Classic Gear: The 1955 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollowbody

Gretsch aimed its electric-arch-top models of the early ’50s primarily at the jazz market, with the country scene a close second.
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Gretsch aimed its electric-arch-top models of the early ’50s primarily at the jazz market, with the country scene a close second. Soon after landing its first star endorsement from Chet Atkins, however, it all took a twist in a surprising direction. While Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster and Gibson’s Les Paul seemed tailor-made for the new music that was brewing in the mid ’50s, Gretsch hollowbodies were arguably the most influential guitars on the rock-and-roll scene, and the 6120 Chet Atkins Hollowbody was, for a time, king of the heap.

It makes sense. After all, rock and roll was born out of the confluence of slick and speedy licks being played by jazz and western swing artists such as Charlie Christian and Junior Barnard—all of whom did their thing on the electric archtops of the day, as did Scotty Moore in making his transition from country to backing the most influential early rock and roller of all, Elvis Presley.

In developing the 6120 in 1954, and officially releasing it in 1955, Gretsch followed Gibson’s lead in constructing the guitar with laminated-maple tops and backs with press-formed arches— as used on the ES-175 of 1949—reasoning that the added rigidity of laminates over more resonant solid-wood construction would benefit a guitar that was intended to be amplified. The results from Gretsch’s factory were even deader acoustically than the laminated creations from Kalamazoo, but that only further distinguished their sound once amped up. Rather than the deep, rich, and potentially boomy tone of the average jazz box, the 6120 was bright and cutting. This sound was further accentuated by the DeArmond Model 200 single-coil pickups (called “Dynasonics” in the Gretsch catalog) used on the guitar for the first few years of production. With individual and adjustable alnico rod-magnet polepieces in a complex “monkey on a stick” arrangement, these clear-sounding pickups could also drive an amp pretty hard, eliciting a juicy, fat, yet articulate tone.

The “G” firebrand and cattle-themed western cosmetics that adorned the early guitars were extremely kitschy—and drew enough objections from Chet himself to eventually get them removed—but these appointments make for an extremely collectible vintage guitar today. The look that followed, still with the “roundup orange” finish, but with new hump-back fret-board inlays and an absence of cowboy paraphernalia, practically screamed rock and roll. And, although not all 6120s were vibrato-equipped, it really does seem like Gretsch and the Bigsby tailpiece were made for each other— especially as the gentle rollercoaster dip of the Bigsby became a major ingredient of the rockabilly sound.

Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy brought the 6120 to the nation’s attention before the end of the ’50s, and it has remained a rockabilly staple ever since. It’s the choice of retro stylists like Reverend Horton Heat and Brian Setzer (although each prefers their twang via the Filter’Tron humbuckers that arrived in 1957). But the 6120 has proven itself more than a retro accessory. For example, Pete Townshend recorded many of The Who’s most bombastic tracks with a 1959 Gretsch 6120 through a tweed Fender Bandmaster combo (both of which were given to him by Joe Walsh), and Neil Young often used a ’59 6120 in the Buffalo Springfield and for wilder adventures after. Various related Gretsch models were central to the British invasion of the ’60s, and the 6120 and its brethren made a big comeback during the indie and alternative scenes in both Britain and the U.S. in the ’80s and ’90s.

Essential Ingredients

• Fully hollow archtop body
• Laminated-maple body construction
• Glued-in neck with bound rosewood fingerboard
• Floating Melita bridge
• Dual single-coil DeArmond Model 200 (a.k.a. Dynasonic) pickups