Gretsch’s Flightless Birds: A Quest for Solid-bodied Success
Throughout the Great Guitar Boom of the early 1950s, many companies like Fender and Gibson began gearing production towards solid-bodied electric guitars. The legendary rivalry between Fender and Gibson is one for the ages, however these two guitar giants we not the only ones on the cutting edge of this new field. Often overlooked, there was another major player experimenting at this time: Gretsch.
Located not too far from the Williamsburg Bridge at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn, NY, was Gretsch’s main facility. Gretsch had been manufacturing acoustic guitars since the 1930s and archtop style guitars since late 1949, kicking off their archtop offerings with the Electromatic Spanish Model, a semi-acoustic guitar that featured a lone DeArmond pickup.
The following year, Fender released the market’s first mass-produced, solid-body guitar, the Broadcaster. Coincidentally, this was a copyrighted Gretsch name as their “Broadkaster” drum and acoustic line. Following a telegram, Fender eventually renamed their model to the Telecaster by 1952. Almost simultaneously, Gibson released their iteration of a solid-bodied electric guitar: the Les Paul. The success of the Telecaster and the Les Paul models and their respective companies was too much for Gretsch to miss out on. So, in 1953, Gretsch released their Model 6128: the Duo-Jet.
The Duo-Jet was crafted with a mahogany body, routed to make space for the electronics, and topped with a sheet of maple to create a more “solid” feel. Sales for this model were nothing to write home about, but that all changed in 1954 with the arrival of Gretsch’s own “Les Paul”; Chet Atkins. Atkins’ signature models, the hollow-bodied 6120 and to a much lesser degree its solid-bodied companion the 6121, brought Gretsch some much-needed success and recognition. Following this boom, it wasn’t long until Gretsch unveiled their top-of-the-line models: the White Falcon and White Penguin. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll focus primarily on both iterations of the White Penguin.
First released alongside the White Falcon in 1956, the Penguin (Model 6134) was finished in white with multi-laminate binding. The outermost gold layer of the binding was actually repurposed Gretsch drum wraps. This ebony fretboard features neo-classical inlays on our single-cut model and the same on our double-cut. The headstock is finished off with gold-plated Grover Imperials. In fact all of the hardware on this model is gold plated, a careful touch that ties in with the gold in the binding. Electronically, this model is rich with two gold-plated Filter’tron pickups and accompanying volume and tone controls. The volume and tone knobs were inlaid with pearl, and Gretsch even went as far to include a “ruby” as a position indicator! Unlike many of these guitars, our single cut White Penguin is wired mono with two individual volume controls, a master volume, and a tone switch instead of the traditional potentiometer style knob.
To summarize just how special, and just how rare these beautiful instruments are, our very own David Davidson sat down with Rod Brakes of Guitarist Magazine:
“I’ve had two straight single-cuts and one double-cut in my life, but I’ve seen several that had numerous problems, including broken headstocks, and/or strange appointments that I would hesitate to authenticate.
“I’ve seen two ’58 White Penguins. But I wasn’t convinced the other one was 100 percent real. Not a lot of people know this, but if you magnify the original gold sparkle binding, each little sparkle should appear octagonal-shaped. When you look at reissues or others where the binding has been replaced, that isn’t the case because nobody makes that binding any more. You can’t get it anywhere. And because the celluloid binding on so many of these guitars shrinks and rots and breaks away, it’s very common to see Falcons and Penguins with pieces of binding missing. Most Gretsch guitars from this period are starting to develop problems, although these two are very much intact.
“So, I’m very happy to have them in the store. They really are the Holy Grail of Gretsch collectors.”