Gretsch 125th Anniversary Year Wrap-Up

March 01, 2009


Celebrating the Past . . . and Launching the Future

The year 2008 marked a milestone for the Gretsch family as they celebrated 125 years as a manufacturer of the world’s finest drums and guitars. In order to make that celebration as meaningful as possible, the family decided to share it with Gretsch customers, fans, and artists around the world.

As a result, Gretsch’s 125th Anniversary year was chock full of events and activities. These included meet-and-greets with Fred and Dinah Gretsch in music stores across the country, a highly successful Next Gretsch Greats Unsigned Artist Competition, recognition and awards for the Gretsch family, and clinics and special appearances by Gretsch artists all over the world. And it all culminated in a phenomenal anniversary concert and party in New York City. No doubt about it: It was a year to remember.

Kicking Things Off
The year got off to a great start in January at the annual NAMM show in Anaheim, where Gretsch debuted several limited-edition 125th Anniversary drum and guitar products. These included a 125th Anniversary Chet Atkins Nashville guitar with gold flaked finish over the traditional orange finish, and a USA Custom Progressive Jazz drum kit in green sparkle with gold hardware. Oohs and ahhs were common among viewers of these spectacular instruments.

This particular NAMM show—out of dozens he has attended over the years—was made special for Fred Gretsch by the presence of his son Fred Jr. (“Fritz”), along with grandsons Will and Rane. As a fourth-generation drum-maker, Fred was proud to see the fifth and sixth Gretsch generations represented at the show.

Friday, January 18 at NAMM began with an early-morning event recognizing families with a long history in the music business. With 125 years to its credit, the Gretsch family stood high among the honorees. As Fred Gretsch commented, “We now have a nice plaque from NAMM for our studio back home in Pooler, Georgia.”

But the honors didn’t end that morning. At Fender’s annual NAMM party that evening (Fender distributes Gretsch guitars), Fred and Dinah Gretsch were surprised with a special glass carving with a real Gretsch White Falcon guitar built in. Entertainment at the party included a tasty rock-a-billy set by Cadillac Angels, followed by Chet Atkins-style picker Bobby Gibson, who played a custom Gretsch Nashville classic guitar in natural finish. The Fender festivities that followed featured G.E. Smith as band leader, Jimmy Vaughn, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, in a performance that brought down the house.

On Saturday, January 19 Gretsch received a 125th Anniversary Recognition Award from Musical Merchandise Review magazine. The award was presented by editors Don Johnson and Sid Davis.

January also saw the launch of the Gretsch 125th Anniversary MySpace page. The sole intention of this new site was to help promote communication between the Gretsch family, Gretsch artists, and Gretsch fans from all over the world.

Gretsch at the Super Bowl
On Sunday, February 3, Gretsch was ably represented at the Super Bowl by drumming great Stephen Ferrone, who performed on his signature Gretsch kit with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Looking cool in his stocking cap and sunglasses, Steve joined the ranks of other recent Superbowl Gretsch artists including Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, U2’s Bono, and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. In fact, Stephen played years ago with The Average White Band, so this was the second time around for him.

Commenting on the game itself, Fred Gretsch says, “As New Yorkers at heart, we were happy to see the Giants win. We enjoyed watching Mrs. Mara on the stage accepting the Lombardi trophy. Her late husband, Wellington Mara, was a friend of ours and we know he was proud that day too.”

Gretsch at the Grammys
February 10 saw the airing of the 50th annual Grammy Awards, on which Gretsch artists earned significant recognition and exposure. Drumming superstar Vinnie Colaiuta was thanked by Grammy winner Herbie Hancock for his contribution to Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, which took home Album of the Year honors. The awards show itself featured performances by Gretsch drummers Paul John Jr. (Alicia Keys), Mark Schulman (Tina Turner/Beyonce duet), Garrett Goodwin (Carrie Underwood), and Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters). Says Fred Gretsch, “Special congratulations go to Taylor for the five Grammy nominations he and his bandmates received.”

Back to Business
Mid-March saw Fred and Dinah Gretsch back in trade-show gear—this time at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt, Germany. The world’s largest musical instrument trade show, it drew 112,000 visitors from 126 countries.

