Gretsch White Falcon And Jet Firebird
Tested By Art Thompson
Founded in 1883 by a 27-year-old German immigrant named Friedrich Gretsch, the Gretsch guitar company evolved from a humble manufacturer of banjos, drums, and tambourines to producing some of the most stylish electric guitars of the 1950s. The company put its tonal stamp all over pop music from that era and beyond-courtesy of players such as Chet Atkins, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Cliff Gallup, and George Harrison-and Gretsch was so there when Brian Setzer took rockabilly to the arena level in the 1980s. However, in spite of their superb looks and definitive sound, Gretsch guitars have never enjoyed the widespread popularity of Fenders and Gibsons-a legacy etched by Gretsch's comparatively weak marketing and distribution.
Fender hopes to finally change that situation. Following a deal struck in 2002, Fender now handles the manufacturing and distribution of Gretsch instruments-which means you'll be seeing those sparkling beauts in a lot more stores. And, under the watchful eye of marketing manager Mike Lewis, Gretsch guitars are currently enjoying a renaissance in terms of craftsmanship. Lewis says he completely revised the list of tolerances used in the manufacturing process (which is primarily done in Japan), and the result is that current Gretsch models are now more consistant and refined. He even went to the trouble of running a 1959 6120 through a local hospital's CAT scan machine to study how to precisely mimic Gretsch's bracing on that ultra-classic model.
Looking over the Gretsch line at this summer's NAMM show, I was knocked out by their irresistible allure. And, after spending some time playing two of these new guitars, I've got a whole new appreciation for the old slogan, "That great Gretsch sound."
Introduced in 1955, the White Falcon was a 6-string dream machine that rivaled any of Nudie's extravagantly decorated suits for sheer hillbilly flash. However, the reissue G6136T is even more of a marvel of cosmetic overkill as it features all of the key appointments that were theoretically available only on "transition" models made between 1957 and 1958 (though it's debatable whether any were actually made this way).
These include the vertical headstock logo (which became horizontal in 1958), gold sparkle binding (instead of gold paint under clear plastic, as per earlier versions), Filter 'Tron pickups (not available until 1958, and originally designed by Ray Butts-the same guy who invented the tape echo and the Chet Atkins/Scotty Moore-approved Echo Sonic amps-these pickups are real beauties with their rounded, chrome-plated covers, cutaway tops, and Fillister-head polepiece adjustment screws), and the wing-engraved hump-block fretboard inlays (instead of the "thumbprint" type, which replaced them in '58). Bridge styles and electronics also evolved during those years-the guitar even got a second cutaway in '62-but anyone who purchases the reissue model can sleep soundly knowing their guitar has all of the essential White Falcon moves.
With its 17"-wide x 2 3/4 "-deep body and 25 1/2 "-scale neck, the Falcon is one big showboat. It's beautifully made, too, offering neat bindings on every exposed edge, cleanly engraved and set inlays, and loads of 24k gold plating. All of the structural elements are happening, from the flawless white finish to the nicely finished frets to the solid hardware. The neck shape and setup are similar to the Jet Firebird, although, with its slightly longer scale and heavier strings, the White Falcon has a tauter playing feel.
White hot. Though you might expect the White Falcon to sound more like a jazz box, it rocks hard. This guitar delivers a massive sound with a bright top-end, punchy mids, and a powerful bottom. The all-maple construction certainly enhances the guitar's biting response, and when played wide-open through a reissue Fender Bassman, the White Falcon sounds relentlessly tough. Armed with a twangy edge that works as well for hard country as it does for hard rock, the guitar lives up to its bird-of-prey name-you can see why the Cult's Billy Duffy slung a White Falcon for so many years, and why Neil Young also pounded out a lot of his gnarly-ass solos on a vintage WF.
The White Falcon has dual toggle switches (one for pickup selection and one for tone selection), and a trio of Volume knobs, and setting the Tone switch in the upper position yields the coolest bridge-pickup distortion tones. The loss of slice when you turn it down is the only thing I can complain about, but at max volume and pushing a loud, moderately overdriven amp, the White Falcon roars like a king of the beasts. This is a great guitar, and nearly 50 years late, it's getting a well-deserved Editors' Pick Award.
Originally introduced in 1955, the Jet Firebird was essentially a Duo Jet with a red top and a black-finished back and neck. The new Jet replicates the specs of a 1958 model with its Filter 'Tron pickups, "thumbprint" inlays, and control scheme comprised of dual toggle switches on the upper bout, a Master Volume near the cutaway, and individual pickup Volume knobs on the lower bout. The Jet's only non-standard detail is the Bigsby vibrato, which would have been a custom-order item in '58.
As with the original model, the Jet Firebird features a chambered mahogany body and an arched, laminated-maple top. The polyurethane finish is near perfect (you can see a faint seam line on the back), and the triple-ply body binding is very neat, with only a whisker of red paint sneaking onto the binding in one spot. The frets are well shaped and have a satiny polish, and the ebony fretboard has a very clean appearance with a tight, even grain and precisely set inlays.
Mechanicals. There are a lot of hardware details that make this guitar special-not the least of which are its Filter 'Tron humbuckers. Add the lovely molded plastic bezels (silver backed, in this case) and you've got the vibiest looking pickups ever fitted to an electric guitar.
The control arrangement is no less spectacular, with its duo of toggle switches, and trio of chromed, knurled-metal Volume knobs-all stamped with the "G" logo. The roller-equipped Space Control bridge is another standout element, and the fact it's mounted on a rosewood base is a reminder of how this classic "solidbody" is essentially a compact archtop. Of course, the Jet is also equipped with Gretsch's famous knurled, screw-on strap buttons, which look perfect securing a tooled-leather strap.
The exposed-gear Grovers pull the Jet Firebird quickly up to pitch, and they maintain tuning stability quite well when you push on the buttery-smooth Bigsby. The guitar intonates accurately and plays in-tune, delivering a lively and reverberant acoustic tone thanks both to its semi-hollow design and large aluminum tailpiece. With its slim neck and low action, the Jet feels great, and the guitar's light weight and neutral balance make it an easy ax to shoulder for long stretches.
Tones. Plugged into a reissue Fender Bassman-which seems an appropriate amp for this guitar-the Jet delivers a sound that is bright and ballsy with a cool, twangy accent. It's easy to see why Cliff Gallup favored the snappy snarl of his Duo Jet for rockabilly, and why Malcolm Young has always gotten such an ass-kicking rhythm sound from his Filter 'Tron-equipped Gretsches.
With the Tone switch in the middle position, the Jet sounds the brightest, and the upper position yields a slight amount of treble rolloff for browner bridge pickup tones. The bottom setting is a little too dark-especially on the neck pickup-although it does allow you to run very high settings on your amp's treble and presence controls for extra burn. The Master Volume makes it easy to maintain a consistent sound when using both pickups, however, all of the Volume controls have a noticeable treble-reducing effect when turned down-a factor that makes you appreciate just how killer this guitar sounds when it's running flat-out though a hot amp.