The Gretsch White Falcon was never intended to be released for the retail market. Unveiled for the first time at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show in 1954, the White Falcon was advertised as a "guitar of the future”: A promotional showpiece that was meant to show off the Gretsch brand. Ironically, the glorified showpiece was never meant to have a future at all. Following huge demand from sales reps at the show however, the so-called “guitar of the future” had to become the guitar of now. By 1955, the White Falcon hit the shelves.
Jimmie Webster, the guitar’s designer, set out to create what he called a “dream guitar.” When he was designing it, he mixed-and-matched features from other products being manufactured around the Gretsch factory, selecting his favorite qualities and integrating them into one instrument. To say the product of his inspiration looked ethereal would be an understatement. Its final design, featuring gold sparkle bindings and ornamentation inspired by the drums and high-end banjos being assembled around the factory, was like nothing the world had seen before. It was truly, as advertised, a guitar of the future: not only a world-class instrument, but a bold and beautiful fashion statement. Together with its iconic white finish and some of Webster’s own eccentric extras, it’s really no wonder why it was such an instant hit with the NAMM audience.
The White Falcon quickly filled the role of Gretsch’s premier guitar. Costing a whopping $600, second only to the Gibson Super 40CESN, the Falcon had top-of-the-line specifications. According to Gretsch literature, the White Falcon was “the most beautiful guitar in the world,” and it was hard to disagree with them. The original guitar featured a 17” body with triple binding, jeweled knobs, Grover Imperial tuners, and an ebony fretboard decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays. Rounded out with a flashy Cadillac G tailpiece and gold-plated pickguard engraved with its namesake bird, the White Falcon oozed both luxury and style.
Throughout the rest of the 50’s and 60’s, Gretsch tweaked the White Falcon, straying a bit from its original look. In 1957, the block inlays on the fretboard were replaced with half-moon shaped inlays, the single-coil DeArmond Dynasonic pickups were replaced Filter’Tron humbuckers, and the Melita bridge was replaced with a Space Control bridge. In 1962, the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece became standard, along with a twin-cutaway body. By the end of the 60’s, however, there were so many confusing knobs and switches on the Falcon that it looked more like a piece of machinery than a musical instrument, almost parodying the iconic look that used to make it so cool.
Entering the 70’s, the Gretsch brand was sold to Baldwin Manufacturing, where the White Falcon again went through various changes, but Baldwin had trouble understanding guitars and its White Falcons ultimately did not sell. By 1980, Gretsch was struggling, eventually closing entirely. Thankfully, in 1989 Fred Gretsch III was able to revive the family company and with it the iconic White Falcon. Since 1995, the White Falcon has been manufactured exactly like its beloved classic model. Modern Falcons come in white, black and silver, as well as in signature models for guitarists such as Brian Setzer, Billy Duffy, Stephen Sills, and Bono.
While I have touched heavily on the White Falcon's iconic appearence, it is important to talk about the wide diversity of tone that the Falcon offers – it is, after all, a guitar! With the help of its three-position pickup switch, the Falcon's unique sound is extremely malleable, allowing it to contribute its unique sound to many different genres, such as rockabilly, surf rock, hard rock, and folk, among others.
The videos below highlight some of the wide spectrum of the White Falcon's tone.
Bow Wow Wow - I Want Candy (1982)
In "I Want Candy," the Falcon delivers a carefree sound that radiates fun-loving energy throughout. Its smooth riffs intermingle with bright chords, creating nautical sounds that make you want to hit the beach.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Californication (1999)
Here the White Falcon displays its more somber side. Gentle phrasing and clean, white textures linger behind the melody in this yearning Red Hot Chili Peppers classic.
The Cult - She Sells Sanctuary (1985)
This track by The Cult uses the Falcon to capture the in-your-face style of 80’s hard rock – Aggressive strumming and cascading riffs provide a high-octane energy that drives the song all the way through.
Between the smooth, jazzy tones of the neck pickup and the dirty, distorted, and slightly brittle tones of the bridge pickup, the White Falcon produces an instantly recognizable tone. With both pickups enabled, the player can adjust each volume switch to create their preferred blend for a more dynamic sound. A quality instrument, the Gretsch White Falcon sounds almost as good as it looks.