In addition to showcasing all of the 125th Anniversary products that had been debuted at the NAMM show, Gretsch sponsored an anniversary celebration of its own. The 1,000 people who attended the party were treated to a concert by The UberKings and Greg Koch, who performed songs by famous Gretsch Greats on Gretsch guitars and drums.

Gretsch in the Movies
Early April saw the release of Martin Scorsese’s rock ‘n’ roll documentary Shine a Light. The film features The Rolling Stones playing two shows at the Beacon Theater in New York City in 2006. The movie brings into focus Gretsch’s impact across generations of rock ‘n’ roll. Not only is Charlie Watts’ famed yellow Gretsch drum kit the backdrop for all of the band’s concert footage, but when The White Stripes’ Jack White joins The Stones on stage, he comes cradling a big orange Gretsch guitar.

Virtually no other drummer in history has enjoyed the longevity and respect that Charlie Watts has. The impact of The Rolling Stones on pop culture is unquestionable, and Scorsese brings it all into focus in this explosion of music and anarchy. Like he’s done for over forty years, Charlie holds it all together with the chops and rhythm of the ages—coming through loud and clear as only Gretsch drums can bring it.

When Jack White hits the stage he brings the swagger and confidence typical of the new generation of musicians. And how better to convey this swagger than on the brightest and possibly largest guitar ever made: the Gretsch Acoustic Rancher. White shows that this guitar of yesteryear is just as relevant today as it ever was. “Gene Vincent would have been proud,” comments Fred Gretsch. “I was half expecting to see a bullet hole. Shine a Light is a gem of a film, and another illustration of Gretsch’s 125 years of influence on the history of music.”

Let the Competition Begin
May 1 saw the official launch of the Next Gretsch Greats Unsigned Artist Competition. Open to bands from the US, UK, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, and Spain, the contest invited entrants to upload MP3 files of their best songs. The Grand Prize winner would earn the opening spot on the Gretsch Big Event anniversary concert later in the year, along with Gretsch drums and guitars. First- and second-prize packages would also be awarded.

Ultimately, nearly 900 entries would be received, from bands in every eligible country. A team of judges including notable Gretsch artists would be challenged to determine the winners from among the abundance of high-quality submissions. (More about those winners a bit later.)

On the Road
Early in May, Fred and Dinah Gretsch hit the road to meet with Gretsch musicians and music lovers. Along with Gretsch Drums product manager John Palmer, they visited three drum shops for “Gretsch Night Out” events. “These events,” says Fred, “gave us the chance to talk with Gretsch drum fans about the history of our family-owned company, and to field questions and comments about ‘all things Gretsch’.” Contests and giveaways also highlighted the events for attendees.

The first stop was Drum Headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. Owner Jim Uding put together a great event at a nearby venue called Focal Point, complete with a three-piece band and Gretsch 125th Anniversary drum kits on display.

Next came Memphis, Tennessee, and a visit to Jim Pettit’s Memphis Drum Shop. Fred describes this visit, saying, “Jim, who is a wonderful drummer himself, hosted a ‘Gretsch Drums Roundtable Discussion.’ Dinah, John Palmer, and I answered questions from the audience about Gretsch family history, famous Gretsch artists, the drum-manufacturing process, the story behind buying the company back from Baldwin Pianos . . . and even a question or two about Gretsch guitars.”

As far as the evening’s showcase event goes, Fred describes it as “Absolutely over the top! Not only did the show have all three of the 125th Anniversary kits—Rock Legend, Progressive Bop, and Progressive Jazz—on display, but Gretsch guitars were well represented in an all-star, five-piece jazz band. Jim Pettit himself was behind the drum kit, churning out tasty beats and adding to the electricity of the night.” Fred and Dinah also enjoyed the Memphis Drum Shop’s museum, which includes a number of great Gretsch pieces with plenty of back story.

The Gretsches rounded out their tour with a stop at Fork’s Drum Closet in Nashville. Attendance and enthusiasm were high, bringing this whirlwind junket to a pleasant and successful conclusion. As Fred put it, “Lots of people, lots of drums, and great conversation.”

Hall of Fame Hosts
On Friday, June 20, Fred and Dinah hosted a Gretsch 125th Anniversary reception at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. The reception was held in the Hall’s Rotunda—one of the most sacred places in American music. This amazing space poses the eternal question, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and features plaques of all the artists who have been inducted over the years, from legends like Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash to more recent greats like Willie Nelson, George Strait, and Emmylou Harris.

