Why my Gretsch is NOT a Gibson

My Gretsch 6121 Chet Atkins solidbody

The guitar in the photo above is my Gretsch 6121 Chet Atkins solidbody. The first thing you’ll notice, of course, is that it’s beautiful. Its “Western” motifs include its studded and tooled leather trim, debossed “G” in the style of a cattle brand, and fingerboard inlays featuring steer heads, cactuses and fence posts. Even its case has matching tooled leather trim.

The second thing you’ll notice is that it’s NOT a Gibson Super 400. Why this is relevant will become clear when I explain how I came to own this guitar.

In 2016 my wife and I made a roadtrip around the USA. I had saved some money for this trip, and one of my objectives was to buy a guitar. Not just any guitar. I was prepared to go large. A major investment. A once in a lifetime purchase. Being something of a jazzer, I’ve always been a fan of Gibson archtops. I had owned a few over the years, but one thing that I’d always wanted was a Super 400 – Gibson’s flagship model

Gibson’s flagship jazz archtop, the Super 400.

We started our roadtrip in New Orleans, and then drove to Memphis where we did a tour of the Gibson factory. In the factory’s shop I was very taken with a gorgeous new Gibson archtop which I seriously considered buying, but I held off because I knew the next stop on our trip was Nashville, home to some of the world’s best guitar stores.

We had several days in Nashville, where we spent most of our time going around the guitar stores. My wife was very patient. I narrowed my choice down to two vintage Super 400s – one at Gruhn Guitars, and the other at Carter Vintage Guitars. I finally chose the guitar at Gruhn’s, a stunning mint condition 1967 Super 400.

It was by far the most money I had ever spent on an instrument and I was anxious about taking it on the flight to New York the next day. We’ve all heard horror stories about guitars and airlines. “No problem”, the salesman said, “We can ship it to you in New York.” This was a good solution for two reasons – first, it meant that I didn’t have to stress about taking the guitar on the plane; and second, since the guitar was being shipped interstate I didn’t have to pay the Tennessee state sales tax, which saved me quite a lot of money.

Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, TN.

The next day we flew to New York and checked into our hotel. I waited for my Gibson to arrive. A week went by with no sign of the guitar, and I got more anxious with each passing day. Finally, FedEx delivered a large box to our hotel. I excitedly opened the box and removed the guitar case. I opened the case and took out the guitar. It was just as beautiful as it had looked in the store.

Then I gave it a strum.

Something was wrong.

Terribly wrong.

Looking at the bridge I noticed that its wooden base was broken and splintered. On closer inspection I saw a giant crack in the top of the guitar. Originating at the bass side of the bridge, the crack had spread along the woodgrain in both directions, down towards the end pin and up past the neck. The carved top had partially collapsed. The guitar was ruined. Unplayable.

It was heartbreaking.

I called up Gruhn’s and told them that the guitar had been damaged in shipping. Fortunately, I had paid for shipping insurance, so my money was refunded. With a heavy heart I boxed the guitar up and shipped it back to Nashville.

So there I was, with one day left in New York before my flight back to Australia, and no guitar to take home with me. I was too upset about the Gibson to even consider doing any more guitar shopping, but my wife (bless her!) insisted we go down to Rudy’s Music in Soho to see what they had.

Even its case has matching tooled leather trim.

Rudy didn’t have any Super 400s in stock, but this Gretsch 6121 did catch my eye. It’s quite a rare model, being the solid body variant of the famous Chet Atkins model. In truth, these guitars are not completely solid, being chambered inside, but they don’t have f-holes and lack the large internal cavity of a Gibson Super 400 or L5. Interestingly, it has a fixed arm Bigsby. This was the original Bigsby vibrato design from the early 1950s. You can’t move the vibrato arm out of the way like you can with a more modern vibrato design. Initially I thought this might impede my playing and I would have to change it to a regular Bigsby arm, but in fact I’ve found that it doesn’t get in the way at all. I made the purchase and brought the Gretsch home to Australia.

That’s the story of how I came to own this gorgeous Gretsch 6121. I love it. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll probably never own a Gibson Super 400, and that’s ok.  It just wasn’t meant to be.  I’m very happy with my Gretsch.

Another look at that Western-themed leather trim.

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