You'll have heard Gretsch hollowbodies referred to as the ultimate video guitars, but you won't have seen too many players in the rock idiom lean on them as their main squeeze.
Desirable and cool as hell, sure, but Gretsches have something in common with that other great old European immigrant-founded US brand, Rickenbacker: while you have to have the real thing to really nail that sound and aesthetic, the instruments themselves are perceived as somewhat idiosyncratic, often too much of a liability for many of us to confidently wield down at the local. A great third or fourth guitar, or a luxury purchase? You bet. But outside of the obvious rockabilly, not exactly a dependable, do-it-all workhorse.
"The guitar is manufactured in Japan with much of the production process being carried out by hand"
Outside of the conservative blues-rock mainstream, though, there are pockets of players for whom Gretsch is the only brand that matters. Brylcreem'd rockabilly outlaws and retro rock 'n' roll gunslingers in their thousands have found ways to saddle up and ride these broncos with great success.
Meanwhile, whole cottage industries have sprung up around modified Gretsch parts, from the well-known likes of Thomas V Jones and his pickup designs to more niche operations such as Compton Compensated Bridges and Tru-Arc Bridgeworks.
Simply, there are ways to make these instruments viable for much more than just visual kicks. Even in a louder, dirtier context, you can keep the fabulous racket made by using big hollowbody Gretches with overdrive under control by judicious use of foam, rags or even careful amp positioning.
Still, wouldn't it be nice to get a frankly bloody expensive guitar out of the case and find that it doesn't require any modifications to cope with the rigours of high-volume, high-gain live performance? And that's where the new Gretsch Center-Block series comes in.
Like the other instruments in the company's Professional Collection, the guitar here is manufactured in modest numbers in the small Terada factory in Kanie, Japan with much of the production process being carried out the old- fashioned way, by hand.
If it's possible to refer to any Gretsch as 'utilitarian', then this is it - or at least as close to it as you'll get. Shooting for a slice of the market the Gibson ES-335 has dominated for decades now, the black Panther still has X-factor in spades.
White ply binding and a more understated headstock with Sta-Tite tuners, indeed the whole package, make this the Gretsch semi for black Duo-Jet fans, and in this instance we'd be tempted to remove the scratchplate altogether for an extra stripped-down vibe.
Gretsch has opted to use rosewood for the Panther's fingerboard and pinned bridge base. Ebony would arguably have tied in better with the black finish but rosewood does promise to impart this jungle cat with a little tonal identity of its own.
The Panther's output jack is located on the top of the guitar; it's just as out-of-the-way in practical terms and another nod to Gibson's most successful centre-block equipped guitar.
The neck feels a fraction chunkier than that of the Gretsch Centre-Block Falcon also on test - a C profile compared with the double-cut's soft V - which Gretsch's senior product manager Joe Carducci explains is symptomatic of the nature of the manufacturing process rather than any difference in specification:
"The neck profiles on all the new Center-Block models are the same classic Gretsch shape. Though it should be known, our factory in Japan builds Gretsch guitars the way they used to make them in Brooklyn, New York.
"Final neck shaping is done completely by hand, old school-style, with a sharp handheld blade and sand paper. With the human element in mind, there will be slight inconsistencies from one neck profile to another, even within the same models produced on the same day."
Harnessed to a well-behaved chassis, you can use a Filter'Tron pickup for almost anything. And that's the beauty of this instrument. Where Gretsch's humbucker-loaded hollowbodies were always amazing sounding beasts that could be tough to keep under control in a high volume, overdrive-rich context, all this Center-Block guitar behaves much like a good ES-335; there's feedback here, but the musical, desirable kind.
Let notes hang, encourage them with a little left-handed vibrato and they are quick to bloom... then just add Bigsby or manhandle the body and give the whole guitar a shake for maximum thrills. It's tough not to get carried away and you can see exactly why white-knuckle noise merchants such as Neil Young and Pete Townshend have had such creative relationships with Gretsch guitars over the years.
Although you might expect instruments in this price bracket to feature USA pickups built by TV Jones, the Japanese High Sensitive Filter'Trons that come as standard in Gretsch's Professional Collection are much-improved over the brash, overly microphonic units fitted to Gretsch instruments throughout the 1990s and before Fender's acquisition of the company in late 2002.
If you can bring yourself to back off the gain, there's still plenty of Chet here, too, and for that Beatles For Sale/Help!-era Harrison sound simply flip the pickup selector to the middle setting and dial in a suitably bright amp tone.
Of course, winding up the wick in a tweed-y direction opens the door for your Stones and Neil Young-isms, while a more Marshall-style driven sound brings AC/DC and Billy Duffy to the table. Here, where a full hollowbody might begin to howl uncontrollably, you can continue to crank that drive and head into Soundgarden-style heavy riffing and beyond into fluid lead territory.
Due in no small part to its rosewood rather than ebony 'board, the Panther has a slightly darker, browner voice than the ebony-'boarded Falcons, which to our ears makes it a great all-rounder.
There's no getting away from it: this is a very expensive guitar priced firmly in the pro/serious collector/custom shop ballpark. But the Panther is a real star. Kind of a stripped-down/rocked-up Country Gentlemen, it ticks the relevant rock'n'roll, indie and alternative boxes, looks and sounds killer, and is a stable, well-sorted six-string.