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Thread: My Chet Atkins style guitar.

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2009

    My Chet Atkins style guitar.

    I may catch flak from someone about this guitar. Before you do,please note that it has no serial numbers on the back of the headstock and no Gretsch label inside,as do the originals. Those of you who know my work know that I could make a thorough and complete fake if I wanted to. I have never had the inclination to do so.

    I am allowed to make a guitar for my personal use,not for sale. It wouldn't be worth my time to try to make these for sale anyway. Mine are worth more. I'd rather put my name on my work,too. I just wanted a Chet Atkins guitar for my own use.

    There are plenty of people out there making repro cars,guns,and all kinds of things,bear that in mind. They aren't meant to be passed off as original. I have a fine Japanese 1895 Winchester,and a decent Italian 1892 Winchester.

    I love the look of these old Gretsch guitars,but they were the most inconsistent guitars quality wise that were ever made. I have a 1966 anniversary model with the top glued on 1/2" OFF CENTER!! When you look at how far from each edge the "F" holes are,it becomes obvious. This guitar also has a 4" square piece of 1/8" plywood JAMMED under the neck block,in a faint effort to make the neck block match the arched back!!!

    You can find good ones. I have an immaculate 1956 Electromatic,which IS curly maple. In reality,few Gretsches were originally made of curly maple. They were ALL PLYWOOD anyway. Plywood is actually better for an arch top electric. It gives better sustain. They weren't made as acoustic guitars having plywood tops. Cheap Harmonys,Kays and the like were acoustic AND plywood anyway. Plywood doesn't vibrate as well as carved solid wood arches.

    At the time I made this guitar,the reissues made in Japan had not yet come out. When they first came out,they were shaped wrong. They looked like Gibsons. Their cutaways were NOT Gretsch like at all. Their necks had flat Gibson type heels. (I ordered one from Sam Ash in New York,and sent it back without even playing it) I did not want to pay over $5000.00(today over $10,000.00) for an original 1959 Gretsch Chet Atkins model. The ONLY reason they are valuable is the Atkins connection. They are not made usually as well as Gibsons by any means. I still wanted one,though,because of Chet,and I do love the tone of the Gretsch pickups.

    Duke Kramer,the former vice president of Gretsch was selling off the remaining original Gretsch parts which he had bought up after the last manifestation of the factory,bought by Baldwin,closed in the70's,for any and all purposes of the buyer. I was able to buy the headstock overlay,and the pick guard,and the BLANK arch tops and backs from him. He had pallet loads of them at the time.

    The overlay isn't hard to make anyway. It is plastic pearl in maple veneer. Block letters. Anyone could make one. Having a real one was good,though,for kicks.

    My 2 favorite guitarists are Sabicas,the World's greatest flamenco guitarist,who I was honored to make a guitar for in 1967,and Chet Atkins. Both are now dead.

    I had to make the neck and EBONY fingerboard. By the way,the originals had rosewood fingerboards Ebony cost more. They saved 50 cents (at the time) and used rosewood. Ebony gives a bit more sustain in an electric. Any decent collector could tell that this is NOT an old,collectible Gretsch. Mine also has a longer scale length.

    I made the sides,bound the guitar,made and bound the "F" holes,etc. Also,I had to round up some original pickups.

    The original guitars were gold plated on their hardware,but used a plain aluminum vibrato,another difference.

    I made the brass knobs,and also made a punch with the G and arrow logo. I can't find the punch,but posted an unfinished neck I don't think I'll ever finish for the 1 person peanut gallery who might say I didn't make this guitar. I can also produce the mold.

    This sort of thing is exactly how I got launched into becoming a craftsman. At 13 I got a bad $12.00 guitar. We were always poor when I was young,and I started to try to make myself a better guitar. It took years,as I had no books,teachers that knew how to bend the sides,or money for parts. You were lucky to even find frets for sale in those days. If you did,they were only 1 kind,no choice of nickel or brass,or gauge.

    It was sort of the same thing here. I wasn't going to spend over $5000.00,which,at that time was money I didn't want to use! I wanted a Chet Atkins model,so I built this one.

