Above: Master builder Stephen Stern examines a replica of George Harrison's 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet.
DECADE OF EXCELLENCE: As the Gretsch Custom Shop celebrates its 10th anniversary, Guitar Aficionado looks back at its various flights of fancy.
By Alan di Perna
The Gretsch Custom Shop occupies its own little second-floor enclave at the Fender Musical Instrument Company (FMIC) facility in Corona, California. “We’re in a mezzanine,” Gretsch master builder Stephen Stern explains. “I have my own woodshop up here. We do our own style of guitar.”
It’s a style that recreates all the best attributes of Gretsch’s historic mid–20th century heyday, when the factory was located in Brooklyn, New York, just across the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan. This was the time and place that gave birth to immortal Gretsch electric archtops like the 6120 Chet Atkins and 6136 White Falcon, and chambered-body classics like the 6128 Duo Jet.
The Custom Shop, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is a kind of fantasy factory, offering a high-end, American-made counterpart to the production-model Gretsches currently built in Japan. The shop’s hand-wrought renditions of classic Gretsch models look, feel, and sound like something that might have rolled out of the Brooklyn factory in 1957, albeit on a really good day, because, as every vintage guitar enthusiast knows, original mid-century Gretsches are notoriously inconsistent. Some play like a dream; others sport questionable construction and are nearly impossible to keep in tune. Part of the Custom Shop’s brief is to ensure that all the latter-day classics it produces are equal to, or better than, the finest of Gretsch’s historic heyday.
Along with obsessively accurate reproductions of vintage Gretsches, the shop can fashion the ultimate “Gretsch that never was.” Whoever said White Falcons and Penguins had to be white? Morrissey guitarist Boz Boorer created something of a mini trend when he ordered a Pink Penguin from the Custom Shop in 2008. Pretty soon, other players were dreaming in color. “The Penguin is our number-one-selling guitar,” Stern says. “We make it in so many colors.”
Archtops with sparkle finishes are another big favorite, and so are hardware configurations that never happened back in the day, such as a White Falcon with three DeArmond pickups and a Bigsby instead of a Cadillac G tailpiece. After all, Gretsch was constantly messing with its formulas during the Brooklyn era. Practically every guitar the company produced back then was a transitional model anyway.
“If somebody wants something like a Duo Jet with Strat pickups, we won’t do that,” Gretsch senior product manager Joe Carducci says. “We’ve done some wacky stuff, but there are certain places where we won’t go.”
The Custom Shop’s Tribute models are another strong part of its identity. These include historically accurate, painstakingly researched replicas of iconic instruments played by legendary Gretsch guitarists such as Chet Atkins, Eddie Cochran, George Harrison, Brian Setzer, and Billy Zoom. Stern and his team also craft handmade prototypes for Japanese-produced signature models, such as those based on Duane Eddy’s 1957 6120 and Malcolm Young’s 1963 Jet Firebird. The Young prototype was so good that AC/DC recently requested to use it to cut their new album.
“Stephen Stern and his crew are not making cookie-cutter guitars,” Carducci says. “A lot of hand work is done on a custom Gretsch. There’s a top, back, and sides to build. They laminate their own wood. It’s old-school guitar building, kind of like violin making. Our main inspiration is the guitars made during Gretsch’s Brooklyn era. Stephen has that recipe burned in his brain. He has all the correct tooling, and he knows the proper ways that the guitars should be assembled.”
The Gretsch Custom Shop was established in 2004, two years after FMIC took on distribution and management of the Gretsch brand. A White Falcon and Nashville Western 6120 were the first production models. Stephen Stern came onboard in 2005, bringing with him a long and distinguished background in luthiery. He started out at Charvel back in the Eighties and in 1993 moved over to the Fender Custom Shop in Corona. There, he eventually ended up working with archtop masters James D’Aquisto and Robert Benedetto on their respective FMIC brands. His top-drawer archtop knowledge made Stern an ideal candidate to run the Gretsch Custom Shop. Much of his building staff, which includes Ken Hillebert, Gonzalo Madrigal, and Anthony Corona, also had experience working on the FMIC Benedetto line.
Over time, the team has grown to include Andy Hicks, Chad Henrichsen, and Vincent Van Trigt. Custom Shop builders are carefully selected, as it takes a special mindset and set of skills. Currently, the shop produces somewhere around 175 instruments per year. Stern estimates that commissions by celebrity guitarists account for about five percent of the shop’s output.
“Gretsches are built differently than other guitars,” Stern says. “A Les Paul is solid mahogany, whereas a Duo Jet is fully chambered, which affects the sound. The pickups on a Gretsch are different, the look is different, the bridge, the tailpiece. The 6120 has trestle bracing. And the Falcons and 6120s are not made out of solid wood; they’re plywood-top guitars. All of that contributes to that classic Gretsch tone and feel.”
The first Gretsch Custom Shop tribute guitar was the 2007 Brian Setzer model, which was based on the 1959 6120 that Setzer rode to fame on the first three Stray Cats albums in the early Eighties. The original guitar spent a lengthy period at the Gretsch Custom Shop, where Stern took extensive measurements of every conceivable parameter. “Along with obvious things like neck profile and headstock shape,” he says, “we get into a lot of details on tribute models, like wear on the fingerboard and color. You want to replicate as much as is humanly possible.”
