by Jake Kelly
Gretsch guitars are iconic, no doubt. It would be hard to picture Brian Setzer or Chet Atkins without one. Can the affordable Electromatic line still give you that great Gretsch sound?
We were able to nab a new Gretsch Electromatic G5420 single cutaway hollowbody for review, but before we dive into it lets take a look at how it evolved.
A few years back, Gretsch pulled the string a little tighter on their semi-pro/student line of instruments that were, frankly, all over the map in terms of style and quality. The end result was the Electromatic series which beefed up the quality and found immediate acceptance with the novice and the cash-strapped gigging musician, and some pros, too, who wanted to experiment with swapping pickups and performing other mods that they’d never do with their vintage Gretsch guitar.
Among the first things to be swapped by semi-pros and pros alike on the Electromatics were the humbucking pickups that resembled a large version of the famous Gretsch Filtertron pickup, but otherwise had nothing else in common with it…tonally, at least.
Someone astute at Gretsch must have realized that there must be a way to increase the quality of the Electromatic line with a higher-quality pickup, but still protect the…the…Gretsch-ness of their pro-line guitars with Gretsch or TV Jones higher end Filtertron pickups.
The Black Top Filter’tron was born. The Black Tops are based off of 70’s (Baldwin era) Gretsch pickups that used ceramic magnets in place of the more expensive Alnico magnets as a cost saving measure at that time. When Gretsch introduced the Tim Armstrong model based off of his 70’s era Country Club model, they re-created the Rancid guitarist’s pickups as well.
While not a “classic” Filtertron, they do have a flavor all their own, that to my ears have the sonic characteristics of both Filtertron pickups and the single coil De Armond pickups Gretsch used before the Filtertron came into existence.
Suspended by Baldwin era metal pickup surrounds, the Blacktops have three screw overall height and angle adjustment, as well as two adjustable pole pieces for each string on each pickup.
Another less substantial, but equally nice improvement is the binding on the inside of the F holes, which elevates the visual ascetics minutely and tremendously at the same time. Another Gretsch trademark, Humpback fret makers, makes an appearance on the new Electromatic series.
This mash up of 50’s and 70’s era features works well together, and still allow the Gretsch pro line to retain its hierarchy.
Still, this line gets somewhat blurred as the finish on our review model is flawless, and there is only one place (where the neck and headstock converge) the showed a tiny bit where the wood could have been sanded more before the finish was applied. This review model is Aspen Green, but the guitar is also available in the familiar Gretsch orange, black and conventional sunburst.
Once plugged in, the sound is instantly familiar…bright and twangy, it has the heavy elements of Duane Eddy, if not quite the mid-range complexity of his pro line model. The G5420 also excels at surf, spaghetti-Western and rockabilly tones: especially when engaging the Bigsby (well, Bigsby-licensed) vibrato.
Darker Jazz tones are availed with the neck pickup, but don’t really verge into traditional territory unless rolling the single tone control waaaaayyyyy back; otherwise they are big and burly…more rock or rockin’ blues than Gibson L-5.
There are separate volume controls for each pickup as well as a master volume control on the upper bout. Keeping the three-way pickup selector in the middle and rolling back one pickup’s volume control or the other offers up an additional pallet of tones different to those of the tone control itself.
The neck is a moderate “C” shape that has an extremely familiar feel to it, and the 24.5” string scale length has more twang than a Les Paul-like scale legnth would have you believe it is capable of producing.
At nearly 16” across the lower bout the G5420 is not a small guitar, but it also not large as others when being compared to the more popular professional jazz guitars out there. The shorter scale length, slightly compact size and easy playing set up really allows the guitarist to feel like he’s/she’s wizzing around. And the tone inspires it. There is little question why rockabilly artist favor this style of guitar.
For a semi-pro instrument Gretsch packed a lot of guitar into the G5420. Many may find this exactly what their looking for, some may find this a perfect stepping stone on their way to a pro line Gretsch in the future.