In many ways, the storied past of Gretsch guitars is a microcosmic reflection of the many twists and turns of the American guitar industry, from early immigrant success story to classic American guitars to big corporate buy-out to looking for cheaper labor to foreign imports, with some of the great names in guitar playing thrown in for extra spice. And while this 1972 Gretsch Chet Atkins Nashville 7660 doesn’t have every element on that list, it has its share!
Company founder Friedrich Gretsch was 16 years old when he immigrated from Mannheim, Germany, to Brooklyn, New York, in 1872. Son of a grocer, he took a job with Albert Houdlett & Son, a drum and banjo manufacturer. In 1883, he struck out on his own and started the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company to make drums, banjos, tambourines, and other instruments, mainly as a contractor. By the early 1920s, the company had added guitars to its repertoire, in ’33 it began marketing instruments under its own name, and in ’39 it began making electric guitars.
Following World War II, the brand moved forward on its own merit, and within a few years the golden age of Gretsch began: ’50s rockabilly guitars, two-handed tapping demos by Jimmy Webster and his White Falcon, endorsements by legendary fingerpicker, Chet Atkins, the introduction of highly regarded pickups designed by inventor (and tapper himself) Harry DeArmond (indeed, the DeArmond family claims Webster learned the technique from Harry; since they were both from Ohio, this could be true).
The association with Atkins began circa 1954. He was playing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and on a network radio show – he was a star clearly on the rise. It was Webster who spent considerable effort to convince Gretsch to pay a guitar player to use its guitars. Eventually, Atkins and Gretsch reached an accord, and the following year the single-cutaway Gretsch Chet Atkins Hollow Body debuted. The first Chet Atkins models had single-coil DeArmond pickups, replaced by humbucking Filter ‘Trons in 1958. Other Gretsch Chet Atkins models joined the line, including the Country Gentleman (1957) and the Tennessean (1958). The original Chet Atkins Hollow Body lasted until ’61.
Gretsch’s investment in Atkins essentially made the company’s fortune. The signature models bearing his name solidified its reputation – even influential guitarists such as Duane Eddy played Gretsch Chet Atkins guitars!
Guitars were big business in the 1960s, of course, with maturing post-war babyboomers eating up folk music, then the British Invasion and everything in its wake (not to mention a lot of illegal substances!). This seemingly endless demand for guitars inspired a corporate feeding frenzy as companies as diverse as network television and merchandise trading stamps stumbled over themselves to get a piece of the action. CBS purchased Fender in 1965. Seeburg (maker of juke boxes) bought Kay. King Korn (stamps) bought Westheimer (Teisco). Norlin (international conglomerate) bought Gibson.
Cincinnati-based Baldwin Pianos and Organs had competed with CBS for Fender, and settled on the English guitar company Burns. Baldwin had already moved its manufacturing facilities from Ohio to Arkansas in order to get cheaper, non-union labor, and imported Burns guitars were shipped to Baldwin’s Arkansas electronics factory where they were labeled with the new logo and distributed. The Baldwin Burns guitars met with limited success in the American market, so Baldwin looked around again and finally struck a deal for Gretsch in 1967.
The discontinued Chet Atkins Hollow Body was redesigned and brought back to life in 1967 as a double-cutaway guitar. In 1970, playing yet another labor card, Baldwin began to shift guitar production from Brooklyn to a new plant in Booneville, Arkansas, a process completed by the summer of 1972. With the move, Gretsch began to incorporate a number of Burns features, most notably the Burns heel “gear box” truss rod adjustment.
One of the guitars that got this makeover was the Atkins Hollow Body, which in ’67 was renamed the Chet Atkins Nashville 6120. In ’72, its model number became 7660. The one shown here has serial number 122058, dating it to December of ’72. The number is stamped into the back of the head, a practice that ended not long after, in favor of decals. Except for the use of the Burns gear box, this model is very similar to its predecessor. It was probably built in Booneville, although some or all of its components could have been made in Brooklyn and finished in Arkansas.
With a 21/2″ depth, this guitar is a medium-body hollowbody. The pickups are Filter ‘Trons, though they have HiLo ‘Tron covers. The electronics are typically Gretsch byzantine. One knob is a master Volume, while the other two are volume controls for each pickup. One mini-toggle is a standby offering on/off/on (go figure!?), while the other is a three-way tone toggle engaging three different capacitors. Like most Gretsch hollowbodies, this has the internal “sound post” joining the top and back under the pickups to decrease feedback. The tuners on this one are replacement Schallers. As long as you’re happy with the switching system, this is a swell rockabilly guitar.
In ’73, there were two bad fires at the Booneville factory, and Gretsch really never fully recovered. From 1973 to ’78, Gretsch jobbed out production to former manager Bill Hagner, pinning much of its hope on a series of bolt-neck flops. In ’78, Baldwin took over again and the following year bought Kustom from Bud Ross, moving Gretsch offices to Kansas. By 1980, the decision was made to end Gretsch guitar production and leftover stock was sold into ’81. In ’85. Fred Gretsch III purchased the company back and, after some false starts, introduced some reissue Gretsch classics made in Japan circa 1990. Imported Gretsch guitars continue to be available. This particular Nashville represents one of the last of the great American-made Gretsch guitars.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s October 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.