No matter what your scene, New York is probably part of the story. As far as guitar start-ups go, one story that begins on the east coast is Brooklyn’s own, Gretsch.
Imagine this scenario with me. Your family just emigrated from Germany. It’s 1883. You know times are tight but you watch your dad build a business from the ground up at the age of twenty-seven. The corner music shop he runs is far from an empire but starts to grow. He build drums, banjos, and the odd tambourine. Then twelve years after, just when the business is gaining momentum, dad suddenly passes away. Now it’s on you.
This is the story of the Gretsch family. The father and founder is Friedrch Grestch. His son, Fred Jr. There’s no way around this: that’s a tough start for a son. Yet, now more than 150 years on, the name and sound of Gretsch guitars is known the world over. One of a kind, reliable, unique. Simply Gretsch.
The story of Gretsch includes many family members and important players brought onboard over the years. I’ll focus on just a few key moments and gear items in this heritage.
Fred carried on the family business and within a decade or so had seen both its product line and payroll grow so much that the business needed a new home. The company moved into a large ten-story building on 60 Broadway. If you’re in the neighborhood today, be sure to look up. Embossed up on the edifice of the top floor are the words “Gretsch Building No. 4.”
At this point, drums were the front of the Gretsch catalogue. The backbone of the line was the American Series. By 1935, the Broadkaster drum series had also become one of the most sought after kits on the continent. Now, before you call me out for poor spelling, there’s a side story that needs to be told here.
By 1950, Leo Fender went to market with the first solid-body electric guitar. Trivia question: what was it called? To get the idea across that the new instrument was bold and loud, Leo opted for calling it the Broadcaster. There’s no record of a lawsuit or threat of legal action—these were more civilized days—only a telegram note asking Fender to reconsider their branding. By 1951, Fender agreed and opted for the title Telecaster.
Arguably, part of the reason Gretsch caught wind of this was that they too were in the guitar biz by that point. The target market was mostly country and jazz players. One of the main waypoints in their early guitar offerings, however, came in 1954 when they struck a deal with Chet Atkins to develop a custom artist model: the 6120. This only amplified (pun intended) the company’s profile at a critical time for all early American guitar companies. This set things in motion for Gretsch to dominate the hollow-body guitar game.
So we’ve touch on drums and guitars, but Gretsch’s legacy also includes some iconic electronics. In early guitar models, the company outsourced their pickups to DeArmond. Yet their signature sound came into its own in 1958 with the innovation and advent of the Gretsch FilterTron pickups. These pickups, of course, are historic for their pioneering hum-cancelling design, which differ in design and sound from the roughly contemporary Seth Lover designs over at Gibson.
The decades from the 1960s on saw much growth and change over at Gretsch. Arguably, the most recent chapter starts in 2002. From this point on, Gretsch was part of the Fender fold, who have handled manufacturing and distribution since. So, half a century after the Broadkaster/Broadcaster telegram, the two brands became part of the same house.