1930s Hager's Artist Model

While the Gretsch company is most closely associated with electric guitars of the 1950s and 1960s, its history actually stretches much further back. In 1883, Friedrich Gretsch set up shop in Brooklyn, NY to manufacture tambourines. Drums and banjos quickly followed, though expansion into other types of stringed instruments was to wait several decades until the banjo began to decline in popularity. Gretsch’s first serious foray into guitars began in 1933 with the Orchestra series of archtops, which was superseded by the Synchromatic line in 1939.

Neither of these series set the guitar market alight, and even though Gretsch did offer one or two electric models (whose construction was outsourced to Kay) it would not become a major force in the guitar world until the endorsement of Chet Atkins in the mid 1950s. Until that point, most of the company’s sales were generated by its drums and its business as a distributor of other brands. One of their clients in the 1930s was Hager’s School of Music in Grand Rapids, MI, who custom-ordered this instrument with their own name and model engraved into the headstock. Gretsch’s early archtop guitars were fairly well-built but not sonically exceptional, and they never gave serious competition to the likes of Epiphone or Gibson. Some of the higher-end Synchromatics – particularly those with cats-eye soundholes and cutaway bodies – are collectable primarily for their appearance.

Curiously, Gretsch appears to have put more thought into this guitar than most of its lineup at the time. It’s a Model 40 Hawaiian, re-branded as a Hager's Artist Model. As was common at the time, the model number also told you the list price in dollars (it was variously written “Forty” and “40”, depending on the catalog). Gretsch had produced a few flat-top guitars before the 40 was introduced in 1936, including a couple of Hawaiian-style models, but this one was a considerable upgrade over those student-level instruments. While the price placed it near the bottom of the archtop lineup, the flat top and back took much less time to build and Gretsch was therefore able to decorate the guitar more lavishly than its $40 archtops.

At first glance, many of the features are standard for an acoustic guitar of the late 1930s. The 16” body has a spruce top and mahogany back, sides and neck. In keeping with an upscale model, the neck is made of two pieces laminated with a dark center stripe. The fretboard was advertised as ebony, but it appears to be some other wood (probably pearwood) that has been dyed to appear black. The deception might have worked when the guitar was new, but the dye has faded somewhat over time. In case there were any doubt that this guitar were built for Hawaiian-style playing, the un-radiused fretboard has flush lines inlayed where actual frets would normally go.

However, a closer look at the dimensions reveals that this was not built like an ordinary acoustic guitar. The scale is 26”, which raises the string tension and gives the instrument extra volume. The body depth increases from 3 7/8” at the heel to a whopping 4 3/4” at the tail; as if that didn’t create a large enough sound box, the back is arched almost as much as one would expect to find on an archtop guitar. The arch of the back must have been molded prior to assembly, as there is no bracing whatsoever on the back. The top, however, has unusually beefy braces and is unusually thick – 3/16” at the soundhole. The neck is rounded, but the 1 15/16” nut would make playability daunting even if the strings weren’t ½” off the fretboard. These massive dimensions are all geared toward producing as much sound as possible. The top is clearly designed to take extra string tension, and the bridge’s large area permits enough glue to hold it down.

The actual result is a guitar which is loud, but not exceptionally so. Its main strength is bass response; the low notes are very firm and don’t decay quickly, something I find most acoustic Hawaiian guitars lack. The sound is oddly unaffected by contact between instrument and the player’s legs or even an arm resting on the top, which explains why Gretsch got away with screwing the pickguard right into the top. This particular guitar is very clean but sports non-original tuners and bridge pins.