who
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