GretschTech: The Baldwin Era

Late Baldwin-era models: (left to right) The oddly proportioned Roc Jet and Country Roc, and the bizarre TK300 appear in the 1979 Gretsch catalog.

Every once in a while when exploring the Gretsch world, you’ll run across mention of the “Baldwin era” or the “Baldwin years.” What does this term refer to?

Generally speaking, people use it to refer to Gretsch in the 1970s. More specifically, however, it refers to the period when the Baldwin Piano Company owned Gretsch, which was substantially longer—from summer 1967 to early 1985.

The Baldwin era is a much-maligned period in Gretsch history. The term is often used in an unflattering light to denote generally neglectful Baldwin rule that resulted in a decline in quality, unpopular new instruments, corporate upheaval and dwindling sales that ultimately led to Gretsch guitar production being shut down altogether in 1981.

Gretsch had been a family-run company ever since Friedrich Gretsch founded it in New York in 1883. But in the mid 1960s, then-president Fred Gretsch Jr. purportedly found himself with no heir interested in running the company and decided to sell. Baldwin, riding high at the time and spurred by its 1965 acquisition of U.K. guitar maker Burns, sought to acquire an established U.S. guitar maker and duly turned its attention to Gretsch. The sale was completed on July 31, 1967.

Long successful in building and marketing pianos and organs, Baldwin seemed to assume that its existing production and marketing methods would work equally well for guitars. They didn’t. The company quickly introduced sweeping design changes and in 1970 moved production from Gretsch’s original home in Brooklyn 1,000 miles away to existing Baldwin facilities in Booneville, Ark. Little if any of this endeared Baldwin to Gretsch staffers, and, as noted in author Tony Bacon’s 50 Years of Gretsch Electrics, “very few made the move southwest in September 1970.” As if all that wasn’t bad enough, not one but two major factory fires in Booneville in 1973 dealt painful blows to production.

Wider developments in popular music didn’t exactly help. Big hollow-body guitars had largely fallen from favor in rock music by the early 1970s, as less delicate solid-body guitars that produced greater sustain and didn’t feed back ruled the day. Gretsch’s most popular guitars—darlings of original rock ‘n’ roll and of the British Invasion only a decade earlier—seemed to vanish from the concert stage and the charts throughout the 1970s (but you could find a few if you looked). A few stalwarts hung on, but there was no mistaking a definite decline.

For these and other reasons, Baldwin never achieved great success with Gretsch guitars throughout the 1970s. As such, the unfortunate character of the Baldwin era stands in sharp contrast to the original Gretsch golden age of the 1950s and 1960s.

A 1977 Gretsch Super Chet; an elaborate (note the controls on the pickguard) but well-regarded Baldwin-era guitar.

In recent years however, several Baldwin-era Gretsch models and design developments have experienced something of a rehabilitation. While it’s true that there was certainly enough from that period to encourage a lackluster reputation—the oddly proportioned “Roc” guitars and 1978’s bizarrely angular TK300 lurch to mind—by no means was everything Gretsch made during the Baldwin years ill conceived.

On the contrary, Gretsch produced several guitars during this period that are acclaimed by players and collectors as distinctively fine instruments. 1972’s Super Chet and 1977’s Super Axe and Atkins Axe are oft-cited examples—these and a few other instruments were definitely non-traditional next to their golden-age predecessors, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t quality instruments in their own right. Indeed, plenty of Gretsch fans contend that criticism of the Baldwin era is unfair at times not because the guitars weren’t solidly made—many of them were in fact quite solidly made—but simply because the guitars were too different from the beloved Gretsch models of the 1950s and ’60s.

Further, when Gretsch introduced a new lineup of Electromatic hollow-body guitar and bass models in 2012, they featured new “Black Top” Filter’Tron pickups that had a decidedly Baldwin-era look about them.

As for the Baldwin era, it ended quietly and not all that tidily. By the early 1980s, Gretsch guitars under Baldwin rule had yet to become profitable, and premier endorser Chet Atkins left the fold for Gibson when his contract expired. Baldwin had contracted Gretsch production to Booneville factory manager Bill Hagner not long after 1973’s factory fires, but control reverted to Baldwin in 1978. Baldwin bought the Kustom amplifier company in 1979, but a pairing of it with Gretsch proved both futile and short lived.

Baldwin ceased Gretsch guitar production altogether by 1981, and parent company Baldwin United declared bankruptcy in late 1983. During this period, ownership of Gretsch and its remaining resources changed hands several times, each time coming back under Baldwin control. As of summer 1984, Baldwin CEO Dick Harrison owned Gretsch.

Dual “Black Top” Filter’Tron pickups on a 2013 G5420T Electromatic Hollow Body model deliberately evoke a Baldwin-era look.

That’s when the Gretsch family re-entered the picture. Fred Gretsch Jr., who’d sold the company in 1967, had passed away in 1980. His nephew, Fred Gretsch III (son of 1940s-era Gretsch chief Bill Gretsch), had followed Baldwin’s bankruptcy proceedings and had stayed in contact with Harrison. Fred Gretsch III had achieved some musical instrument industry success on his own after leaving Gretsch in 1971. He bought Gretsch from Harrison in January 1985, and with that the Baldwin era was truly over. As it had been for its first 84 years, Gretsch was once again a family-run company.

While all this was going on, wider developments in popular music were once again conspiring to affect the future of Gretsch—this time for the better. In the early and mid 1980s, a new generation of players was discovering Gretsch guitars, especially in the U.K., and a raucous rockabilly revival was starting to make pretty big waves on both sides of the Atlantic.

The stage was set for a new Gretsch era. A new golden age was about to dawn.