    It is my favorite electric guitar. It just sounds exactly right. I did not build the interior like the original,either-another way to tell it isn't original. The originals have a solid wood "bridge" inside which Chet wanted. To my ears,it made the guitar have a "hard" sound. I braced this one like an Anniversary model,1 step down from the Chet model(6120). It softened the tone just enough.

    I did have an EARLY anniversary model,with exactly the same bracing and pickups the 6120 had. I sold it off because it just had a bit of a hard sound. It was one of the pale green ones. The first anniversary models were EXACTLY the same construction and electronics as the 6120. They cost 1/2 as much!! All hocus pocus and marketing!

    Some time after I made this guitar,the Gretsch company "reopened". At least,they imported from Japan,repros of their old guitars,which HAD been made in Brooklyn,N.Y. originally. Curiously enough,they call their South Carolina outlet their "Factory". I got all excited when I found out Gretsches were made again,and called them. They answered "Gretsch Factory". I said,"Oh,great","then they really are made here". I got silence. People like that are not honest,in my opinion,of course. They were only from Japan then. I think in later years thy started making some"custom" models here that cost as much as originals.

    I have 3 of these Japanese repros,which I traded one of my guitars for. They are nicely made,but have polyurethane finishes(unless you pay a fortune),that don't look right,and very small necks. Smaller than the old ones. My hands are big,and so is the neck on my guitar. They also SAY the 6120 repro is curly maple,but my Brian Setzer is Anigre. Looks about like maple,but has the look of a white mahogany(porous) stained orange. MY opinion,of course about the quality,the wood,and everything else.

    This is too much info for you non aficionados,but there are guitar makers who will want to read it.

    So,this guitar is about a 1959 style model.It has the aluminum nut. Chet wanted a "zero fret" which did come out later.

    In spite of my collection of vintage and new guitars,this is the electric I always come back to.

    One last thing: The original 6120's did not use the expensive Grover "stair step" tuners you see on this guitar. They used a less expensive oval button,open back Grover tuner.
    Attached Images Attached Images
    Last edited by george wilson; 10-18-2010 at 11:25 PM.

  2. #2
    I was wondering, especially after I put up that darrell scott link last week, how you felt about the chet style. Not exactly the same thing, but I like the hybrid and chet style stuff, especially if you're going to play by yourself or for someone else - you can just play something, and it sounds good standalone.

    I never even thought about chet style guitaring until I started playing banjo. So many of the things that you have to do playing banjo make chet style licks a lot easier, but they leave you wanting to use three fingers instead of all four. I'll stop there, I'm already branded a redneck for mentioning banjo.

    I had an anniversary gretsch, and after looking over a couple of vintage ones here at a vintage guitar shop, I was kind of appalled with the old ones. They looked great at a distance, and they were almost identical in price to new ones. Before I got a look at them up close, i had almost decided "why would I buy a new one when I can get a "real" one for the same price?". The anniversary model I got (6120-1960) was well constructed, but as you say, its finish was like a modern plastic shell. It was a nifty guitar, but I sold it, anyway, just didn't play it much, and as a mostly blues player at the time, i could not get on with the bigsby - it screwed up bending notes. The pickups were a little weak in it, too. Still, it was a pretty good guitar for the money, and for a very long time, before ESP and ibanez and some others got kind of greedy, you really couldn't touch a japanese guitar for the price. Just very consistent, every one you pick up.

    I have small hands, though, so a lot of these thin-neck remakes are good with me.

    Of course, perfect looking execution from here on the one you have there, I'd imagine it's everything a serious gretsch "nashville" player would want.
    Last edited by David Weaver; 10-18-2010 at 5:25 PM.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    The old Bigsby installations can get you out of tune,and you must use them sparingly. They did have the rocker style bridge as you see here. The trouble is at the nut,where the strings can slip and get stuck. Modern rock and roll guitars use locking nuts,locking tuners,all kinds of stuff. I think they are ugly,and I just use a little vibrato like Chet. It worked for him,and works for me. A question of discretion!

