Rare Electric Guitar
Long-time Gretsch user Bo Diddley knew how to put on a show in his day, and his Thunderbird tailfin-shaped electrics and rectangular guitars were all part of his influential act. Hey, he even came up with a beat... And Billy Gibbons is no stranger to the weirdest of guitars.
And, yes, it is indeed an unusual-looking instrument. But if Bo's memory is correct, it clearly wasn't just Ted McCarty and the designers of the Firebird et al at Gibson who, in the late fifties, considered the electric guitar too conservative. Presumably inspired, and named, after the classic Thunderbird car, Bo's original vision is closely replicated here.
The long thin body contributes to an overall length of approx 107.9cm (42.5 inches) - a Strat is closer to 956mm (38 inches) - so the Billy-Bo is clearly in the Explorer/Firebird school of 'ungainly' designs. Played seated it's comfortable enough, although, as with a Firebird, the nut seems a long stretch away. Strapped on, however, it all makes sense. It's really nicely balanced, there's no neck dive, and whether by luck or judgement ol' Bo got something right here.
Although we can't see any wood due to it being covered in a Firebird Red face with black back, sides and neck, it's apparently a chambered mahogany body with an 'ultra-thin' maple laminate top. Certainly the light weight is welcome, otherwise the design could be a real shoulder-curver. Removing the three backplates doesn't tell us much more: though it's clearly substantially hollow aside from the central section under the bridge and on the bass side, where there's a back-placed rib-cage contour.
The one-piece mahogany neck is fashioned to a hallmark Gretsch shape, with fairly mainstream depth of 20.6mm at the ?rst and 22.4mm at the 12th that feels a little thinner due to the slight 'V'-shaped profile. Certainly the finish quality is high, likewise the cream binding that is cleanly scraped and nicely rolled into the fingerboard. The heel is quite chunky and access to the top is not quite as good as the outline shape might suggest. The 'board itself is a nice dense brown rosewood with those distinctive thumbnail pearl markers and black dots on the cream binding so you shouldn't get lost. Mind you, the fret gauge is pretty small by modern standards - 1.85mm wide x 1.27mm high - but it's tidily installed and, with a little playing, burnishes up nicely.
Gretsch has been using the highly regarded TV Jones pickups on many models in recent years. This USA-made pickup range (available in numerous styles) is known for its Gretsch reproductions and the Power'Trons fitted here are new to the range this year. "It was borne out of our desire to create a Filter'Tron-sized pickup with a strong mid-range presence and high output while still retaining the famous sparkle and bass-note clarity of our TV Classic," says TV Jones. "The tone is remarkably close to a fifties PAF humbucker, blended with a zing and twang that's all Gretsch."
There's also a high knob-count with virtually any Gretsch; and the Billy-Bo is no exception. Along with the shoulder-mounted three-way toggle, we have a master volume mounted through the black acrylic plastic pickguard, then a volume for each pickup, and finally a master tone. The output jack is neatly mounted in a circular metal housing on the inside of the treble side 'tail-fin'.
You don't need the blues-based skills of Mr Gibbons or the rhythmic drive of Mr Diddley to appreciate the 'Billy-Bo'. Simply plug into a Fender-style amp, keep your gain down but wind up the power amp, add a bucket of reverb and you're taken back a few decades to that classic bright-but-not-thin twang that is hallmark Gretsch. That's not to say the 'Billy-Bo' sounds like a 6120: it doesn't. The Power'Trons dish out a more muscular voice - the bridge pickup has an almost nasal bite contrasted by the well-matched softer and darker neck humbucker. It's a true hot-rod Gretsch tone as we still get the sparkle and twang, but with enough beef to fry your preamp stage -
"We've introduced a few little modifications just to tweak it into the tone zone," says Billy. "The first one off the boat was sent over for our approval and, man, they sound great. It's a really neat-sounding thing." We'd have to agree with that...