Friedrich Gretsch was born in 1856 in Mannheim Germany and immigrated to America when only 16 years old. His father had spent some time as an employee of the Albert Houdlett & Son German banjo and drum manufacturer. The promise of a new life and opportunity drew them to American along the same path Christian Martin had traveled 40 years earlier.
1883 to 1929 – Friedrich Gretsch
In 1883 Friedrich set up a shop in Brooklyn to build banjos, drums and tambourines. His timing was good, the markets were favorable and his company grew. During a return trip to his native Germany in April of 1895, Friedrich died suddenly at age 39. His eldest son: Fred Gretsch, Sr., age 15, found himself head of a prosperous New York manufacturing company. It is not clear whether he was well-guided by other family members or extremely self-motivated but Fred Gretsch, Sr. took firm control of the company. He started as a salesman to understand the distribution and retail aspects of the business and then personally worked at every aspect of the manufacturing process until he understood the inner workings of the business. This earned him the respect of the other administrators and employees.
Within 5 years, Fred Gretsch, Sr. expanded the business to include mandolin building and importing other instruments and accessories for distribution and sale. By 1916 Gretsch occupied a 10 story warehouse and factory at 60 Broadway, Brooklyn NY and had evolved into one of America’s largest instrument importers and manufacturers. By 1929 they had offices in Paris, Germany and Chicago and had acquired the K. Zildjian cymbal company. Annual factory production in New York had reportedly exceeded 100,000 instruments.
1929 to 1942 – Fred Gretsch, Sr.
They were hard pressed by the depression but survived with a solid base of products including drum heads, harmonicas, banjos, Rex Royal accordions, pitch pipes, strings and musical accessories.
In late 1933 they introduced: Gretsch-American Orchestra Guitars priced between $25 and $65. (Model No. 25 @ $25, No. 35 @ $35 and No. 65 @ $65) They were affordable and the market was ready for some more competition with the Gibson Company.
One of Gretsch’s early banjo competitors had been the venerable Bacon and Day company in Groton CT. Devastated by the 1938 hurricane and subsequent financial problems, Bacon and Day sold out to Gretsch in 1940 including all remaining factory stock as well as the B&D name. This played into the Gretsch strategy to expand it’s stringed instrument offerings but the plan was interrupted by material shortages and availability during World War II.
1942 to 1948 – William Walter Gretsch
Fred Gretsch, Sr. retired from the day-to-day rigors of manufacturing in 1942 and spent the next 10 years as a successful banker. He died in 1952. William Walter Gretsch (Bill), the son of Fred Gretsch, Sr., who had worked his way up through the company ranks since the mid-twenties as treasurer and secretary, assumed the presidency following his father’s retirement. He continued until his death in 1948 at age 44. Fred Gretsch, Jr. then took over and oversaw the rise of Gretsch in the guitar world. He had a Cornell education and had worked full-time starting in 1926 and had been company treasurer since 1931. His primary experience had been managing the New York manufacturing operations.
1948 to 1967 – Fred Gretsch, Jr.
Gretsch was willing to stray from the traditional design paths that were well-worn by the Gibson Company. Gretsch archtops in the 1940’s sported ‘Cat’s Eye’ “F” holes and bold visual appointments. In the 1950’s, Fred Gretsch, Jr. brought in a talented guitarist, salesman and self-proclaimed instrument designer: Jimmy Webster. Jimmy can be credited with many of the appointments of the White Falcon and later, the endorsement work done with Chet Atkins.
Gretsch seized the opportunity to capture some of the national interest in guitars that was embodied in the talents of Chet Atkins – studio man, producer and virtuoso. Chet was very much in-touch with the musical trends of the day and had high-profile exposure on both radio and the new medium: TV. As a producer and with Artist and Repertoire responsibilities for RCA in Nashville, Chet Atkins was influential to guitar buyers everywhere. The collaborative design efforts between Webster and Atkins have led to some highly collectable instruments including the 6120 and 6119 and all the variations that followed.
Other artist that helped bring buyers to Gretsch include Bo Diddley (rhythm & blues), Hank Garland (jazz & popular), Duane Eddy (rock & roll), George Harrison of the Beatles (rock& roll), Stephen Stills (rock), Neil Young (country rock) and more recently Brian Setzer (rockabilly).
