Rockabilly legend Roy Orbison wasn’t your regular rock and roll artist. Challenging the aggressive masculine ideals in the rock and roll world, Orbison was something different. Where other musicians gained notoriety with a bold stage presence and excessive sex appeal, Orbison achieved success through the timid vulnerability his music emoted. As unique as Orbison was to the music world, so was his guitar. The beautiful Gretsch White Falcon he used was revamped and custom fitted to Orbison’s preferences and personality creating an iconic image fans would never forget.
The White Falcon first debuted at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show in Chicago in 1954. Presented by Jimmie Webster who was inspired by auto shows and Detroit auto makers, the guitar was only meant to be a prototype to boost interest in the company’s product line. With a white body and 24 karat gold appointments, the instrument was a piece of luxury and an instant hit. Spectators at the show fawned over the feather-engraved inlays and the tailpiece that looked something like a Cadillac hood ornament.
To Webster’s surprise orders for the new guitar began to flood in. Gretsch taking note decided to leave the prototype status behind and in 1955 the official White Falcon line was born. Pricing started at $600, which by today’s standards would be about $5,500. Considering that the average household income at the time was $5,000, the “Cadillac of Guitars” became more like the “Rolls Royce of Guitars.”
The Falcon line continued to sell, seeing some changes here and there. The bulk of the changes occurred during the seventeen-year period in which Baldwin controlled Gretsch guitars. In the 1970s Baldwin began to change the guitars by featuring smaller F-holes, a squared-off pick guard, and square pearl block neck inlays. But the piano manufacturer’s strengths were not in guitars, so in 1984 the company released Gretsch control back to the family in the hands of Fred W. Gretsch, great grandson of founder Friedrich Gretsch. By 1990 Gretsch guitars began to look more like it’s original 1950’s to 1960’s self again.
Today the line of guitars includes a bass, jumbo and parlor acoustic guitars, center block and junior sized models, as well as two artist signature models, Stephen Stills and Billy Duffy. Other celebrity users of the guitar include Mary Osborne, Neil Young, Malcolm Young, Brian Setzer, and John Frusciante.
Roy Orbison was born on April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas. Although he asked for a harmonica for his sixth birthday, his father bought him his first guitar instead. Teaching Orbison how to play the guitar soon became a family affair as both his father, Orbie Lee, and Uncle, Charlie Orbison, both taught the budding musician how to play. Orbison quickly learned how play the guitar so he could stay up late with the adults playing music. The first song he learned was “You Are My Sunshine.” He wrote his first song, “A Vow of Love” at the age of 8.
In 1949 at the age of 13 Orbison started his first band, The Wink Westerners, but he didn’t get his big break until he released “Only the Lonely” in 1961. After Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers declined to use the song, Orbison decided to recorded it himself. The song soon reached the no. 2 spot on the Billboard singles chart triggering his career as a famous musician.
While Orbison enjoyed his fame during the early sixties, a rash of bad luck struck later in the decade leading the musician out of the spotlight. Following the tragedies of losing his wife in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and then the death of two of his sons in a house fire in 1968, Orbison wasn’t able to create any hits and eventually faded away.
But when Orbison joined The Eagles on their “Hotel California” tour, and when his duet with Emmylou Harris, “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” won a Grammy Award, he suddenly found himself in the spotlight once again. He later went on to join The Traveling Wilburys, with musical greats, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynn. Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 by Bruce Springsteen who said, “In 1975, when I went into the studio to make Born to Run, I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector. But most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison.”
Although some pictures and video can be found of Roy Orbison strumming the classic 1959 White Falcon, a simple Google search will reveal a confusing return of Orbison and a black guitar with the same body but a notably different head. What happened? According to royorbisonjr.com, Roy knocked the headstock off with a rubber mallet and had a Gibson headstock reattached. The guitar was then painted black covering the Gibson logo on the headstock.
Roy Orbison never fit the bill for a rock and roll artist. He was a musician that did well in the rockabilly community but made a big comeback when rockabilly was gone. He had an odd sense of fashion, think insurance salesman, and he was known for his almost lifeless stage presence. George Harrison once commented, “He was like marble” in regards to watching Orbison perform. His iconic dark sunglasses were a mistake as he wore them during a performance with the Beatles in 1963. He wore them, not to be cool but out of necessity since his regular glasses were left on a plane the night before.
Roy Orbison’s image was never really supposed to be cool or sexy. Like his attire, his music showed vulnerability. The lyrics to his songs express insecurity, fear, and heartache. In an industry that sought success through confidence, Orbison gained favor by exposing the truth of our emotions. So it comes as no surprise that the guitar he would choose to play along his journey would be as different and unique as him. Orbison and his not so White Falcon guitar together have taught us to be ourselves. That in a world where we don’t fit in, we have to make our own place to fit, even if it means knocking a few heads off with a rubber mallet.