Ca. 1940 Gretsch Artist

Gretsch sold electric lap steels under their own name for around 30 years, but the company never actually built a single one. Early ones were sourced from Kay, but the large majority of them – those built between World War II and 1968 – were constructed by Valco. This business decision seems fairly reasonable in the context of the late 1930s, when guitars were a relatively minor part of Gretsch’s overall business. However, it remains something of a mystery why the company continued to outsource its lap steels long after it was skilled at producing electric instruments.

Gretsch’s first electrics – both Spanish and Hawaiian – were produced between 1939 and 1942 by Kay, which built similar instruments for a variety of brands (most notably Oahu). Kay lap steels of this period all had mahogany bodies; the cheaper ones featured beveled edges in place of binding. Some had fanciful Stauffer-inspired headstocks, while the more expensive ones usually had multi-colored plastic veneers. Gretsch sold at least two models, the Electromatic and the Artist; the latter came in at least two variations, both of which had seven strings. It’s unclear whether the Artist was intended to be more upscale than the Electromatic or whether the difference came down just to the number of strings.

Steels with more than six strings were fairly common by the end of the 1930s, with most major brands offering seven, eight or even more strings on a neck. Six strings remained the norm for cheaper steels, however, which makes this Gretsch Artist a bit unusual. Along with the one other Artist I’ve seen, it’s possibly the only Kay-built steel ever to feature more than six strings. To keep construction costs to a minimum, the instrument was built identically to a six-string wherever possible. Only the nut, the tuners, and the bridge were altered to accept the seventh string. The nut flares out from its narrow base, allowing a wide 7-string spacing on a narrow 6-string neck. The pickup has six poles in addition to two magnets on the side, though the use of a steel bar to spread the magnetic field around the strings ensures that string balance is pretty good. In spite of the flared nut, the string spacing is relatively narrow.

The sound is similar to other Kay-built steels from the period. Output is on the low side by modern standards, but this was arguably a boon at a time when amplifiers distorted easily. The tone is bright but not shrill; it mellows out nicely through a contemporary amp. This steel has moderate to heavy wear all around but has no structural damage. The pots and tone cap are replacements, but everything else appears to be original.

 

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