Why Gretsch?

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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 chetendorser, 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.

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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:

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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.

Modern Relics: Or, When is Green Blue?

A couple of years ago I acquired a guitar that is a source of controversy and acrimonious debate on guitar message boards across the whole wide Internet!  Is it made from baby seals?  Is it studded with conflict diamonds?  Does it support Obamacare?  None of the above!  It is a RELIC.  And just what does that mean if you’re not Indiana Jones?    A relic guitar is a new or nearly new guitar which has been distressed so that it looks old.  Mine is a beautiful sonic blue reproduction of a circa 1960 Fender Esquire.

2014-12-18121532“That ain’t blue! “

Well, it was.  Fender guitars from the 50’s and 60’s were often painted with automotive colors.  Aztec Gold, Inca Silver, and Sherwood Green were straight off the GM color chart and adorned many Telecasters and Stratocasters.  Sonic Blue, the color my guitar began its short life as, was a rich sky blue used on some 1956 Cadillacs.   Guitars were painted with their designated colors, and then sprayed with a  clear coat of nitrocellulose lacquer.  Over time, the clear coat of lacquer would both yellow and check with age, UV exposure, and temperature fluctuations.  The yellowed lacquer would turn Sonic Blue into a delicate crackled celadon green, as you can see on my guitar.  Some of the original blue can be seen peeking through on the guitar’s edge where some of the lacquer has worn through.    

How is my brand-new guitar displaying yellowing and checking and other wear?  The father-son team of Mark and Matt Jenny has been aging guitars for years now using a top secret set of formulae which may or may not involve UV lights, ovens, freezers, hurled sets of car keys, and dragging the guitars behind a truck.  They are some of the best in the business as far as realistic aging goes and they finished the body and neck of my guitar.  Brand new and very old.

2014-12-18 12.17So who cares?

Why is this controversial?  Well, there are very serious camps in the guitar community that believe your instrument should only carry wear and scars that it has “earned” over the years.  As far as they are concerned, relics are fakes that are pretending to be something they’re not.  Why not just get a new guitar and play the living heck out of it?  That sounds good, but modern guitars are rarely painted with lacquer anymore.  Most new guitar finishes are a heavy coat of polyurethane.  Short of a hammer and chisel,  you aren’t going to get nicks or scratches into that kind of finish, and if you do, it will just come off in ugly flakes, producing the very sad “bad relic.”  Polyurethane also doesn’t check into the beautiful delicate patterns that lacquer does. 

Wasabi?

There’s a Japanese concept called “Wabi-Sabi”- the aesthetic that values imperfection, incompleteness, and a little roughness around the edges.  While there’s something lovely about a brand-new perfect guitar that looks like it’s been dipped in plastic, the guitar that looks and feels like an old friend has its own loveliness.  The metaphor that gets thrown around a lot for reliced guitars is that of blue jeans.  Sure, you can buy a stiff pair of brand new jeans and wear them for years to get them broken in, but you can also buy prewashed distressed jeans with wear and fading and even holes in them.  I say get what you want, play what you want!  It’s an open secret that many touring musicians don’t take their precious vintage instruments on tour with them, but rather relics they’ve had made as stand-ins.  If you think you’ve seen Slash on stage with his $250,000 1959 Les Paul, I have news for you.  If I want to play a guitar that looks and feels like my  grandaddy left it in the barn behind the John Deere for fifty years, well, that’s just what I should do.  The guitar plays like butter (guitar people always say that-  honestly I don’t know what butter would play like), looks great, and sounds fantastic.   I can’t think of anything else I could want.

The Number One

All About My Creston Guitar!

IMG_0451My “number one” guitar was made by renaissance man Creston Lea; he makes guitars, plays in a number of bands, and has published a collection of short stories called Wild Punch (he’s a graduate of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop).  No two of his guitars are alike, and they’re all handmade in close consultation with their future owners.  My guitar is made of one solid piece of 150-year-old spruce salvaged from a barn in Vermont.  Check out my guitar and many others at the Creston Electric website: crestonguitars.com  (all photos courtesy Creston Lea and Jessica Anderson)

My guitar, before it became my guitar, was once part of a “rustic cabin,” as stated on the pile of lumber it was liberated from ~

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My guitar in its early stages ~

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Since I’ve had the guitar (March 2014), I’ve removed the tremolo (a highly modified Bigsby type).  Other than that, though, I haven’t changed a thing: and I’m a notorious guitar-thing-changer.

Collaborating with a custom builder is a remarkable experience that few players get.  Lea is a delight to work with: articulate, patient, but not afraid to declare a strong opinion.  His FAQ might paint him as a little more of a curmudgeon than he is in practice.   The conversation started with wood (what he had, what different varieties might sound like), then went to body shape, neck profile, and, finally, electronics.  We settled on, respectively, salvaged spruce, telecaster, almost baseball bat, and Lollar gold foils.  Lea was constantly in touch, sending photos, queries, updates, and videos.  One day I got a video from him showing him pressing the neck into the pocket and then using it to lift the entire guitar sans screws, using the friction from the tight joint alone to keep it together.

The price was reasonable: less than even the cheapest Fender Custom Shop model.  Everything is impeccable from the carving on the nut to the NOS burgundy volume and tone knobs.  There are ways in which owning this guitar violates my fickle nature; every couple of months I pull out a strat or tele and try to convince myself that THIS is the change I want.  I fall for the crystal position 2 and 4 sounds on the strat or the growl of the tele bridge pickup.  But then there’s always something not right: the nut binds, or the neck is too flat, or the crystalline sounds that sound great in the basement don’t quite cut through a band (or a cocktail crowd) at a gig.  Like all great tools, the Creston feels solid in my hands.  It never delivers less than I put into it.

Visit Creston Guitars at: crestonguitars.com