Six Decades of Gretsch Guitars Go on Display in Nashville Exhibit

February 24th, 2016

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story and more photos, plus features on Billy Gibbons in Cuba, Texas chef and guitarist Dean Fearing, Ash guitarist Tim Wheeler, and our annual Motoring section featuring stories on the latest motorcycles and the vintage guitar and car collections of author Jonathan Kellerman, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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GUITAR TOWN: A new exhibition at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame highlights six decades of Gretsch history.

By Alan di Perna | Photo by Drew Maynard

During the Fifties, blingy, beautiful, Brooklyn-made Gretsch electric guitars made their way down South and into the hands and hearts of country artists and rockabilly’s founding fathers.

A decade later, Gretsch guitars crossed the Atlantic Ocean and became central to the beat-group sounds of the British Invasion. Ever since then, they’ve had a knack for showing up at vital crossroads in pop music history.

These remarkable guitars are the focus of a new exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum titled American Sound and Beauty: Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection, which opened January 15 and will run through July 10, 2016 in Nashville. The exhibition brings together 75 of the rarest and finest among the approximately 375 Gretsch instruments that former Guess Who/Bachman-Turner Overdrive guitarist Randy Bachman collected between the mid Seventies and 2008, when he sold the collection to Fred W. Gretsch, the current president of Gretsch guitars. Spanning six decades of guitar making, American Sound and Beauty is the largest exhibition of stringed instruments ever mounted by the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“We’re delighted to have this opportunity to exhibit these guitars,” notes CMHoF Curatorial Director Mick Buck. “While it doesn’t represent the entire Bachman-Gretsch collection, we’ve arranged these 75 guitars in a way that will be pretty awe-inspiring, not only for guitar players or gearheads but also people who don’t necessarily think they care about guitars. These instruments are that beautiful.”

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Even though Bachman no longer owns the collection, it is still a source of considerable pride for him. “I’m really thrilled that everybody will have a chance to see this,” he says, “because it’s probably the coolest collection of guitars around.”

According to Buck, it was Fred W. Gretsch who approached the CMHoF with the idea for the exhibition. With the museum’s annual attendance hitting the one-million mark in 2015, it’s an ideal venue for a show of this nature, especially given Gretsch’s historical connections with country music.

“A couple of us [from the museum] went to Mr. Gretsch’s office in Georgia last year,” Buck says. “We got a peek at the collection, and we were just in awe of these guitars. We decided it would be a really cool thing—and definitely something different for us—to do an exhibit entirely of guitars, focusing on just one maker. It’s an incredible collection, and we have what we think is the perfect exhibition space for it.”

The next step was for Buck and the CMHoF team to begin planning and designing the exhibition. “We wanted to represent the historical range of these guitars,” Buck explains, “the earliest guitar in the collection being from the Thirties and the most recent being a 1981 model, which was the last year of Gretsch production before Fred W. Gretsch reintroduced the brand [in 1989]. We also wanted to represent the variety of Gretsch guitars—everything from acoustic flattops and archtops to hollowbody and solidbody electrics—in a way that will, hopefully, illustrate the evolution of the Gretsch line. In terms of aesthetics, this is a mind-blowing cluster of beautiful instruments.”

The guitars are arranged in three chronological periods—American Made: 1927–47, the Golden Era (1946–66) and the Baldwin Era (1967-–81), the latter category representing the period when the brand passed from the hands of the Gretsch family and was acquired by the Baldwin piano and organ company.

The oldest guitar in the exhibition is most likely a 230 Tenor model, built between the late Twenties and mid Thirties, although the Thirties are also well represented with several Orchestra models, a Gretsch Jr., and a 135 Castilian. Gretsch’s Golden Era, which embraces both the birth of rock and roll and the British Invasion, is represented by numerous fine examples of the most revered Gretsch models. Country Gentlemens, Falcons, Roundups, Ranchers, Ramblers, Corvettes, and other classic models all get their just deserts. Highlights include an ultra-rare 1955 White Penguin, one of three that Bachman owned. Several examples of the iconic Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins model, starting with one from 1955, represent that guitar’s evolution.

Obviously Atkins is a towering figure in the Gretsch story, a highly influential player closely associated with the Gretsch brand. But Buck stresses that, although the Country Music Hall of Fame is organizing and hosting the exhibition, the emphasis isn’t exclusively on country music and country artists.

We’re looking more at how these guitars totally crossed genres,” he says. “For instance, the Duo Jet exhibit text mentions how the Duo Jet 6128 was endorsed by country and rockabilly players such as Hank Garland, Thumbs Carlisle, and Cliff Gallup. But it also explains how, as time went on, the basic Jet guitar in various iterations and finishes was adopted by Bo Diddley, George Harrison, Malcolm Young, Billy Zoom, and Jack White.”

While Gretsch’s Baldwin era is generally frowned upon as the period when the magical “Gretsch formula” was arguably lost, it was still deemed important to include, both by Bachman in his collection and by the CMHoF in their exhibition.

“I think some of the more unique guitars in this collection are from that era,” Buck says, “including interesting custom guitars and guitars that, frankly, I’d never seen or was aware of until this collection came in. For instance, there’s a custom, one-of-a-kind White Falcon bass that was made in the early Seventies and that became the basis for a production model in the current run of Gretsch guitars.”

The Bachman collection might never have come together had Randy Bachman’s original, orange late-Fifties Gretsch Chet Atkins model not been stolen from his hotel room in Toronto in 1976. He played the instrument on all of his early hits, such as BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business,” so the loss was a devastating one for him. The quest to find a replacement sent him down a rabbit hole from which he would never again fully emerge.

“This was way before the internet,” Bachman says, “but vintage guitar shops like Gruhn’s would have these flyers. I’d say, ‘Have you seen my Gretsch? Here’s the serial number.’ And they’d call and say, ‘We haven’t seen that, but we got another Gretsch as a trade-in. We gave the guy $150 for it, and we want to make $100, so if you give us $250, we’ll send you the guitar.’ So I’d go for it; and I had two, then three, then 10 Gretsches. Suddenly I had 100, 200… It was my midlife crisis of finding and hoarding—to find the elusive guitar that never showed up.”

Gretsches were hardly at a premium when Bachman began collecting them in the mid Seventies. Everyone was seeking Les Pauls and Strats in hopes of sounding like Clapton or Hendrix, so Bachman was able to build a substantial core collection at rock-bottom prices.

“I’d go to a music store and say, ‘Have you got any Gretsches?’” he recalls. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, they’re all in the basement. We don’t sell those. We take them as trade-ins…’”

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story and more photos, plus features on Billy Gibbons in Cuba, Texas chef and guitarist Dean Fearing, Ash guitarist Tim Wheeler, and our annual Motoring section featuring stories on the latest motorcycles and the vintage guitar and car collections of author Jonathan Kellerman, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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  • Bill Sturman

    Fred Gretsch is the BEST. Went to the same high school in NYC in the early 60’s, trained by the Jesuits. I’m just so happy Fred has continued the family name and the history and love of music.