Gretsch guitars have always occupied a very specific space in my mind. Great for Chet Atkins, good for all that rockabilly jazz. A compromise for anything else.
You may already see where I’m going with this – I was wrong.
Despite placing them in such a small pigeonhole, there’s been an attraction to Gretsches for me which stems from seeing some of my favourite players use them to great effect.
David Gilmour proved the point that, despite my misgivings, they can amply handle a sustained lead tone, Pete Townshend made his entire signature sound with his own Gretsch, even employing both a Duo Jet and a 6120 for live work, and I don’t feel like I even need to mention the Beatles connection! Somehow the cover of George Harrison’s Cloud 9 is hard to shake from memory.
With all of that, actually buying a Gretsch never entered my head given the lack of examples to play locally and the hefty Australian import fees. But as luck would have it, I sold a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe to my brother on the same night I found a prime example of a Duo Jet on eBay.
VERY price reduced, due to “scratches, dents, rust and lifting paint” but with images (above) which showed no front-on view and seemed to reflect none of those issues, I was very wary, but reasoning that I wouldn’t have to worry about putting some dings in myself when gigging, I took the chance. I needn’t have worried.
I’ll save you the time of explaining the condition of my Gretsch, but it’s about fifteen years old, and has the wear you might expect. You can see from the photos that there is no cause for alarm over the condition.
The bridge isn’t pinned, but some double sided tape ($3.45AU) holds it in place with no movement. You can throw this thing around and not move the bridge, and the synchro-sonic has no intonation problems, unlike some of the other Gretsch offerings.
The bigsby is not one of my favourite tremolo systems by design, but the flutter it gives the sound of this guitar is brilliantly subtle. I like to play a lot with the trem arm in my hand, and although it’s a bit more of a stretch to where it sits than a Strat, because the arm doesn’t do a full rotation, it’s an easy adjustment to get used to.
The pickups are Dynasonics. They are single coils, unlike the more common Filtertron pickups, and the difference in tone is not insignificant. People often refer to the Duo Jet as sounding bitey like a Telecaster, and with Dynasonics, there’s good reason for that comparison. These are very dynamic pickups. If you play aggressive, you can get pretty close to the Tele sound, although these pups are a little fatter. But soften your touch and they sound more like a sweet, articulate Jazzmaster. The bigsby, too, puts me in mind of the more ‘reserved’ travel distance of the Jazzmaster tremolo.
The Duo Jet body is chambered, but not hollow, so it resists feedback a bit more than fully hollow or semi-hollow guitars with similar specs. Having said that, you wouldn’t want to push it too far, this is still a guitar for subtlety rather than heavy distortion. It’s more well-suited to crunchy Pete Townshend drive, and it’s anywhere between here and it’s beautiful cleans that it excels.
It’s also worth nothing the strangeness of using the master volume which is here located below the neck pickup. It’s a position I’m not used to at all, but it feels very natural. This feeling extends to most aspects of the instrument, it’s extremely well made. It’s my understanding that all Duo Jets are now made in Japan or Korea, and this Japanese model is extremely comfortable. The neck is very similar to a Fender standard ‘C’, not particularly fat, but not uncomfortably thin, and the fit and finish is perfect. There’s no fretting out, no sharp edges on the frets and fretboard, and tuning holds pretty well with the Bigsby, at least as long as you don’t go too mad with it. There’s a little more meat in your hand at the high end, so it’s arguably not so good for quick playing up there as something with a more accessible heel like almost any Fender or Gibson option.
The only problem I have in dealing with this guitar is the treble loss with the volume roll-off. It makes it hard for me to control the gain with my volume, because you lose clarity as you reach the cleaner sound you want. But if you prefer to change your dirt balance by tweaking or switching your pedals or amp, you won’t have a problem with this. And it’s probably quite easily fixed with a simple mod to the volume control.
So, to sum up. I’m blown away by this guitar. It handles any sound I’ve heard anyone else get with these pickups easily, and even does a passable imitation of the Filtertrons with the tone rolled off a little. It achieves everything I thought it would, while remaining far more versatile than I gave it credit for in the beginning. As long as you aren’t trying to do heavy distortion, this guitar has a beautiful, eloquent voice. For the foreseeable future, it’s not going anywhere.
(And if you enjoyed the photos in this article, follow my instagram at https://www.instagram.com/thomaswilliamsmusic/ for more of the same, as well as sound and video of this guitar)