The Bo Diddley Gretsches

boGretsch is famous for its unconventional guitar shapes, and at least a few of these are owing to an unconventional player: rock and roll singer (and one of the only human beings ever to have had a beat named after him) the late Elias Otha Bates, aka Bo Diddley.

Bo Diddley is a vastly important figure in the history of rock and roll. If you want to see someone well and truly in command of an audience, watch this clip of Bo in 1965. How someone who looks like Urkel’s uncle can be so dignified yet so primal is a rock and roll mystery.

The rectangular guitar above was one of Bo’s own designs. He wanted a guitar shaped like the ones he had made from cigar boxes and played as a youth. Below, you see another Bo design, the Jupiter Thunderbird (which is now known as the “Billy-Bo” because of its association with Bo but also with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top).

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There was a third design born of Bo’s collaboration with Gretsch: the Cadillac (Gretsch already had a relationship with the marque, using “Cadillac Green” as a color for its Country Club model). It was a favorite guitar of his first female rhythm guitarist, “The Duchess.”

I Know Bo!

Call it autumn of 1986. I was walking alone down a street in Copenhagen (yes, Denmark) one morning, minding my own Scandinavian business. Around the corner, about twenty feet away, a group of men emerged, laughing and American. In the center, a mountain of a man wearing a cowboy hat with a feather band was smiling broadly and telling a story. After a split second, my twenty-year-old brain fired, and without thinking I blurted out: “Bo Diddley! I love you man!” Without missing a beat or saying a word, the man shot his finger-guns at me and smiled (did he wink?), and walked on. It remains one of the proudest moments of my life.

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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.