Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Guitar Czar

Fred Gretsch '71 sustains a family business that's part of American music history.

Fred W. Gretsch was just a boy when he got his first glimpse of the family business. One day in 1950, his grandfather took him to the massive ten-story building by the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn where the Gretsch Manufacturing Company produced guitars and drums. The shop floor in those days was staffed by craftsmen freshly emigrated from Italy and Germany, who went about the painstaking business of fashioning musical instruments by hand. But it wasn’t the subtleties of craftsmanship and handiwork that made an impression on Gretsch that day. He was just a boy, after all, and not likely to get too enthused over that sort of thing. But there was something about that day that Fred Gretsch remembered, something that even a young boy couldn’t help but notice.

What impressed him and has stayed with him for all these years was the way his grandfather felt about the factory. The factory, the boy could see, made his grandfather proud.

His grandfather had built the factory and warehouse in 1916, not long after he had inherited the family business from the man who founded it—his own father, old Friedrich Gretsch of Mannheim, Germany. The big building, the thriving company, it was all a matter of personal pride. Even a boy could see that.

Fred Gretsch says that it was about then that he began looking forward to the day, far off in the future, when he would run the family business. “I think I caught a little of my grandfather’s spirit that day,” is how he puts it now.

Sure enough, if you go to the Gretsch Web site today, you can read all about the company’s history, through four generations of Gretsches down to Fred. You’ll find the stories about the guitars the company has made over the years—the Duo Jet and the gorgeous pearly white Falcon and the ’57 Tennessean—and the greats who played them, people like Chet Atkins and Roy Orbison and George Harrison. And just so you know that Gretsch is really still a family company, you’ll find the homey photos of Fred and the family gathered for birthday parties.

But the one story you have to hear from Fred Gretsch himself is how—even though the company he runs is thriving in a way that would make his grandfather proud—none of it happened the way Fred Gretsch planned.

He can tell you how, before he ever got his chance to live out the dream of running the family business, the realities of the marketplace intervened. And he can tell you how he felt back in 1967, when his uncle decided to sell the family business to the Baldwin Company. Fred W. Gretsch was still learning the business back then, paying his dues, having worked his way up from office boy (at 25 cents an hour) to assistant industrial engineer. Still, he knew what selling the company meant. While the making of Gretsch guitars would go on, it meant that now no one named Gretsch would oversee the process. It meant the family business was no longer in the family, that his hopes of one day running the company looked dim.

It was a time of deep disappointment for Fred Gretsch, no doubt about it. But he’ll tell you how, almost as soon as his old plan fell apart, he began making a new plan.

“It was in my mind, from the time the company was sold, that I was going to have to get it back,” he says.

Gretsch got the company back, of course. It took seventeen years. “It was a bit of an odyssey,” he says now. “Seventeen years is a long time.” Gretsch admits that he had his doubts along the way, but he never gave up on the idea. It was, he says, a matter of personal pride. After all, this is a family business we’re talking about.

When George Harrison was growing up in Liverpool he looked forward to the day when he could afford a good American guitar. He got one in 1960, when he was 17. It was an inky black Gretsch Duo Jet. He played it during the formative years that his group, eventually called the Beatles, spent in the dive clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg. Later, for the Beatles’ triumphal tour of the United States in 1964, he turned to a Gretsch Country Gentleman model. You can see Harrison playing the guitar on old tapes of the group’s appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, looking natty in his narrow-lapel suit with the walnut-stained Gretsch riding high on his chest.

For a generation of rock guitarists that included Harrison, Gretsch guitars offered an inimitable sound. Harrison produced the classic riffs on “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper” on Gretsch guitars. Pete Townsend of The Who played a Gretsch 6120 on the sessions for the classic LP Who’s Next, cranking out his signature power chords on an instrument that many had associated with Western twang. Rockers like Harrison and Townsend had been turned on to the Gretsches by an earlier generation of guitar heroes that included country and rockabilly pickers like Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, and Eddy Cochrane. Still later, more recent rockabilly revivalists like Chris Isaak and Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats turned to Gretsches to reproduce a vintage sound.

Classic Gretsch guitars today inspire such an intense affection in guitar collectors and aficionados that it is easy to overlook the fact that guitars were not among the instruments that Friedrich Gretsch sold back in 1883 when he opened his small music shop in Brooklyn. Customers could find banjoes, tambourines, drums, and other products there, but no guitars. Gretsch still produces drums, but sometimes it seems that, just as in a working rock band, it is the guitars up front in the spotlight that get all the attention.

