Review: One cheap Gretsch guitar and one really fancy one
Having finally accepted that I'm destined for singer/songwriter territory rather than shredville, I've been feeling a little Gretsch-curious lately. So I decided to spend some time with the Rolls-Royce of the range and something more affordable.
At the fancy end of the scale, the extraordinary "G6136T-140 LIMITED EDITION 140TH DOUBLE PLATINUM FALCON™ WITH STRING-THRU BIGSBY®." Yes, I cut 'n' pasted that short, shouty novel from Gretsch's website, because I don't have all day to be typing out names of guitars. We shall henceforth refer to this as "the blue one."
It's a special version of Gretsch's famous White Falcon, done up in a sumptuously sparkly platinum blue to celebrate the company's 140th anniversary. Of course, it wasn't making electric guitars when it first got started back in 1883 – more like banjos, drums and tambourines.
At the working man's end of the scale, the slightly more humble "G5622 ELECTROMATIC® CENTER BLOCK DOUBLE-CUT WITH V-STOPTAIL." I say slightly, because "the red one" here, as we shall call it for brevity, is a very big and strikingly beautiful guitar in its own right.
Put the two next to one another, though, and there's just no question. The blue Falcon is an absolute event, people gasp when they see it and hold it like it's jewelry until the moment it goes "shoomp" back into its perfectly fitted, luxuriously furry case.
Indeed, the inside of this case is so lovely to the touch that a friend's dog set up camp in there once when I left the lid open, and was most disgruntled to be evicted from his new home. I couldn't blame him, it's nicer in there than in my bed, too. I've considered moving in myself, but the internet in there's terrible.
The red one, in stark contrast, arrived in a plain cardboard box, presumably having been living over a warm subway vent in some bustling city. It appeared to have been around the block, and been stuck back in its box wrapped like a hastily assembled burrito. Its neck was bowed upward like a banana, and I had to give the truss rod four or five turns before I even felt the thread bite and start doing anything.
A half hour of fiddling and fettling later, it was playing nicely – although with a certain scratchiness to some bends. If it was mine, I'd be getting the superfine-grit sandpaper out and giving the frets a proper polish. Might as well mention at this point as well that the pickup switch is noisy, and sometimes causes the guitar to cut out. I'm guessing a dicky soldering job is the issue here – again, something that would probably only take an electrical moron like myself 20 minutes to fix.
As a Gretsch virgin, I immediately noted a few things about both of these guitars. First, the acoustic resonance; this is a satisfying pair of guitars to play unplugged. The glittery blue one, with its fat, fully hollow body, is definitely more resonant than the red one, a center block design with hollow chambers only on the upper and lower wings – but then, sitting on the sofa in trackie dacks plunking about on the blue one without plugging it in also felt like a bit of an insult, where the red one gave me the impression it was just happy to be out of the cold and up for anything.
Secondly, the ease of playing, which is odd, because they're quite different under the left hand. Both use glossy, U-shaped set necks and 12-inch radius fingerboards with medium-jumbo frets. But the blue one has a slightly fatter neck, a Fender-style 25.5-inch scale length, 11-gauge strings and an ebony fingerboard with lavish mother-of-pearl hump block inlays and sparkly binding, the red has a slightly slimmer neck with a shorter sub-Gibson 24.6-inch scale length, 10-gauge strings and a laurel fingerboard with pearloid thumbnail inlays and a basic aged white binding.
Doesn't matter; both feel spacious, comfy and accommodating. Both are also neck-heavy on a strap, meaning that if you let the neck go, you'd better be ready to catch it again before the headstock karate-chops whatever's to the left of you. The red one's slightly worse in this regard – perhaps the added metal of the Bigsby helps the blue one balance, but neither will sit proudly erect if you don't keep a hand on them. One can sympathize.
Both also use the same control knob setup; there's one master volume knob, one volume knob each for the neck and bridge pickups, and one master tone knob. The idea here is that on the middle pickup position, you can control the blend of the two pickups. Roll the front one down, and you're dialing the low end in and out of the final mix. Roll the back one down, and you're pulling out the twang from the bridge.
It's a common enough setup, but I can't say I've become a huge fan of this layout, particularly on the red guitar, on which the treble bleed circuit on the main volume knob didn't seem to be 100% effective – meaning that all four knobs effectively worked as tone knobs, rolling treble off at anything other than wide open. I found myself having more than enough fun without worrying about them, so I mainly just left 'em open.
Let's talk about the Bigsby a bit, since I'm a newcomer to the whole Bigsby thing. There's no doubt this chunky, mechanical-looking vibrato bridge matches the overall 50s aesthetic of this Gretsch, and compared to a modern Floyd Rose dive-bomber, or even a standard Strat floating bridge, I can definitely see the charm. The pitch-bending effect is much more subtle, smooth and dreamy with the Bigsby's big, flat arm and exposed spring. It sounds gorgeous.
On the other hand, as with all floating bridges, it can be a bit of a turd to tune up. Increasing the tension on one string pulls the main barrel around a bit, sending all the other strings flat, and as a result, there's a bit of a guessing game in getting to a point where everything's all Fonzie. This one tends to ping a bit and go out of tune when I bend it beyond a semitone or so as well, so it probably needs some lube at the nut, but I'm not one to go lubricating other people's nuts, it seems presumptuous.
