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GretschTech: The Baldwin Era

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Late Baldwin-era models: (left to right) The oddly proportioned Roc Jet and Country Roc, and the bizarre TK300 appear in the 1979 Gretsch catalog.

Every once in a while when exploring the Gretsch world, you’ll run across mention of the “Baldwin era” or the “Baldwin years.” What does this term refer to?

Generally speaking, people use it to refer to Gretsch in the 1970s. More specifically, however, it refers to the period when the Baldwin Piano Company owned Gretsch, which was substantially longer—from summer 1967 to early 1985.

The Baldwin era is a much-maligned period in Gretsch history. The term is often used in an unflattering light to denote generally neglectful Baldwin rule that resulted in a decline in quality, unpopular new instruments, corporate upheaval and dwindling sales that ultimately led to Gretsch guitar production being shut down altogether in 1981.

Gretsch had been a family-run company ever since Friedrich Gretsch founded it in New York in 1883. But in the mid 1960s, then-president Fred Gretsch Jr. purportedly found himself with no heir interested in running the company and decided to sell. Baldwin, riding high at the time and spurred by its 1965 acquisition of U.K. guitar maker Burns, sought to acquire an established U.S. guitar maker and duly turned its attention to Gretsch. The sale was completed on July 31, 1967.

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GretschTech: the Zero Fret

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Zero fret on a G6122-1959 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman.

What’s the deal with the zero fret found on some Gretsch guitars? What is it, why is it there and what does it do?

A “zero fret” is an extra fret located directly in front of the nut. You don’t often see them these days, although they were once fairly commonplace. Regarded today as an antiquated feature, they nonetheless still appear on a small number of instruments as an item of vintage-style authenticity.

Nonetheless, a zero fret isn’t merely a cosmetic touch—it does serve a subtle purpose appreciated by discerning players. In effect, it takes over the role of the nut in determining string height above the fingerboard. A zero fret can even out string action even more uniformly than the nut.

It’s easy to understand how the zero fret achieves this. On most guitars and basses, the nut serves as the anchor point for the vibrating length of the string at that end of the instrument (the bridge saddles serving the same function at the other end of the instrument) and as the string “spacer.”

The slots cut into the nut are of a generally uniform depth, but there can be very slight variations, which in turn produce very slight variations in the height of each individual string above the fingerboard. Guitarists with a discerning fretting hand feel may be able to detect such small variances.

The zero fret eliminates these variances and uniformly evens out string height even more finely because all the strings rest on it as they pass over it, with the nut relegated solely to its role of spacing the strings apart evenly across the width of the fingerboard.

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GretschTech: Trestle Bracing

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Trestle bracing on the underside of a Gretsch guitar top.

What is trestle bracing, and what advantages does it offer on Gretsch guitars that feature it? Is it a modern development or a vintage design?

Good questions. The short answer to all of the above is that trestle bracing is a distinctive bracing system used inside certain Gretsch hollow-body guitar models that improves tone by increasing sustain and decreasing feedback. Gretsch developed it and first used it in the late 1950s.

Trestle bracing is a special extra. Most Gretsch hollow-body guitars and basses don’t have it. Rather, most Gretsch hollow-body instruments use a simpler internal support method called sound-post bracing, in which a vertical wooden dowel located directly under the bridge connects the top of the guitar to the back. The sound post itself doesn’t add much mass, so it affects sustain hardly at all. And since the sound post takes up very little space inside the guitar, the feedback characteristics of the body remain largely unchanged.

Far more substantial than sound-post bracing, trestle bracing consists of two bridge-like spruce braces with a wide “U” shape that are in effect trestles (hence the name). These run parallel to each other down the center of the instrument interior from the neck joint to the center of the body, ending directly under the bridge. They’re between the f holes, just beneath the sides of the pickups and bridge.

Since each rigid trestle brace has two “feet,” there are four points of attachment that are glued to the back of the guitar (versus one point of attachment for sound-post bracing). Originally, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, each of the four feet had “pilings” that served as the glued points of attachment with the back; modern-era trestle bracing dispenses with these.