Guests were invited to wend their way through the Hall of Fame museum tour, which highlights a number of Gretsch greats, including a special exhibit on Chet Atkins that includes some of his famous Gretsch guitars. Fred’s personal favorite: the 1954 Chet Atkins CA prototype for the signature guitar that later graced the cover of his LP, Chet Atkins At Home.

Dinah and Fred had the chance to make a few remarks, which they used to pay tribute to all the dealers, musicians, friends, and family who have been part of Gretsch’s success for the past 125 years.

On the Road Again
July and August saw Fred back on the road, this time promoting Gretsch guitars. In company with Gretsch Guitar marketing manager Joe Carducci and world-renowned fingerstyle guitarist Bobby Gibson, Fred traveled to fifteen guitar shops across the country, including locations in New York, West Virginia, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, and California.

Fred and Joe gave presentations on the “Three Big Bangs” of Gretsch guitar history, and screened a video and slideshow. Bobby then wowed the attendees with a captivating performance. All three answered dozens of questions and signed hundreds of autographs. Guitar enthusiasts at every stop on the tour were entertained, informed, and energized.

In Tribute to Chet
The Chet Atkins Appreciation Society held its 24th annual convention in Nashville from July 9 through 12. The event culminated with a tribute concert featuring many guitar greats. The Gretsch family, represented by Fred, Dinah, and two of their grandsons, had the honor of picking the winner of a 1962 Gretsch 6119 Tennessee Rose guitar at the start of the show.

In addition, Gretsch Guitars took the occasion to re-introduce the Chet Atkins Stereo model, which was played by Berklee College of Music professor Guy Van Duser during the tribute concert. The guitar is called “CGP,” which is short for “Certified Guitar Player”—the name of Chet’s company.

Back to the Road
Mid-August featured several events celebrating Gretsch’s 125th Anniversary year. The first was held at the famous Professional Drum Shop in Hollywood, California. Bob Yeager opened this shop in 1959, and it became the place to hang for LA’s top studio drummers . . . as well as all the great touring drummers who came through town. Bob’s sons Stan and Jerry run the shop today, keeping faithfully to the founder’s vision. It’s chock full of percussion products, historic photos, and even a Gretsch-Gladstone snare drum from the late 1940s.

Fred Gretsch comments, “The guys threw an early afternoon party complete with music by Joe LaBarbera’s trio before and after our time for remarks. The exceptional vibe of the shop was enhanced by a packed house of like-minded professional drummers as we met friends, old and new.”

Two days and 3,000 miles later came Gretsch Day at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Fred Gretsch’s grandson Will reports on this event, saying, “My grandfather, along with Gretsch Guitar marketing manager Joe Carducci, gave their excellent presentation on the history of the Gretsch Company, which generated a lot of interest among the college students. Later, an exciting clinic featured Bob Sabellico (former Guess Who guitarist and current jazz artist) on his Gretsch Brian Setzer Hot Rod and Duo Jet guitars, Jim Pettit on his Gretsch Renown Maple drumkit, T Lavitz on organ, and a local bassist. After the clinic, a reception was held in honor of Jimmie Webster's 100th birthday and his dedication to the Gretsch Company. Guy Van Duser played the newly released Gretsch CGP stereo guitar. His excellent fingering, combined with ‘That Great Gretsch Sound,’ wowed the audience.”

Next up was an anniversary celebration at Boston’s South Shore Music/DiCenso’s Drum Shop. John Palmer and Joe Carducci repeated their drum and guitar history presentations, and Bob Sabellico displayed his playing technique. Enthusiastic attendees lined up to get Fred Gretsch’s autograph and to have a chance at winning a Gretsch prototype wood snare drum or an Electromatic hollow body guitar.

Off to the Far East
Gretsch’s anniversary celebration went international in September, when Fred led a touring group to Japan to meet with industry colleagues and Gretsch customers alike. That group included guitar marketing manager Joe Carducci and Gretsch drum artist Stephen Ferrone.

