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The Gretsch Company was founded in 1883 by Friedrich Gretsch, a twenty-seven-year-old German immigrant recently arrived in the US. Friedrich Gretsch manufactured banjos, tambourines, and drums, until his death in 1895. His son, Fred, moved operations to Brooklyn, New York in 1916. Gretsch then became one of the most prominent manufacturers of American musical instruments.
Guitar production began in the late 1930s, and Gretsch guitars became highly sought after, most notably in the 1950s and 1960s. They lost favor with players during the 1970s and 1980s for various reasons, including a problematic relationship with the Baldwin Piano Company. Gretsch eventually slid into bankruptcy, but it was revived by Fred W. Gretsch in 1989. Gretsch, who is great-great-grandson to Friederich Gretsch, and is sometimes referred to as Fred Gretsch III, remains president of the company to this day.
Most modern-era Gretsch guitars are manufactured in the Far East, though US-made "Custom Shop" models remain available. In 2003 Gretsch entered into an agreement with Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC), under the terms of which Fred Gretsch III would continue to own the company, with FMIC handling most development, distribution and sales.
Gretsch was founded in 1883 by Friedrich Gretsch, a young German immigrant. His Brooklyn shop was made for the manufacture of banjos, tambourines, and drums. In 1895, at the age of 39, Gretsch died, and the successful company was taken over by his son Fred. By 1916, Fred had moved the company into a larger 10-story building in the Williamsburg district, becoming one of the most prominent American musical instrument makers.
The 1950s and 1960s
During this time, Chet Atkins became an endorser of Gretsch. Atkins was one of the pre-eminent guitarists of his day, and his endorsement gave Gretsch greater visibility in competition with Gibson and Fender. Gretsch ultimately sold thousands of guitars with Chet's name on the pickguard, most notably the 6120 Chet Atkins model, one of which was purchased in 1957 by a young guitar player named Duane Eddy. The worldwide success of Eddy's "twangy" instrumental records, television appearances, and extensive touring helped expose the Gretsch guitar to the teenage rock and roll market. George Harrison, years later, would refer to this model as "the Eddie Cochran/Duane Eddy guitar". Other Chet Atkins models were the Country Gentleman  (named after an instrumental hit for Chet) and the Tennessean, a lower cost version of the Country Gent.
1964 Chet Atkins Tennessean 6119
Many rockabilly players had followed in the footsteps of Eddie Cochran, who also wielded a 6120 (though modified with a Gibson P-90 pickup in the neck position) and Gene Vincent's guitarist Cliff Gallup, who played a Duo Jet. Elvis Presley himself later owned a Gretsch Country Gentleman - (recently[when?] manufactured as "Gretsch Country Classic" but now renamed Chet Atkins Country Gentleman), playing it briefly both on stage and in the studio. Gretsch quickly became a legitimate competitor to both Gibson and its main rivals, Fender and Rickenbacker. Gretsch fortunes rose yet again in the early sixties when George Harrison played a Gretsch Country Gentleman  on The Ed Sullivan Show. Despite popular belief, he acquired two Country Gentleman guitars; his first was destroyed when it fell out of the trunk of their car on the roadway. He would later switch to a Gretsch Tennessean and his Country Gentleman made its last appearance in the music video of 'You're Going To Lose That Girl' in the movie 'Help!' The Ed Sullivan Country Gent was given to Ringo Starr by Harrison's wife, Olivia <http://www.thecanteen.com/hudson.html>.
The British Invasion brought with it, in addition to an extensive use of Rickenbackers, further popularity to Gretsch models. In addition to the Beatles, Brian O'Hara of the Fourmost used a Country Gentleman; it has been suggested that George Harrison gave him this guitar after acquiring the Tennessean. John Lennon at one point acquired a Nashville (double cutaway) The Animals' Hilton Valentine played a Tennessean on the classic House of the Rising Sun. Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones used a 1963 model 6118 Double Anniversary from late 1963 - mid 1964, used on the Stones' version of I Wanna Be Your Man as well as the Rolling Stones' first album and a few tracks on 12 X 5, notably It's All Over Now. Gerry Marsden from Gerry and the Pacemakers can also be seen using a Gretsch guitar.
