Brighton, being something of a mecca for all that is cool and rebellious, predictably has quite a lot of guitar shops for quite a small town. Obviously GAK is the one that everyone knows, and is in the unique position of being the biggest and also the least popular guitar shop in Brighton. Ask any Brightonian musician and they will tell you never to go to GAK and go to one of the smaller ones in there. I'm not really sure why this is - of course I'd much rather go to a vibrant little cafe rather than Starbucks or any of the other high-street bean-smashers if I fancy a coffee. There's a particularly good one, incidentally a few streets away from GAK, called Nordic Coffee Connection - simply going in there makes me want to buy a patterned jumper, look out the window and say "So. Today we have the rain" and form a symphonic rock band. But GAK is not one small branch of a huge amoral multinational corporation, it's still an independent company. The one in Brighton is the only one. They've just managed to be very successful by tackling the online market properly. It's also big and maze-like enough to actually get lost in, and one of the main corridors is filled with nothing but Fenders that aren't Strats or Teles - Jags, Jazzes, Mustangs, Bass VIs, you name it. That's why it's the guitar shop I always go to.
The other day, however, I had to leave before I got too cross. I'd bought a couple of packets of strings and a pedal power supply to replace the one that I'd broken and decided to have a look round. I went down Fender Offset Boulevard, turned right in the room with all the Les Pauls and amps in it, passed Lord Lucan, took another right, spotted Shergar looking at some pedals and reached the Gretsches. Here is when I saw the new Electromatic centre-block hollowbodies and my blood began to boil over. How in the name of God did anyone allow the Gretsch name to be plastered on these monstrosities?
Obviously, the Gretsch name itself conjures up many images. They're big guitars in garish hues, with a punchy, twangy tone to die for, usually wielded by people in similarly garish suits or leather jackets, and copious amounts of Brylcreem. The Gretsch poster guitar is the White Falcon, a sort of guitar Peter Stringfellow. It is clad in white, festooned with gold, and unspeakably vulgar and yet you still can't help but love it. Can you name another guitar where the colour you most typically associate with it is Day-Glo orange? The other guitars they make, of course, are the Jets, which are Les Pauls that actually look like they are from 1950s America and made mostly out of components from a Cadillac spare parts book.
The only problem with Gretsch is the same problem with that other great European-immigrant-to-the-US guitar maker, Rickenbacker. Yes, they sound unbelievable and they look even better, but as day-to-day guitars they're, well, idiosyncratic. Rickenbackers have weird necks. Gretsches, meanwhile, feed back uncontrollably if you turn your amp up past 2, are fitted with the Devil's own tailpiece, the Bigsby, and being bigger than most acoustic guitars and with headstocks the size of cricket bats are somewhat cumbersome. Oh, and if you are a bit too aggressive with your right hand, the guitar, floor and audience will quickly become coated in a thin veneer of what used to be the bridge.
Of course, Gretsch are now owned by Fender, champions of making guitars by nailing two bits of wood together. That's why things have changed over at Ivory Towers recently. For a start, all Professional-line Gretsches are now made in Japan, about the only manufacturing centre left in the world where you can guarantee things will be made properly by people who know what they're doing, rather than badly by communists. They've also redesigned the Gretsch pickup line to stop them feeding back in quite such a shrill, microphonic way. Then the Centre-Block series came out - essentially, the design principle of the Gibson ES-335 applied to a Gretsch. So it has a thinner body and a feedback-quashing centre block, making it a much more useable guitar, but from the front it's still noticeably a Gretsch - the bling is still there in spades. These are very good guitars, but at around £3000 a little on the pricey side. That's why I was eagerly awaiting the Electromatic versions to appear.
Well, they have. And while they may have removed the idiosyncrasies and cumbersomeness, they have also removed the soul and ended up with a thinline hollowbody that is exactly the same as every other thinline hollowbody on the market. Why are the pickguards black? Why not silver? And why is all the hardware made out of what looks like stainless steel? And call that a headstock? To add further insult to injury, they are available in two colours - black, with black hardware, or a sort of green that is worryingly similar to the colour of the Rover 400 my grandad used to drive. It's a colour that should just be called 'old'.
I can see what has happened here. Gretsch's new bosses Fender have walked in to the office and told them to stop running before they've learned to walk. Yes, you can release a guitar with a hot pink sparkle finish, hardware made from platinum-plated unobtainium, and a 19-position master tone switch, but only when you've made the Bigsby work properly. And while you're at it, fix the bridge down with something a bit more secure than chewing gum. The problem is, of course, that you already know that you go to Fender if you want a guitar that works. You go to Gretsch if you want a guitar that gets people's attention. Audi didn't buy out Lamborghini then tell them to start making 3-door diesel hatchbacks, they let them carry on making ridiculous supercars with vertical doors and gamma-ray headlights.
Gretsch have always had that damn-the-torpedoes attitude, and should still have it. Their current project manager is Joe Carducci, who came from SST, the legendary record label that the 80s American underground scene centred around, releasing albums by countless hardcore bands, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and many others. When Carducci joined the label, every other employee was a member of Black Flag. It's time he sticks it to the man again.