Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Roy Orbison's Gretsch/Gibson/Sho-bud Guitar

There was an article in this month’s Vintage Guitar Magazine about Roy Orbison. Roy was THE VOICE for he had one of the best voices in rock music and Roy's songs were amazing. Each one was a story. In fact Roy was so good that Elvis would not perform on the same venue.

The VG article is about a new boxed set of Orbison's recordings, however it devotes a couple of sentences to one of Roy’s most unique guitars. I have seen pictures of this guitar many times and never paid much attention to it. At first glance, it appeared to be a typical 1960’s Gretsch guitar. But this guitar is by no means typical.

The body is from a Gretsch guitar. (I never bothered to look beyond the body.) However, the neck is by Gibson. I have searched extensively for information on this instrument and there is not much available. It also seem that no one knows what has become of it.

Roy used this guitar extensively in the 1960’s and then went on to play a variety of Gretsch instruments. Later in his career, he embraced Gibson guitars. He usually played an ES-335. There are also pictures of him playing a Fender Telecaster.

I attempt to avoid mentioning guitars currently featured in current popular publications, but I have been obsessing over this guitar. This instrument is on the cover of an album titled Roy Orbison’s 50 Greatest Hits.

Mid-50's Country Club
The body appears to be from mid-1950's Chet Atkins model or a Country Club. In researching the guitar, most folks have commented it looks like a Gretsch Country Club body. The Country Club came with a master tone potentiometer, making three knobs on the lower bout until 1965, when a tone switch replaced the tone potentiometer, leaving the lower bout with two volume controls.

Roy was playing this guitar prior to 1965. However, at the time, Gretsch guitars could be ordered with differing combinations of controls.

In 1958, Gretsch White Falcon guitars came with a master volume pot on the top lower bout, a neck and bridge potentiometer on the bottom lower bout, a pickup selector and a three-way tone switch on the upper bout. However, the White Falcon came with fancy sparkle-gold binding around the body and neck.
Roys black guitar has white binding.

Both the Country Club and the single cutaway 6120 Chet Atkins model had thick bodies. The Country Club was thicker at 3 and 3/8” deep through 1959, while the 6120 was 2 78th" in depth.  The older Chet Atkins 6120 models came with a "G" etched into the guitars body. However, this was no longer on the instrument by 1957.

By 1958, the model came with two separate pickup potentiometers and the tone control was replaced by a three-way tone switch.

Chet Atkins 6120
It is very difficult to pin down which instrument supplied the body on this guitar. The guitars body was refinished in black and had a Bigsby vibrato. Both models came with a Bigsby.  Both the 6120 and Country Club guitars were hollow body instruments with actual "F" holes. Both instruments came with white binding.

The neck on Roy’s guitar looks like a Gibson Super 400 neck of the era. It is a fancy bound neck with split block inlay position markers and a split diamond design on the headstock. The bottom of the neck ends in a fancy volute, just like those on a Gibson Super 400. There is no logo on the top of the headstock. I imagine if someone at Gretsch modified the guitar for Roy, it would make sense they did not want a Gibson logo on the guitar.

To further complicate things, the single coil pickups are from a Sho-bud steel guitar and have eight pole pieces. They are surrounded by metallic pickup rings. The vibrato is a Bigsby B-6 model.

The remaining feature that set this guitar apart was the four switches on the upper bout. Gretsch introduced stereo wiring in 1959 and called this feature, “Projectosonic.”

Note the pole pieces

The Gretsch stereo guitar evolved from an idea by Jimmie Webster. Mr. Webster is well worth mentioning.

He was a Gretsch designer and endorser and considered by many to be the father of tap guitar playing. Jimmie Webster was the main force that designed the Gretsch 6120 for Chet Atkins. He also designed the White Falcon.

He meant the White Falcon guitar to only be a presentation piece for the 1955 NAMM convention, and not an instrument in the Gretsch lineup. The guitar became so desirable that Gretsch began offering the guitar for sale. Webster then went about modifying it, by splitting the humbucking pickups to run in stereo, then routing each signal to a different amplifier.

Webster used this single cutaway White Falcon with the four switches as his personal instrument. Jimmie Webster was also a presenter for Gretsch and traveled around the country giving demonstrations at music stores and in concerts.

In 1959, this feature was added to the Gretsch Country Club, but with only two switches.

The stereo design on the Country Club was achieved through "half" pickups.

Although each pickup housing looked like a normal Gretsch humbucking pickups, the neck pickup only had the magnets and polepieces under the lower three strings and the bridge pickup was designed in a similar fashion with the magnets and polepieces under the first three strings.  The "bridge" pickup was centered in the middle of the Country Club.

The 1958 Gretsch White Falcon was the first to use the four switch option.
The four switches on Roy’s instrument are evidence of the Gretsch Projectosonic stereo wiring. A close inspection reveals this may have been an afterthought or special order. The washers on the two lower switches are a different shape than the top switches. Perhaps Roy had seen a stereo Gretsch and decided that would be a good option.


I wish I had more information on this unique instrument. There was an Asian knock-off on ebay for sale. The seller mentioned the four switches on the upper bout did not work. I note also, the body of this instrument appears to be only around 2” deep. Orbison’s instrument was deeper.

It would be interesting to learn more about how this guitar came about and what happened to the instrument. If I learn anything more, I will share it.


Roem said...

Thank you for this post. You just saved me hours of research and I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Having read both biographies on Roy i do recall in one book the author stated that Roys unique guitar was shipped to Japan, as it was to be copied and made available to fans/guitarists. Unfortunately the guitar was never seen again. Lets hope it's being cherished by some oriental with an incredable taste in music, Roys!!

Regards Gary cooper

Anonymous said...

Being a fan since 1960, this guitar was very much part of Roy's image until the time it went missing. It was a very striking guitar. I don't recall anything being mentioned about its 'loss' apart from being shipped to Japan. I suspect Roy missed it as it was with him since the late 50's. What stories that axe can tell.

Bob Isaac

Bear and Chubby Men said...

I do believe the original gibbo/gretsch is in a museum in Germany. Its worthwhile talking to either Barbara Orbison or someone on the official website and they will clarify matters. It is indeed a stereo version and the neck is a super 400. By the way, that is just one of 600 he collected over the decades.

Anonymous said...

For all Gretsch fans and collectors... I found a cool item on ebay. Gretsch case candy. These info cards are cool reproductions from originals back in the 50's and 60's. A must have to keep in your guitar case. There are two different sets. One for the gretsch with a Stand-by Switch and another for the gretsch without the standby.



Tommy Callaghan UK said...

I recall back in the 1970s Roy Orbison was a guest on BBC radio programme 'My Top Twelve'. During the programme he referred to a guitar that he had specially made to his requirements. He said that when he was touring in Japan the japanese were very interested in the guitar. He said that he loaned it to them so that they could study it. He then said something like, "I never did get the darn thing back". It could be that the BBC still have a recording of this programme somewhere in their archives?

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