The first stop was Nagoya, which is the home of Gretsch Professional Series guitar production. Says Fred, “We gave an original print of the famous Gretsch ‘Founders Portrait’ to our guitar-building team here. That’s eighty-plus people who have completed at least two years of guitar-building education in the best local tech schools. I was pleased to see four young women in the group . . . and their number seems to be growing.”

Friday, September 12 was Gretsch Day in Tokyo, held at the Grand Palace Hotel. Gretsch’s alliance partner of twenty years in Japan, Kanda Shokai Corporation, organized an event for dealers and trade press in the Tokyo area. Video and slide presentations documented the production of drums and guitars. Then Stephen Ferrone gave a demonstration performance on Gretsch drums, and Joe Carducci joined in for a jam session on Gretsch guitars.

Two hours from Tokyo by bullet train lies Osaka, where Gretsch 125th Anniversary Night was held at the Rain Dog Club on Saturday, September 13. Then it was back to Tokyo on the 14th in preparation for Stephen Ferrone’s drum clinic on the 15th. Fred Gretsch comments, “September 15 is a national holiday in Japan, called ‘Respect to Elders Day.’ Makes me feel right at home . . . .”

Ferrone’s clinic on the 15th was held at the Eggman Club in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. “Stephen put on a whale of a show,” says Fred. “He began with a solo, and then played four songs from his latest album. Halfway through the performance he answered questions from the audience. Since each remark had to be translated, this ended up being a patient labor of love. A high point in the Q&A was when Stephen invited the questioner to come on stage and play along with him—on a second drum kit—to illustrate the point being made. The last set showcased playing drums with bass and lead guitar, with two top session players on hand to play four more songs with Stephen. Bottom line: great power and groove.”

And the Winner Is . . .
In September came the announcement of the winning bands in the Next Gretsch Greats Unsigned Artist Competition. After music lovers from around the world listened to the nearly 900 entries, they cast 55,000 votes to select the top ten finalists. Those finalists were then considered by a panel of celebrity judges including Stephen Ferrone, Chuck Leavell (touring keyboardist for The Rolling Stones), Keith Scott (guitarist for Bryan Adams), and Fred Gretsch. Ultimately the judges chose the three prize winners based on stage presence, performance/sound quality, and press kit quality.

The grand prize winner was Colourslide, an indy-rock quartet from Gainesville, Florida. Along with $15,000 in Gretsch drums and guitars, they earned the opening spot at Gretsch's 125th Anniversary Big Event concert. Lansdowne, the first-prize winner from Boston, Massachusetts, won more than $5,000 in Gretsch instruments, while the second-prize winner, London Egg of New York City, walked away with $1,250 in Gretsch gift certificates.

Hall of Famers Themselves
September 20 was a special day for Fred and Dinah Gretsch, as they became the first musical instrument manufacturers to be inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. The couple was honored with the Mary Tallent Pioneer Award. As inductees, the Gretsches joined the likes of Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, R.E.M., The Allman Brothers Band, and industry professionals like music attorney Joel Katz and record label owner Antonio “L.A.” Reid. The 30th annual awards banquet, held at Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, recognized those who have made significant contributions to Georgia's music industry.

“Fred and Dinah Gretsch have been integral patrons and partners since 1994,” says Lisa Love, executive director of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. “They played a tremendous role in our early fundraising efforts, which allowed us to open the museum in 1996. Today, Dinah is an active member of our Foundation board, and both of them continue to support our mission to celebrate Georgia's rich musical heritage and support our artists and industry professionals.”

In honor of Gretsch’s 125th anniversary, The Georgia Music Hall of Fame hosted an exhibit aptly titled “That Great Gretsch Sound.” It featured a display of historic and current Gretsch replica guitars and drums used by musical legends such as 1995 inductee Chet Atkins, George Harrison, Brian Setzer, and the late Bo Diddley.

On the Road Again . . . Again
October saw Fred and Dinah on the road yet again, this time visiting several drum shops in the Southwest, as well as the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington. Then, in early November, it was off to Austin, Texas for the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC).

At PASIC, Fred, Dinah, and John Palmer presented the Gretsch history to an enthusiastic audience of drummers, educators, and fans. Immediately following, Stephen Ferrone delivered one of his great clinics to a packed house. Stephen then brought on the Steve Bruton band for selections showcasing his patented drumming groove with first-rate blues guitar and vocals.

