Gretsch White Falcon

Elegant? Gaudy? You Be The Judge
George Gruhn & Walter Carter
Guitar Player Rare Bird, February 1991
COMPARED TO MARTIN OR GIBSON, Gretsch was a late entrant in the guitar business, waiting until 1933 to announce a full line of acoustic archtops. By the '40s, however, the company was known for its unusual line of eye-catching acoustics.

Top-of-the-line arch-tops had "cat's-eye"-shaped soundholes, while high-end flat-top soundholes were triangular. The Synchromatic line had a peculiar-looking "synchronized" bridge with a stair-step extension and a harp-shaped "chromatic" tailpiece. Some headstocks had indents on the sides or a round protrusion at the top and an inlay figure that resembled a tusk crossed with a "Synchromatic" banner. Several '40s models sported a white finish that today looks like a forerunner of Fender's famous "Tele blonde" color with wood grain showing through. To set off the finish, Gretsch used tortoise-grain binding everywhere. One white model was pictured in ads featuring such well-known jazz players as Harry Volpe and Django Reinhardt.

Given the company's penchant for unusual designs, it's surprising that its initial entry in the electric market--the Electromatic Spanish, Model 6185--was one of the plainest models Gretsch ever made. Essentially a New Yorker acoustic with a DeArmond pickup, it measured 16" wide and had f-holes, an unbound fingerboard with dot inlays, and a common sunburst finish. By 1951 the company had expanded to a series of 16" and 17" Electromatics, some with a cutaway body and all available with either a sunburst or blonde finish. But they still suffered cosmetically in comparison to the acoustic models.

By the mid '50s, however, Gretsch had seen the potential offered by the new market for electric guitars. The imagination that had been expressed in the acoustics of the '40s was finally transferred to the new electric lines formally introduced in the 1955 catalog. A heavily-routed solidbody series, the Chet Atkins series, and a line of arch-top electrics debuted with such visual fanfare as a bright-red top (the Jet Fire Bird), Western-motif ornamentation (the Round-Up and Chet Atkins Hollow Body), orange finish (the Chet Atkins Hollow Body), and Cadillac green finish (the Country Club). A major drum manufacturer, Gretsch also offered its sparkle drum finishes as custom options on the Duo-Jet line.

Most models in the '55 catalog were eye-catching to the point of being gaudy. And depending on personal taste, the topof-the-line White Falcon, Model 6136, was either the gaudiest or the most elegant instrument imaginable. Everything on it was either white or gold, except for the black face of the pickups and the ebony fingerboard. The Falcon was a 17"-wide, full-depth (2 7/8"), single-cutaway with two DeArmond pickups. All the edges--top, sides, back, f-holes, fingerboard, and headstock--had sparkling gold binding, and the pickguard was gold-colored plastic with an engraved falcon. Moreover, wing-like figures were etched in the pearl fingerboard inlays. In place of the company's standard tailpiece (an attractive, solid, modernized version of the old synchronized tailpiece with the letter "G" cut out), Gretsch substituted a new gold-plated model with the "G" between two tubular members and a V-shaped piece at the string mounts.

The Falcon's headstock design was also unique. It dipped in the center to form a V-shape that complemented the tailpiece. The Gretsch logo was inlaid vertically in gold-spark]e material, and lightning bolts extended from both sides of the "G."

ln a catalog full of striking instruments, the White Falcon was clearly the most arresting. And with a list price of $600.00, it was by far the most expensive: Custom-order acoustic arch-tops with natural finish listed at $490.00, while the next most expensive electric was the natural-finish Country Club at $400.00. The two Atkins models listed at $385.00, the Round-Up was $325.00, and the sparkle-top Silver Jet was only $225.00.

Virtually all Gretsch models went through a series of design changes, and the Falcon was no exception. Most notable were the neo-classic "thumbprint" inlays and Filter 'Tron pickups in 1958 and a double cutaway body in the early '60s (the single cutaway was brought back as an option in 1975). Even the Falcon's unique vertical logo was replaced by the standard straight-across logo in 1959.

Beginning in 1959, Gretsch also offered a stereo White Falcon (not with pickup separation, but with separate channels for bass and treble). A double mute was added a year later. The company's reputation for strange electronics was reinforced by the mid-'60s stereo Falcon, with its bewildering array of 10 knobs and switches.

For all its eccentric beauty, however, the White Falcon was not one of the company's more popular models--partly because of price and partly because Gretsches in general (with the notable exception of the Atkins models) didn't have the neck feel preferred by many musicians. Its biggest exposure came in the late '60s when Neil Young used a late-'50s single-cutaway model with Buffalo Springfield. At times in the early '70s, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had as many as three White Falcons onstage at the same time. More recently, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats has helped spark a resurgence in demand for all Gretsch guitars. But among Gretsch collectors, the single-cutaway White Falcon is still the most sought-after prize of all.