Posted by Adam Perlmutter
With its rich tobacco-hued sunburst finish, oversized F-holes, and large tortoise pickguard, Gretsch’s updated New Yorker boasts a handsome old-school appearance. The guitar is based on the company’s budget archtop of the same name from the 1950s, and as you might expect from the price, the New Yorker doesn’t have quite the sweetness or richness of the finest vintage 16-inch archtops. But it does have an appealing voice with a good bit of the midrange bark and warmth characteristic of an archtop.
Like all archtops, the original New Yorker bore the influence of the Gibson L-5, a guitar that was state-of-the-art when it was introduced in 1924. With a robust but sweet voice, the L-5 lent itself to the demands of such jazz plectrists as Eddie Lang and even country strummer “Mother” Maybelle Carter. The L-5’s 16-inch, noncutaway design would serve as a benchmark for Gretsch and influential luthier John D’Angelico.
As the demand for louder instruments rose—to say nothing of the need for upper-fret access—the 16-inch archtop was largely superseded by styles that incorporated larger bodies, cutaways, and electronics. Until recently, new 16-inch production-model archtops were unusual. But as players of all stripes have been reappraising this smaller-bodied guitar, companies have responded by offering vintage-inspired examples—often at affordable prices, which is the case with this Gretsch G9550 New Yorker.
Gretsch Looks Back
Established in 1883, the Gretsch Company first began producing guitars in the 1930s in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, in a massive ten-story building that has been converted to luxury condominiums. The company’s earliest archtops, such as the Art Deco-styled Synchromatic series, were pitched at jazz guitarists, while the hollow-body and solid-body electrics it began making in the 1950s appealed to country, rock, and rockabilly types. Today, Gretsch, part of the Fender family of instruments, offers a neat survey of its historic instruments at all price points. The G9550 New Yorker is part of the new Gretsch Roots Collection of affordable guitars, banjos, resonators, ukuleles, and mandolins with attractive retro styling.
The New Yorker’s arched soundboard is made from solid spruce, as is becoming more common on instruments in this price range. The back and rims are plain, laminated maple, stained a deep brown—the mahogany neck sports a rosewood fretboard, the same material as the bridge and, in a nice detail, the endpin.
Like the original article, this retro New Yorker’s got the simplest appointments: crème binding on the body and neck, four pearloid dot position markers on the fretboard, and, on its paddle-shaped headstock, the New Yorker designation inlaid in pearl under the Gretsch logo. Grover’s open-geared Sta-Tite tuners with black buttons are another sharp-looking touch. While it feels great, the guitar’s satin finish, likely a cost-cutting measure, detracts from the vintage vibe.
In recent years, imported guitars have boasted increasingly good craftsmanship, so it comes as no surprise that this review model is nicely built from tip to stern. The tall vintage-style frets are immaculately crowned and polished, the setup is top-notch, and the floating bridge perfectly intonated. All of the binding is clean and flush with the body. The finish is uniformly applied, except for some little areas on the underside of the fretboard extension, but this is totally forgivable and not all that noticeable.
The Feel & Sound
At only four pounds, 12 ounces, and a little more than three inches deep, the New Yorker is comfortable to hold—more manageable than the typical 17- or 18-inch box, at least for me. The neck, which has a vintage-V profile, is ample, but not cumbersome, and the guitar plays beautifully out of the box, without any adjustments needed. The action is nice and low without detracting from the tone. It’s just as easy to whip out chord melodies as it is to run uptempo single-note lines up and down the length of the 9.45-inch-radius fretboard with its slightly short scale length of 25 inches.
In other words, the guitar plays better than the typical old archtop.
The New Yorker responds well to percussive chordal fragments in the manner of Freddie Green, the late guitarist with the Count Basie orchestra, or for strumming in the Gypsy-jazz style. It also handles melodic work well, both in single notes and in the form of drop-2 chords, with a decent presence and bloom to the notes in all registers, not to mention a suspicion of natural reverb. But the New Yorker isn’t just a jazz box. Its old-timey sound works well for Carter strumming and for rootsy accompaniment in general. The instrument’s 1.75-inch nut makes it hospitable to fingerpicking—country-style blues, ragtime, and other approaches sound especially nice on our New Yorker. It also works while in alternate tunings like open-G, open-D, and DADGAD, and the Grover machine heads—unlike vintage tuners—make it easy to access those tunings.
Fun to Play
While Gretsch’s G9550 New Yorker might not be a sonic doppelganger of a vintage guitar, it does sound unmistakably like an archtop, with a clear, punchy tone suitable not just for jazz but for a range of rootsy idioms. At a glance, this instrument looks like it’s 70 years old, but it boasts modern performance and is great fun to play. What’s best is at well under a grand, the new New Yorker costs a fraction of the price of an original, making it an ideal choice for a player who’s looking to casually cross over into archtop territory, a seasoned jazzer looking for a fun instrument to practice on, or even a beginning guitarist.
At A Glance
16-inch body. Solid carved spruce top with maple back and sides. Semi-gloss vintage sunburst finish.
Mahogany neck. Rosewood fretboard and bridge. 25-inch scale length. 1.75-inch nut width. Grover Sta-Tite die-cast tuners.
Optional gig bag. Tortoiseshell pickguard.
$799 list; $499 street. Made in China. gretschguitars.com.