BILL AND SUE-ON HILLMAN: A 50-YEAR MUSICAL ODYSSEY
www.hillmanweb.com/book and www.hillmanweb.com/book/gigs
Hillman Guitar No. 3
Serial No. 47562 (1962)
. .My Silvertone guitar was a constant companion during my first year at Brandon College, so word started to get around that I was some kind of guitar player. Gradually I started jamming with other musicians and bands: folk, jazz, rock, country, etc. One of the bands had a TV show, but had experienced a bit of a breakup. A classmate in the college dorm, fiddler Barry Forman, had kept the rights to the band name - the Country Gentlemen - as well as the contracts that went with it. Before long, Barry and I were rushing from morning classes every day to reach the CKX-TV studios in time for a daily TV noon show. [See The Country Gentlemen Years] I was expecting to play rhythm guitar on this largely unrehearsed show but on the first day found myself doing lead guitar solos. It was time for a more professional guitar.
Barry's mentor and great supporter of local musicians back in his hometown of Rivers was Alex Whyte. Mr. Whyte offered to order a Gretsch guitar -- wholesale -- and before long I was the proud owner of an orange, double cut-away, Chet Atkins model, Gretsch Nashville -- paid for again by my greatest supporter: my grandmother, Katie Campbell. This soon led to a very busy and confusing schedule as I my college classes took a back seat to my rehearsals and playing with an endless variety of bands: Co-Op Neighbour Nights on TV and in person, Flamingo Jazz Combo, Blue Angels (4 hours of rock lead guitar each night), the Shadows and Dovermen rock bands, road tours, and freelancing for a multitude of other gigs around Manitoba. [See The College Years 1961-1965] The Gretsch proved to be a great guitar for many different styles of music. By this time I had upgraded my first Sears amp to a much larger Harmony amp, but my dream was to save enough money to buy one of the new Fender Twin Reverbs. It seemed that the only place the red-haired guy with the orange Gretsch guitar didn't turn up at was the college classroom. When not playing I hung out at the Brandon Roller Rink where the owner brought in a constant stream of touring bands from the States: Ventures, Conway Twitty, Dorsey Burnett, Johnny Burnett, Jimmie Gilmer and the Fireballs, black blues bands, etc. I had the satisfaction of seeing that none of the touring or local musicians I saw had a guitar like mine. The closest thing to it was the thick single cutaway 6120 red Gretsch used by Winnipeg's Randy Bachman of Chad Allan and the Reflections. This was probably my favourite band of the time. Randy used the playback/monitor head of a reel-to-reel tape recorder to get a great echo delay sound which was so vital in achieving their English Shadows instrumentals. The band played Brandon regularly and we got to know them all quite well. By this time I had acquired many wholesale musical catalogues through my Dad's hardware business and Randy had even asked about getting a new Gretsch wholesale. This association with Winnipeg musicians proved to be quite beneficial in many ways in years to come and when we started to tour ourselves. [See The Early Rockin' Years].
In 1965, my ruddy, six-stringed buddy and I were separated under disastrous circumstances. It happened after a freelancing gig I had played with a pickup band in McCreary Hall. The band leader/driver was invited to a small party after the dance so the rest of the band had to go along, reluctantly leaving our gear in a not-very-secure old station wagon. We were soon on our way home however, stopping at Neepawa to drop off our bass player. It was only then we discovered that all our gear had been taken from the back of the wagon . . . including my Gretsch and stage clothes. We reported the theft to the RCMP, but I didn't hold much hope that I would ever see my guitar again.
I was prepared to use my old Silvertone for a long time to come when my parents and ever-understanding grandmother came to the rescue. We made some rush calls to music wholesalers. There was no replacement Nashville in stock . . . only a Country Club which I ordered with Bigsby. At the same time we came across a special offered by the Fender wholesaler on the West Coast: a Fender Telecaster in a beautiful custom colour - charcoal green. I drooled. Dad and Mom dipped into savings and placed an order. Soon I was alternating between Gretsch and Fender on stage.
