Ca. 1939 Gretsch 50R




Long ago, in a far-off land of silks and spices known as Brooklyn, the Gretsch company begin to build guitars as an alternate source of revenue while the banjo market took a turn for the worse. By 1935, the company offered a range of archtop models from $30 to $250 - almost as much as an L-5 - and all with carved tops. Gretsch was primarily aiming at the bottom to middle of the market, and most surviving guitars originally cost $100 or less. Most were perhaps a touch nicer than similar instruments from the big Chicago manufacturers, but not in the same league as the Epiphones made across the East River.

Gretsch wasn't a major player in the guitar market until the 1950s, when the endorsement of St. Chet introduced their electrics to a generation of country and rock players. Their post-War acoustics are generally considered mediocre, and their only notable player was the bastion of hipness Burl Ives. However, I have found their pre-War acoustic archtops can sound surprisingly good. Almost every one I've seen was either in terrible shape or had undergone extensive restoration, which may be a sign that they were not originally built to last.

This guitar is a model 50R, a round-hole sibling to the more common 50F. The number signifies the price, while the letter signifies the soundhole. The combination of an arched top and round soundhole is not very common, but it represents a unique middle ground between the classic archtop and flat-top sounds. That is definitely true of this guitar, even if its age shows. In addition to cosmetic wear, the neck has been reset, refretted and rebound. I am suspicious that the entire fretboard has been replaced, but at least the guitar is easy to play now. The body binding is original, as are the bridge and tailpiece, but the guitar has sported several sets of replacement tuners over the years.

This model is attested in one catalog dated ca. 1936; by the 1939 catalog, the 50R is gone but the 50F remains. Still, this guitar is closer to the 1939 50F than the 1936 50R description. This includes a figured avoidire-wood back (clarified as "blond mahogany" in the catalog), maple sides and a spruce top, plus dot markers (if the board is original). The figuring on the back may resemble the painted-on flame employed by several low-end builders, but it is actually in the wood itself. There is a sizeable metal strip reinforcing the neck under the fretboard. The guitar originally had a floating pickguard, which is lost to the ravages of time and probably decomposition of the plastic.