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Since 1883, when the 27-year-old Friedrich Gretsch founded his small store in Brooklyn, New York, making banjo, drums and tambourines, Gretsch has grown and today produces drums and guitars that are highly appreciated by musicians around the world. The company went through both successful and difficult times but Gretsch was strong enough to move on, which cannot but make us happy.


Fender (guitar branch), Kaman Music (drum making)

Brief history / technical and technological achievements:

The founder of the company Friedrich Gretch left Germany for the USA at the age of 16, in 1872. First he worked in New York on the production of banjo and drums and after tired of working for other people he founded his own company. In 1883 "Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company" was born - drums, tambourines, toy tools and banjo manufacturer.

When Gretsch the company was handed over to his son Fred. Under his leadership the company expanded significantly making it necessary to construct new buildings (in 1916) at Broadway, 60, Brooklyn, not far from the Williamsburg bridge. Since then the history of Gretsch could have been told in two parts, the first one would narrate about the production of percussion instruments, the second – about the strings.

The history of percussion instruments:

At the beginning Gretsch drums were nothing special and differed little from competitors' products. But in 1920 the company started drum shells production using the multi-layered wood stratification technology. As a result 3-layer maple shells with a 3-layer reinforcing ring were lighter, stronger and which is crucial more likely to retain a round shape unlike their single-layered steam-treated precursors. And in 1926 Gretsch became the only company licensed to import K. Zildjian Constantinople and Istanbul Cymbals plates. It appeared to be a successful deal the company was satisfied with during next 50 years.

In the early 40's Gretsch changed the structure of the shells again. The company continued to make three-legged shells but instead of joining all the layers along a single seam these seams were in different positions along the perimeter of the shell which increased its strength and there was no need for a reinforcing ring. The invented method is still used nowadays. Gretsch replaced the internal layer of maple with poplar following many other drum companies of the time which opted for the same solution - it turned out cheaper, and the adhesive worked out better.

Generations of such an approach supporters believed that inner rings deteriorate sound and disrupt resonance. This reason might have been the major cause of bringing the discussions about the magnificent sound of Gretsch drums. The second reason is the use of cast rims. Others argued that this principle worked well on toms and bass drums where less tension was required but not on small drums where the big amount of tension of the inner ring could bend the whistle. There were some who thought this was just a ploy for the sake of advertising.

Anyway and no matter how but the golden era of the company fell on 1940 – 1967 period. Although the company was owned by Fred Gretsch Jr., Phil Grant managed the whole process implementing many useful ideas and introducing quality changes. For example, he owns the idea of pullout legs for a bass drum which is now a de facto standard.

In 1950 Gretsch didn’t use 4-layer shells for small drums but soon returned to 3 layers. The Broadkaster lugs were replaced with the new Streamlined ones. Until 1954 Gretsch used to date the drums inside with a hand seal but later he began painting the inside of the drums with silver (most likely to hide the defects of the wood material).

Phil Grant also conduced convincing marketing strategy and worked closely with the leading jazz drummers of the time listening attentively to their wishes. As jazz was shifting from swing to bebop the first endorsers of the Gretsch such as Chick Webb, Dave Tough, Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke and Louis Bellson were eventually followed by such names as Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Cobb who were eager to join the “club”. Small drums were a huge innovative surprise for the new guys who took it with a bang. The bass drum significantly decreased first to 20" and then to 18".

Gretsch sponsored Drum Nights parties at the New Yorles Birdland nightclub where Gretsch endorsers competed with each other for the prize. One of the prizes was the installation of the Progressive Jazz drum set (18", 12", 14", and 14" x4" and Max Roach snare drum) colored in Cadillac Green Nitron with 24ct gold plating. The other prizes included K. Zildjian plates and money.

In the late 50's Gretsch ceased shell production and switched to the 6-layer shells made by Jasper company. He did it in order to economize.

In the 60s the company followed “jazz direction” and it became obvious when Tony Williams became a Gretsch endorser which happened in 1966.

In 1967, Fred Gretch Jr. sold his company to Baldwin Musical Instruments. Rock music is gaining popularity, and though Charlie Watts (Roling Stones drummer), a great jazz lover, and the the Monkees drummer Micky Dolenz were among the endorsers of the company it seemed that management didn’t take rock music seriously. And that affected the company's sales.

