It's been quite a year for Gretsch, and although we're only half way through 2016, we've already seen the launch of the highly affordable Indonesian-made Streamliners and a significant makeover and reorganisation of the high-end Japanese Professional Collection.
Now, Gretsch has turned its attention to its Korean-made Electromatics, specifically the Hollow Body models.
The Electromatic name itself dates right back to the 1940s, and was also used on a Japan-only range in the late 80s. We know it best in its current form, however, which kicked off in 2004 and – until the introduction of the Streamliners – has been the company's "bread and butter", reckons Gretsch's Adam Bowden-Smith, adding that the classic orange Chet Atkins Hollow Body, the 5420 (originally the 5120), "has been the best-selling Gretsch of all time".
While specs have changed over this period, prices have unsurprisingly crept up, too, and although the new 2016 models are pretty much the same price as the 2015 guitars, starting around £700, they are hardly a cheap 'impulse' buy – another reason for the introduction of the Streamliners with their £350 to £395 prices.
Whatever the backdrop, it leaves us with three tiers: Streamliner, Electromatic and Professional, or as Adam puts it: "Good, better and best!"
So, in what amounts to a 'refresh', it's the Electromatic Hollow Body models (the single-cut 5420, the double-cut 5422 and the double-cut 12-strings) that have received the attention.
One change to all of these new models that will please Gretsch fans who couldn't afford the higher-end Japanese models, or vintage pieces, is the headstock: not only is it reduced in size to late-50s 6120 spec, with binding, but the previous models' Electromatic logo that ran down the centre of the head and told everyone you were playing 'a cheapie' is now cited below the Gretsch logo on the pickguard – much more discreet.
There's a textural, grainy nature to the sound that, on one hand, seems very lo-fi but with some reverb and amp-like tremolo, plus that Bigsby, it can sound other-worldly and ethereal.
Other visual changes include the larger 'oversized', bound f-holes and 'aged' cream- coloured edge binding with inner black/ white/black purfling strips.
Under the hood, the wiring has been upgraded and the nut material changes from Delrin to Graph Tech's NuBone. With arrow-thru-G control knobs, knurled screw-on strap buttons and standard Filter'Tron pickup mounting rings, the package is all very Gretsch – much less generic than the cheaper Streamliners but not as pro- spec'd as the Professional Collection's Player's Editions.
There are no locking tuners or USA 'String Thru' Bigsby vibratos; instead, we have standard open-backed tuners and licensed Bigsbys with the standard-pin string anchors.
Recreating the classics
The Electromatics have had 'secured' wood- foot Adjusto-Matic bridges since 2015, so that's not a new feature here. However, it means that not only is the bridge stable, but that intonation shouldn't be a problem, especially if you want to up the string gauge from the supplied 0.010s to 0.011s.
Setup is fast and quite slinky as supplied and the intonation is excellent, like the neck shape, which is, again, very 'Gretsch' with a quoted 'U' shape that feels slightly flat-backed and is slightly trimmer in depth (20.8mm at the 1st fret and 23.6mm at the 10th) than the Streamliners and the Professional models we reviewed earlier this year.
Fret specs too differ, too. The fretwire here is noticeably wider than the Streamliners and just a little wider than the Professional Series models. It shares a similar height to the Streamliner, however, which is lower than the Pros and, along with that neck shape and setup, helps to create a very contemporary, almost rock-like feel.
The pickups haven't changed since their 2011 introduction, but a subtle change is that a simple treble bleed capacitor is added to the master volume, which should help you retain the highs as you turn down. Aside from that, it's a very familiar drive.
The G5422TG double-cut model is based on the early 60s 6120 and, again, is 406mm (16 inches) wide but with a reduced depth of 58mm at the rim. Aside from that and the gold-plating and hump-block inlays, it's near identical to the single-cut model, though the neck is slightly thinner in depth (20.3mm at the 1st and 22.4 at the 10th fret) and the weight is very slightly trimmer, too.
Feel & Sounds
The G5422TG feels very slightly neck-heavy in comparison to the single cut, though we should note that it's no deal-breaker.
Of course, the 'Gretsch sound' is a combination of the 'creaky ship' construction, the air, the inefficiency, those low-output 'clean' pickups, not to mention the all- important subtle shimmer from the Bigsby with its airy resonance.
It's very much the antithesis of the modern solidbody. When you're playing a Gretsch – especially taking into account this lighter bracing – there's an unpredictability that makes us love or loathe them.
There's a textural, grainy nature to the sound that, on one hand, seems very lo-fi but with some reverb and amp-like tremolo, plus that Bigsby, it can sound other-worldly and ethereal. Don't blame us if you're playing these things way longer than you might your solidbody – especially at home through a small amp.
And then there's the versatility, but not in the manner of a modern solidbody with its full humbuckers and single-coil splits. While it's more subtle here, there are plenty of shades from the slightly damped, muted response with the pickup volumes and tone pulled back, to the thinner, brighter and twangier voices with the master volume rolled back and the pickup volumes full on.
It's true that this guitar would not be our first choice as the only guitar we took to a jam or function-band gig – but for a whole host of older-genre styles, from the obvious rock 'n' roll and rockabilly through to much rootsier swampier voices that love a little 'hair' or outright grunt and grunge, it's hard to think of a guitar that is better suited.
And as many Gretsch owners will already know, it also makes a superb recording guitar where that textural tone is absolutely superb to overdub and layer parts – in virtually any style you can imagine.