53. Fake Chinese Gretsch hollowbody
IT didn’t take long for me to answer the question posed at the top of my blog on Guitar No 50: “The last guitar I’ll ever bring home?”
The answer, of course, was an emphatic “No”. Fine instrument though it is, it was fairly inevitable my Greco Les Paul wasn’t destined to be the last guitar I would bring home.
The Covid-19 lockdown has been responsible for a good deal of creativity, one way and another. In my case, it prompted me to write this blog and provoked a fresh burst of songwriting and home recording activity. Early on in the lockdown, I was convinced I had succumbed to the dreaded lurgi (later, rather embarrassingly, diagnosed as a case of seasonal hayfever!) and I went into isolation. For a lot of this time, I was hunched over my iPad, demoing new songs on Garageband, some of which, hopefully, will see the light of day at some stage.
As I ran out of song ideas and guitars from my collection to write about in this blog, the lockdown opened the door for the guitar bug to bite once again. I blame my pal guitarist, songwriter and producer Richard Tuckey. He drew my attention to a guy on Facebook who was selling half-finished guitar, apparently mainly bankrupt stock from a Chinese guitar company called Pango. Among the guitars on the Alan George Guitars page was a half-built black Gretsch-style hollowbody neck and body, priced at a measly £65. He only had one left – and it was orange. Yes ORANGE! The colour – is there any other colour for a fat-bodied Gretsch? – along with the fact it had the word, “Gretsch” on the headstock and looked the part – was the clincher. All my life, I realised, I’d wanted a big, fat Gretsch hollowbody – I’d just never know that to be the case until that very moment. 🙂
So began a fresh adventure along a road never before travelled. Never before had I owned a hollowbody guitar, let alone tried to put one together. The neck and body so cheaply won, the challenge then was to turn them into a playable, useable guitar for less than £200. A couple of days later, a rather dull and dusty orange guitar-shaped thing landed on my doorstep – the body, intriguingly, stuffed with Chinese newspaper (a cheap way to keep the paint out of the body cavity during spraying I guess). It was decently-made, though the finish was far from perfect, the fingerboard tinder-dry and the frets dangerously rough, their ends sharper than a box of cutlery. Oh and there was no nut. Just as well I like a challenge!
My first move was to look for cheap and useable hardware. This yielded one box of treasures, courtesy of my pal, London guitarist and keen guitar modder Mike Dearing. A socially-distanced rendezvous at a petrol station in South Woodham brought me a box of goodies, including a set of tuners, a bridge, a set of Gretsch Dynasonic pickups and a single cheap (probably Artec) Filtertron knock-off.
Back to eBay I was searching a cheap trapeze tailpiece and lucked out with a mint, unused Bigsby tremolo tailpiece dirt cheap. My guitar-builder pal James Payze kindly donated a second Filtertron copy (thanks, James!) and I was on my way.
It took me a couple of tries to get the width nut right, though eventually I managed to fit and cut one and do a pretty decent job on the frets. They’re now nice and smooth and shiny. And yes, you can run your hand up the neck without drawing blood! I’m actually rather proud of my efforts here. The first time I put strings on revealed flaws in my plans… Although a hollowbody, the guitar has a small block running front to back of the body in the area under the bridge, which made it possible to fit studs for a fixed bridge, rather than the floating variety found on many Gretsches. With the Bigsby fitted, I marked out the location of the bridge studs and persuaded a kind soul with a pillar drill (he answered a Facebook appeal) to do the necessary.
Disaster! The studs seemed to be in the wrong place! Story of my life… I’m practically incapable of cutting anything straight, so annoyed though I was, I wasn’t completely surprised at this apparent miscalculation.Back I went to a floating bridge, which I fitted before stringing up the guitar. Annoyingly, the alignment and string spacing was still all wrong, using the original, Gibson-spaced bridge. In the end, I had to bite the bullet and buy a proper Gretsch-style bridge, with saddles threaded onto a bar, so the string spacing is infinitely adjustable. It broke my original budget, but solved the problem of string spacing and also, indirectly, the alignment problem. It turned out the original stud holes were in roughly the right place after all – it was the Bigsby tailpiece that was mounted off-centre. Doh!