It was Fred Gretsch Sr., the grandfather of the current president of the company, who brought Gretsch into the guitar-making business. Gretsch Sr. had taken over the family business upon his father’s death in 1895. The new boss was 15 years old. “The story is that he put on long pants for the first time and went off to work,” says his grandson.

It was Gretsch Sr. who steadily grew the business over the first decades of the 20th century, and built the imposing ten-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn that became the company’s manufacturing and administrative headquarters. What’s more, under his leadership, the company began making guitars—first acoustic archtop models for jazz players, and later flat-top guitars for the growing country and western market.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, though, that Gretsch began producing guitars that commanded widespread attention.

By then leadership of the family business had passed to Fred Sr.’ssons, Bill Gretsch, who led the company until his death in 1948, and then Fred Gretsch Jr. Under Fred Jr. the company became the first to offer a wide range of eye-catching colors and styles. If you wanted an electric guitar in sparkly silver or Cadillac green or Lemony Bamboo Yellow, as more and more players did, you turned to Gretsch. Guitar buyers were impressed by Gretsch’s attention to style, too. When it was introduced in 1954, Gretsch’s White Falcon model was hailed by many as the “most beautiful guitar in the world.” And Gretsch signed guitar hero Chet Atkins to help design and endorse a series of Western-influenced electric models.

Gretsch’s drum business was thriving, too. The company had been making drums from the very beginning, and had introduced a number of technical innovations that helped make the distinctive Gretsch badge a label of quality. When big band jazz gave way to bebop, Gretsch was able to make the transition. It introduced smaller drums that were increasingly in favor in jazz circles. The company also forged associations with such drummers as Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones.

By the time Fred W. Gretsch began working full time for the family business in the 1960s, you could see and hear top performers in country, jazz, and rock playing on Gretsch instruments. Gretsch’s reputation paid off in sales, too, making the company competitive with rivals such as Fender.

Gretsch was working as an engineer at the Brooklyn plant and attending college part time when he learned that his uncle would sell the family business to the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company of Cincinnati. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I was,” he says. “My goal had always been to own the company some day.” Still, Gretsch stayed with the company, working under the new ownership. He took a job in suburban Chicago, and in 1969 began studying business administration as a part-time student at Elmhurst College. After graduating in 1971, he went into business for himself as an importer and wholesaler of popular-price instruments, working with retailers such as Montgomery Ward and Spiegel.

At industry gatherings, Gretsch would sometimes run into executives from Baldwin. He never failed to mention that he still had designs on the old family business. “I would tell them that I wanted to buy the company back and ask them to let me know when they were ready to sell,” he remembers. “I have to admit, it seemed like a pretty remote possibility at times. But this was a lifelong dream for me.”

As it turned out, Baldwin was having its own problems with its recent acquisition. It shifted production of Gretsch instruments from Brooklyn to Arkansas, losing access to the skilled laborers who had built Gretsch instruments for years. Consumers influenced by new guitar gods like Eric Clapton increasingly turned to Fender instead of Gretsch. Moreover, Baldwin failed to maintain connections to Gretsch-affiliated players. Even Chet Atkins defected for Gibson.

Fred W. Gretsch could only watch from a distance. “I didn’t like to see them changing the product,” he says. “And I really hated to see Chet Atkins endorsing Gibson.”

Finally, in the early 1980s, Baldwin shut down production on its Gretsch line. So after 17 years of waiting and planning, Fred Gretsch got his chance. He bought the business back from Baldwin in 1985, making Gretsch a family-owned business once again.

Today’s Fred Gretsch Enterprises is built around a series of re-issues of classic Gretsch instruments. The idea is to combine traditional looks and styles with the latest technical improvements. Guitarists can buy updated versions of Harrison’s Duo Jet or the Tennessean or even the White Falcon. For drummers, there are classic 1970s-era maple-shell sets. The instruments evoke an age of classic styles and sounds. “What we do is like building a ’55 Chevy today,” Gretsch says.

He has grown the business by forging distribution and manufacturing partnerships (with Kaman for the drum business; with Fender for the guitar side). But the company remains resolutely a family business. Gretsch’s wife, Dinah, is executive vice president at the company’s headquarters in Savannah, Georgia, and his oldest daughter Lena (he is the father of six and the grandfather of twelve) works in inventory management for the drum division.

Not long ago, on a visit to New York, Gretsch stopped to see the old factory and warehouse that he had first visited with his grandfather more than half a century ago. Up on the ninth floor he could see where the company’s offices had once been, and down on the seventh, the machine shop. Of course, it was impossible to spend much time in the place without thinking of his father and grandfather and the others who had built the company. Not hard to understand, for that matter, why it meant so much to Gretsch to get the company back.

“No question, this is something that would make them proud,” he says.

By Andrew Santella

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