I had pretty much given my Chet Atkins model Gretsch up for lost when an amazing turn of events occurred. I received word from Randy Bachman that he had seen a guitar, which he was pretty sure might be mine, in a pawn shop on Winnipeg's Main Street. I passed the tip along to the Mounties whom I had contacted originally and waited for the best. The day this news came in was made even more memorable by the events of the same evening.
The Belfast rock group, Them, were booked into Danceland at Clear Lake resort. I stood in front of the low stage for their whole show. Their performance consisted mainly of facing their amps -- coaxing controlled feedback and distortion from their guitars. It was the first time I had seen this done on stage and it was a bit of an inspiration. Van Morrison left the group to pursue a very successful solo career soon after this.
A few days later I had a call from the McCreary RCMP attachment informing me that they had retrieved my guitar, but I would have to come over to make an identification before claiming it. They had tracked the thief to Amaranth where they had found my suede stage vest stuffed into his stove . . . but I never did get my blue hipster bell bottom pants back.
Suddenly though, my guitar collection had grown considerably.
GRETSCH PHOTO SCRAPBOOK
At home in Maple Grove
Family jam session
With our 1960 Pontiac
Summer break from college
With the Flamingo Jazz Combo
Park Community Centre, Brandon
Promo Shot with the Shadows
(aka Dovermen) ~ mid '60s
Backing the Newbeats
Opening for Roger Miller
and the Everly Brothers
On Tour as Lead Guitarist
for Teen Idol Bobby Curtola
Strathclair Collegiate Gym 1965
Assembly during my first teaching year
Newdale Hall Dance
Gretsch | Tele | Twin
Promo Western Union shots at Strathclair
Sue-On and I and Gretsch
GGretsch and Fender Twin in our Music Studio
Brandon Bar Stage
Brdn Tourism Promo
My Gretsch and Tele as props
Federal Grain Train Tour Promo
Transition from Gretsch to Fender Telecaster
Federal Grain Stage at a W. Canada Exhibition
Into the 21st Century
Gretsch 6120 (fitted with Gibson P-90 pickup in the neck position)
Gretsch 6120 (orangey-red)
THE GRETSCH HISTORY
GRETSCH musical instrument production began in 1883 when Friedrich Gretsch, a German immigrant, set up a shop in Brooklyn for the manufacture of banjos, tambourines and drums. The company was immediately prosperous, but in 1895 Friedrich Gretsch died at 39 and his 15-year-old son, Fred, took over.
By 1916 Fred Gretsch had moved the company into a 10-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn and become one of America's leading importers and manufacturers of musical instruments. At this time, Gretsch still produced very few guitars, because there was little market for guitars. The banjo reigned supreme until well into the big-band era, when the archtop guitar came to the fore. Gretsch responded with the Synchromatic line.
When Fred Gretsch retired in 1942 his son William took over until 1948, when Fred Gretsch, Jr. took the helm. Fred Jr. went on to lead the company through its guitar heyday.
Gretsch had dabbled in electric guitars prior to 1955, producing a limited number of Hawaiian lap steels and the Electromatic arch-tops, among other models, but around 1954 the Golden Age of Gretsch guitars began. In quick succession the Electromatic evolved into the Country Club, the Jet solidbodies were introduced and two of Gretsch's best-loved models, the 6120 Chet Atkins model and the White Falcon hit the market.
Retailing for $385 new, the 6120 featured twin DeArmond pickups, a Bigsby vibrato, and a big G brand on the top. While common lore and several books claim the distinctive mark was actually burned into the top, this is highly unlikely and close inspection leads to the conclusion that it was routed using a template. Although the 6120 was originally directed at the country market, it has been favored by rock and rollers from Eddie Cochran to Pete Townshend to Brian Setzer.