Neither of these guitars have proven particularly stable in their tuning through these winter months. Both seem sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, so there's been plenty of tuning going on. The tuners on the red one are fairly stiff and unfriendly to work with, and the art deco, locking extravagances on the blue one are an absolute dream.
Enough foreplay, Loz! How do they sound? And what, indeed, is the Gretsch sound, if there is such a thing?
The blue Falcon uses a pair of FT-67 Filter'Tron humbucking pickups, and everything they say about the top end out of these things is true; it's delicate, spacious and crystalline, particularly when you're picking softly and playing through a clean Fenderish amp. This top end sounds particularly classy and expensive balanced against the warmth of the neck pickup, but it manages to work on the bridge as well, adding a brilliant sheen without setting your teeth on edge.
These are beautifully dynamic pickups too, that encourage attention to detail and keep delivering more until you're just shy of beating up on the guitar. In my (proudly intermediate-level) hands though, the neck Filter'Tron really does its best work quiet – things can get a bit woofy and uncouth if you pick single-note lines hard, kick in some overdrive or move your preamp into crunch territory or higher gain.
I found the blue guitar's bridge pickup much more articulate once the amp started breaking up, and it can definitely get into rock territory, although with a twangy thinness that definitely pushes toward country sounds. This feels to me like a gentleman's guitar.
In contrast, the red Electromatic, with its Black Top Broad'Tron humbucker pickups, is more of a brawler. It's flat-out louder from the get-go, and delivers a beefier, chestier sound that absolutely loves to push an amp. The top-end sparkle is still there, mostly, but you've got to play with a very light touch if you want that treble sheen to shine through.
The fat midrange is the star here, making these two entirely different guitars that shine in very different circumstances. Clean and delicate seems to be where the blue Falcon properly earns its accolades, but if you need to rock, the red Electromatic is a flat-out harder-partying guitar and I feel much less self-conscious about slapping it about, since it's not worth more than my car. This is a guitar for cads and bounders.
Where the blue one feels a little finicky about which amps it's going to work well with, I found the red one happy to give me something nice through more or less any amp or model I threw at it. It may just be more accessible to a player at my skill level. Well, accessible other than the top three or four frets, which are much easier to get to on the Falcon with its generous cutaway.
At this stage of my musical life, the chief value of a guitar is in the song ideas that come out of it. On that scale, the absolute champion of my groaning guitar rack is a Takamine 12-string jumbo acoustic, which reliably bubbles up a keepable idea or three any time I sit myself in a dark room alone with it for an hour.
This is an insanely nebulous metric to try to measure anything by, and if I were you I wouldn't put much stock in it. But between these two Gretsches, the red one seemed to channel new ideas to me more effectively than the blue one.
I could speculate as to why; maybe I'm a little afraid of how pretty and pricey the Falcon is. Maybe the time I spent setting up the red Electromatic and working around some other annoyances like a glitchy pickup switch was good bonding. Maybe the extra flexibility in those Broad'Trons is better matched to my amplifiers and the way I play. Maybe I just picked the Falcon up less often because I knew I'd have to tune it up, and that meant another Battle of the Bigsby.
But either way, for what it's worth, the one that rocked up sleeping rough seemed to have more to say in my hands than the movie star in the limo. That's a romantic notion, but the overall experience has very much opened my heart up to the Gretsch brand, and hollow-body/center block guitars in general.
These are guitars to dress for – big, beautiful, retro instruments that make a visual statement every bit as impactful as their sonic voice. Hang them on a wall or sit them on a stand, and they're gorgeous enough that you could just leave them there as furniture, if they weren't so brilliant to play music on.
The made-in-Japan "G6136T-140 LIMITED EDITION 140TH DOUBLE PLATINUM FALCON™ WITH STRING-THRU BIGSBY®" retails for an eye-watering AU$7,099 in Australia (US$3,999 in the USA), but every inch of it screams quality and it's one of the most visually arresting guitars I've ever seen – it might even beat out the gleaming gold-on-white of the White Falcon itself.
Check it out, along with the rest of the 140th anniversary Double Platinum range, in the video below.
The made-in-China "G5622 ELECTROMATIC® CENTER BLOCK DOUBLE-CUT WITH V-STOPTAIL," on the other hand, retails closer to AU$1,399 (US$799 in the USA), and you can find 'em around for a lot less than that, since it's been out a couple of years now. I'd consider it an absolute bargain, even if there were several annoying quality and setup issues on this particular unit.
If this one's representative of quality standards at Gretsch's Chinese operation, well, there's certainly opportunities for improvement there, and as a buyer you'd have the right to be pretty annoyed. But weirdly I'm not; I really dig this guitar. All the issues I've found with it have looked easily fixable to me – opportunities to roll up my sleeves, develop some minor workshop skills and learn more about the instrument. If you can get good at that, well, you can start taking any guitar with a solid base of tone and start turning it into the kind of player you want.
Give the G5622 – and its brethren and sistren – a listen in the video below.