    The EARLY anniversaries did have the Filtertron pickups,like in 1959,IIRC. Soon,though,they resorted to the Hi-Lo Trons,which in reality are 1/2 of a double coil Filtertron. They don't put out a lot of power,as you said,but they are bright sounding. Rockers don't like them because they want powerful,distorted tone. Why,I don't know!!
    Last edited by george wilson; 10-18-2010 at 5:36 PM.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by george wilson View Post
    The old Bigsby installations can get you out of tune,and you must use them sparingly. They did have the rocker style bridge as you see here. The trouble is at the nut,where the strings can slip and get stuck. Modern rock and roll guitars use locking nuts,locking tuners,all kinds of stuff. I think they are ugly,and I just use a little vibrato like Chet. It worked for him,and works for me.
    I had several locking nut guitars, too (all of them japanese). I don't have any of those any longer, either. It was a phase, and thanks to one reissue Ibanez Jem, those were the only guitars I ever bought new that I made money on. I know exactly what you mean. With the bigsby, unless you could lube the nut, you're always going to get in trouble with a bigsby. I never tried any of the gimmick stuff that's out there, maybe some of it works OK. I just don't like anything that you can't lock down. I haven't got anything with a moving trem left, though I understand lots of good players get along with them very well.

    When I was still in school, I was in a cover band - a paying gig. We just never played anything that you'd need a bigsby for, we were playing almost entirely 60s and 70s covers and grunge was just coming in. When that made it big, I quit, because everywhere we went, people only wanted to hear grunge, which, for a guitar player, is about as interesting as cleaning between your toes with a rasp.

    The other guitarist in the band had a gibson SG with an OLD (well, old now, it might not have been that old in the early 1990s) dimarzio replacement pickup in it and a bigsby that someone had installed later. I hated that thing! I had a very even-toned ibanez neck-through at the time, and he would always demand to have his level set the same as mine. His guitar was a lot louder, and always out of tune. Every show was strugging for two hours to see if I could sneak up my levels. Several times, he decided at the beginning of a rehearsal that he wanted to change strings, and I think my fingers were sore before he was done, from just sitting around noodling. The air-headed drummer we had would always smoke about half a pack of cigarettes waiting and then just disappear.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by george wilson View Post
    Rockers don't like them because they want powerful,distorted tone.
    By the time I had that guitar, I just wanted something that would break up a little at higher levels - without the distortion. They just didn't have enough to do it. The ones the guys like setzer use sound fabulous. I've been disappointed many times buying a guitar that looks like another guitar only to find that I need to get the wallet open again to get my guitar there. Gretsch is really proud of their pickups, even from Stew Mac, so I never did change them in that guitar.

    Fenders also have notoriously week pickups. I replaced every pickup I ever had in a fender with hot pickups from lindy fralin.

    (I could never have gotten along with a gretsch in my formative days. I had enough trouble with feedback with solid body guitars. We didn't think too hard back then, we just wanted to play and getting paid made it all the better.)
    Last edited by David Weaver; 10-18-2010 at 5:44 PM.

  6. #6 sure hit the nail on the head with the talk about marketing, too. I got one anniversary guitar (the ibanez again) that was extremely well made. Every other step-up model I ever paid money for was no better than any other guitar, and in one case, a '61 reissue gibson SG, I got a terrible guitar that must've left the factory on a friday after the workers started to drink.

    It was so bad that the shop here (the same place I go the gretsch) accused me of working on the guitar and ruining the neck. I had bought it new at an authorized gibson dealer. In those days, I had enough trouble changing the strings, safe to say the guitar had never been worked on, it was just junk from the factory.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    I never played much at all in rock bands. I just cannot play rock and roll(beyond the 1950's stuff). I'm just an old GAMMELFEISCE. (sp?) Norwegian word. Only one I know!!

    At least this thread shows others I don't just make 18th.C. things. Actually,last guitar picture was modern,too.

  8. #8
    The guitarist who can play classical, jazz, blues, rock, and serious country (like a brad paisley) and metal would be a pretty versatile guy.

    We played classic rock because it was the path of least resistance and we all liked zeppelin a lot. Pentatonic and a couple of extra notes to that made a blues scale and you could put together a 2 hour set fast. I couldn't really play anything else, still can't much and lament that I didn't have any drive as a kid.

    I'm kind of surprised there aren't more guitar playing fans commenting to this, especially with a gretsch. When I first started reading the thread, I expected a country gentleman, though. Don't know why, just the mention of chet and maybe assumed since you were young in the beatles era...

