The James Franco: Gretsch Electromatic 5122

FEW GUITARS SAY “AMERICA” AS CLEARLY AS A Gretsch. The company is one of the most venerable stateside manufacturers, and Gretsch models such as the 6120 and 6136 are so closely associated with country, rockabilly, early rock and roll, and other staples of Americana that it is hard to imagine what those styles would sound like without them. Nonetheless, the company has had great success with its line of less-expensive, Korean-made instruments, and, after playing the 5122, it’s easy to see why.

The 5122’s dark walnut stain and urethane finish allows its pretty maple grain to show through, as does the transparent, raised pickguard. The guitar is generally well constructed with cleanly executed joints all around— although a couple of knobs came loose, and had to be reattached with an Allen wrench— and the binding that graces the top, back, and fretboard was precisely cut and installed. The medium-jumbo frets were similarly well cut and placed, with no sharp edges or other irregularities, and the smooth rosewood fretboard, the medium-thin neck, and excellent setup make the guitar very easy and enjoyable to play. The 5122’s ornate “vintage style” tuners and “Bigsby Licensed” vibrato don’t necessarily inspire confidence at first glance, but both function surprisingly well, and the guitar stayed in tune even after undergoing extensive Duane Eddy-grade bar yanking.

The weakest aspect of the 5122 is the bridge pickup. You play a Gretsch largely for its characteristic twang, and, in this case, the Gretsch humbucker failed to wrangle the jangle. The Tone control also left something to be desired, as it does practically nothing in the first half of its range, and then quickly chokes off the highs during the remainder. The neck humbucker, on the other hand, sounded comparatively full and well balanced, possessing pleasing warmth while retaining midrange and treble clarity.

One can’t reasonably expect an instrument at this price point to deliver all of the stylistic and tonal mojo of an American-made model three times as much, but the Electromatic 5122 gets you into the ballpark. It receives the “James Franco” tag, because, like the up-and-coming young actor, the 5122 provides much of the élan of an icon—in this case, James Dean— but perhaps without the mystery, vibe, and depth that made the original a legend.