I don’t remember the first time I heard the name Gretsch, whether it came before or after I held one of their guitars for the first time. If I were to guess, I’d say it was sometime between when I saw Nick 13 of Tiger Army ream on his signature black Duo Jet and when Tim Armstrong from Rancid brought out his signature left-hand model. In moments like those, I fell in love with the great Gretsch sound.
For almost as long as I could remember, I had an interest in the guitar, although I rarely said it aloud. My mother is adept at playing the clarinet and saxophone, and her mother had some skill with piano. When I was asked by my fourth grade band director to choose an instrument, I went with the clarinet. Over the few years that followed, I had rehearsal twice a week over recess, performed in a series of concerts, and subjected my mother to countless runs of “Hot Cross Buns.” I came to accept that I was a clarinetist, not a guitarist.
Come seventh grade, guitar lessons were built into the music curriculum, and twice a week the class would sprint to that basement classroom to pick out the instrument they wanted to play the most. While everyone clamored over the single electric guitar, a Squier Stratocaster in a gray gig bag, I would elbow my way past crowds of tweens to make sure I always had the acoustic with a rose painted on the pickguard.
I did play that electric guitar once or twice, just to see what the fuss was about. The sound quality was questionable, perhaps because it was never attached to an amp, and it felt clumsy and awkward compared to my preferred acoustic. It was that rose-painted guitar that made me wear my grandmother down until she bought me a guitar for my birthday. It was simple and inexpensive, but it played well for a beginner like me. I taught myself more chords than C, G, and D, and by the time I left high school, I could fingerpick as well as I could strum.
Sixteen meant freedom in the form of a driver’s license, a freedom I used primarily to drive myself home from my menial retail job and go to my local comic shop once a week. One day, I decided to add a devious bent to my usual route: rather than go straight home from the comic shop, I paid a visit to a nearby music store. That was the first time I saw her: a cherry-red Gretsch Streamliner. I picked it up out of sheer curiosity, intrigued by the F-shaped sound holes that were more reminiscent of a violin than a guitar.
One minute of fingerpicking and I was in love.
I made it my goal to purchase that guitar before graduation, until I realized just how much the instrument cost. I was expected to put a cut of my paycheck away for future emergencies, and everything else seemed go towards meals with friends or comic books or new pairs of sneakers. As I tried and failed to save, I would return to that music shop and play that red Gretsch. I also tried the Fenders, Gibsons, and even the Ibanezes just in case something else stuck, but none of them sat properly on my lap, or let me move my fingers as fast as I wanted on the frets. They all felt wrong.
Once I accumulated all of my graduation money, I saw my chance. Rather than that red Streamliner I dreamt of, I ordered a secondhand Electromatic Jet Club online. Although I was happy just to have my hands on a Gretsch, I wasn’t quite sure what I would get. The shape was different, the model heavier, and the last thing I wanted was another clumsy electric in my hands. I tore open the box, messed with the settings on the secondhand amp I purchased, and played the same riff I default to on a strange guitar, Bad Religion’s “Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever.” Those few notes, and all that would come after, sounded perfect.
I try to play every day, although I’m courteous enough to my housemates not to play an electric guitar after midnight. I dream of being able to afford a Gretsch Falcon one day, in white or baby blue, but for the time being, I have no problems with my simple Jet Club — after all, I’m a broke college student. When I returned to Wisconsin last winter break, I couldn’t take my guitars along, so I made a point to return to that same music shop from high school, take a Gretsch off the wall, and play. It didn’t matter whether it was a hollow-body Falcon, a semi-hollow Streamliner, a solid body Duo Jet, or even an acoustic Penguin. Every Gretsch I picked up was a comfortable weight in my lap and a familiar feeling in my hands. As the cabin fever of winter break crept in, it was playing those guitars that gave me a little piece of my Philly home.
Gretsch will never be the name on every guitarist’s lips, but I don’t really care about popularity. I’ve played countless Stratocasters and Les Pauls and even had a brief flirtation with a scarlet Gibson ES-335, but I’m a firm believer that the best guitar is the one that you can pick up after weeks or months away and still have it feel just right in your hands, whether it's a secondhand Jet Club or that Streamliner in the music shop or the baby blue Falcon I have bookmarked for the day I win the lottery. So thank you, Gretsch, for making guitars that feel like home.