The 6121 Chet Atkins model, released at the same time, looked like a solid body, but was actually more of a small, semi-hollow version of the 6120. Underneath the cap, the mahogany body was extensively routed.
By 1959 like steer-head inlays had gone off into the sunset. Both models had switched from block markers to "humped block" markers in 1957 to semi-circles markers (also called neo-classic or thumbnail markers ) thereafter. Pickups changed from DeArmonds to "FilterTron" pickups and the G brand was gone, never again to be seen on a 6120 until Gretsch resurrected the model in the 90s, with the G6120W (western).
Besides the Chet Atkins models, the 1955 line-up consisted of:
~ The 6136 White Falcon and Country Club two-pickup hollow bodies
~ Three single-pickup hollow bodies; the Convertible (Ivory and Copper with a Lucite pickguard), a hollow Corvette model and the Streamliner
~ The black Duo-Jet, the Jet Fire Bird (Oriental Red), the Silver Jet (silver sparkle finish) and the Round-Up solid bodies
The biggest news of 1955, besides the Atkins models, must have been the 6136 White Falcon. Initially intended to be a strictly promotional item, it was dubbed "The Guitar of the Future," and proved so popular at trade shows it found its way into the model line. The Falcon was like a six-string General Motors Motorama dream car: pure flash. It had a 17-inch body, four knobs, one switch, a Melita bridge, 24 karat gold plating, two DeArmond pickups and a special "Cadillac G" tailpiece with a V shaped crossbar and a metal G suspended between two metal rods. Falcons cost $600 new, $200 more than a 6120. Think five figures for one nowadays.
The next big shake-up in the model range was in the late 50s:
~ The Chet Atkins range expanded to four models, the 6120, the 6121, the 6122 Country Gentleman and the 6119 Tennesseean.
~ The White Falcon was available in Project-O-Sonic stereo and non-stereo versions, as were the Anniversary models.
~ The Round-Up was dropped.
~ Sal Salvador and Clipper models also joined the lineup by 1958, providing entry-level Gretsches.
Gretsch had become a major player by this time. They offered a distinct tone and flashy finishes at a time when Gibson and Fender considered anything other than sunburst a custom finish, as well as technical innovation (some would say gadgetry) and a distinctive sound.
In the mid-sixties George Harrison played a Country Gentleman on the Ed Sullivan show and sales went through the roof. Gretsch found themselves a year behind filling orders. Unfortunately, the success was not to last. In 1967 Fred Gretsch, unable to find a suitable heir, sold the company to Baldwin Pianos, which reorganized it as a subsidiary. Baldwin moved the New York guitar production to Booneville, Ark. in 1970, in an attempt to consolidate its factories and find cheaper and more reliable labor than was available in New York at the time. In '72 the New York offices were shut down and relocated to Chicago.
Fortune had turned against Gretsch. The guitars had fallen out of favor. The guitar heroes of the late '60s were playing Stratocasters and Les Pauls, and millions of kids followed them. And Baldwin never seemed to fully grasp guitar production. The guitars made in the '70s have suffered a bad reputation over the years, even though many who own them say they are excellent playing guitars. Even so, Gretsch in the '70s had become a pale reflection of the glory years. Quality control had been suffering under Baldwin's disinterested reign -- there were even rumors of intentional sabotage by disgruntled employees -- and the corporate lords began systematically cheapening some of Gretsch's best-loved models. A disgusted Chet Atkins withdrew his endorsement in 1979.
To top it off, in 1973 the Arkansas plant suffered two disastrous fires. The employees rallied around the brand and continued production into 1981 before Baldwin finally shut down guitar production. A few attempts were made to start up production again in late '81 and 1982, and a handful of guitars were made in various places, including Mexico, but none of the attempts were successful.
