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.

Gretsch designer Jimmie Webb
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.

'59 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.

Picture by Al Willis

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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hoving said...

I just received a Guyatone made guitar from the sixties that looks like it was modelled after the guitar that was taken from Roy.. it's a guyatone sg 22t. a very nice guitar indeed!

Filtertron said...

According to Roy Orbison Jr.; the guitar was stolen after it was shipped to Japan to be copied. He also stated that the guitar was a Gretsch White Falcon (a '58 or '59 model), and is the same one Roy Snr. was filmed performing "Uptown" with in late 1959. At some point in the early 1960's, the neck was damaged and replaced with a Gibson Super 400 neck. The Filter'Tron pickups were also replaced by Sho-Bud steel guitar pickups, and the guitar painted black. The Gibson logo was painted over, as the guitar wasn't really a Gibson.

So how was the neck damaged? Here's a possible answer:

Roy Jr. said that his dad removed the neck of his White Falcon with a rubber mallet. This is interesting, as to remove the neck on a Gretsch guitar; you need to first drill out the heal dowel which covers a screw in the neck heal. Once the screw has been removed, the glue can be heated up so that the neck can be slid out of the dovetail pocket. If the story of the neck removal is true, it's likely that Roy didn't know this, and perhaps when he tried to remove the neck, he destroyed the heal; rendering the Gretsch neck useless. I surmise that the Super 400 neck was the only thing readily available at the time to replace it, hence it's use. I would also surmise that the rest of the repairs/modifications were done by a proper guitar repairer or luthier - especially if Roy had destroyed the guitar's original neck.

Hope this helps.

marcus ohara said...

I'm updating all my articles. It is a continuous chore, but I want everything to be up to date and like to review for missing links and pictures. So I came upon your reply Filtertron. What great information. Thank you so much.


daneff said...

There's a Youtube video of Roy playing this guitar on the Ed Sullivan show. The caption says: "Oh Pretty Woman" and "July 4, 1965". I happened on the video and couldn't believe my eyes. I thought: that's Gretsch body, but the headstock screams Gibson, the trapezoidal inlay a dead
giveaway. After more searching I learned of the "hybridization". Does any one know if the guitar was "playable" playable or pretty much a hang around yer neck ornament? Sure hope that thing turns up. Any way you look at it, that thing is one of a kind. Thanks for the great blog.

Musicman1942 said...

Hi Guys, I played a white Fender Jazz bass with Roy on the road back in 1961-63 and actually got to play this Custom "Gretsch" at his house in Hendersonville, Tn.. (My thing was Chet's finger picking style). I have pictures and 8mm movies, B&W and Color, from those times. Go to YouTube and search for: "The Webs, on the Road with Roy Orbison". (Bobby Goldsboro was in this group and of course, went on to be a star in his own right). Portions of this film has been incorporated into the BBC's new documentary "Roy Orbison: One of the Loney Ones". My name, Amos Tindell, is listed in the end credits.

Roy was the nicest Guy you would ever meet. If you have any questions I'm at nifty1t4@gmail.com

marcus ohara said...

Thank you so much Amos. I am on youtube right now searching the video. I sure appreciate the update. You are one fortunate fellow!


marcus ohara said...

Amos, just watched the video. It brought back memories of those days. I'm impressed that you were in a group with Bobby Goldsboro, but much more impressed that Buddy Buie was in your group. He was one of my all time favorite songwriters. I know he passed not too long ago. One of my Facebook friends is the wife of Dennis Yost (who also passed away). Thank you for sharing.


AC Smith said...

I was watching videos from Roy's Monument Concert on YouTube and my obsessive "what the HELL is that he's playing?" reaction brought me here.
Amos, were you on that date? Because the backup band is just freaking IMPECCABLE.

Amos Tindell said...

Hi AC, I regret that I was not in that video as I left the group in 1963 due to illness but, later returned to music. Check out the video on YouTube, "The Webs, on the road with Roy Orbison" C1961-63 and The BBC bio C2015, "Roy Orbison: One of the Loney Ones".

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Thank you so much for all this intense research!

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