A Really Big Show
The culmination of Gretsch’s year-long 125th Anniversary celebration came on November 18, at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. This was the Big Event, and it certainly deserved that appellation. The show featured performances by new and veteran Gretsch artists alike, in an eclectic evening of outstanding musical presentations. It was enjoyed by hundreds of Gretsch enthusiasts from across the country who’d registered online for a chance to attend.

The night opened with Next Gretsch Greats grand-prize winners Colourslide. Demonstrating the talent that earned them their win, the Gainesville, Florida-based quartet delivered an energetic set of melodic indy rock. (Fred and Dinah Gretsch liked them so much, they invited the band to play at their Christmas party in Georgia a month later.)

Next on the bill were David Lee & His Mercenaries. The Gretsch signature guitar artist and his musical cohorts had the house jumping with their special brand of “psychobilly” rock.

International pop/rock stars Fountains of Wayne followed, making a rare club appearance. The Grammy-nominated band—best known for the hit single “Stacy's Mom” and albums like Welcome Interstate Managers and Traffic And Weather—entertained the crowd with their distinctive brand of power pop.

Following Fountains of Wayne’s set was a DVD presentation outlining the unique history of the Gretsch Company, illustrating how that history is inextricably connected with the Gretsch family. At the close of the DVD, Big Event emcee Teddy Zambetti (of Sirius Radio) read a letter of congratulations to Gretsch from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Zambetti then introduced Fred and Dinah Gretsch. The couple welcomed everyone to the show, and thanked the many companies and individuals who had helped to make the event a success. As they were preparing to leave the stage, they were surprised with gifts from Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (distributors of Gretsch guitars) and Kaman Music Corporation (distributors of Gretsch drums). Fred and Dinah were presented with one-of-a-kind anniversary models of a Gretsch guitar and a Gretsch snare drum.

The final act of the evening was an all-star House Band that got the crowd grooving with a selection of rock, blues, and funk tunes. The group was anchored by the stalwart Stephen Ferrone on drums. Keyboard star Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones band) served as the band’s musical director and lead vocalist. Also from The Rolling Stones band was first-call pop and jazz saxophonist Tim Ries. Rounding out the group was former Saturday Night Live guitarist and musical director G. E. Smith, New York studio bassist Andy Hess (Gov’t Mule, John Scofield), and the redoubtable jazz guitarist Bob Sabellico.

The evening was also notable for the artists in attendance as guests. Gretsch drummers included jazz greats Bill Stewart and Cindy Blackman. Cindy, who was celebrating her birthday that evening, was surprised with a cake from Fred and Dinah Gretsch. Bass star Will Lee, as well as Rascals guitarist (and Gretsch guitar artist) Gene Cornish were also in attendance, as were the members of London Egg, the New York-based band that was also a winner in the Next Gretsch Greats contest.

Helping the Gretsch family celebrate this special occasion were leading members of the musical manufacturing industry. Along with marketing partners Fender and Kaman, Gretsch welcomed the participation of the D’Addario Corporation (makers of Evans Drumheads, HQ Percussion products, and D’Addario guitar strings and accessories), along with Remo, Inc. (makers of Remo drumheads and percussion instruments) and Sabian Cymbals. Special-edition 125th Anniversary Gretsch drum kits were provided for display by Steve Maxwell’s Drum Shop in New York.

The Big Event was a memorable evening for all concerned. It served as a fitting conclusion to a year of reflection on, explanation about, and celebration of 125 years of Gretsch history—a history that demonstrates the ongoing dedication of the Gretsch family to the manufacture of the finest possible drums and guitars. Currently on their fourth generation, and looking ahead to future generations, the Gretsch family continues to take pride in making instruments that create “That Great Gretsch Sound.”

Postscript
It might be said that Gretsch’s 125th Anniversary celebration actually lasted a bit beyond the Big Event. In fact, it lasted until mid-January of 2009. That’s when, at the 2009 NAMM show, the Music & Sound Retailer award for best drum set of 2008 was presented to . . . drum roll, please . . . the Gretsch Limited Edition 125th Anniversary Progressive Jazz set. The kit that helped launch the celebration of Gretsch’s anniversary year was itself celebrated as the best instrument of its kind, underscoring not only the Gretsch family’s appreciation of their past, but also their commitment to the future..

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