The guitars that define rock n roll all have a unique place in the minds of guitarists. Some represent the wild dirty side, others the gentle and sweet bluesy end. In-between those edges, there’s a space for the refined and adventurous side that Gretsch guitars occupy better than any other brand.
Gretsch defined the balance between aggressive and gentle, having fallen in the hands of rock gods, blues masters, jazz cats, and country stars. The Gretsch character and voice will always stand out no matter how many hands and styles it falls, a quality that made the brand stand tall in front of Fender and Gibson.
Having dreamed of owning a White Falcon as a kid, I remember every moment of the show when I first played it and used the Bigsby arm to get the perfect tremolo effect. From that moment, I started to build my wishlist of the best Gretsch guitars of all time, making sure to include some affordable models for anyone who wants to start with the Gretsch legacy.
Short History of Gretsch Guitar
Gretsch has a long history that spans three centuries. Like all vintage brands, the American company has its roots in traditional instruments. Funded by Friedrich Gretsch in Brooklyn, Gretsch first made drums, banjos, and tambourines.
As jazz became popular, acoustic archtops became the main focus. In the 50s, as Jazz left its place to rock n’ roll, the company evolved into a major guitar builder as the six-string became increasingly popular in the second half of the 20th century.
The curated design of the early Jazz years is still the cornerstone of the ‘modern’ Gretsch design. Fine curved lines uphold the guitar to an elegant yet not overly extravagant status in the mind of players of all genres.
Gretsch had its ups and downs in the 70s and 80s, yet it always was among the best guitar brands and still remains to this day.
What Are Gretsch Guitars Good For?
A Gretsch will always lean toward the vintage era tone and design, no matter the decade it was manufactured. The brand’s greatest strength is its consistency in keeping the historical sound and looks intact, making it ideal for players who look to recreate the sound of the past and modern players who still keep one foot in the 50s and 60s.
A Gretsch is the perfect instrument if you want versatility for clean and crunch tones or are focused on a specific vintage-inspired tonal range. Whether you pick the costly mainline or affordable series, the guitar will serve you well in classic licks and riffs, preferably with a tube amp to keep up with the all-vintage rig.
The guitars also stand out in modern pop music. I purchased my first Gretsch for country recording sessions to escape the typical Tele bridge pickups. So far, the guitar has excelled in its goal and has become my main guitar for modern gigs, where its bright and airy tone cuts easily through a dense mix.
What Are the Limitations of Gretsch Guitars?
Gretsch are not great jack-of-all-trade instruments If you’re looking for one guitar that does it all. Most Gretsch pickups are very dynamic but hit a brick wall at a certain high gain level, while the hollow or semi-hollow body is prone to feedback and not the most ergonomic for playing technical parts.
If you have the budget for only one exceptional guitar that can pull off any rock set with a few heavy-ish tunes and smoothly switch to crisp, clean surf rock, a Strat or Les Paul will serve you better, cost less, and be easier to modify.
In the guitar ‘diet’ a working guitarist or anyone with a wide taste of genres needs, Gretsch, stands in-between the single coil Tele and humbucker-packed Gibson. Even the greatest Gretsch can be limiting unless you first fill your diet with the necessary ‘nutrients.’
The Best Classic Gretsch Guitar
This list is filled with Gretsch guitars that have made history, settings the standard for how a guitar should sound in the hands of legendary players.
The White Falcon is the epitome of Gretsch in the eyes and ears of music lovers. Designed by the great guitar player, inventor, and Gretsch ambassador Jimmie Webster, the Falcon was and remains the “Cadillac of Guitars” with its blend of class and rock n’ roll bite.
If Leo Fender boasted the Strat, Les Paul the Gold top, Gretsch led an era with the White Falcon. George Harrison, Billy Duffy, John Frusciante, and countless others sparkled the stage with the Falcon gold finish over different decades of music.
The elegant hollow body combined with the low output TV Jones T’Armond single-coil pickups makes for the purest Gretsch Vintage sound that first in anywhere from jazz to country and rock n’ roll.
The Falcon’s limitations only become apparent when cracking up the gain; yet, it’s only natural to invest in such an expensive instrument if you use it for its strengths.
- Pure Vintage Tone
- Exceptional design and quality control
- Rock solid tremolo system
- Cutts through any dense mix
- Great for vintage and modern low-mid gain tones
- Is prone to feedback on loud volumes
- Can’t handle moderate-high levels of gain
- The hollow body is easier to crack
With a Gretsch in hand, Chet Atkins did for the country what the Beatles did for rock – It’s only natural that his ‘Country Gentleman’ inspired guitar is high up the list. To do justice to other Country stars and give more versatility to players, I purposely chose this model instead of the “Chet Atkins” signature, which could be perfect for the fingerstyle player but more limiting for modern country players.
Besides the jaw-dropping design and unique Gibsy with a bend tremolo, the best aspect of the guitar is its versatility. The sound is spanky and articulated as a Tele but slightly more rounded due to the nature of the wood and the TV Jones Super’Tron pickups.
The humbuckers make the guitar exceptional for live shows and the studio. They are low output to get the best definition but still can handle some gain without shrilling or causing feedback.
- High-quality parts and craftsmanship
- Perfect for fingerstyle players in country, jazz, and blues
- True to the era, classic design
- Well-rounded full vintage tone
- The pickups can’t handle high gain.
- Prone to feedback on high volumes
- The U-shaped neck can be bothersome for small-handed players.
The next on the list is the ‘lead’ version of the classic Gretsch hollow body design with a more comfortable V-shaped neck fit for fast runs and two higher-output humbuckers in both positions. It’s ideal if you dwell in the classic rock world and are inclined toward the slightly overdriven lead sounds of the 60s.
The name “Nashville” in the pickguard says a lot. This guitar can fit in any studio and stage of arguably the most active music city in the world for more than just Country. I recommend it to players who want more than only the classic Gretsch sound.
Modding such a beautiful and expensive guitar might be sacrilegious, but if you replace one of the two pickups with a P90 or a more powerful humbucker, you will be set for an entire rock gig.
- Versatile pickups that can handle moderate amounts of gain
- Easy-to-play neck
- High-quality parts and craftsmanship
- Very light guitar
- Great acoustic resonance
- The big Bigbsy gets in the way of playing until you get used to it
- The two switches are not very intuitive and easy to switch while playing
A straightforward, no tremolo and humbucker-packed guitar is necessary if you want to go the classic rock and heavier Les Paul way. The Duo Jet still keeps the bright, airy nature and luxurious Gretsch design intact yet compromises on some elements to make the guitar more reliable and versatile.
The Bigsby is a great asset, yet nothing beats a fixed bridge’s intonation and tuning stability. The Chambered Mahogany body, V stop tail, and powerful Broad’Tron BT65 pickups make for high-sustain dynamic rock lead and rhythm guitar.
My favorite Gretsch rock tone is the focused midrange and clear articulated overdriven chords with the Duo Jet and cranked-up amp. Malcolm Young’s riffs with the one-pickup Duo Jet are the best example.
- Exceptional tuning stability and intonation
- Very versatile pickups and electronics
- Can handle a decent amount of gain
- Easy to access higher frets
- Slightly weighty
- The neck is big and fat, takes a while for small-handed players or those who are not used to modern necks.
Best Gretsch Acoustic Guitars
Even though the brand’s main trait is electrics, there are a few acoustic models unique to Gretsch worth mentioning. I kept the list short with two models worth checking out for players of all levels.
We can safely say that no other guitar builder would dare to venture into such an extravagant acoustic-electric guitar design. A neck humbucker and Bigsby tremolo would in an acoustic if the Gretsch legacy vouched for it – and in fact, the Rancher keeps its promise on how it feels on the hand and sounds to the ears.
The Rancher is not a typical acoustic guitar in more ways than the odd design choices. It works well for live shows where you have to blend rhythm and lead, yet it’s not as acoustically powerful to support a vocalist with strumming.
I would not bring it to the studio to record under the mic and would always opt for a big Dreadnought Martin D-28. However, there’s one aspect that is hard to beat the Rancer in; the versatility of switching between half-acoustic to half-electric sounds with the turn of a knob.
Only a few acoustic guitars can do what the Rancher can; among the popular ones, I can only think of modern expensive Acoustasonic models by Fender.
- Versatile guitar for the stage
- Easy-to-play neck
- Unique design and features for an acoustic-electric
- It can emulate fairly well clean and crunchy electric ones
- Not the best acoustic resonance
- Not fit for recording in the studio
- The tremolo messes with the intonation and tuning
The iconic and only photo of Rober Johnson holding a Parlor-shaped guitar while playing the blues tells a lot about how great this guitar is for lead players. As with the resonator, the specific usage makes it a great choice even for advanced players, even though it’s not expensive.
The focused mid-range and playability are what make this guitar truly useful. Although it’s not an ideal recording acoustic because it can’t deliver the loud and full cowboy chords, it will provide all the lead chops you need on stage when plugged in.
- Easy to carry and travel with
- Great for children and players with small hands
- Exceptional for blues and overall acoustic leads
- Focused on mid-range and low-end
- Low volume and acoustic resonance
- Not great for recording
- Strumming and open chords don’t sound big
A resonant is a particular instrument born from the Delta blues, used widely in the older blues and country; it found its way into the younger generation. The Honey Dipper is as faithful to the sound of the early 20s as it gets, with a big brass body, tons of volume, and historically correct design.
While delivering at high levels, the Honey Dipper is still a mid-range instrument due to the parts’ and material simplicity. The good news is that you don’t need anything more than that unless you go for the actual, hard-to-find, and very expensive vintage resonator.
The first thing when buying a resonator is realizing that it’s not just a guitar but a separate instrument with its learning curve. While the basics are the same, you must learn how to play it and be careful where to fit it in to judge it properly.
In my case, it took some time to get the proper feel, and eventually, the instrument’s unique tonal characteristic inspired me to play differently.
The mid-range is this guitar’s biggest asset and limitation – while it perfectly fits in a particular area, it’s easy to play too much of it in a song.
- True to the original Delta sound
- Very loud and fitting for the studio and stage
- Affordable but still delivers high-end performance
- Weighty guitar to transport and carry
- Specific to only a few settings
Best Affordable Gretsch Guitars
Even an affordable Gretsch will make you drool on sight. The quality control and attention to detail are flawless, making it hard to distinguish a 50s model from a modern reissue when both are hanging on the same guitar store wall.
The Junior Jet is among the few guitars with an amazing-sounding P90 pickup. It’s beyond a great first six string; it’s an overall fine instrument that could turn into a spare guitar or a quality beater guitar over time.
The thin U shape is among my favorite shapes after the modern C. It’s still fat for big-handed thumb-over kind of players yet compact enough for small-handed players –
As you go up the skill level, changing the tuning keys, the nut, and one pickup could very well propel it to the level of a Streamliner.
- Good intonation
- Quality pickups for rock
- Exceptional build quality for its price range
- Not the best tuners and nut
- The tone knob is not positioned very intuitively for switching while playing.
- The volume pot does not clean up the done very smoothly.
I won’t exaggerate when saying that the first time I played this guitar, I believed it to be double its price, something slightly cheaper than the glorious White Falcon. To my astonishment, it fully keeps its promise of the true Gretsch experience at under 1000$.
As a master of recreating the sound of the old days, Gretsch knew very well where to compromise to make it so affordable yet not that far from the main line. The design is the same, and the pickups share the same tonal color, yet the tonewoods are not seasoned, and the hardware and electronics are less costly.
You won’t notice much difference in the hand either when you play at any gig, only if you are playing an arena or recording a high-profile session, where all band members are playing the finest 3000$ + instruments.
- Real Gretsch tone, faithful to the main line
- Versatile for anything in the blues, soft rock, and jazz world
- Great acoustic resonance and sustain
- Comfortable neck for lead and rhythm players
- The Bigbsy is less stable than on the main-line guitars
- The tuners and nut are not the best and need replacing if you want studio-proof stability
Gretsch Streamliner Vs. Electromatic Series
The Electromatic series is a notch up the Streamline in all aspects, boasting better hardware, electronics, and care, selling for almost double the price. However, it’s still a fraction of the price compared to the mainline.
If you want an instrument that can handle being in a high-pressure environment, save up some more and go for the Electromatic, as it’s bound to last for more years and go along your transition from
If you’re on a limited budget or just want to get the color of the Gretsch tone at the most affordable price, the Streamliner is still a solid gigging companion.
Question: Where Are Gretsch Guitars Made?
Answer: The mainline Gretsch guitars are made in the US and Japan, while the Streamliner or Electromatic series in China, Indonesia, and Korea.
Question: Does Fender Own Gretsch?
Answer: Fender came into an agreement with Gretsch in 2002, where they produced and distributed the guitars while Fred W. Gretsch still retained ownership.
Question: What Is The Rarest Gretsch Guitar?
Answer: The White Penguin is the rarest Gretsch guitar, with less than 50 copies ever made.
Final Words on Owing a Gretsch
All quality guitars have a common characteristic: they bring out their character and guide your playing in different directions. Out of all reasons to buy a new guitar, this is what drives the most.
A Gretsch is a fine piece of history, carrying the tone of decades past; if you give yourself enough time to understand and make the instrument your own, no matter your playing style, those qualities will soak into your playing and develop into a new song.
And don’t let the ‘vintage’ label stop you from experimenting with tunings and the gain level. After all, the players who innovated back in the 60s did something different to come up with the sound they’re famous for.