The Gretsch company rose to the upper echelon of guitar manufacturers in the 1950s with the introduction of a diverse and dynamic array of electric models. Arguably the most identifiable guitar design of that time was the Chet Atkins Hollowbody model 6120, with its distinctive orange-stained finish, “G-brand” body, and decidedly Western aesthetic. Recently, a previously undocumented prototype of this iconic model was uncovered, fueling renewed speculation and necessitating a fresh look at the genesis of the model.
Most Gretsch enthusiasts know the legend associated with the development of the 6120. It’s well documented that Atkins was recruited to endorse a signature model in hopes of duplicating the success Gibson enjoyed with its Les Paul model of the early ’50s. Hardcore fans of the 6120 might even be aware that its prototype, labeled as a Streamliner Special with serial number 13753, was presented to Atkins in early 1954. The story goes that Atkins made some suggestions and a second prototype (serial number 13770) was created reflecting his desire for the incorporation of a vibrato tailpiece and a metal nut. For this reason, this second prototypical guitar has generally been considered the first “6120 model.” The two share the distinctive unbound headstock – a characteristic not carried over to the three subsequent production batches of the model’s 1955 debut.
A relevant side-note is that Gretsch’s factory, located in Brooklyn, typically applied consecutively serial-numbered labels into groups of like-model guitars, creating sequentially numbered batches of 50 or 100 of each model. Serial numbers were printed on rolls of 50 labels, while model numbers were applied by rubber stamp as each label was applied to a finished guitar. For example, the initial production batch of the 6120 model was a 100-unit group documented from serial number 16450 to 16549. So, for the past five decades, it has been assumed that 48 of the labels that comprised the roll containing serial numbers 13750 through 13799 went curiously unused, with only numbers 13753 and 13770 being applied to the pair of 6120 prototypes created for Atkins.
That all changed recently, when 6120 collector Fred Stucky revealed the existence of a special specimen. Once owned by Bobby Cochran, nephew of the ’50s rocker/6120-playing icon Eddie Cochran, the guitar possesses the telltale unbound headstock feature common to the other two prototypes, and its label is stamped as a 6120 and carries the serial number 13767, certifying its origin to the development of the 6120.
The provenance of this guitar extends to 1962, when it was presented to Bobby when he was 12 years old. The story behind the acquisition offers frustratingly little insight into its origins and early life. It was purchased by Bobby’s father from an insurance salesman named Burke, who had called upon the Cochran residence. After realizing the family’s connection to Eddie Cochran, he informed them about his Gretsch, which was “…just like Eddie’s.”
Outside of the Cochran connection, which appears to be as utterly coincidental as it is ironic, the revelation that another 6120 specimen exists from the mysterious 137xx serial-numbered prototype batch, and in fact falls between the initial Streamliner Special (13753) and Chet Atkins’ first 6120 (13770) is thought-provoking to say the least!
The guitar is gorgeous, with a nicely flamed maple top, deep ruddy-orange finish, and gold-plated hardware with just the right amount of patina. Equipped with the DeArmond Dynasonic single-coil pickups Gretsch was using exclusively at the time, the guitar plays amazingly well. Despite its historical significance and the fact some feel it should be in a museum, Stucky has recorded with it and is prone to periodically play it at gigs with his band, Gas Money.
Though the guitar embodies all of the cowboy motifs the 6120 has come to be known for, several of its features depart from the subsequent debut format of the ’55 Chet Atkins 6120. Most conspicuous is the anodized fixed-arm Bigsby vibrato tailpiece – a B6 on the ’55, but, inexplicably, a smaller B3 on the 13767 guitar. Equally unusual is the headstock ornamentation incorporating a white diamond on the face, just under the inlaid steer’s head. The original pickguard, disintegrated, but perhaps the first “signpost”-style example ever produced, also possesses a white strip of plastic, matching the material used to make the diamond on the headstock (shown in the photo of Bobby Cochran).
One feature each of the three extant prototypes do share with the first production batch of 6120 guitars is their 21-fret fingerboard, no doubt an attribute carried over from the influential Streamliner spec. The fretboard was quickly updated to 22 frets in the second batch of 1955, retaining that characteristic throughout the 17-year lifespan of the model.
Other idiosyncrasies of the 13767 guitar include a seam of white binding at the tail, visible below the Bigsby bracket and strap button. The neck heel appears to be quite narrow when compared to ’55 examples. The pickguard has a small brass support extension protruding from the side of the fretboard, which is atypical for the 6120. Finally, the inlaid steers-head, sound-hole outline, and cutaway angle all appear to be slightly different from what resulted on later production examples. These anomalies, along with an impressive build quality, suggests that this guitar, presumably constructed for Atkins’ evaluation and use, was hand-made from the ground up.
Probably the most significant feature is the “6120” model stamp on its interior label. Based on the sequential nature of the serializing process at the factory, that makes this guitar – not Atkins’ own, number 13770 – the earliest 6120 ever documented. Technically, this also makes these two 6120-stamped instruments the only 1954 Atkins 6120 models known to exist.
The discovery of number 13767 will fuel debate and speculation as to the existence of others, and those 47 labels numbered 137xx are still unaccounted for. In reality, the emergence of this guitar creates more questions than it answers, but for now, 13767 is the first Gretsch-made guitar to receive a Bigsby and metallic gold “signpost” pickguard, since the Streamliner Special prototype originally possessed a brown tortoise pickguard and static (Roundup-style) tailpiece.
The survival of 13767 leads to speculation that with Atkins’ feedback to Gretsch on the original Streamliner Special, perhaps several prototypical 6120 examples, each with slightly varying features, were assembled. It’s unclear why Atkins favored 13770, or where the others (if there were others) might have ended up. Further, mystery persists around how this previously undocumented example managed to escape into the world and find its way into the family of one of the model’s most notable devotees. What is clear, however, is the undisputable impact that the 6120, enabled by the creation of these three 137xx batch prototypes, has had on the Gretsch company and brand. Today, almost 60 years later, more than 20 reissue and 6120-inspired models are being marketed, a testimony to the iconic status that the Chet Atkins 6120 model has ascended to.
Ed Ball is the author of Gretsch 6120, The History of a Legendary Guitar (Schiffer Publishing, 2010)
This article originally appeared in VG October 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.