Plenty of electric guitars get described as “gorgeous.” But, in the looks department, you don’t get much prettier than the Gretsch White Falcon. With that striking white finish, distinctive headstock, and luscious gold appointments, it’s certainly a head turner.
It’s an undisputed classic of electric guitar design. Bizarrely though, it was never meant to be more than a prototype; a dream of what the electric guitar could be…
Today, we’re telling the story of the Grestch White Falcon, and how an intended one-off became a mass-market mainstay.
Jimmie Webster - Gretsch’s lead designer, ambassador and all-round six-string guru of the 1950s – loved guitars. You’ve only got to look at his impressive body of work to see that.
But, his second great passion was cars. If you ever wondered why Gretsch offered finishes like “Jaguar Tan” and “Cadillac Green,” that was down to Jimmie.
Like so many petrol heads of the era, the concept designs he saw at auto shows like GM’s Motorama blew Webster away. The Buick Wildcat II, the Oldsmobile Rocket and the GM Firebird 1: these were the dream cars of tomorrow.
1972 Gretsch White Falcon
None of them ever went into production, of course. But then, that was never really the point. Their radical, flashy designs sold an idea, a dream of a better future that the post-war American public was eager to believe in.
Poring over these fantasy automobiles, Webster had an idea. What if the “concept car” model was applied to guitars? Why didn’t Gretsch produce an instrument that, while never intended for sale, would spark the public’s imagination in the same way the Wildcat II or the Rocket had – and, position Gretsch at the forefront of electric guitar innovation in the process?
Webster set to work on this “dream guitar.” His goal, essentially, was to create a supercharged, bells-and-whistles version of the popular Gibson Super 400. Inspiration came from the diverse range of instruments produced in the Gretsch factory. The engraved pearl inlays that adorned the guitar’s fretboard and headstock were lifted from the banjo production line. The sparkly gold plastic binding, meanwhile, came from the covering of Grestch’s drums.
At the 1954 NAMM show, Gretsch unveiled their guitar of the future. Its bright white finish captivated. Its 24-karat gold appointments and sparkle bindings popped. The winged headstock, vertical gold logo and Cadillac-hood-inspired tailpiece were breathtaking. In a guitar market where understatement and natural or tobacco sunburst finishes were the norm, the White Falcon (as it was now called) was an out-of-this-world revelation.
Jaws collectively dropped. Music dealers swarmed the Gretsch booth to get a closer look at Webster’s master creation. The White Falcon was the crown jewel of the 1954 show. But, Webster and company president Fred Gretsch Jr. were faced with an unexpected problem. They were overwhelmed with dealers trying to place orders
G6636T Players Edition Falcon
Rushed into production at Gretsch’s Brooklyn factory, the first mass-market White Falcons (model number 6136) came off the assembly line in 1955. “The finest guitar we know how to make – and what a beauty!,” adverts promised. But, the so-called “Cadillac of Guitars” came at a price. On launch, the White Falcon retailed for a whopping $600 ($5,500 in today’s money). The only guitar on the market that cost more was Gibson’s $690 Super 400CESN.
At the time when the median American family income was $5000 a year, the White Falcon redefined the notion of what a “high-end” guitar was. Thankfully for Gretsch though, when the guitar was this good, there were plenty of people willing to pay the price.
Do you play a Grestch White Falcon? What do you think is the nicest looking electric guitar of all time? Share your stories in the comments.
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.