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by David Weaver View Post
    .......We played classic rock because it was the path of least resistance and we all liked zeppelin a lot. Pentatonic and a couple of extra notes to that made a blues scale and you could put together a 2 hour set fast.........
    Hey, you're talking about me and my old bands..............

    For one, I've never cared about the brand, it's the picker holding it that makes the music.

    Rich (currently looking at an Epi Dot.....hope the Teles won't be TOO jealous...........) in VA
    *** "I have gained insights from many sources... experts, tradesman & novices.... no one has a monopoly on good ideas." Jim Dailey, SMC, Feb. 19, 2007
    *** "The best way to get better is to leave your ego in the parking lot."----Eddie Wood, 1994
    *** We discovered that he had been educated beyond his intelligence........
    *** Student of Rigonomics & Gizmology

    Waste Knot Woods
    Rice, VA

  10. #10
    Question, George - why did chet want a zero fret? Did the nut get in the way or something?

    Also, is the layman name for the two types of tuners you're talking about Grover Imperials (what you have in the guitar) and Butterbeans (the ones that came on it)?

    Lucky for you, you have NOS grovers. The new ones are junky, at least in terms of consistency and holding tune. I never would've believed what decent tuners could do for a guitar until I got waverlies. I get one of the acoustics out every few months. It's always in tune, when I put it away, and when i get it out. The other one that I play regulary, I diddle the tuners about once for every couple hours of playing. That must be what the old grovers were like.
    Last edited by David Weaver; 10-18-2010 at 9:22 PM.

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Richard Jones View Post
    For one, I've never cared about the brand, it's the picker holding it that makes the music.
    When I was playing for money, I didn't care about the brand, either. I did want a les paul, but that was a pipe dream on my parents dime - for sure. The neck through ibanez I got was 1/2 the price of a used SG (which existed only on the rack if you were lucky, anyway) - it was a steal, but I didn't know it, I thought a gibson must beat all. I found out otherwise later. Had one good one, one bad one. The japanese guitars were much more consistent.

    Then, when I got out of college and had money, I got sucked into searching for tone, and went through about....20? Got everything I ever wanted and found out that I just want a simple guitar that's consistent up and down the fretboard. A lot of the expensive guitars weren't that. Only kept five out of that 20 or 25 that I had, and ditched the rest on peebay.

    If I ever make a flat top acoustic, I'm going to make it out of the ugliest red spruce I can find, just to have an ugly guitar that sounds nice. That, and an all walnut or all mahogany carved top electric with nothing but dots on the fingerboard, one pickup and a stop bar tremolo.

    ... oh...and the teles will never notice. You only go around one time!

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by george wilson View Post
    The originals have a solid wood "bridge" inside which Chet wanted.
    Hello Mr. Wilson... I do not understand what you mean by this.

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Chet saw a Selmer guitar like Django played. It had a zero fret. He thought it was a cool idea.

    Interesting that a company like Gretsch,really a drum maker,struggling to get a big star like Chet,would make him wait forever for a simple innovation.

    I think Chet's first model was out in 1954. It wasn't anything he had any planning in. He didn't like the big F holes,or the orange color,or the fact that the body cavity was opened by the holes. He didn't like the DeArmond pickups. He said that their magnets were so strong they'd suck the strings down.

    I never experienced THAT,and I adjust my strings down to the lowest degree. Oh,he didn't like the way Gretsch filed the frets down low! He said they NEVER got that right.

    I like the shape of the guitar,and the F hole shape. I don't know why Chet was always concerned about feedback from the body being open. He didn't play at rock band volume,and Brian Setzer does with his 6120.

    Chet never got what he wanted(mostly) until several years later when the Country Gentleman came out. Even then,the body under the bridge was never SOLID enough to suit him.

    Gretsch was always concerned about trying to keep some acoustic tone. They glued on a 1/8" plywood arched top to a solid body to make their Duo-jet guitars,which SEEM solid,but had that tiny bit of air under the top. The Duo Jet was their reply to the Gibson Les Paul. Chet never actually played one,though he was photographed with one for advertising.

    Chet didn't like the Western theme,either,on the solid body version of the Chet Atkins model. They branded their early Chet model with a 2 3/4" dia. BRAND. The fingerboard had plastic pearl with cactuses and cow's heads on them. The sides of the slid body Chet model had a leather BELT nailed all around with fluted,round headed upholstery nails and with Western motifs rolled into it. The peghead and top were veneered with soft pine with LARGE knots in it!!

    Chet was NOT a western style guitarist. The Gretsch people didn't get it through their skulls that he was country. Typical New york big shot thinking,I guess,of that period. Thought they knew it all without really thinking.

    The tailpiece had a real chintzy,thin,Western motif belt buckle crudely soft soldered over the normal,short,solid body type tailpiece. I don't think the brass buckle was more than .020" thick,a real cheap stamping.

    Today,those guitars are worth a fortune!!!

    I don't know why he allowed them to get him into a contract,but he was young,inexperienced,and flattered to have a guitar named after him,he wrote.

    I am glad he played Gretsch,though,because the Gretsch Filtertron pickups are the finest ever made,in my opinion. It all depends upon what you want. They did not have heavy windings like Gibson Humbuckers,but they give greater clarity.I also do like their sense of body shapes,and the F holes. Gibson made a smaller pickup,the Johnny Smith was one name for it. It was also used on a certain year of the Les Paul. It sounds good.

    I have been tempted to build a real early custom Gretsch shown on the "Chet Atkins At Home" record album. It has no F holes,but they are outlined in binding. It has the simpler,unbound,early peghead with a cow's head on it,and the earliest small humbucking pickups just invented,and installed in old DeArmond shells. The 12 pole pieces come up out of linen phenolic. Really hand made,and hand wound. Actually,they all were,and still are.

    You could NEVER get an instrument like it. It was 1 of a kind,and it was what he ended up playing until the country Gentleman came out a few years later.

    Sort of silly,I know,but in the Gretsch idiom,it would be cool!!!
    Last edited by george wilson; 10-18-2010 at 11:03 PM.

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Seth,inside the body of the 6120,there are a pair of wooden supports about 1/2" thick. They look like squared off letter "C's" laying on their open faces. They contact the 2 parallel braces that run under the guitar top,and connect them with the back. It makes the top a lot stiffer so it is less prone to vibrate,and cause feed back when playing at high volume in front of an amp.

    I had an early Anniversary model,1959,I think-getting rusty on my Gretsch history by now. I was an expert in the 80's. It was made with EXACTLY the same body AND pickups as the 6120,except it was painted"Smoke Green" in other words,typical institutional green. Who came up with that I have NO idea!!

    It had a touch of hardness in it that was very slight,but it bothered me to death. I traded it in on a reissue 1954 Les Paul custom shop Black Beauty,which I still have. Good thing,too. The Black Beauty is worth about $4000.00 now,more than the Gretsch. (I told the dealer by phone that it was in excellent condition. It appeared in his catalog as in excellent+++ condition. Well,I'm particular. It was minty.) It is a very beautiful guitar,which has 2 of the coolest looking pickups ever: the Alnico V's. The pickups are black,with rectangular gold plated alnico V magnets under each string. They are about 1/8" X 3/8". they were used on the 1950's Super 400,and the 1950's L5. I like the Filtertrons best,but these are beautiful pickups. AND,I HAVE 2 I got off Ebay!!! I must get off my duff and build an early 1950's Super 400,or L5. They have carved spruce tops,and carved curly maple backs. NOT my choice as the ideal electric guitar,but SOOOOO beautiful.

    The Alnico V pickups never got popular,because if you crank the narrow poles up too close to the strings,the strings' amplitude vibrates PAST the pole pieces on either side of them,and make a VERY strange sound. People didn't understand that. They sound just fine if used properly.

    I already made a Super 400 type with carved arches and "iced tea" sunbursts I posted here previously,or google george wilson guitar maker to see it and others,is the easiest ay to access it.
    Last edited by george wilson; 10-18-2010 at 9:47 PM.

  15. #15
    Join Date
    Feb 2003
    Austin, TX
    Here's my favorite electric guitar style, a Gibson Chet Atkins SST. I have no idea which pickups are used or how they're mounted, but it sure is pretty.


    PS I included this photo to spur some discussion about the differences between this newer Chet Atkins and the gorgeous build by George, not to repudiate George's work.
    Attached Images Attached Images
    Last edited by Pam Niedermayer; 10-19-2010 at 10:58 AM.

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