Curtain rises on Fred and Dinah Gretsch School of Music at GSU

Songs of celebration echoed from Savannah to Statesboro earlier this year as the Gretsch family, makers of highly-regarded guitars and drums, pledged $3 million to Georgia Southern University. 

The family and school have had a long-term relationship. Now that classes have begun at the newly-titled Fred and Dinah Gretsch School of Music, the goal of better educating young people in the performance and business of music has become reality.

German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch founded the company in Brooklyn, NY, in 1883. Upon his death 12 years later, his son took over. He grew the firm beyond its origins of banjos, tambourines and drums, gaining a large share of the market by the 1950s. 

An endorsement deal with country star Chet Atkins in 1954 led not only to stronger sales, but an innovation that arguably led to the rise of high-power distorted electric guitar and the rock revolution it spawned. 

Along with a company engineer, Atkins figured out how to reduce hum inherent in single-coil pickups and the two invented the dual-coil “humbucker.” Gibson patented it first, but the advancement only enhanced the reputation of Gretsch.

Rock royalty who played variations of the hollow-body electric Gretsch 6120 model include George Harrison, John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and Malcolm Young. Max Roach, Charlie Watts, and Phil Collins played Gretsch drums. 

By the early 1970s, the company called Gibson and Fender peers. Trends went against the sound and style and the company lost ground. A series of bad owners led to more decline until Friedrich Gretsch’s great-grandson Fred took back control of the company in 1984.

Eventually roots rock revivalists like Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats, Billy Zoom of X, along with influential punk rockers like Tim Armstrong of Rancid helped the guitar line return to prominence. 

It wasn’t enough to maintain the balance sheet, though, and Fender entered into a development and distribution agreement with the company in 2002, with Fred Gretsch maintaining ownership. It’s been the best of both worlds since.

The same can be said for the family and company’s relationship with Savannah and Georgia. After taking ownership, Fred Gretsch moved the company to Savannah, where he was living. 

The company sought to be involved in the future of music by endowing a single scholarship with Georgia Southern, which at the time only had the Statesboro campus. 

The partnership remained for years until GSU announced plans to merge with Armstrong University in Savannah. While this caused great uncertainty among student, faculty, and staff, one piece of the puzzle that came out way ahead was the music program.

“The company was always involved in education, from academia to guitar instruction for underserved communities,” said Steven Harper, chair of the Georgia Southern music department. “They are very energetic supporters, not just writing a check and leaving us alone.”

Talks to rename the school began last summer, with the idea of taking advantage of the two-campus expansion by giving each their own mission. The Savannah-Armstrong campus would focus on the business side of the music industry, with Statesboro putting their efforts into composing and music performance.

“They looked into other possibilities and have connection with other schools, but the dual campus arrangement seemed to spark their interest,” Harper added. “When we consolidated, it wasn’t feasible to have two programs competing with each other with the same programs on different campuses, and band leaders recruiting the same students. You’re diffusing your talent. Concentrating our efforts and expanding our offerings allows each campus to add to their degree programs.”

A few months after they began, the final details of the Gretsch partnership were ironed out at the end of 2020, with the announcement of the donation and name change in February. 

The first freshman class at the Fred and Dinah Gretsch School of Music has started, and enrollment is already up.

Future plans call for an assessment of the first five years and using what they’ve learned as a guide. Additional programs in the music business, the technology involved, songwriting, and other topics are possible. 

The university will also take enrollment into account, and gauge interest to keep up with trends. The globally-recognized Gretsch name will also help market the program to aspiring students. The ultimate goal is to make the Gretsch School of Music a destination in the southeast United States. The combination of an iconic name in music, a two-campus academic institution, and a location with a long history of music and entertainment is a solid foundation to build on.

“It’s off to a great start,” Harper added.