By Alan Schulman
Among the many collectible Gretsch electrics that guitar enthusiasts treasure are those that raise queries like “What were they thinking?,” alongside “How did they do that?” One such eclectic collectible is the Gretsch “Super Chet,” produced from 1972-1980.
One of the very few stunning guitars produced during Gretsch’s Baldwin-owned period, the Super Chet was Chet Atkins’ attempt at merging the best of his legacy electric Gretsch hollowbodies from the Fifties and Sixties with the archtop jazz guitar aesthetic he so admired in the other contemporary jazz guitarists of his era, namely Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, and Wes Montgomery. Even Benny Goodman’s guitarist, the late great Cal Collins, played a ’74 Chet Atkins with Benny, on his now famous Russia tour.
The 7690 Super Chet came in two finishes; a wine/autumn red stain (pictured) and walnut. Its rounded cutaway, maple hollow body with white-bound f-holes, 17″ lower bout, 2-piece maple neck with a center stripe joining the body at the 18th fret featured a stunning cream-b-w-b-w double-bound body, with cream-b-c-b-w-bound headstock and b-c-b-c-b-c-b side purfling.
But despite its fancy abalone inlays, double binding, and fleur de lis ornamentation, the Super Chet suffers from playability challenges. Its bulging Bakelite pickguard, a piece of art in its own right, housed five pots—a master volume, as well as volume and treble for each Filter’Tron pickup. So one wrong sweep of your right hand and, well, your volume could basically go anywhere. Attempts to fortify the controls on the pickguard proved challenging, as the tiny screws would work themselves out and the knobs could literally fall off—but hopefully not during a gig.
But for jazz players like myself, the Super Chet commands great aesthetic respect right alongside other more ornamented Gibson and Epiphone archtops of its era.
In his 2003 book, Me and My Guitars, Chet wrote, “After Gretsch operations were moved to Arkansas, the factory burned down and things really went to hell after that. I told Mr. Gretsch that I couldn’t keep putting my name on guitars of such inconsistent quality. I told him several times I was going to have to withdraw my endorsement, but after all he had done for me, I just couldn’t do it as long as he was alive. After he passed away, I finally ended my 25 year relationship with Gretsch guitars.”
According to vintage guitar expert Rudy Pensa, “It is likely that Chet had more to do with this guitar being made than Baldwin. That is why it is one of the very few Gretsch guitars of that time that are so beautiful to play and own.”
Whether you fancy the finger stylings of Chet, or the chord melody style of his era, the Super Chet is one eclectic hollowbody that’s sure to drop jaws in anyone’s collection.
Alan Schulman is a jazz guitarist and collector who resides in Harlem, New York. He has appeared professionally with such noted jazz artists as Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Anita Baker, and Michael Feinstein.