Although not widely sought by collectors, some of the Baldwin-era Gretsches were fine instruments. The 7686 Chet Atkins Super Axe and Atkins Axe are two of the better examples the company's efforts during that period. While not a commercial success, they were nonetheless very nice guitars.
The Gretsch name was resurrected in 1988 for a series of inexpensive Traveling Wilburys commemorative guitars. While these are hoarded avidly by a few collectors, they bear little resemblance to any Gretsch models. In fact, they are more like Danelectros.
In 1989, with the company again in Gretsch family hands, guitar production restarted on a large scale. Yet another Fred Gretsch had managed to purchase the remnants of the company -- little more than the name, really -- and set up shop outside of Savannah, Ga. The guitars, based on classic Gretsch models, would be made in Japan with a mixture of American and European parts.
A "custom" line of American-made guitars was also offered in 1998 and 1999, but prices were astronomical and few sold. Through the '90s, the Gretsch line begin at about $1,500, and by most accounts were very well made. In 1999, a cheaper series of Electromatic guitars also joined the line-up.
Though the product line still consists primarily of reissues of past successes, several models show some new thought, including a White Falcon Rancher and a 6120-type bass.
EVOLUTION OF THE 6120 CHET ATKINS AND NASHVILLE
BODY WIDTH: 15 1/2" ~ DEPTH: 2 2/3" ~ STYLE: Single cutaway
WOOD: maple ~ BINDING: black & white on body, f-holes, neck & headstock
FRETBOARD WOOD: ebony ~ COLORS: Gretsch orange
FRETBOARD MARKERS: Cow and cactus engraved blocks
SCALE LENGTH: 24.5
NUT: Brass ~ TUNERS: Grover StaTite
PICKUPS: Two DeArmond Dynasonics
CONTROLS: Volume each pickup, master volume, tone & pickup selector switch
BRIDGE: compensated aluminum Bigsby
TAILPIECE: gold-plated Bigsby B-6, non-pivoting arm
PICKGUARD: Gold, with Gretsch and Chet Atkins signpost in black
Jeweled and tooled leather strap offered.
Bigsby fitted with pivoting arm
Unengraved block markers ~
Horseshoe begins to replace steer's head on headstock
Larger truss-rod cover
G brand disappears
Rosewood fretboard with humped block markers
Body thickness 2 3/4" ~ Body width 16"
Tend to be redder than usual
G and arrow embossing begins to appear on knobs
(previously plain, or with an arrow alone)
Tone knob replaced by tone switch on upper bout
Zero fret added and metal nut dropped
Body narrowed to 2" ~
Double-cutaway 15 1/2" body introduced midyear
Access plate and padding on back
Some models supposedly fitted with Van Ghent tuners.
Standby switch added on lower bout, near Bigsby.
Signpost dropped from pickguard,
which now features Gretsch and Chet Atkins signature only.
Aluminum V cutout B-6 Bigsby
Muffler appears, dialed up by solid brass knobs,
rounded on top with knurled sides, with red felt underneath.
Later, a flip-up mute was used, activated by a different type of knob.
Nashville designation begins.
Horseshoe on headstock replaced mid-year with
square metal plate reading "Nashville".
Padding on back changed from cloth or leather to vinyl.
Some appear with HiLoTron pickup surrounds on
FilterTron pickups for a brief period this year.
Recessed edge aluminum control knobs begin.
Baldwin-era pickguard appears.
Chet Atkins name removed
Tune a matic bridge
FilterTrons use HiLoTron-type covers
No padded back or muffler
Red finish replaces orange ~ Real f-holes ~ gearbox truss rod adjustment
Plastic knobs ~ bent-arm Bigsby
Production of original series ends ~ Re-Issues resumed production later
The Gretsch 6120 debuted in 1954, the first in the "Chet Atkins" line.
An instant classic, it is to many the definitive Gretsch.
When introduced, the 6120 cost $385 and
sported a wagon-load of western decorations:
cow's heads and cactus etchings in the block markers,
a big G brand on the top and
Chet Atkins' signature on an engraved signpost on the pickguard.
