July 21, 2012
By Morgan Brunner
Between the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and the British Invasion in the 1960s, Gretsch guitars were all over the place and all over the charts. And if we skip ahead a decade, we find Gretsch guitars very much in vogue during the 1980s, and they’ve remained so pretty much ever since, right through the 1990s and the early 2000s to the present day.
But what about that decade we skipped? Unlike any other decade in rock, the 1970s are a bit more of a challenge when looking for Gretsch guitar hits. Maybe it has something to do with the idea that in many ways and certainly more so than in any other decade, the 1970s was an anxious and uncertain period when rock tore itself down and rebuilt itself -an unusually turbulent adolescence for an art form no longer in its childhood.
Never mind all that, though – the ’70s still kicked ass, and while you might have had to look a little harder to find them between Let It Be and Built For Speed, Gretsch guitars were very much alive and well. Here are five 1970s hits that prove it:
1. Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, “Ohio” (1970). Neil Young and Stephen Stills both made extensive use of the Gretsch White Falcon in the 1970s, perhaps best exemplified by 1970 CSN&Y single “Ohio,” penned by Young that summer in response to the infamous Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970. Young’s instantly recognizable picked intro and main theme is a fine Gretsch moment all by itself, and the song peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
2. The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again (1971). Pete Townshend played a 1959 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body on this, the quintessential Who track of the 1970s and possibly even the quintessential Who track, period. Further, he played it on every song from monumental 1970 album Who’s Next – “Bargain,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Baba O’Riley,” everything. In fact, he used on just about every Who recording and solo track from 1970 to at least 1993. He still has it and he still loves it, even though he broke it in an “accident” during an October 1973 performance of “5:15” on Top of the Pops.
The guitar was a 1970 gift from Joe Walsh. Townshend was less than thrilled upon opening the case for the first time, but that soon changed. As he told Guitar Player magazine in spring 1972:
Oh, I used that guitar on every track on Who’s Next, it’s the best guitar I’ve ever had. It won’t stay in tune on stage but if it did, I would use it. It’s the finest guitar I’ve ever owned, it’s the loudest guitar I’ve ever owned. It is so loud, man, it whips any pickup that I’ve ever come across. It’s maybe six or seven times louder than anything I’ve come across. If I plugged it in my amp tonight, normally I’d be working on volume 6 or 7, but I would work this guitar on 1.
3. New York Dolls “Personality Crisis” (1973). Honestly, almost any track off the New York Dolls’ hugely influential eponymous 1973 debut album qualifies here – “Trash,” “Looking For a Kiss” and “Jet Boy” all leap to mind – but if the Library of Congress could only preserve one number as the quintessential Dolls track, “Personality Crisis” wins for sheer glammy New York proto-punk majesty.
And OK, calling it a hit might be a bit of a stretch, but c’mon – you can’t talk about Gretsch guitars in the 1970s without at least a special honorable mention for the Dolls, because while David Johansen and Johnny Thunders stole more camera time trying to out-preen the Stones and the Stooges, Egyptian-born guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and his oft-wielded Gretsch White Falcon were the real bedrock of the group’s relentless lawnmower guitar sound.
4. Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “Takin’ Care of Business” (1974). Randy Bachman is one of the world’s great Gretsch guitar collectors, and believe it or not, he sold pretty much his entire phenomenal collection – almost 400 guitars – to the Gretsch museum in Savannah, Ga., in 2008. Unfortunately, the collection didn’t include the late-’50s orange 6120 he used to record universally beloved classic Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit “Takin’ Care of Business,” because the guitar was stolen from a Toronto hotel room in 1976.
Bachman once referred to the 6120 as his “first real professional guitar,” and he played it on the Guess Who’s first hit, a 1965 cover of “Shakin’ All Over,” so it was dear to him, to put it mildly. He has spent years searching for it without success. As for recording the hit in 1973, Bachman himself told us that “‘Taking Care of Business’ was my 6120, played through a 15-watt Garnet bass amp with a 15” speaker that was on a chair facing me. I had to use a lot of hand dampening to stop the squeals, but when I wanted the B.B. King-kind of feedback, I’d just let the lead notes sing out.”
5. AC/DC, “Highway to Hell” (1979). Hell, any AC/DC song from any decade is a shining Gretsch moment thanks to the rock-solid rhythm guitar work of Malcolm Young, but this is where things get going in earnest for Australia’s finest, which formed in Sydney in 1973. “Highway to Hell” comes from the 1979 album of the same name, which was AC/DC’s first million-selling record and first to break the U.S. Top 100, but its last with original vocalist Bon Scott, who died several months after its release.
Malcolm Young co-authored “Highway to Hell” with Scott and younger brother Angus Young, and of course, as on most AC/DC songs before and since, played his modified 1963 double-cutaway Gretsch Jet Firebird on it. He has remained pretty much exclusively devoted to the guitar, which was handed down to him by elder brother George Young (whose own group, the Easybeats, scored Australia’s first international rock hit with 1966 classic “Friday on My Mind”). The guitar was originally red, but Young stripped the top finish down to the maple top sometime around 1977’s Let There Be Rock.