Perhaps the most high-profile tribute model to issue from the Custom Shop was the 2010 replica of the 1957 Duo Jet that George Harrison played during the Beatles’ early career in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, the rough bars of Hamburg, and on the Fab Four’s first U.K. album, Please Please Me. A lifetime favorite of Harrison’s, the guitar was also employed on his 1987 solo album, Cloud Nine.
“I had it in the shop for three days,” Stern exults. “Word got around, and everyone and their mother were coming to have a look. It’s stressful to have such a guitar in your possession. It was George Harrison’s!”
Running the instrument through a medical imaging CAT scan machine — a standard process with Custom Shop historic replicas — enabled Stern and his team to map the exact shape of the internal body chambers. Stern also disassembled the original and carefully measured all the parts. “What’s great about doing these tribute guitars,” he says, “is that you can spec out the old parts — the strap buttons, bridges, knobs, etcetera. We’re always refining things like that.”
One of the most striking features of Harrison’s Duo Jet is its amateurish repainting job. “Originally only the top and headstock were black on the black Duo Jets,” Stern explains. “The back and sides were a walnut stain. But on George’s guitar, the back and sides were painted black as well. The headstock logo was really weird. Whoever repainted the guitar just put a piece of masking tape over the logo, sprayed the headstock black, and then took the masking tape off so the logo didn’t have paint around the lettering.”
Did a 17-year-old George Harrison execute the paint job? While Stern analyzed the physical evidence, Carducci plunged into historical research. From interviews with George’s son, Dhani, and widow, Olivia, Carducci found the name of the guitar���s original owner, Liverpool seaman and beat group guitarist Ivan Hayward. He purchased the guitar for $210 in 1957 at Manny’s— New York City being one of the sailor’s ports of call—and subsequently sold it to Harrison in Liverpool in 1961. Consulting a phone directory, Carducci located Hayward, who provided a wealth of documentary, photographic, and anecdotal data.
Carducci learned that when Hayward purchased the guitar, it didn’t have the Bigsby tailpiece seen in every photo of Harrison with the instrument. Hayward bought the Bigsby at Manny’s on a subsequent voyage and installed it himself. This do-it-yourself job accounts for the fact that the lower-body strap pin is located just above the bottom of the Bigsby’s lower flange, rather than being mounted in the center of the flange itself, in the usual manner. Lacking an electric drill when he did the job, Hayward simply found it easier to screw the strap pin’s threaded anchor directly into the body. This detail is faithfully replicated on the Custom Shop Harrison tribute model. Stern even carefully measured the screw hole to replicate the precise angle at which Hayward jabbed the strap button in place.
“I remember I had to have special Bigsbys made that had the right hole pattern,” Stern recalls. “I kept saying to myself, ‘How am I going to do this?’ It turns out that Bigsby still had the original casts for those particular tailpieces.”
As for the repaint job, Hayward confirmed that it had the standard 1957 factory finish when he bought the guitar new. Carducci speculates that Harrison himself likely did the work, possibly with the assistance of John Lennon, who also painted his Rickenbacker 325 black around the same time. “John and George probably used the same can of paint to paint their guitars black,” Carducci theorizes.
For the Custom Shop’s 10th anniversary this year, Stern knew he had to come up with something really exceptional. He decided to do a blinged-out, limited-run guitar based around the 1954 Duo Jet, which was the first full year that the Duo Jet was on the market and, thus, the instrument’s 60th anniversary.
“I thought, For the 10th anniversary, I want to do a Duo Jet,” Stern says, recalling the genesis of the new guitar. “And I only want to make 10. I don’t want to do a run of 30 or 35. I just want to keep it simple. I took appointments from models that I like. I love the script logo and that early ’54 Duo Jet headstock, which is a little more pointy and wider. I also prefer 1957-style [fingerboard] hump inlays and the Cadillac tailpiece with chrome hardware, and I wanted to do a MOTO finish.”
MOTO—a loose acronym for Mother of Toilet Seat—is really nitrocellulose pearloid, applied in a coating that’s half a millimeter thick. “We did a 6120 last year with a white MOTO finish,” Stern says. “I thought it would be great to do more guitars with that finish, only putting a transparent color over it. We had the Firebird red color that I really liked, so I thought, Let’s use that.”
A contrasting ebony fingerboard completes the guitar’s look. “I built the prototype with a rosewood neck,” Stern explains. “But then I realized that rosewood didn’t look so good, so I changed it to ebony. It just looks richer.”
What does the future hold for the Gretsch Custom Shop? Carducci strives to keep up with mounting demand: “In the world of custom shops, where people are spending big dollars for an American-made Gretsch guitar, I think it’s okay to wait 12 to 15 months for a guitar. Making people wait three years is way too long.”
As for Stern, he’s constantly obsessing over details.
“We’re coming out next year with a vintage-correct Cadillac tailpiece,” he says. “We’re making two versions of it. The one I measured isn’t symmetrical—typical Gretsch! I decided to make a nonsymmetrical one for the White Penguin and White Falcon, but for custom-colored Falcons and Penguins, we’re going to put on a symmetrical one. I can’t see putting an asymmetrical tailpiece on a custom-painted guitar. Most people probably don’t notice little details like that, but we do. It all adds up, you know?”