It also had two DeArmond pickups and a
Bigsby whammy bar, providing the sound to back up those looks.
In '56 the powers that be at Gretsch
decided (with a little coaxing from Atkins)
In 1961, the body was narrowed from
almost three inches thick to about two.
There really isn't any difference
between a Nashville and Chet Atkins 6120.
Like most Gretsches, 6120s began
changing dramatically after the
Three-piece rock maple neck, ebony
Feel it out! The solid brass, gold
|NASHVILLE - 6120-60 -
- Three piece rock maple neck
- Ebony fingerboard
- Neo-classical inlay position markers
- Adjustable truss rod
- 24-1/2" scale, joined at 14th fret
- Curly maple bound headpiece with horseshoe pearl inlay
MODEL NUMBERS CAN USUALLY BE FOUND ON THE GRETSCH LABELS
Beginning in the late 1940s, Gretsches have labels with a printed serial number and a handwritten model number. On hollowbodies, the label is usually visible through the f-hole. On other models such as solidbodies, it should be inside a control cavity.
From about 1949 to 1957 watch for a white rectangular label that reads:
Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co.
60 Broadway, Brooklyn 11, N.Y.
Musical Instrument Makers Since 1883
The serial number will probably be printed in red, and the model number written in blue or black. The label has a fairly ornate border around it, but the "Gretsch" is usually printed in a plain font. However, some have "Gretsch" printed as the familiar logo.
Beginning in about 1957 a new label was introduced, which lasted until about 1965. On this one, "The Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co." was printed in black on an orange shape that vaguely resembles a musical note. This is imposed on a gray over white label. On the white part, the serial number is printed, and the model number should be handwritten. This label should be on all guitars after number 25000.
Some models, particularly 1962 -'65 models, had the serial number embossed on the headstock in lieu of a label. Beginning in 1965, the model number was printed either on top or on the back of the headstock or engraved in the metal model plate on the headstock, and no label was fitted.
In the late '60s the labels returned on most models. For a brief period rarely found labels were used that look like the second-generation labels, except "That Great Gretsch Sound" is printed across the bottom.
Finally, sometime around 1972 a plain black and white label was introduced. With "Gretsch Guitars" in a logo-type font across the top. These labels list model and serial numbers and along the bottom reads "Made in U.S.A."
On modern Gretsches, the serial number is usually readily visible on the back of the headstock.Thanks to The Gretsch Pages
~ Gretsch used 500K pots on both single-coil and double-coil equipped guitars.
~ Most double cutaway models originally were fitted with a wiring harness.
~ Schematic for 6160-60 & 6119-62 Nashville
~ Gretsch Company Address: Fred Gretsch Enterprises ~ PO Box 2468 ~ Savannah, GA 31402
Phone: (912)748-7070 ~ Fax: (912)748-1106
G6120DC Chet Atkins Double Cutaway Hollow Body
Features include three-piece maple/walnut/maple neck, ebony fingerboard with zero fret and Neo Classic™ thumbnail inlays, simulated f holes, dual High Sensitive Filter’Tron™ pickups, three-position pickup switch, three-position master tone switch, standby switch, gold plexi pickguard with Chet Atkins signature, gold-plated hardware, single-lever string mute, pearloid horseshoe and Gretsch® logo headstock inlay, gold-plated Grover® Sta-Tite™ tuners, snap-on back pad, chrome “rocking bar” bridge and Bigsby® B6G vibrato tailpiece.
Other Guitar Wall Buddies
Gretsch Tales from Chip Navarro
Click for full-size collage
Chet Atkins Talks Gretsch
See and Hear Close-up on YouTube
Artists Who Play Gretsch Guitars
The New Gretsch Homepage
Vintage Guitar Parts
1941 Patent: Gretsch Design for a Guitar
The Gretsch Pages