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.
"Wouldn't it be nice to get an expensive guitar out of the case and find that it doesn't require any modifications?"
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.
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.
The Single Cutaway Falcon in oh-so-timeless white gloss - it's a stunner. It's urethane rather than nitrocellulose, which may offend a few purists, but is ultimately far less likely to inhibit resonance on a semi-acoustic than it might on a solidbody, and also provides much more resistance to dings.
With a lower bout width of 406.4mm (16 inches) and a body depth of 44.45 mm (1.75 inches), it's immediately an easier beast to grapple with than the traditional 431.7mm (17-inch) wide, 70mm (2.75-inch) deep full hollowbody models elsewhere in the Gretsch catalogue and those of old.
"The Center-Block Falcon lands smack bang into Gibson ES-335 territory in physical terms and as a result it feels well proportioned"
This brings the Center-Block Falcon smack bang into Gibson ES-335 territory in physical terms and as a result it feels well proportioned to all but the most Lilliputian of six-stringers.
The Single Cutaway Falcon is constructed from three-ply maple with a spruce centre block that is itself chambered at the lower bout in the interests of weight reduction and resonance. Most ES-335s utilise a maple centre-block with a spruce 'fillet' between it and the maple laminate top.
For anyone used to a full hollowbody, the guitar here exhibits a plonkier, less lively, slightly banjo-like acoustic response, much like Gibson's flagship semi. Anyone who has ever plugged in an ES-335 and played one in anger will know that this in no way translates to a lack of sustain or resonance in an electric scenario, but more on that later.
As you might expect from any Gretsch Falcon, there's bling here in excelsis: multi-ply gold sparkle binding; 'jewelled arrow' knobs; that huge paddle of a headstock adorned with a winged sparkle logo; Grover Imperial tuners; and, here, gold hardware, although the black finish option features chrome for those of us who can't quite pull off the full Liberace.
Without Bigsby, the tailpiece is Gretsch's G-branded 'Cadillac' unit, a spectacular looking floating design that has featured on Falcons and Penguins over the years and in no way offers a smoother ride in terms of tuning stability than the firm's vibrato-equipped guitars!
Although the pinned bridge helps, like any Gretsch, don't expect this Falcon to take the kind of right-hand beating that a Telecaster can and stay perfectly in tune. Much TLC, lubrication and string- stretching is required!
"Harnessed to a well-behaved chassis, you can use a Filter'Tron pickup for almost anything"
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 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.
Not everybody loves them, but the lack of a Bigsby vibrato found us gravitating away from the single-cut Falcon and towards the others in the range. That said, it's still just about the coolest rhythm guitar we've ever seen.
There's no getting away from it: this is a very expensive guitar priced firmly in the pro/serious collector/custom shop ballpark. But if you really want a Gretsch Falcon, there's no substitute for the real thing.
And if the only thing putting you off is how it might perform in a loud, saturated context, you need worry no more. This is a Falcon for the modern age, albeit with plenty of quirky Gretschiness intact.