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Gretsch Synchromatics and the Streamline Style: Artistic Design in the Machine Age

April 1995
by Bianca Soros

retsch developed the Synchromatic-series archtop guitars in the 1939 for display at the New York World's Fair. Prior to that, Gretsch was primarily a manufacturer of uninspired band instruments and mediocre guitars. But the Synchromatic line not only established Gretsch as a major manufacturer of high-end orchestral guitars, it also reflected many changes that occurred in American design after the Great Depression.

    Beginning in the 1930s, American designers engineered an indigenous technological and aesthetic revolution that made use of machine-age production practices and new materials that had no existed at the turn of the century. Streamlined creations such as Raymond Loewy's K4s high speed locomotive (1936) and Frank Lloyd Wright's rendering for the Guggenheim Museum (1942) enhanced America's reputation as a leading industrial giant. This was the era where designers emphasized simplicity, horizontal attributes, and sheerness of form in everything from women's fashion to the massive concrete TVA dams that generated hydroelectric power. Americans craved fresh and new products, and a new attitude of materialism emerged in the wake of the Great Depression. America fought its way out of thei debilitating period not by nostalgically returning to its pre-industrial colonial past, but by creating objects that expressed the hope and spirit of a new age.

   Rejecting the luxuriousness of the 920s, '30s American designers developed simpler, more useful objects that merged artistic and industrial aesthetics and that were suitable for mass production. It was an era where some optimistically dreamed that rich and poor alike could share in the material abundance of utility and beauty. The models in the Gretsch Synchromatic line, with their curvilinear shapes, technological innovations, and original prices ranging from $100 to $400, were such products. The Synchromatic guitar was influenced by the jazz era and it helped establish the guitar as an expression of American machine-age art.

Streamline Moderne and the new Materialism

   Streamlining was influenced by America's fascination with high speed and dynamism of form. The style first materialized in moving mechanical objects that featured aerodynamic shapes. Designers based their creations on the porpoise's ovoid body and the teardrop's unbroken surface. Throughout the decade, streamlined trains, ships, plans, and motorcars familiarized the collective awareness with this new form of design. Exciting footage of technological wonders in Paramount and Movie-tone newsreels helped to disseminate and popularize the progress and pathways of America's future.

   Electricity helped bring entertainment to the masses. Radio was developed about a decade after the turn of the century, and by the late '30s it was ubiquitous in American life. Between 1930 and 1941 an estimated 71 million home radios were sold in the United States. By the 1930s, American designers were commissioned by manufacturers to develop appropriate modern forms for the radio and designed sleek machine-age sets using Bakelite, which flowed evenly into curved molds.

   Radio had a significant impact on the development of the guitar because changed in musical taste, promoted through mass communication, necessitated advances in the instrument's evolution. Streamline designers began to treat the guitar as a machine-age product and incorporated new materials in its construction, such as chromium (used to plate the Synchromatic 200's tailpieces and gears), Pyralin plastic (used for finishing), and pressed and die-cast metals (used in making gears and tailpieces).

   By the end of the decade, streamlining became accepted as the American "machine" style. It became a way of marketing items that were never designed with speed in mind. The new style was an inherent reflection of the spirit of the decade. Manufacturers capitalized on this relationship to help sell their products. The 1939 Gresch Synchromatic Catalog was promoted as having "graphic proof of the structural supremacy of Gretsch guitars" with the advent of the "synchronized bridge," the "chromatic tailpiece," the "non-pressure" asymmetrical neck, "easy playing" elevated fingerboard only touching the top of the binding edge, Grover enclosed greats on their top models, "streamlined guard plates," and a carved top. This resulted in a musical instrument with "superb tone and matchless playing ease." Harry Volpe, a popular American guitarist from this era, is quoted as saying:" My fingers seem to travel twice as fast on my new Synchromatic."

Streamline Art: The Gretsch Synchromatics

   The Gretsch Synchromatic's avant-garde design remained similar from model to model, differing only in ornamentation of bindings, inlays, and hardware. The Synchromatic line consisted of five models with prices corresponding to the names. For example the Synchromatic 100 sold for $100. Other models included the 160, 200, 300, and 400, the most expensive and ornate of the group. With its 26"- scale length, the Synchromatic was designed to be an acoustically powerful instrument. Body sizes ranged from 16" for the 100 and 17" for the 160 through 300 models to 17-1/2" for the 400. The Synchromatic 160 through 400 had feline features such as cats-eye sound holes and curvilinear appointments. The Synchromatic 400 had 13-layer black and white celluloid outer bindings, while the distinctive cats-eye tone holes were 7-ply bound.

    The development and implementation of the Synchromatic's design can be divided into three periods: 1939-1942, 1943-1947, and 1948-1952. During the final production periods Gretsch modified the original design to comply with changes in management due to Fred Gretsch Sr.'s retirement and wartime unavailability of materials, which had an adverse effect on the Synchromatic's construction, playability, and aesthetic properties. After World War II Gretsch's attention shifted to the production of electric instruments, which eventually led to the discontinuation of the original Synchromatic design.

Methods of Mass Production

    Two practices for manufacturing products existed during the 30's. The first was mass production via the assembly line, adopted in the early part of the 20th century to build automobiles. Assembly-line mass production dominated American ideas about industrial organization until it had be challenged by an alternative model, developed by General Motors in the 1920's, that stressed smaller scale batch production and included a fair amount of hand or skilled labor. Gretsch incorporated the practice of batch production to build the Synchromatic. This enabled Gretsch to maintain control over their production and built superb quality guitars from 1939 to 1942.

    There was a new demand for annual style changes in consumer products, which had first been conceived in the automobile industry in 1927 by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., president of General motors. He intended to stimulate the market for new cars and satisfy the public taste for change by instilling planned obsolescence philoshophy, the Gretsch Synchromatic series was not developed with the intention of becoming obsolete the following year. The same basic design remained in production for over a decade.

American design comes of Age

   In the 1930s, American designers were consciously far removed from the utopian ideals and formal methods that influenced the most progressive European designers. Prior to the 20th century, many American artists have suffered from a "colonial complex" and felt more comfortable imitating the European practitioners of design. The rationale was the "they do things better in Europe." It was not until the 1930s the Americans finally developed a strong sense of identity and self-confidence that wallowed them to break free of Europe's authority in the arts. World War I adversely affected Europe economically, spiritually, and to some degree artistically. From 1920 to 1930 American designers began to experiment with American designers began to experiment with artistic freedom and its application to industrial design. The Great Depression further encouraged the American design industry to break free of European traditions.

    In 1939 Walter Dorwin Teague wrote: "We are primitives in this new machine age. We have no developed history behind us to use in our artistic creations. We have no theories, no vocabulary of ornament behind us to use in our work. That is why so much of our modern work today has a certain stark and simple quality that relates it very closely to primitive work of Greece, of Egypt, and of most people who were discovering their techniques and their tools."

   Fred Gretsch, Sr. understood the vision of this new age. He hired the designers and actualized the dream. Not only are pre-war Synchromatics some of the most visually striking and collectable vintage instruments ever produced, they are also a tribute to American industrial design in the early 20th century. End

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