1967 to 1983 – Baldwin Piano and Organ Company
In 1967, Fred Gretsch, Jr. sold the Gretsch Company to Cincinnati OH based D. H. Baldwin and became a Baldwin Director. (Fred Gretsch, Jr. died in 1980.) Manufacturing continued for 3 years at the 60 Broadway factory with about 150 employees. Labor problems in New York were becoming increasingly difficult – there were reportedly instances of instrument sabotage – leading to the decision by Baldwin to move manufacturing to Booneville Arkansas. Booneville housed banjo facilities and an assembly plant for Baldwin owned and British manufactured: Burns guitars. The move occurred in 1970 and included some of the best managers of the New York labor force including shop manger Bill Hagner. In 1972 the New York operations were shut down entirely. The offices were briefly located in Chicago but quickly settled in Cincinnati.
In early 1973 there was a serious fire at the Booneville plant. Baldwin determined that retooling was too expensive and decided to close the plant and Gretsch guitar operations. The remaining equipment was put up for auction. The remaining employees determined not to allow the company to die. They assembled a long-term financing deal and formed Hagner Musical Instruments creating an arrangement with Baldwin (owner of the Gretsch name) to manufacture guitars for Baldwin distribution under the Gretsch name. On December 15th of the same year, fire struck again. Despite heavy damage and like a Phoenix from the ashes, they managed to recover.
Baldwin re-acquired control of the manufacturing operations in 1978 and merged Gretsch with Kustom in November 1979. For a brief period in mid 1981, guitar making ceased. It was a tough period for all the major guitar manufacturers. The rapid expansion of the Folk Boom of the 1960’s did not spill into the electronic music of the 1970’s and demand slowed. Baldwin did not have a passion for guitars. They were simply a commodity. Guitars were not in high demand so it becomes an easy business decision to cut back on resources, lower quality and reduce or eliminate production. At the very least, Baldwin didn’t want to pour too many resources into guitar operations. Despite all this, several hollow body electric prototypes were being considered: some for manufacture in Booneville, some in West Germany or perhaps some to be built in Juarez Mexico.
In 1982 Charles Roy was running the combined Gretsch – Kustom operations and bought it from Baldwin. He moved the company offices to Gallatin, TN. Baldwin continued to own the Gretsch name. It was about this time that the endorsement deal with Chet Atkins ended. Chet moved on to an endorsement deal with Gibson and the new Gibson Country Gentleman appeared in 1987.
1983 to 1985 – Richard Harrison
Baldwin went bankrupt in 1983. By that time, it was largely a financial services company and the musical instruments played a very small role in the company as a whole. Richard Harrison, an ex-CEO of Baldwin, bought the Baldwin music divisions in 1984 and brought in Duke Kramer to run the Gretsch divisions. The new Baldwin Piano and Organ Company then sold Kustom Amplifiers and focused on Gretsch.
1985 to 2003 – Fred Gretsch III
Fred Gretsch III, nephew of Fred Gretsch, Jr. had worked at Gretsch from 1965 to 1971. He had hoped to work his way up to ownership but lost that option when Fred Gretsch, Jr. sold the company. After leaving his uncles company, Fred Gretsch III started his own musical instrument business with some success. He stayed in-touch with Richard Harrison and Duke Kramer and let them know that he was interested in buying back his family company and name. He did in January of 1985.
With the help of Duke Kramer, who stayed on, Fred Gretsch III began to re-build the Gretsch guitar business. The family name had returned home.
In 1988 limited production began on a series of Traveling Wilbury guitars honoring the super group made up of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty.
It was in 1989 that production restarted on a reasonable scale in Savannah, GA. The designs for the instruments were revitalized classic original designs like the 6120 and the White Falcon. The guitar bodies were manufactured under contract in Japan and shipped to the States for fit-out with American hardware and pickups. Some of the pickups were manufactured by TV Jones to vintage specs. Interestingly, the Japan built bodies were manufactured to such high quality standards that some collectors feel that these are the best instruments that Gretsch ever assembled.
2003 – Fender Musical Instruments
In 2003 Fred Gretsch worked out a manufacturing and distribution deal with Fender Musical Instruments. Fred Gretsch III has remained with the company. Fender appears to have stepped in and invested heavily in product improvement and support and expanded the model offerings.
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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth