“Meet George Jetson! And his boy Elroy!”
The year was supposed to be 2062 AD, but it was really 1962 when the catchy theme song introducing the characters in the Hanna-Barbera television cartoon show was first heard by American kids. The white-collar sitcom equivalent of the blue-collar Flintstones, the Jetsons sported space-age hovercraft, a robotic maid, and a house clearly inspired by Edward Carlson’s Space Needle, built for the Seattle World’s Fair in 1961. But the Jetsons were still a typical middle-class family, with teenager problems, an annoying little kid, and of course, the family dog, Astro. The iconic cartoon ran for about six months before settling in to a lifetime of reruns. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that when Gretsch guitars wanted to create a hip “space-age” image with a new, modern guitar design in 1964, it chose to name the model the Astro-Jet, inspired by the television show! Is it also a dog? Well, that’s a matter of perspective!
The Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company was founded in Brooklyn in 1883 by Friedrich Gretsch, an immigrant from Mannheim, Germany. Upon his death in 1895, the company went to Fred Gretsch, Sr., who ran it until 1942 and during whose tenure appeared Gretsch’s first acoustic archtops and flat-tops. Fred, Sr. was succeeded by his sons, Bill and Fred, Jr., though Fred left, only to return to the helm after Bill’s passing in 1948. It was under Fred, Jr. that Gretsch entered the electric-guitar arena, producing some of the most highly respected hollowbody electrics of the 1950s.
Among the Gretsch Company’s assets in the ’50s was a young guitar player by the name of James Donart “Jimmie” Webster. Born in Van Wert, Ohio, on August 11, 1908, Webster reportedly was descended from both Daniel Webster and President John Quincy Adams! Clearly, he was from a musical family because his sister, Virginia, was a jazz pianist. Jimmie lived for a time in Toledo during the ’30s, where he met pickup pioneer Harry DeArmond, who performed and taught there. According to several sources, including longtime Gretsch employee, the late Duke Kramer, it was Harry who first showed Webster how to hammer-on, but it’s not known whether this very old technique was an already developed tapping system in DeArmond’s hands or used simply to demonstrate the sensitivity of his new pickups. In any case, Webster would thereafter be identified as the master of two-handed tapping.
Webster later moved to Long Island, New York, where he married (and played guitar for) female jazz band leader L’Ana. He served as a musician in Iceland in World War II, and after the war began a life-long association with Gretsch. In 1952, he published his landmark tapping guitar method.
At some point around this time, Webster began traveling as an ambassador for Gretsch, performing at clinics where he would demonstrate his two-handed tapping to scores of eager youngsters who would be converted to, or at least greatly influenced by, Webster. Equally influential was his use of a Gretsch White Falcon, which also converted multitudes to DeArmond-equipped Gretsch guitars (which was, of course, the whole point!). In late ’58, Webster went into the recording studio and cut 1959′s Webster’s Un’a-bridged, one of the classic tapping records (and definitely worth seeking out), for RCA. Jimmie’s ancestor, Daniel, is famously known for his Unabridged Dictionary… Certainly young Jimmie defined his form!
Back to Gretsch. In 1954, seeing Gibson’s success with the Les Paul model, Gretsch introduced it’s first line of “solidbodies,” the black Duo-Jet, Silver Jet, and Round-Up. These were, in reality, semi-hollowbodies and relatively up-market, finished (except for the walnut Round-Up) in drum plastic. These were followed by the red Fire-Jet. Gretsch had some success with these models. In ’61, Gibson switched to the new double-cutaway SG body style and Gretsch answered with its own Jet Stream double-cuts. 1961 also saw the debut of Gretsch’s first lower-end guitars, the truly solidbody, double-cutaway Corvettes, outfitted with DeArmond Hi-Lo ‘Tron pickups. The original slab-bodied Corvettes were given a remake the following year with more pointed horns and some body sculpting to compete more closely with the Gibson SG. Curiously, at this time, Gretsch began to source Jim Burns vibratos from Burns of London.
Around this time, Gretsch decided to go space-age. As often before, the company turned to stalwart spokesman Jimmie Webster for input. According to Duke Kramer, Webster’s charge was to create a guitar with that “Gretsch sound,” but one that didn’t look like a Gretsch. The result was the 1964 6126 Astro-Jet shown here. At least in terms of the objective, this guitar was a success. The sound is Gretsch and it sure doesn’t look much like one!
From a design standpoint, the Astro-Jet was a kind of Corvette on acid. The upper horn was thicker, and the four-and-two head was given a… well, you describe it! Typical of most Gretsch electrics, Astro-Jets were finished two-tone, with red fronts and a black back. For all the weirdness, these were actually pretty high-end guitars. The bodies were solid mahogany with set mahogany necks and bound ebony fingerboards with the “thumbprint” neo-classical design introduced in the late ’50s. They sported a pair of DeArmond Super ‘Tron twin-blade humbuckers controlled by individual volume knobs plus a master volume, three-way pickup select, three-way tone select (mid-bass, treble, heavy bass), and a three-way standby toggle (don’t ask me!). The vibrato was by Burns.
Unlike the Jetsons, the Astro-Jet did not take off or enjoy many reruns. Its only catalog appearance was in 1965. In ’67, Gretsch was bought by the Baldwin Piano and Organ company, which since 1965 had also owned Burns of London. Increasingly, Burns features began making their way onto Gretsch guitars. It’s not known how many Astro-Jets were ever produced, but the model only limped on until 1967 or possibly ’68, and there were probably not many. Ironically, what was meant to look futuristic when it debuted is now definitely “dated” as a highly desirable relic of the Swinging ’60s. One of stranger episodes in the Gretsch saga that now rates as quite collectible!
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’07 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.