String instruments story:

White Penguin G6134

In the early 30's guitars started to replace banjos beating them in popularity, and in 1933 the first guitars were produced by Gretsch. And those were the acoustic guitar series with flat-top sound boards and with archtop ones. These guitars hit the fairly extensive Gretsch price list which by the way also included the guitars made by other New York manufacturers - Kay and Harmony.

The first electric guitar under Gretsch label was offered to the customer in 1939, and it was an acoustic electrified model with a curved sound board - Electromatic Spanish. The model did not live long for a number of reasons. Fred Sr. backed out of the family business and got into banking, his brother William Walter Gretsch, known as Bill, took up his guitars but died abruptly at the age of 44 (1948). All the glory of the company truly belonged to the main owner in Gretsch history - Fred Jr. - leading the label through all the young years of rock and roll - the 50s and 60s.

After the World War II Gretsch revised his line of guitars which he offered to professional musicians. He revived Electromatic Spanish brand for which single-coil pickups were manufactured at the Rowe Industries (Toledo, Ohio) factory. The factory was led by Harry DeArmond, who gave these pickups, which now seem inseparable from Gretsch guitars, the official name of Dynasonic a few years later.
Electric guitars with a cut appeared in 1951 as a response to the growing popularity of electric guitars in general - Electromatic and Electro II. The great friend of the company the talented guitarist Jimmie Webster, who was already using the amusing technique popularized by Eddie Van Halen as "tapping", helped to promote the model.

And then Gretsch was surprised to find that Fender (no one heard about it back then) began to advertise an electric guitar called Broadcaster. That same name, just spelled in a different manner (Broadkaster), Gretsch had used for their drums before. After a filed complaint Leo Fender changed the name to Telecaster, and the company realized that Fender and Gibson were entering the market with solid-body instruments. Gretsch was willing to fight back: in 1953 the company released its first one-piece guitar - Duo Jet. Honestly it wasn’t entirely made of solid wood. But it did look like a real full piece of wood, just like Gibson Les Paul.

The first guitars were sometimes covered with large pieces of plastic on top - like drums. The revolution was brought by Melita Synchro-Sonic Bridge which for the first time in the history of music allowed to fine-tune each string independently. Gretsch outstripped Gibson making it handicapped for one year. Gretsch rode the wave of success and made several models such as Duo Jet: Round-Up, Silver Jet, Fire Bird in 1954 and 1955, and turned the model Electro II into Country Club. Country Club concept appeared to be the most tenacious in the history of the company.

Of course, the development of the automobile market in the 50s strongly influenced the development of guitar design. Thus the colors of Gretsch guitars featured such colors as "Cadillac Green" (for Country Club guitar) or "Jaguar Tan" (for Streamliner, "ex-Electromatic"). Paints were produced by DuPont which also made paints for automakers.

The success of the original guitar Les Paul by Gibson (2000 instruments were sold in 1953) made other producers not only bite their lips with envy but also start looking for artists who would speed up marketing to the same heights. Somewhere around 1954 Jimmie Webster found in Nashville one very talented guitarist with an amazing play technique. His name was Chet Atkins. After consulting and signing contracts in 1955 Gretsch Chet Atkins Hollow Body 6120 guitar appeared though Chet Atkins didn’t like all that country-and-western paraphernalia like cactus and sombrero on mother-of-pearl inserts. But he was so pleased with the idea that he agreed to everything. Then however he forced the company to add Bigsby vibrato to the guitar. The popularity of Gretsch guitars grew at the same time as the popularity of Chet Atkins (the choice of the artist was made quite right). And Jimmie Webster advised the company to start producing a high-end model called White Falcon which even today remains one of the most favorite instruments among professional musicians. And one of the most expensive instruments.

In 1956 a guitarist whose name was Duane Eddy appeared with Gretsch Chet Atkins Hollow Body guitar in the movie "The Girl Can’t Help It", and this model hit the heart of rock and roll epoch. The specific "Twang!" sound of the guitar became the signature sound of Eddy, who became highly popular in the 50s. His sound was characterized by the “full-scale” use of Bigsby as well as tremolo and echo effects of the amplifier.

