Fender might have pioneered the mass-produced solidbody electric guitar, and Gibson later forged the sound of heavy rock, but for a time in the 1950s it was Brooklyn maker Gretsch that set the style and tone for rock ‘n’ roll. For a brief period in the mid to late ’50s, a Gretsch was the guitar to have for the up-and-coming string-slinger, and none was a more radical tool for the revolutionary new teenage music than the Duo Jet.
Although traditional-minded makers like Gretsch and Gibson initially considered solidbody guitars a novelty—they were derided as planks, canoe paddles, and beneath their dignity—Gibson was spurred to bring out the Les Paul in 1952 after witnessing Fender’s success with the Broadcaster/Telecaster. Gretsch was compelled to follow suit, unveiling the first Duo Jet in 1953. Although it was billed as a solidbody guitar (and the artist’s rendition from 1955, in Roundup Orange with western trim, would be prominently advertised as the Chet Atkins Solid Body), the construction was actually semi-solid, with a significant amount of air space beneath the laminated maple top and large pockets in the mahogany body. No matter, it was close enough, and proved a near instant classic—particularly as used toward the more adrenaline-fueled musical styles emerging in its day.
With a pair of DeArmond Model 200 singlecoil pickups (“Dynasonics” in Gretsch parlance), the Duo Jet had more crispness and clarity than the P90-loaded Les Paul of the mid ’50s— along with twang aplenty—but it could also bite, punch, and snarl. The tone remains classic rockabilly, yet a Duo Jet and its brethren the Fire Jet and Silver Jet can also get down and dirty when required. Witness the sonic mayhem of the latter through a Marshall in the hands of Billy Zoom of the L.A. punk band X.
Otherwise, more seminal ’50s and early-’60s Jet-fueled rock and roll is readily heard in the music of early Bo Diddley, who played a Fire Jet before moving to his custom-made, rectangular-bodied Gretsch, and Cliff Gallup with Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps—widely considered to have been one of the most able-bodied Duo Jet wranglers of his day. And to hear those licks reproduced with greater fidelity, yet still on an authentic vintage Duo Jet, check out Jeff Beck’s 1993 album with the Big Town Playboys, Crazy Legs, where he replicates Gallup’s solos in several classic Gene Vincent songs nearly note for note.
Of course, a Duo Jet was also the first real guitar of one young Liverpudlian who would eventually make his own mark on the scene. George Harrison of the Beatles purchased his 1957 model used in 1961, buying it from a sailor who’d brought it back from America. As it happens, the guitar pictured here was Harrison’s very own, one he possessed until his death in 2001. For many—and we won’t argue—it packs the best features and looks that ever came together in the model: Gretsch-branded Bigsby vibrato, bar bridge, humpback markers. And sure, Harrison’s association with the model has helped to make Duo Jets with these specs even more collectible today, but the model was always destined to be a classic.
Finish-wise, you could have your Duo Jet in any color you wanted, as long as it was black. A Fire Jet like Bo Diddley’s also came in bright red, or you could go with the silver-sparkle of Billy Zoom’s Silver Jet (achieved by covering the top in a synthetic drum wrap). But as far as we’re concerned, Cliff’s, George’s, and Jeff’s were black, and that’s good enough for us.
> Laminated-maple top on semisolid mahogany back
> 24.6" scale length
> Glued-in neck with bound ebony fretboard
> Dual single-coil DeArmond Model 200 (a.k.a. Dynasonic) pickups
> Floating rocker-bar bridge