Dan Fogelberg’s Gretsch White Penguin

Dan Fogelberg’s Gretsch White Penguin
Gretsch Fogelberg Gretsch White Penguin
Photos: Eric C. Newell, courtesy of George Gruhn.

Dan Fogelberg’s success as a singer and songwriter far overshadows his reputation as a musician, but the man whose tenor voice and sentimental songs ruled the Adult Contemporary charts in the early 1980s was actually quite an accomplished guitarist. Evidence is on The Innocent Age and Windows and Walls – the albums that yielded his biggest pop hits – where he was the only guitarist listed in the recording credits. One of his favorite electrics, which he owned from the beginning of his recording career, was also one of the rarest of collectibles – this ’58 stereo Gretsch White Penguin.

The White Penguin (Model 6134) was the solidbody version of Gretsch’s electric hollowbody White Falcon. Like all the other solidbody Gretsches of the ’50s, the Penguin originally had the single-cutaway body of the Duo-Jet, with routed mahogany back and a laminated-wood top pressed into an arched shape.

The trim distinguished the solidbody models from each other, and the Penguin had the Falcon’s white finish, gold-sparkle edge trim, gold-sparkle logo and truss rod cover, “Cadillac” tailpiece with the letter G in the center, single-coil DeArmond pickups, engraved “humptop” block fingerboard inlays, and vertically oriented peghead logo with the G flanked by wings. The Penguin and Falcon both had a V-top peghead that no other Gretsches had.

The inspiration for choosing a flightless bird for the model name has never been explained. The incongruity is underscored when the pickguards of the Falcon and Penguin are compared. The White Falcon’s guard depicts a falcon, ready to land, with wings spread and talons open, while the bird on the White Penguin’s guard is standing upright with its wings hanging down at its sides, looking very much like an old man in an overcoat.

This apparent disrespect for the Penguin carried over to Gretsch catalogs. In 1955, the company featured the White Falcon, along with a bevy of other colorful models, in a full-color catalog entitled Guitars for Moderns. The White Penguin was nowhere to be found – not in that catalog, not in any Gretsch catalog that followed. It was mentioned only in a 1958 flyer announcing the availability of stereo electronics and on a ’59 price list (at $490).

With that kind of support, it’s no wonder White Penguins are rare. Estimated production is no more than a few dozen. The examples that have shown up indicate that the Penguin followed the same changes as the Falcon, with pickups going from DeArmonds to Filter’Tron humbuckers in late 1957; inlays going from engraved humptops to the half-moon “thumbprints” in ’58; optional stereo electronics in ’58; Melita bridge to “space control” roller bridge in ’58; and vertical peghead logo to horizontal logo in ’59. When Gretsch’s other solidbodies went from single-cutaway to double-cut in ’61, so did the Penguin.

The Penguin went out of production some time in ’62, the year Fogelberg turned 11. The son of a band director and a pianist, Fogelberg started his musical career with a steel guitar and a Mel Bay instructional book, and quickly moved on to standard guitar and piano. As a student at the University of Illinois, playing at coffeehouses, he met manager Irving Azoff. Fogelberg and Azoff moved to California, but Azoff soon sent Fogelberg to Nashville to polish his songwriting ability. He made his recording debut in 1972 with Home Free, produced by Norbert Putnam and featuring Fogelberg on most of the guitar work. The album stalled at number 210 on Billboard’s album charts (though it would later go Platinum as a reissue).

Also in ’72, Fogelberg ventured to Nashville’s Lower Broadway district and bought this White Penguin from GTR (the original incarnation of Gruhn Guitars). Though sales records no longer exist, GTR inventory lists from 1973 show sunburst Les Pauls for $1,200 and a ’58 Explorer for $1,000, so Fogelberg would not have paid more than $1,000 for the Penguin.

Fogelberg’s guitar had a transitional set of specs (it’s often said that all Gretsch models are transitional). The Filter’Tron pickups are the second version, which appeared in 1958, with “PAT APPLIED FOR” stamped on the center tab (earlier units had no stamp; later ones had the patent number). The thumbprint fingerboard inlays also debuted in ’58, same year that the vertical logo last appeared.

The most interesting (and rarest) aspect of this guitar is the stereo wiring. Gretsch introduced Project-o-Sonic stereo in ’58, featuring Filter’Tron pickups with treble/bass split (rather than the one-pickup-per-channel design of Gibson’s stereo models). At first, the stereo setup was easy to spot; the neck pickup had three polepieces for the bass strings, and the bridge pickup had three polepieces for the treble strings. After a year or so, the pickups were changed to look like normal six-pole Filter’Trons (though a stereo Gretsch could still be identified by an excess of control knobs). Consequently, this is a relatively rare stereo setup on any Gretsch, and exceedingly rare on a Penguin.

Two years after acquiring this guitar, Fogelberg teamed with guitarist Joe Walsh as producer to record Souvenirs. Fogelberg contributed most of the guitar and keyboard parts, including an electric guitar solo on “As the Raven Flies” using the White Penguin. By that time he had modified the guitar, as he later explained in a note accompanying this guitar, “to make it more playable.” He added a Bigsby vibrato, Gibson-style tune-o-matic bridge and Yamaha Rotomatic-style tuners.

Souvenirs yielded Fogelberg’s first hit, “Part of the Plan,” but it wasn’t until his 1981 double album The Innocent Age, that he hit his stride with three pop hits (“Hard to Say,” “Same Auld Lang Syne,” and “Leader of the Band”). By the time of his next album, Windows and Walls, MTV had been launched, providing a 24-hour cable TV outlet for music videos. “The Language of Love,” Fogelberg’s first single from the disc, became his first video, and the featured guitar in the video was his White Penguin.

“The Language of Love” rocks harder than the quintessential Fogelberg tune, and the video opens with the body of the Penguin filling up the screen and Fogelberg playing a screaming lead line. The video is simple, with Fogelberg and his three-piece band performing in front of a white background. It’s the perfect setting for a White Penguin.

Fogelberg died of cancer in 2007. By then, his legacy had been established with acoustic-oriented music, and the guitar with which he was most often identified was a signature Martin D-41. This ultra-rare stereo White Penguin represents another side of Fogelberg’s artistry and also shows that he had an appreciation for vintage guitars throughout his entire recording career.

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This article originally appeared in VG June 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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