In 1957 the company offered two new models to extend Atkins line: the dark brown Country Gentleman and the orange Tennessean. Village gentleman was thin enough: only 5cm front to back. Chet Atkins, as an experienced guitarist insisted that in order to avoid feedback the so-called "hollow" guitars should be less "hollow". And that’s what Gibson tried to improve in its "ES-335" which was put on the market in 1958.

George Harrison bought his first Gretsch Duo Jet 57 black in 1961 when the band performed in Hamburg and the glory would come to them in less than two years. In the summer of 1963 he bought Country Gentleman. In 1964 Gretsch began to use the photos with George Harrison in promotion campaigns. And the sound of his "CG", amplified by the Vox machine, became the official Beatlemania sound.

In 1965, when Fender was acquired by the Columbia Broadcasting System for $13 mln the guitar industry was almost swept away by a wave of tsunami. D. H. Baldwin, piano and organ manufacturer, was going to establish a guitar branch. As a result his company bought London Burns Guitars and in 1967 - Gretsch. In October, 1969, a three-month strike broke forth at the factory and the next year the new owners decided to move production from the historic house in Brooklyn deep into America - to Arkansas.

It was nearly the end of everything - in 1980 Baldwin decided to stop producing Gretsch guitars. But the Kustom / Gretsch managing director Charlie Roy was quick and smart enough to redeem the brand name from the owners. In two years he and the whole production moved to Tennessee. By this time the endorsement contract with Chet Atkins had already expired and the face and soul of Gretsch company went to Gibson. So Gibson had its own Chet Atkins Country Gentleman (1986).

Baldwin thought about it and backed out of the deal with Roy deciding to move the production of guitars to Mexico. They made dozens of instruments and soon the idea died again. In 1985 Baldwin sold the company back to a representative of the Gretch family – Fred III. His adviser, Duke Kramer, suggested reviving the glory of the vintage Gretsch. To do this the new old masters had to begin consulting with their American guitar factories but the negotiations did not bring a positive result. They needed to go to Asia. As a result Gretsch went into production thanks to Terada factory in Japan.

In 1989, when "Traveling Wilburys" band (Harrison, Lynne, Petty, Dylan) became popular, the company started to release instruments at Korean facilities. But the full historical cycle was over when Gretsch decided to produce the custom made models again in the US: "Nashville G6120-1955", "White Falcon G6136-1955" and "Country Club G6196-1955".

Gretsch entered the 21st century as a giant. The company acquired Bigsby trademark in order to have priority access to these tremolo. It was quite logical considering to what extent Bigsby was crucial part of Gretsch design. But any rapid development was very difficult to implement due to the limited internal sources – it always requires someone’s help. Therefore in 2002 a new milestone countdown began in the history of Gretsch. The whole Gretsch guitar catalog including Bigsby was purchased by the FMIC group, i.e. Fender. The irony is that when the young Fender company just entered the market of electric guitars Gretsch was already the star of the industry. And there sitting high on the top they insisted that the guitars now known as Telecaster would lose their original name. Broadcaster reminded of Broadkaster too much while Broadkaster was an iconic Gretsch drum set. The difference in a single letter could fire up an argument in legal formalities but Fender opted for avoiding the conflict with the authoritative brand. And 60 years later Fender bought Gretsch, however, not entirely. The Gretsch drum line was acquired by another musical corporation "Kaman Music". Despite all those historical collisions Fender respected the legendary heritage of Gretsch preserving all the company's traditions.

Corporate resources of FMIC allowed Gretsch to strengthen its marketing strategy and solve production issues more efficiently. Production is still concentrated in Japan and China but now it’s managed by Fender which had the most positive impact on the line of budget models. The American "Custom Shop" has become an natural part of the "FMIC Custom Shop" – a branch that since 2006 has combined all the "Custom Shop" belonging to "FMIC" brands from Fender and Gretsch to Guild and Jackson. FMIC plans to actively develop the elite instruments segment where Gretsch will take their well-deserved place.