1930s Gretsch Mini-Jumbo Flattop Guitar

This New York-made Gretsch flattop can be filed under outrageously cool. It came in via a consignor and judging by the original tailpiece, tuners, and "Gretsch American" mark at the headstock, I immediately knew it was built in the mid-1930s. The thing is, like many Gretsch builds, it was strange and ahead of its time in many ways. It has normal flattop x-bracing in a bulked-up, almost '50s Kay or '40s Regal fashion, but when it came in the bridge setup was an archtop adjustable saddle on threaded studs set into the top and a tailpiece load mounted via the endblock. Furthermore, while the guitar was otherwise original, someone had gone to the trouble of giving it a refret. Weird!

Suffice to say, Gretsch was really the only factory on the market making mini-jumbo, x-braced guitars -- and most of those were 12-frets intended for Hawaiian use. My work on this was centered around turning this into a poor-man's J-185. I reset the neck (thus incurring the wrath of bad-old-glue-jobs at the 15th fret... more on that down the post), gave it a fret level/dress, removed the tailpiece, and fit a Martin-style rosewood pin bridge to the (virgin) top. To that I added a nice, tall, compensated bone saddle, set it up, and hey presto! -- a loud, punchy-as-all-heck, great-playing guitar was born.

Tone-wise, this guitar is mostly all mids and thick highs. It has a voice similar to a late-'50s Gibson LG-2 or LG-3 but with more of a '50s x-braced Kay leap to the sound -- though a lot more refined. Every note on the board is clean, clear, and uncomplicated. It just kicks. For someone who crosspicks, fingerpicks, or lays-into bass runs a lot, this would be a great choice. As a strummer, it's clean and balanced, but you're not going to get the full bass you'd get out of a dreadnought from it -- though, clearly, it's not a dreadnought. As you can hear in the video, it mics easily and sounds excellent.

Materials-wise, this has a solid spruce top over ply birch back and sides. The neck is poplar and presumably reinforced as it only deflects a hair under 1/64" at full pitch with 54w-12 gauges on it. That's as good or better than most guitars fitted with trussrods and their necks "straight." The fretboard is original and is ebonized maple. The original bridge-topper/adjustable unit was the same.

Specs are: 24 3/4" (Gibson "short") scale length, 1 5/8" nut width, 1 7/16" string spacing at the nut, 2 3/16" spacing at the bridge, 15 7/8" lower bout width, 11 1/2" upper bout, and 4" side depth at the endblock. The neck has a mild-medium C/V hybrid shape and it fans-out from the relatively narrow 1 5/8" nut pretty quick sideway and back-to-front as it goes towards the 12th fret. The board has a ~12" radius to it and medium-large replacement frets. It feels 1950s-style modern in postions 1-5 but more old-fashioned and clumsier to modern hands past that. Action is spot-on 3/32" EA and 1/16" DGBE at the 12th fret, strung with 54w, 40w, 30w, 22w, 16, 12 strings.

Everything except the bridge, saddle, and ebony pins is original to the guitar. It has two cracks -- one tiny one on the top that was cleated in the past just below the end of the fretboard extension and a small "jag" hairline right next to the center seam on the top that was also cleated in the past. Much of the 15th fret position is now fill-in as whoever "reset" the neck before me used some sort of icky adhesive there that meant that portion of the board remained stuck to the top during my own reset. It's good to go but discolored from the rest. I replaced a damaged pearl dot in that position with a new, slightly-larger one.

The "Gretsch American" branding was used on nicer instruments during the mid-late 1930s. I most-often see it on mahogany Gretsch ukuleles and tenor and 6-string mahogany flattop guitars.

While the pickguard is screwed-on, I also added some double-sided sticky-film stuff to keep it from vibrating. The fretboard extension begins to dip down from the rest of the board just slightly past the 16th fret.

The top and soundhole are bound in cream celluloid.

When I chose a bridge for this, I selected the hardest but dingiest of my rosewood bridges because its grey-ish color was a better match with the fretboard post-staining. I wanted it to look a little cheesy to blend better with the original look of the guitar.

If you look closely, you can see two small half-circular divots at the front of the bridge. These are where the threaded posts for the adjustable saddle/archtop unit was installed in the top. It was a factory install, too. I had to take all the original finish off from under where my bridge is now.

How about that tall saddle? Note that all the pins are new ebony ones.

Also, because of the bracing style and the fact that this guitar never had a pin bridge, the top itself is perfectly flat. It's almost like a new guitar.

The serial number on this guitar is basically useless as Gretsch serials are only reliable from 1939-onwards. Still, this shot may be useful to someone in the future.