Gretsch was founded in 1883 by Friedrich Gretsch, a young German immigrant. His Brooklyn shop was designed for the manufacture of banjos, tambourines, and drums. In 1895, Gretsch died at the age of 39, and the then successful company was taken over by his son Fred Sr. 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.
By the mid-1950s, after Fred's son Fred Jr. had taken the reins, the company introduced several distinctive models, including the 6120 "Nashville," and the Duo Jet chambered "solid body", which was played by Bo Diddley. Chuck Berry also played the Duo Jet when he recorded his first major hit, Maybellene and is pictured on his LP After School Session. Two other models were introduced - the Country Club, and the White Falcon.
Guitar production by the Gretsch Company began in the early 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 went bankrupt, then was revived in 1989 by Fred W. Gretsch, a great-grandson of Friedrich Gretsch. Fred W. Gretsch remains president of the company.
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 Atkins instrumental hit) and the Tennessean, a lower cost version of the Country Gentleman.
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 later owned a Gretsch Country Gentleman—(recently 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 a 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. Alf Bicknell, chauffeur for The Beatles, strapped the Country Gentleman (George Harrison's second) to the back of the car. The guitar did not fall out of the trunk/boot.
The British Invasion brought 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)
Eric Clapton used a double cutaway 6120 during his early days with the Yardbirds.
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. It was used on their version of "I Wanna Be Your Man" as well as the Rolling Stones' first album, a few tracks on 12 x 5. It was also used on the Rolling Stones first American Tour in June 1964.
Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, can also be seen using a Gretsch guitar.
Steve Marriott of the Small Faces played a Tennessean, a Duo Jet and a White Falcon during his time in that group.
Beginning in 1966, Gretsch had weekly television exposure when the company supplied the guitars and drums for The Monkees, increasing the demand for its guitars.
Both Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground used a Gretsch Country Gentleman during the band's lifetime (although not simultaneously; they shared the same guitar), as did The Stone Roses guitarist John Squire.
In the 1960s, Gretschs were seen in the hands of Stephen Stills and Neil Young, who both played White 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".
Paul Atkinson of The Zombies played a Gretsch 6120 in his tenure with the band, while also using a Rickenbacker.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Gretsch also sold several different models of amplifiers badged with the Gretsch name to accompany its guitars. These were actually manufactured by Valco, and have become sought after objects of rarity in the years following Valco's demise.
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, Michael Nesmith liked twelve-string electric guitars. At the time, only Rickenbacker and Vox mass-produced them. Nesmith 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 who 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. (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 had been re-shot. As a result, Mike is holding the original Gretsch as the band is setting up, but is using 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 entire Monkees series, in the recording studio, and in concert. Meanwhile, Fred Gretsch liked the finished instrument so much, he put the electric twelve-string guitar 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 pre-teenage 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.
Fred Gretsch never found a suitable successor, and in 1967 Gretsch was sold to Baldwin Pianos, becoming a subsidiary of that firm.
During the "Baldwin era", new models were introduced throughout the seventies and old favorites continued to be produced. As solidbody guitars rose to prominence in rock, with the harder styles of the era favoring Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls, use of 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-stringed 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 they introduced was the Traveling Wilburys model - an Asian import - which looked much like a Danelectro. While this guitar model did little to bolster Gretsch's reputation for producing classic guitars, 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 there. 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.
The cover art on Cloud Nine, the eleventh studio album by English musician George Harrison, recorded and released in 1987, features Harrison's first American-made guitar, a 1957 Gretsch 6128 Duo-Jet, that he purchased in Liverpool in 1961. Harrison called it his "old black Gretsch". Harrison gave the guitar to his longtime friend, Klaus Voormann who kept it for 20 years. The guitar had been left in Los Angeles and had been modified, Harrison asked for the return of the guitar, which he restored and used for the cover shoot. Gretsch celebrated the legacy of George Harrison with a G6128T-GH George Harrison Signature Duo Jet guitar, modeled on the instrument that the legendary guitarist often referred to as his "first real decent guitar." Gretsch also made a run of just 60, limited edition replica G6128T-GH, George Harrison Tribute Custom Shop Duo Jet guitars. Featuring reproduction scuffs and scratches, it has been praised by Harrison's son Dhani, who says: "I've never seen a more precise and detailed replica of any guitar in my life."
Gretsch guitars achieved some popularity amongst new wave and alternative rock guitarists in the 1980s. Johnny Marr, Martin Gore, and Matthew Ashman are known to have played Gretsch guitars.Roddy Frame plays two different Gretsch models in music videos for Aztec Camera's Love and Stray albums: "Somewhere in My Heart" and "The Crying Scene". In a December 2013 concert at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, UK, Frame used an olive-colored Gretsch model. Billy Duffy of The Cult played a Gretsch White Falcon and has a signature model. John Squire of The Stone Roses played a Gretsch Country Gentleman on many recordings and live performances. William Reid of Jesus and Mary Chain played a Gretsch Tennessean, as did Robert Smith of The Cure.
Jim Heath, aka Reverend Horton Heat, has been an important Gretsch proponent in the modern era, and also has a signature model. While Gretsch never issued a signature-model for Poison Ivy Rorschach of the band The Cramps, she frequently used a 1958 Chet Atkins 6120 since 1985. Heath was influenced by Ivy's guitar playing.
In late 2002, Gretsch and Fender reached an agreement giving Fender most of the 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 1990s and early 2000s had varied from 1950s-1960s 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 in accordance with vintage practice. The trestle bracing of the 1959–1961 era was re-introduced on the Setzer line and other selected models.
Gretsch also introduced new models consistent with its heritage but aimed at modern players. These included 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, with the agreement of 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. This model was based upon a famous prototype from 1956, which featured in several landmark Atkins recordings, but was never produced in quantity.
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 1990s 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 Champion 600 was discontinued in 2010, though the G5222 continued production and still remains available for purchase.
Billie Joe Armstrong of the American Pop Punk band Green Day, used FMIC era Gretsch Guitars on their most recent releases: ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré!. Lady Gaga plays a Gretsch in the music video for Million Reasons.
Single cutaway body style
Double cutaway body style
Single cutaway body style
Double cutaway body style
During the 1950s and 1960s, many renowned Jazz drummers, such as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, and even Billy Cobham (during the early 1970s in the early Mahavishnu Orchestra days) utilized Gretsch drums. They were all playing the now classic "round badge" kits.Micky Dolenz also used Gretsch drums during the filming of the Monkees TV series.
Phil Collins used a Gretsch drum kit for many years while touring with Genesis, also legendary studio and all around drummer Vinnie Colaiuta played Gretsch.
Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones has played Gretsch drums for forty-five years.
Other artists who have used Gretsch drums include Brad Wilk from Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine, Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters, Debbi Peterson of The Bangles and Steve Ferrone of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Green Day's Tré Cool began using Gretsch drums during the recording of the band's ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! albums.
Harmonix Music Systems released a replica Gretsch Duo-Jet Guitar controller alongside the release of "The Beatles: Rock Band".