The History and Science Behind that Great Gretsch Sound

George Harrison and Chet Atkins chose Gretsch guitars. Jack White continues to play them. Charlie Watts, Steve Ferrone and Vinnie Colaiuta, all drummers dedicated to the brand. But even with names like that behind the business, the history of how the music giant landed in savannah is far from a smooth one. If there’s one thing Fred W. Gretsch knows, it’s how to make musical instruments.

If there’s another thing he knows, it’s how to sell them. It would not be inaccurate to say that such abilities are truly in his blood, for his great-grandfather who emigrated from Germany at age 16, Friedrich Gretsch, founded the world famous company, which still bears their surname.

Way, way back in 1883, long before anyone with even a feverish imagination and a belly full of jimsonweed could have imagined the kind of swinging jazz percussion and screaming rock guitar solos that have come to be associated with “That Great Gretsch Sound,” the 27-year-old Friedrich started a small NYC shop which made and marketed banjos, tambourines and drums.

Within a few decades, his son Fred Sr. moved the expanding business to Brooklyn, where it would quickly become one of the most recognized and respected musical instrument dealers in the country—and eventually, the world.

“I first visited the factory in Brooklyn in 1951 with my grandfather [Fred Sr.],” recalls Fred—who’s occasionally referred to as Fred Gretsch III. “My first full-time gig there was in the summer of 1958, and I went to work there full-time in 1965.” As Lou Reed once said, “those were different times.” “The entire music industry was centered around New York City then,” Fred continues. “And since we were located right in Brooklyn, we were able to collaborate directly with the finest guitarists and drummers of that era. That was back when technology meant the radio! It was the Internet of its day. “Working with the artists as we did, in the ‘30s and later when jazz really came into its own—and then when rock and roll started to take off—we were making the professional instruments that people of the day wanted to use. That was our focus: developing instruments with the input of great musicians.”

The eventual peaks and valleys of the firm’s fortunes are somewhat legend in the industry—as Gretsch’s star often rose and fell relative to unexpected trends in popular music—but the reputation built as an artist-friendly organization remained intact. And ever since the business came back into the Gretsch family hands and it relocated its center of operations to the greater Savannah area, it has re-emerged as a stalwart example of the great American success story.

Photography by Jabberpics