The upper portions of the trestles are glued to the longer tone bar braces that also run in parallel down the underside of the top well past the bridge (and to which the pickups are fastened). This entire arrangement stiffens the top much more than a sound post does with its single point of attachment, aiding in control over feedback.

Medical imaging technology shows an early 1960s Gretsch 6120 model from the side (above, with neck joint end at right), in which the trestle bracing with the original-era "pilings" can be seen, and from the top (below), which faintly shows both braces running parallel down the center of the top to just under the bridge.

The great advantage of trestle bracing is that it effectively enables a hollow-body guitar to respond more like a solid-body guitar while preserving classic hollow-body tone. That is, it offers notably greater sustain and control over feedback due to the increased mass (more wood), the increased dampening of the top, and the much more substantial coupling of the top to the back.

As with several other innovations, Gretsch developed trestle bracing in the late 1950s at the behest of Chet Atkins. The great guitarist sought more sustain from his namesake 6120 hollow-body model and also wanted to subdue the feedback typical of electric hollow-body guitar design. Atkins worked with Gretsch’s Jimmie Webster and with inventor/engineer Ray Butts in devising several improvements for Gretsch guitars. Trestle bracing was one of these; it debuted in 1958 among a suite of new features including the upper-bout tone switch, “Neo-Classic” fingerboard inlays and Butts’ Filter’Tron pickup, one of the world’s first humbucking pickups (if not the first humbucking pickup).

Trestle bracing remained in use over the next few years, evolving slightly along the way. It was usually fashioned from spruce, although this wasn’t always consistent in the original era. It disappeared with the arrival of the thinner Electrotone body style in the early 1960s.

With the re-emergence of Gretsch in the modern era, trestle bracing was meticulously researched and offered once again as an authentic and tonally superior original-era design touch in several guitar models. It is a major feature on all Brian Setzer guitars and other select models, typically (but not always) referred to as “1959 trestle bracing.”

Current Gretsch models with trestle bracing include:

  • G6136SLBP Brian Setzer Black Phoenix
  • G6120SSL and G6120SSLVO Brian Setzer Nashville®
  • G6120SSU and G6120SSUGR Brian Setzer Nashville
  • G6120TV Brian Setzer Hot Rod models
  • G6122-1958 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman®
  • G6120-1959LTV Chet Atkins Hollow Body
  • G6119-1959 Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose
  • G6136T and G6136T-LTV White Falcon
  • G6136TBK Black Falcon
  • G6136TSL Silver Falcon
  • G6120DE Duane Eddy Signature Hollow Body
  • Gretsch Custom Shop G6118T 130th Anniversary

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GretschTech: Tailpieces

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One of the things that makes Gretsch guitars stand out from the rest of the pack is the unique tailpiece options the company has utilized over the years.

Of course, not all guitars boast one of these metallic accoutrements, but the ones that do seem to suggest a souped-up elegance. Both utilitarian and aesthetically-pleasing, here is a look at the main tailpieces you’ll find on a Gretsch guitar.

Bigsby Vibrato Tailpieces

Developed by Paul A. Bigsby, these vibratos allow the player to bend the pitch of notes or chords with their pick hand with the help of a spring-loaded arm called a whammy bar or tremolo.

Available on Gretsch guitars since the 1950s, the device also makes sure the instrument stays in tune while adding those bending effects. Bend the arm down toward the guitar and the strings will loosen, lowering their pitch. Release the arm, and it’s back to normal.

You can see Bigsby Vibrato Tailpieces on the 1958 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, the G6118T-LTV 130th Anniversary Jr., the 1959 Chet Atkins Solid Body and the Duane Eddy Signature Hollowbody, among several others. (more…)

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GretschTech: Picking the Pickups

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DynaSonic. HiLo’Tron. Filter’Tron.

No, those aren’t the futuristic names of a new group of superheroes.  In fact, they are three of the main types of pickups that are used in Gretsch guitars.  Whether you’re looking for twang, bite, jangle, or chime, chances are one of these babies will do the trick.

In the latest edition of GretschTech, we take a look at some of the pickups that were found on the Gretsch guitars of years past. (more…)

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