Say you’re not a guitar player. If you’ve heard of any guitar brands before, you’ve probably heard of Gibson, Fender, and maybe Martin. A guitar you’ve definitely heard, if not heard of, is the Gretsch. The Fred Gretsch company started making musical instruments in 1883. The company started with banjos, tambourines, and drums. Guitars soon followed, and Gretsch began making big hollow-bodied jazz guitars.
When rock and roll took off, Gretsch guitars were prominently featured. Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, and Duane Eddie all played Gretsch guitars. In the mid-1950’s, Chet Atkins became Gretsch’s most prominent endorser, and several models bearing his name were introduced.
Gretsch sales, already brisk, took off when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, George Harrison wielding HIS Chet Atkins signature Gretsch. George also played and recorded with a Duo-Jet model from the company. John also occasionally played a Gretsch.
The 1970’s, though, weren’t particularly good to Gretsch. Aside from an occasional oddball romance (Angus Young from AC/DC, for cryin’ out loud!), Most major acts stayed away from the big fellas. Gretsch had been bought out by Baldwin in 1967, and the quality and innovation level of the guitars plummeted.
The 1980s didn’t promise much more for Gretsch. The punks and new-wavers favored Fender Jazzmasters and Mustangs, and the hair metal bands went in for pointy Charvels and Jacksons in neon colors. There just wasn’t a market for a big, elegant, glittery coffee-table of a guitar.
Until this guy came along:
The hippest of hepcats, and the consummate guitar player’s guitar player: Brian Setzer. Cutting through the hair metal of Def Leppard and mope-rock of The Cure came The Stray Cats, playing music that your dad is too young to remember properly.
Since the rockabilly revival inspired by Setzer, Gretsch has come back in a big way, popular not only among rockabillies, but roots rockers, Americana artists, and jazz players. Check out Reverend Horton Heat, Paul Pigat, and Big Lazy for some modern Gretsch sounds.