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Gretsch’s #1 Country Gent

 
(LEFT) Country Gentleman “Special” prototype with serial number 23396. (RIGHT) Country Gent number 26400. Prototype photos Courtesy of Naoaki Toyofuku.

(LEFT) Country Gentleman “Special” prototype with serial number 23396. (RIGHT) Country Gent number 26400.
Prototype photos Courtesy of Naoaki Toyofuku.

The Gretsch Country Gentleman 6122 was the third of four Chet Atkins signature guitar models created for the legendary guitarist in the ’50s. The little-known truth is it was also a response to all the things Atkins did not like about the first model Gretsch conjured for him – the 6120 Hollowbody. The reality is Atkins didn’t have much input on the development of the 6120, and there is evidence it was conceptualized prior to Gretsch’s signing him on to endorse it in 1954.

The Country Gentleman however, was heavily influenced by Atkins, and was his opportunity to make right the 6120 features he dutifully endorsed in public, but with which he privately voiced dissatisfaction. Recently, an early example was discovered – the earliest, in fact – which reflects the radical direction Atkins took with the Country Gent and the bold departure from his original namesake model.

First and foremost on Atkins’ complaint list for the 6120 Hollowbody was the pickup technology. In the late ’40s, Gretsch began employing the DeArmond Dynasonic single-coil in its electric guitars. Atkins thought its magnets were too strong and negatively affected the tone of the guitar. With the advent of Ray Butts’ Filter’Tron humbucking pickup, Atkins was able to get a more desirable sonic response for his newest signature model.

Secondly, Atkins was a big believer in the benefits of a sealed top. He didn’t appreciate the over-sized f-shaped sound holes in the 6120, and the sentiment was illustrated in his well-known favor of a prototype 6120, which had a thick top that lacked sound holes. He used the guitar – made for him in 1955 – on many recordings, and it was no doubt a source of inspiration for the subsequent Country Gentleman format. Though the Atkins signature archtops all received internal “trestle” bracing for the 1958 model year, he could never persuade Gretsch to make a guitar with a solid block down the center, which Atkins believed would further enhance the tone of the instrument. Regardless, with its sealed top and internal bracing, the Country Gentleman in essence emulated a 17″ chambered solidbody, as much as anything else.

So it was that the inaugural batch of Country Gentleman model 6122 was produced in the fall of 1957, intended for the ’58 sales year. This initial group of 50 consisted of serial numbers 26400-26449, and was one of only two batches made with the ’58 model-year feature package, making them infrequently encountered guitars. Standard features on this single-cutaway, 17″ wide by 2.25″ deep, archtop included a tasteful walnut brown stain, elegant gold-colored hardware, and distinctive neoclassic markers on an ebony fretboard. It was the first to employ the Filter’Tron – the earliest examples having plain gold-colored cases surrounded by smooth plastic bezels. The top was adorned with thin plastic inserts that provided the illusion of traditional f-shaped sound holes. This lack of open holes created a challenge for the Gretsch factory in labeling these guitars; the solution to the lack of access to the body cavity was to apply a gold-plated plaque to the face of the headstock, which both announced its identity as “The Chet Atkins Country Gentleman” and displayed each guitar’s serial number. Consistent across Atkins signature models, the 6122 also employed an enamel-faced Bigbsy B6 vibrato tailpiece, and a metal nut.

(LEFT) The label of Country Gent number 26400, applied to the backside of the pickguard. (RIGHT) The label of prototype Gent number 23396, with “Special” written in the line for model designation.

(LEFT) The label of Country Gent number 26400, applied to the backside of the pickguard. (RIGHT) The label of prototype Gent number 23396, with “Special” written in the line for model designation.

It’s this feature package that adds so much intrigue to a newly discovered first-batch Country Gentleman specimen. Based on its serial number (26400) this specimen represents the very first guitar from the debut batch. It’s immediately apparent this all-original example strays from the standard feature package in several ways, the most glaring being the two-tone finish with ivory white top over black back and sides. Also, there are no simulated sound-hole inserts, making the body appear strangely barren. The scale length is 25.5″ while most subsequent examples are 24.5″. The ebony fretboard is unusually wide and flat, 1.75″ at the nut – a favored Atkins feature. Lastly, this example lacks the typical headstock plaque, which would typically provide model and serial number info. Instead, this Gent possesses a Gretsch paper label, displaying its serial number and a severely faded model stamp (6122) affixed to the underside of its pickguard.

Chet Atkins: The Guitar Genius, from 1963.

Chet Atkins: The Guitar Genius, from 1963.

An explanation for these non-traditional features might be found with a guitar that has been widely accepted as the prototype Country Gent; that guitar (serial number 23396) is finished in the same two-tone treatment and also possesses a paper label under its pickguard with the word “Special” hand-written in the blank typically used for model identification. Variations between this prototype and the 26400 guitar include control knob and switch placement, pickguard material, and the fact the earlier guitar had the finish removed from its neck at some point. Otherwise, this earlier prototype and the 26400 guitar would appear to be sisters.

The prototype Gent’s serial number is chronologically associated with a batch of 17″ Convertible model 6199 guitars produced in the January ’57 time frame. It was one of the last labels used in the group, and has been assumed to be a one-off. The gap of 3,000 serial numbers between this guitar and the 26400 Gent equates to about nine months of production, which is corroborated by the factory invoice for a Country Gentleman with serial number 26439, published on page 184 of Jay Scott’s The Guitars of the Fred Gretsch Company, confirming a September 1, 1957, shipping date for the Gents of the debut batch.

Documented Country Gentleman specimens from as early as number 26405 of the debut batch display the standard feature package including the walnut stain finish, faux sound-hole inserts, and headstock plaque. Speculation exists suggesting this two-tone 26400 example, and perhaps others were manufactured at the same time, providing a small group of test-guitars with varying features, presumably for Atkins to evaluate. Once that process was completed, it appears that number 26400 was simply included in the first production batch of Country Gents shipped to retailers.

Initially popularized by Atkins’ passionate endorsement, the Country Gentleman, in its later ’60s double-cutaway incarnation, is also widely associated with George Harrison. Sales of the model soared following the Beatles’ famous performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February of ’64. The Country Gent 6122 went on to become one of the most successful models in the Gretsch line, surviving until the brand went on sabbatical through much of the ’80s. Variations have been reissued in recent years in several popular model-year formats.

The rich history and resiliency of the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman makes this “first” Gent an important artifact in the history of American electric guitars.
Ed Ball is the author of Gretsch 6120, The History of a Legendary Guitar (Schiffer Publishing, 2010).


This article originally appeared in VG February 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.


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