Beginning in 1966, Gretsch had weekly television exposure when the company supplied the guitars and drums for The Monkees, extending the demand for guitars. Both Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground used a Gretsch Country Gentleman during the bands' lifetime (although not simultaneously - they shared the same guitar), as did The Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. As the sixties waned into the seventies, Gretschs were seen in the hands of Stephen Stills and Neil Young, who each played Falcon models on the Buffalo Springfield's lone hit, "For What It's Worth". Pete Townshend of the Who also used a '59 orange Gretsch 6120 (given to him by Joe Walsh) on their 1971 Who's Next and 1973 Quadrophenia albums, including their hits, "Bargain", "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "5:15".
During the 1950s and 1960s, Gretsch also sold several different models of amplifiers badged with the Gretsch name to accompany their guitars. These were actually manufactured by Valco, and have become sought after objects of rarity in the years following Valco's demise.
Gretsch electric twelve-string and The Monkees
According to the audio commentary by Michael Nesmith for the episode "I've Got A Little Song Here" on The Monkees: Season One DVD set, prior to The Monkees, Nesmith liked twelve string electric guitars. At the time, only Rickenbacker and Vox mass-produced them. Nesmith, however, preferred the bluesy twangy sound of a Gretsch over the distinctive pop sound of a Rickenbacker. According to Nesmith, there was a luthier in Los Angeles that converted six string electric guitars into twelve string guitars. Nesmith bought himself a Gretsch Country Gentleman to convert into a twelve string, and that is the guitar he used in the pilot episode of The Monkees, "Here Come The Monkees". (Note: Upon close examination of the film footage, the guitar Nesmith identifies as a Country Gentleman is actually a Gretsch Tennessean. When the pilot episode aired, the music scenes were re-shot. As a result, Mike is holding the original Gretsch as the band is setting up, but has the famous blonde Gretsch once they start playing.) Once the pilot was sold as a series, and Gretsch made the deal to supply the group with instruments, Nesmith contacted Fred Gretsch, and asked if he could make him a twelve-string electric guitar. Gretsch agreed, and the result is the famous blonde electric twelve string that Nesmith used during the Monkees' entire run, on the series, in the recording studio, and in concert. Meanwhile, Fred Gretsch liked the finished instrument so much, he put the electric twelve string into production. One of the first was given to George Harrison and was later known as the "George Harrison Model" (Harrison, preferring his Rickenbacker twelve-string, gave the guitar to a friend).
From 1966 through 1968, Gretsch also produced the Gretsch 6123, which was a Monkees signature electric six string guitar. However, since the Monkees' target demographic was preteen-aged girls, the guitar (bright red in color, with a dubious "Monkees" logo on the pickguard) was not a sales success, since few of these girls played guitar, and even fewer had the cash to cover the $469 price tag.
Sale, Gretsch family regains interest
Fred Gretsch never found an adequate successor, and in 1967 Gretsch was sold to Baldwin Pianos, becoming a subsidiary.
During the "Baldwin era," new models were introduced throughout the seventies and old favorites soldiered on. Solidbody guitars rose to prominence in rock, with the harder styles of the era favoring Stratocasters and Les Pauls, and hollowbodies fell in popularity. In 1979, after Fred Jr's death, Chet Atkins withdrew his endorsement in response to quality problems and Gretsch's unwillingness to pursue his vision of a nylon-string electric guitar. Factory fires in the early 1970s caused serious problems, and production was finally halted by Baldwin in 1981.
In 1989, another Fred Gretsch, nephew of Fred Jr., and his wife Dinah acquired their namesake company. The first new model was the Traveling Wilburys model, an Asian import which looked much like a Danelectro. While the guitar did little credit to Gretsch classics of the past, it served notice that Gretsch was back.
After numerous failed attempts to acquire facilities or contract production in the United States, Fred Gretsch and long-time Gretsch employee Duke Kramer, who advised Gretsch, turned to Terada of Japan, and production began anew. A range of reissues appeared throughout the nineties to mixed reviews. They were of generally high quality, but with notable non-vintage details and features; occasional US-built "Custom Shop" models were offered at significantly higher prices.
