By Adam Perlmutter
In 1955, singer-songwriter and guitarist Charlie Ryan co-wrote and recorded “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a rockabilly ode to his wheels that conveyed him between gigs: a 1930 Ford Model A perched atop a 1948 Lincoln frame.
Ryan’s other pride and joy was a Gretsch 6122 Country Gentleman that was his companion from 1960 on. After he died in 2008, at the age of 92, he left the automobile, guitar, and miscellaneous other effects to a friend. The car, famous in the hot-rod world, was sold in auction in 2013. The rest of the package—the Gretsch plus the baby-blue suit Ryan wore in concert, a tooled leather strap bearing his name, and more—surfaced recently at Chicago Music Exchange, where it was priced at $8,995.
“We don’t do much with celebrity-owned guitars,” says Daniel Escauriza, the store’s head of vintage instruments. “But given what a magical instrument it is, and the fact that it’s got such a cool story, having traveled all over the world with this guy who wrote a huge rockabilly hit, we just couldn’t pass it up.”
Ryan’s single-cutaway 6122 Country Gentleman would be a notable specimen even without his name attached to it. The guitar is finished with a rich walnut stain that highlights a range of grain patterns throughout its all-maple construction. The top and rims boast intricate curly figuring, while the back’s plainer wood has a cathedral-like pattern. A scattering of bird’s-eye figuring is found on the neck.
“The wood is stunning in a way that you don’t often see on these old guitars, when builders weren’t as concerned with figuring,” Escauriza says. “I’m not sure why it came together so nicely. Maybe it was based on what happened to be available at the time it was made.”
Vintage Gretsch guitars can be hit-or-miss when it comes to playability, but this 6122 performs extremely well. The guitar has only a single replacement part, a Seventies Gibson ABR-1 that allows for more accurate intonation than its original Gretsch counterpart. Played unplugged, according to Escauriza, it’s a total winner. “It’s a big old guitar that feels comfortable and worn-in, like a favorite old baseball glove, and it resonates beautifully,” he says. “There’s something especially special about the Filter���Trons on this guitar. This might be the best pair ever made. When you plug in the guitar, it sings. It has incredible sustain and is absolutely rich in harmonics.”
Other customized details that are sure to entice the rockabilly connoisseur include a tin steer head added to the headstock, a plastic saddle on the pickguard, and a distinct identifying inscription: says Escauriza, “You won’t find another guitar on the planet with Charlie Ryan’s Social Security number carved into the back of the headstock.”