The Gretsch G9200. Serial NO. GAXR132052.
The Fred. Gretsch Mfg. CO.
Musical Instrument Makers Since 1883.
Handcrafted in China.
I choose this instrument, simply, because I own it. What I suggest is that my Gretsch exists at the interstices of complex histories: that of its technology, of the American subalterns who first used it, and of a brand. Within the instrument’s materiality, the guitar also bears the mark of global capitalist practice, nationalizations of quality, and my personal experience of it. Each of these facets intersects with others, forming patterns too complex to meaningfully separate. What I hope to do here is to tell the instrument’s narratives to show the impossibility of a unitary story; that is, to demonstrate the impossibility of the guitar’s discreteness as an object.
To begin, its construction: the body is mahogany—laminate, or thin sheets of wood glued together—as is the neck. The fretboard is rosewood. The former was likely harvested in Guatemala or the Honduras; the latter in the Indian subcontinent or South America. Already, we see the contemporary legacy of the age of exploration: finest woods brought across oceans from the mythic Orient and the New World. Many players fetishize these materials, known as tone-woods, within online forums and without, assigning value based not only upon tonal properties, but visual ones as well. Naturally, the colonial origins of tone-woods—and the neo-colonial economic systems that support their worldwide distribution—remain largely concealed behind aesthetic appreciation.
If this is the instrument’s present, then what of its past? My Gretsch is a resonator, also known as a Dobro. Its history begins around 1927, when John Dopyera, a Slovakian immigrant to the U.S, was tasked with creating a new guitar that could compete with the increasing volumes of larger orchestras. The result was the resonator, an instrument built around an analogue speaker: the wooden body is fitted with an aluminum cone, upon which rests the instrument’s bridge. This mechanism projects vibrations from the strings outwards, resulting in a louder sound marked by an increase in the treble-frequencies.
As a technology, it was brilliant, novel—and short-lived. With mass production of the electric guitar in 1932, musicians no longer had need of analogue amplification. But some stayed, having found something unique about the resonator’s sound: the metallic, high-pitched and reverberating tone that had a natural sustain greater than almost any other acoustic instrument. It was this stalwart group of musicians whose styles determined the resonator’s course. The first were the Delta Blues players. These guitarists would coax a keening sadness from the instrument using old medicine bottles, rather than fingers, to fret the strings. Perhaps less well known is that the Dobro also made its way to the newly-annexed Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. With the popularity of “Hawaiian” music in the 1920s, the guitar’s sliding runs became part of the musical ecology of the mainland and the island. Finally, the Dobro has also become a hallmark of Bluegrass music, starting around the 1950s; that is, a feature of the music of poor Irish and Scotch immigrants This interplay between colonizer and colonized, between an instrument marginalized outside of the primary “American music” of the time and one glorified in niche circles, is important. Through its associated genres—blues, Hawaiian, and bluegrass—we find create expression of more-or-less oppressed groups. Yet, we also find an arena wherein musical categories fix their referents, in racialized terms as “African-American,” “Hawaiian,” and, indeed “White.”
How are we to position the instrument within these politics of identity, both from the external apparatuses of power defining these groups (“their music”), and with the internal identification with certain forms (“our music”)? Is the resonator, to a degree, the marginal guitar of the marginalized? If we assign it this capacity, is it, and its distinctive sound, part of the suite of discourses that ethnicized these groups? Or, conversely, do we look to the commonality between three different musical traditions in the Dobro? From a strictly American perspective, then, we see the instrument’s material form stretched across discourses of identity and of history.
Yet, as noted above, there is an international element to my Gretsch as well. To understand this—beyond the outsourcing of materials—we must consider the history of the company. Founded by a German immigrant named Friedrich Gretsch in 1883, the “Gretsch” brand reached its peak as a guitar manufacturer in the 1950s. Despite the prominence of its products into the mid 60s, Gretsch was ultimately sold to Baldwin Pianos later in the same decade. Active production dried up until 1989, when one of Friedrich’s descendants regained control of the company. By that point, American labor had become prohibitively expensive. So, Gretsch’s new president entered talks with Terada of Japan, a manufacturer located in Aichi prefecture that had, since the 1930s, earned its keep producing inexpensive violins for Italian companies. By the 1980s, it had made the full transformation to an original equipment manufacturer: hiding its mark on products destined for sale abroad under foreign brand names.
From Gretsch’s perspective, Terada grew too expensive as well. Soon, the company had diversified its product lineup in ways that expressed the (imagined?) economic relationships between nations. The top-of-the-line models were produced in the U.S. Now, the professional-grade guitars were made in Japan, the intermediate in South Korea, and the student models in the People’s Republic of China. In games of prestige, then, the “West” still won. Yet, the national brand carries considerable weight in Japan. Indeed, today one can wander Ocha-no-Mizu—Tokyo’s premier instrumental district—and find the walls covered in Gretsch guitars. Trawling through the internet brings up Japanese players staunchly supporting “made-in-Japan” quality. In these posts lies an unspoken uneasiness about whether Japanese quality sits ever-so-slightly below or above American.
Regardless, it was through this nationalization, this conjoining of country and quality, that I obtained my own instrument. My Gretsch was shipped to Japan from China, but deemed B-stock somewhere along the way. When I found it at a discount store in Akihabara, it was roughly half the price of an A-grade instrument. I had wanted a resonator for the blues; that it was well within my budget made it perfect. At a deeper level, my purchase sealed a promise to myself. I had received several rejection letters from graduate schools, and was waiting for others. Upon these letters hung my future: would I be trapped for another year in a corporate job abroad? My resonator was, in this moment, a means of punctuating my conviction to not give up. It has since become a series of memories, of Japan, of playing it in Hawaii. In a way, it forms part of the patchwork of my identity—a material node within the narrative of my own life.
In this way, the guitar becomes part of my story, and I part of its histories of global flows—the rising tensions in Europe that forced John Dopyera’s family to move; of the groups rendered subaltern by “America;” of the fall and resurgence of an immigrant family’s business; of international outsourcing and the counter-narrative of national pride that developed abroad; and of global capitalism and raw materials plundered from the so-called third world. Each of these stories is a new iteration, one that requires a new analysis. Yet the process is endless: each new frame of analysis, each new understanding, produces more and more stories. The guitar’s meanings become inexhaustible and unfixable. Its narratives ultimately eclipse its materiality; yet, in the act of making music, its materiality can again surpass—or suppress—its narratives.
 Eric Zimmerman. “Play as Research: The Iterative Design” (2003), pp. 1-2.