In the 1980s, rockabilly revival player Brian Setzer rekindled interest in the brand with his band The Stray Cats. His influence continued through the 1990s with The Brian Setzer Orchestra and its fusion of "hyperbilly" guitar and powerful big band arrangements. In 1990, he became the first player since Chet Atkins to be honored with a signature-model Gretsch, the Brian Setzer 6120, which is now one of an extensive line of Setzer signature models.
im Heath, aka Reverend Horton Heat has been an important Gretsch proponent in the modern era, and also has a signature model
The FMIC era
In late 2002, Gretsch and Fender reached an agreement giving Fender most control over marketing, production, and distribution of guitars (although the Gretsch family still owns Gretsch Guitars).
Fender quickly set about improving the line by upgrading substandard electrical components and bringing modern production more closely in line with designs and practices of the classic era. Body and headstock shapes, which on reissues from the 90s and early 00s had varied from 50s-60s practice, were made more vintage-correct. Hollowbodies were returned to 3-ply construction rather than the 5-plies of the 1990-2002 period. Filtertron double-coil pickups were redesigned by TV Jones to sound more like vintage pickups. Duo Jets were more extensively chambered, again in accordance with vintage practice, and the trestle bracing of the 1959-1961 era was re-introduced on the Setzer line and other selected models.
An array of models based on vintage designs has been introduced, with widespread approval among players and even collectors. While such judgments are always subjective and sometimes contentious, many feel FMIC-era Gretschs exhibit the highest level of overall build quality, attention to detail, and consistency in Gretsch's long history.
Gretsch also introduced new models consistent with its heritage but aimed at modern players, with features like premium pickups manufactured by TV Jones, locking Sperzel tuners, and ML bracing designed by Mike Lewis of FMIC and Masao Terada of the Terada company in Japan, where all Gretsch pro-line guitars are now built.
In January 2007, upon an agreement with the Atkins family, Gretsch announced the return of Chet Atkins as an endorser. The Country Classic models became Country Gentlemen once again, the name "Chet Atkins Hollowbody" returned to the 6120 Nashvilles, and the Tennessee Rose became the Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose. In July 2008, a limited run of Chet Atkins 6120 Stereo guitars was introduced, based on a famous prototype from 1956 which featured in several landmark Atkins recordings, but was never produced in series.
Billy Zoom, of the Los Angeles punk band X, was honored with a limited-edition Gretsch Custom Shop Jet model in 2008; this guitar is based on Zoom's own vintage Jet, and includes more extensive internal chambering than any other modern Jet, exactly reproducing the construction revealed when Zoom's original guitar was CAT-scanned at a medical facility during development.
At the same time, FMIC has refined and improved the mid-priced Electromatic line by discontinuing the low-end bolt-neck models of the late 90s and early 2000s, which incorporated generic humbucking pickups and wraparound bridges. The Electromatic Hollowbody line has proven particularly successful, from the 5125 - 5129 series with its US-made DeArmond 2000 pickups and the similar 5120 series. The 5120, a single-cutaway model inspired by the 6120, has become the best-selling guitar in Gretsch history, with an active after-market in replacement pickups from TV Jones and other makers for players who feel they provide a more characteristic tone than the stock "Gretschbucker" double-coil pickups. The double-cutaway 5122 model, introduced in 2008 and inspired by the 6122 Country Gentleman, fills out the Korean-built Electromatic Hollow line.
The Electromatic line also includes Pro Jet and Double Jet chambered solidbodies based on Gretsch's venerable Duo Jet line; these are equipped with Gretsch mini-humbuckers unavailable on any other guitar. Final members of the Electromatic line are the Corvette series, thin mahogany solidbodies based on the identically named and same-shaped model of the early sixties – but with the newly designed Mega'Tron double-coil pickups exclusive to the Corvette line. Both G. Love and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy have been honored with signature-series Electromatic Corvettes, the G. Love introduced in January 2008 and Stump's "Stump-o-matic" in January 2009.
For a time following the FMIC takeover, Fender also issued the first Gretsch-badged amplifier since the days of Valco. The Gretsch G5222 Electromatic amp was essentially a redressed version of the Fender Champion 600 reissue with differing upholstery and grill material. The G5222 was discontinued in 2010, though the Champion 600 continued production and still remains available for purchase.