I was very pleased to find I was able to mount the new adjustable bridge on the studs and with a bit of tweaking, produce a reasonably playable guitar. One of the scariest parts came next – drilling six holes in that big, fat body to take the controls and output jack. I studied any number of photos of real Gretsches to get the rough locations. (I was hardly helped by the fact the body shape and position of the f-holes didn’t quite seem to correspond exactly to any actual Gretsch model I could find – it was all guesswork really.)
I’d gone for the classic Gretsch four-knob layout (usually pickup selector toggle master volume and tone, plus individual pickup volumes). I loved the look of all those lovely chromed metal “G” arrow knobs and had found some reasonable cheap knock-offs on eBay. In the end I went for a single volume and tone set-up – keeping the other two as unwired dummies, with the option to change that in future.
I was tempted to use the Dynasonic pickups, but they were way too small for the mounting holes on the body. Sure they will come in handy for a future project. So the cheapo Filtertron copies seemed the best option. The ones I had were made to fit in standard humbucker mounting rings, which are a couple of millimetres too short to cover the holes in the body – one of the lessons I learned early on was that almost nothing about Gretsches conforms to standard Gibson/Fender dimensions!
In my early teens, I was a keen builder of model kits and I recalled a product called “plastic card”, used to fabricate parts from scratch. I found a model-making website selling sheets of black 2mm plastic card I thought would be perfect to make masking rings to sit under the mountings and cover the gaps. A bit of work with the circular saw attachment on my cheapo multi-tool gizmo and I ended up with a pair of rings – oh, and a pickguard and a truss rod cover (both cut, using templates downloaded from the web.)
The time came to wire the thing up. I made up the harness in advance, gingerly pulling the relevant pots, switch and jack socket through the holes in the body, using bits of string taped to them. (Sounds easy. It’s not! It’s maddenly-fiddly and time-consuming!)
So to the crunch – stringing up and plugging it in. The neck pickup sounded pretty good – full, fat and plummy. The bridge pickup was barely there… Turns out the colour-coding on the four wires leading from these two, apparently similar pickups (marked “neck” and “bridge”) was completely different… grrr! A bit of unstringing, disassembling and resoldering got the bridge pickup working, but when it was, it sounded as good as the bridge one. These pickups may be cheap (typical retail price about £25) but they are by no means nasty. Filtertrons or TV Joneses they may not be (they lack a bit of those units’ zingy brightness, so I’m told), but they’re plenty good enough for my low-price lockdown project.
Next stop was a trip to our studio (www.rooksyard.co.uk) so I could plug into an amp and play loud with impunity.
The Verdict: For a guitar which cost me a little bit more than my £200 budget, but not much more, it’s actually pretty good. It looks amazing. Putting a Bigsby on almost any guitar will do that. The £85 I spent on my Bigsby – the single most expensive part in the project – was money well spent. It plays reasonably well, though I’m still tinkering with the setup. I think I may have one proud fret, as the top E buzzes a bit, but only at the 5th fret. I also suspect I still need to find the best strings for such a quirky instrument. I’m currently using a cheap set of 11s, but have some better ones on the way… tempted to try flatwounds, too.
It sounds good. This is my first actual hollowbody and there’s enormous fun to be had playing such a guitar loud enough for it to be on the edge of feedback – the point where you feel the air coming out of the f-holes and it starts to sing of its own accord! The body is at least twice as thick as I’m used to and that also feels just plain weird when it’s strapped on – I’m still experimenting a strap length that works for me.
Ordinarily, by now, of course, I’d have tried it out at a gig, or at the very least, touted it around half a dozen local jams, with the corresponding YouTube videos posted on here. However, in these weirdly unusual times, I have yet to use it in anger. I can’t wait to do so!