“That Great Gretsch Sound” took 135 years to prepare – and counting. That’s how long Gretsch has been making musical instruments, beginning as a drum maker in the second half of the 19th century, before becoming one of the most beloved guitar brands in the world.
In the decades that followed, Gretsch earned a reputation for pushing the technical and technological boundaries of instrument building, and that reputation earned them the favor of some of the most iconic guitarists of all time.
From Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy, George Harrison and Pete Townshend, to John Frusciante and Jack White, the brand has garnered a diverse and enviable list of followers over the decades, but it all started, as so many guitar stories do. Americans, in Germany.
Gretsch’s origins date back to 1883 when Friedrich “Fritz” Gretsch, a 27-year-old German immigrant, opened a shop in Brooklyn dedicated to making banjos, drums, and tambourines. Fritz had been an accountant for another Brooklyn banjo and drum maker, Albert Houdlett, and the Gretsch shop was a chance for Fritz to take what he had learned and strike out on his own.
The business enjoyed modest success as a marching band caterer during these early years, but Friedrich died just 12 years later, at the age of 39. Management of his store passed to his wife, Rosa, and his son, Fred, who was only 15 years old. years at the time. Rosa was encouraged by many to sell the shop to support her seven children, but she was determined to fulfill her late husband’s dream.
It helped that young Fred was no ordinary teenager. Like his grandson Fred W Gretsch, the Gretsch family was blessed with the “entrepreneurial gene, not the artistic gene” and within two decades Fred had grown the company into one of the leading instrument makers in the States. -United.
The Gretsch Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1903 and by the time World War I broke out, Gretsch owned six properties in New York, including a 10-story factory on Broadway in Brooklyn that remained in Gretsch family ownership until 1999.
Fred had a keen marketing mind and a knack for understanding which products and trends would move the needle of audience demand. And when the Roaring Twenties became the 1930s, he realized there was a growing market for a new instrument – the guitar.
The guitar is not yet the star
The first Gretsch-branded guitar arrived in 1928, but at the time it was one of 3,000 instruments that the Gretsch company offered in its catalog. Like most of its competitors, the company initially targeted the popular jazz and country musicians who were dominating the airwaves at that time – broadcast radio having boomed in America in the post-war period.
At that time, however, Gretsch was still primarily a drum company, having revolutionized drum shell construction in the 1920s and building on that success with the revolutionary Broadkaster set.
In 1935, a 19-year-old named Charles ‘Duke’ Kramer joined the business and was earning $11 a week polishing horns. It was the start of a 70-year association that would forever change the course of Gretsch and its guitars.
Duke hadn’t been polishing horns for long, and soon he was traveling all over the southern United States as a buying agent, visiting music stores and finding out exactly what they wanted so he could pass on those information at Gretsch headquarters.
In 1941, Duke was drafted and served in the Special Service Music Division in the Pacific Theater – organizing entertainment for the troops and gaining first-hand insight into musical trends that would coalesce into “pop” music in post-war .
World War II was a time of great transition for Gretsch. Fred Sr retired in 1942 and left his son Fred Jr in charge of the business, but soon after he was drafted. His brother Bill took over the business on an interim basis, but wartime restrictions on the use of metal prevented instrument makers from producing their wares – which was especially true of drum makers such as Gretsch.
Instead, Bill commissioned Gretsch’s factories to manufacture “entertainment kits” for the military, including ukuleles, ocarinas and harmonicas by the thousands. Fred sadly passed away in 1948, forcing Fred to leave the Navy and return to the business his father had given him.
Fred Jr and Duke Kramer emerged from service with a vision for the future of Gretsch that made the state-of-the-art electric guitar the company’s primary focus. The duo teamed up with country superstar Chet Atkins and longtime consultant Jimmie Webster to totally redesign the look, sound and image of the Gretsch guitar – The Great Gretsch Sound was born.
Gretsch had a long history of artist relationships on the drum side, and pushed by Kramer, this would become a key facet of how the Gretsch guitar brand would explode in popularity. Kramer was happy to provide custom instruments to performers, without asking too unreasonably or out of the question.
This commitment to pushing the boundaries meant that by the end of the 1950s, country superstar Atkins Gretsch had such rock ‘n’ roll pioneers as Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran and Bo Diddley in their ranks – Gretsch guitars captured the first real zeitgeist in pop music.
By the mid-1950s, Gretsch’s guitar line had grown to include iconic models such as the 6120 Nashville, White Falcon, Country Club and Duo Jet. The Duo Jet in particular delivered a unique sound via a chambered solid body design.
Then, just when Gretsch’s star seemed to be waning in the face of Fender’s space-age electric designs, a rock ‘n’ roll obsessive named George Harrison brought Gretsch back into the limelight as he used various models at the start of The Beatles, including a Chet Atkins on the iconic Ed Sullivan Show performance.
Fred would retire before the end of the 1960s and in 1967 the business was sold to Baldwin Manufacturing – producer of fine pianos among other instruments – and two years later the manufacturing of the business would be transferred from New York to the United States. ‘Arkansas.
The Baldwin era would be a turbulent time for the company – the Baldwin company never understood Gretsch’s desire to appeal to the rock ‘n’ roll audience of the time, and as the music got heavier all throughout the 1970s, the brand struggled to stay relevant. .
The 70s would also see a labor upheaval and at least two fires, and in 1981 Baldwin ceased production of Gretsch guitars altogether. Baldwin’s leveraged buyouts were caught up in 1983 and the company went bankrupt, a year later Baldwin’s CEO bought the music division and brought in Duke Kramer to run Gretsch.
Back to the family
But all the while, the Gretsch family was desperate to recoup what they lost in 1967 and bring the brand back under family ownership. The key to this was Fred W Gretsch, son of the late Bill Gretsch, and his wife Dinah.
Fred had grown up delivering Gretsch instruments to New York music stores and later worked in the company’s engineering department. Along with Dinah, he had run their own successful music business in South Carolina.
In 1984, the couple bought out the Gretsch brand, with Fred and Dinah as CEO and CFO respectively. They brought drum production back to South Carolina, and after 17 years Gretsch was on the rise. In 1989 Gretsch would resume guitar production with a new line based on its classic designs.
Fender and Gretsch had been rivals in the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, with the company even having Leo Fender rename the diffuser to Telecaster because they felt it was too close to the drum line hit Gretsch Broadkaster. But by the turn of the millennium, things had changed dramatically and in ways no one could have foreseen.
In 2002, Gretsch and Fender Musical Instruments Corp announced a strategic partnership that would once again dramatically change the shape of Gretsch. While Fred W Gretsch retained ownership of the Gretsch brand and the company’s drum-making arm, Fender would obtain the exclusive rights to develop, produce, market, and distribute Gretsch guitars worldwide.
Over the past two decades, Gretsch has been a key part of Fender’s brand proposition, and its reach has grown significantly, manufacturing instruments at all price points, both in the United States with the highly respected Gretsch Custom Shop than in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
The 2022 Gretsch is a very different beast from the brand that started making drums and banjos in New York in 1883, but the fact that after all the turmoil and upheaval of the past 139 years it remains basis a family business is all the more remarkable.
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