How the right people and the right company came together at the right time to create a legendary line of electric guitars
By Fred W. Gretsch
In summer 1954, my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., and a rising Nashville session and recording guitar star named Chet Atkins put their signatures on a simple two-page contract. Neither of them could have predicted what was about to happen, or that this long and fruitful relationship would endure 60 years later.
So what made it work? I think it was a textbook example of what can happen when the right people and the right company come together at just the right time. Let’s start with the people.
From the Gretsch side, you had Jimmie Webster, the man in charge of guitar design and marketing, and the face of Gretsch guitars to hundreds of dealers. When not in our Brooklyn factory, he was on the road selling, getting feedback from dealers and giving demonstrations and clinics. Jimmie was a fine jazz guitarist, famous for his unique string-tapping technique called the “touch system.” He also had a keen eye and ear for talent.
Fred Gretsch Jr. was president of the Gretsch company at the time, and part of the management team that decided to push the business’s professional drum and guitar lines after World War II. He surrounded himself with good, talented people who really knew the music business, such as Jimmie Webster and Phil Grant on the drum side, and Duke Kramer on the guitar side. He trusted this team and their instincts and guided Gretsch through a golden age of growth and innovation.
Credit also must be given to the skilled craftsmen back at the Brooklyn Gretsch factory, who took personal pride in making Chet Atkins guitars every day. These people included, for instance, longtime, dedicated employees such as Vinnie Di Domenico and his nephew, Jerry Perito; Carmine Coppolla; Johnny De Rosa in the finishing room and many, many others.
And then there was Chet Atkins himself. The quiet guitarist’s career had taken off since moving to Nashville in 1950 to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and WSM radio with the Carter Family. By 1954, this national exposure had helped make him a popular recording and session musician. He was also just starting to find success in the recording studio producing other country and western artists.
The Gretsch company also happened to be a good fit for a tinkering, inventive artist like Chet. We were a relatively small company and had a good reputation for collaborating with musicians such as Harry Volpe, Louie Bellson and others to build custom instruments. Gretsch’s most famous endorsement at the time had been with Radio City Music Hall’s master percussionist, Billy Gladstone, who worked closely with us to create the revolutionary Gretsch-Gladstone snare drum.
Like Chet Atkins, Jimmie Webster also shared a passion for inventing new ways to improve the sound and playability of the electric guitar—which was still in its infancy in the early 1950s. Although I’m not sure he had permission from my uncle, Jimmie had no reservations about promising Chet that he could help design a Chet Atkins signature model guitar if he switched from D’Angelico to Gretsch.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Gretsch had made a lot of noise in the electric guitar field when it introduced the Electromatic and Electro II line of electrics in 1951 and the cool solid-body Duo Jet in 1953.
Gretsch had also noticed the recent success of Gibson’s Les Paul endorsement, and was looking to do something similar. In Jimmie’s mind, Chet was the rising star to which our company should hitch its wagon and guitar fortunes. Luck was on our side when Chet happened to attend one of Jimmie’s guitar demonstrations at a dealer in Nashville. They became friends and realized they had much in common, and Jimmie started pursuing Chet to become a Gretsch artist.
Chet’s career was also rising at this time and was about to blast off. The guitar virtuoso was making the electric guitar a popular, accepted solo instrument and was eager to have a signature guitar like his friend Les Paul. In fact, shortly after the orange, western-appointed Gretsch 6120 went on sale in 1955, Chet had his first hit single, “Mr. Sandman,” a crossover instrumental that lead to even more TV and radio exposure. And rock ‘n’ roll was about to explode onto the music scene, making the electric guitar even more important to a new generation of teenagers.
In retrospect, both Gretsch and Chet entered this endorsement knowing it had the potential to greatly benefit both sides. And it did. Chet said getting the Gretsch endorsement was a “major step” in his career and that having a signature guitar confirmed that he had arrived as an artist. He also benefitted from having his face and name prominently featured on Gretsch advertising campaigns and catalogs, and from having his signature on the pickguard of each guitar. And with the continued success of his recording career, it wasn’t long before Chet Atkins was a household name across America and abroad.
Chet was also dedicated to helping Gretsch design the best-sounding and best-playing electric guitars possible. Some of his suggestions included a metal nut, metal bridge, additional bracing and closed f holes for more sustain. He also added the zero fret for improved string height and lower action, and he worked with Ray Butts to develop the humbucking Filter’Tron pickup. Atkins also worked with Paul Bigsby to develop his distinctive “bent-wire” Bigsby vibrato arm.
Gretsch benefitted equally from being linked to Chet’s long, successful career as a master guitarist, recording star, producer and record company executive. Gretsch guitars were put on the map and in the spotlight every time Chet performed in concert or on TV. He also featured a Gretsch guitar on practically all of his own album covers. He made personal appearances on Gretsch’s behalf (back in the day when the NAMM Show was held at the Palmer Hotel in Chicago), and he performed at “Guitarama” clinics with Jimmie Webster. Sales were strong from day one, and went through the roof when one of Chet’s biggest fans, Beatles guitarist George Harrison, played a Country Gentleman guitar on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964.
As I reflect on this milestone anniversary, Gretsch could not have chosen a better artist—or person—than Chet Atkins as our first guitar endorsee. He made only positive contributions to the Gretsch brand and to my family’s name. He was respected and loved; he was married to his wife, Leona, for over 50 years; and worked very hard to earn the nickname “Mr. Guitar.”
He was also a man of integrity. For example, Chet stayed with the Gretsch endorsement for 25 years as a courtesy and out of loyalty to my uncle, even though Baldwin had stopped making Gretsch guitars in the late 1970s. When my uncle passed away in 1980, Chet ended the endorsement and went over to Gibson a year later.
My wife, Dinah, and I were honored to be Chet’s friends, and his visits to our Savannah office and his personal invitations to see many of his shows and visit with him backstage are cherished memories. After Chet’s passing in 2001, I wanted to honor Chet by working with Paul Yandell, Chet’s trusted right-hand man of 25 years, to create the Nashville Classic guitar. This was a faithful reproduction of Chet’s famous 1959 Country Gentleman, on which he recorded most of his RCA hits.
There was also a groundswell of interest from his fans to see Chet’s name back on Gretsch guitars. It took time and a lot of work with Chet’s family and Paul Yandell, but it came together and the Gretsch-Chet Atkins endorsement was proudly renewed in 2007. In 2011, Gretsch was honored to be the title sponsor of a major exhibit, “Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player,” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.
I’m proud that Chet Atkins and the Gretsch family will be forever linked. Today, his name and distinctive signature appear on 16 Gretsch models, including 6120, Country Gentleman and Tennessean guitars. They all follow the faithful formula and recipe from the 1950s and are more popular than ever today. A true testament to what can happen when the right people and the right company come together with the right purpose in mind.