Diving back into the past and grabbing the chance to correct some shortcomings, the Panther Center-Block is a traditional Gretsch aimed at the modern age. Review by Huw Price
Description: Semi-solid guitar. Made in Japan
Contact: Fender GB&I – 01342 331700 – www.fender.com
Non-initiates may be inclined to pigeonhole Gretsch guitars as hot-rodded single-cutaway jazz boxes geared towards rockabilly revivalists and gothy ’80s types. However, despite outward appearances the company’s history is peppered with innovative designs, radical construction techniques and unique features. Being Gretsch, they didn’t always get it right; it seems unlikely that the Tone Twister vibrato or the Floating Sound sustain enhancer will be revived.
Speaking of sustain, throughout his tenure as Gretsch’s prime endorsee, Chet Atkins pleaded for more sustain and less feedback.
Gretsch tried installing soundposts and devised at least two variations on the ‘trestle bracing’ theme from 1958 onwards, but music was getting louder and it was becoming obvious that traditional big-bodied hollow guitars couldn’t cope. Gibson’s ES335 with its thin double-cut hollow body and its spruce centre block changed everything. It proved a roaring success and even if Gretsch wanted to ignore it, Chet wouldn’t let them (in fact, he had been requesting exactly the same thing for years).
According to Gretsch the Panther is a return to a theme, although it’s unclear if they’re referring to an actual Gretsch model or a design idea that was never followed through. We can reveal that the Panther has a solid spruce centre block that goes from neck to tail with a weight relief chamber behind the bridge. Add to that a body depth of 1.75″ with a shorter-than-usual scale length of 24.625 ” and it’s pretty obvious which market Gretsch is gunning for.
Even so, they haven’t sacrificed that essential Gretschiness. The fingerboard extension still floats high above the top to create the necessary clearance for the High Sensitive Filter’Tron pickups and a proper break-angle over the bridge for the Bigsby. Better still, Gretsch has opted for the old Brooklyn formula of a three-ply top, back and sides so the thinner plates will resonate more easily.
The open backed Grover Sta-Tite tuners are a great choice. They look fantastic, preclude neck heaviness and keep the tuning just as stable as any diecast tuners would. Believe it or not, the control layout is simplified by Gretsch standards: there’s a tone control rather than a mud switch and a master volume below the cutaway as well as individual volume controls.
If you’re used to Gretsches you’ll appreciate the master volume and its convenient location. If you’re not, you can simply ignore it and use the individual controls. It’s also worth noting that these modern Gretsch knobs feel very different to the vintage variety. The knurled texture is far rougher, so much so that you don’t need to grip them. You can actually move them with the tip of one finger.
As for the neck profile, it feels very similar to this reviewer’s 1963 Tennessean. It’s a supremely comfortable C profile that deepens ever so slightly as you move up the neck. It’s not chunky, but we wouldn’t describe it as slim. In fact the only criticism we could level regarding the White Panther’s construction is the rosewood used for the bound fingerboard and bridge. We’d have preferred ebony ourselves, but even so, it’s only an aesthetic thing – like wearing brown shoes with a blue suit.
Other less conspicuous concessions to modernity include Schaller strap locks, a top-mounted jack socket and an Adjusto-Matic bridge. The wooden bridge base is pinned in place through the top so it won’t move about however you play, and it extends beyond the centre block in order to transfer vibrations to the rest of the guitar.
Acoustic tones are bright, balanced and encouraging, but the question has to be whether the White Panther can cope with high volume levels. In short, it certainly can. Despite provocation from cascading gain stages, wah pedals, fuzzboxes and compressors the White Panther behaved itself like a (country) gentleman. Of course it does feed back, but no more than any other semi-solid.
The pickups are high output by Filter’Tron standards but they’re still brighter than PAF-style humbuckers. So long as your amp has enough headroom in the preamp stage you can dial up some classic Gretsch clean tones. The bridge pickup chimes, the neck pickup has a woody jazziness and in combination the hint of phasey mid-scoop is ideal for picking duties.
The White Panther can overdrive valve amps with ease and you may wish to roll back your treble settings a tad. The onboard tone control has a slightly limited range, so full roll-off is more akin to morphing from a Filter’Tron to a PAF than proper ‘woman tone’. Even so, the defined voice of the pickups works well with high gain because you can pile on the dirt without losing clarity.
Power chords and low-register riffs sound huge, especially in dropped tunings. But the most remarkable characteristic has to be the sustain; the White Panther will hang on to any note just as long as you want it to. Grinding away on the bridge pickup for the rhythm parts then flipping over to the neck for solos is like going from Malcolm Young’s tone to a pretty convincing version of an Angus sound.
That all-important centre block is just visible through the f-hole
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Despite their charms Gretsch guitars are seldom described as ‘easy to play’. They’re quirky, and fans tend to love them despite those quirks rather than because of them. The White Panther irons out the quirks without losing that essential Gretschiness. It delivers for woody-toned picking as well as high gain shredding, so it should appeal to traditionalists and modern players alike. It’s also supremely playable and so packed with sonic character that this must be far closer to what Chet Atkins had in mind. He probably would have complained that the pickups were too hot… but we’re guessing he would have approved of everything else.