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ICON CORNER: Scott Carpenter’s late 1959/early 1960 Gretsch #6117 Double Anniversary

Serial #34374

 

By Willie G. Moseley

 

During the 1960s, the astronauts were bigger than the Beatles…and no, I’m not referring to the Boulder, Colorado-based surf band that snagged the interest of budding guitarists early in that decade with songs like “Baja”, but curiously, Boulder actually figures into the history of this instrument.

 

A member of homo sapiens made the first voyage into outer space in April of 1961, and slightly over eight years later, human footprints were left on the surface of the Moon during the first of six landings. The efforts of the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs were covered in detail by media worldwide, as the United States and the Soviet Union duked it out in that decade’s fabled “Space Race”. In particular, the original seven Mercury astronauts had an almost deity-like stature among the press and the general public, as chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and other tomes.

 

And one of the Mercury Seven, U.S. Navy Commander Scott Carpenter (born in Boulder in 1925), owned and played this guitar in the early ‘60s.

 

It’s a first-configuration Gretsch 6117 Double Anniversary, and its serial number indicates that it was made in late 1959 or early 1960. Carpenter, now 80, recently told Vintage Guitar about his affection for folk and Calypso music in such times (citing tunes such as “Yellow Bird” and “Day-O”), and he also recalled his introduction to guitar.

 

“I was attending the University of Colorado Engineering School,” Carpenter recounted, “and I went home with a classmate one afternoon; he had a guitar and knew how to make three chords, and I was hooked. I had several guitars, including a Martin, and a bunch of other stringed instruments---ukeleles and a tiple, which I loved.”

 

Regarding his purchase of this instrument, the astronaut recalled that he purchased it in New York City when he and his wife Rene were in town to see a Broadway play, and that fellow Mercury astronaut John Glenn and his wife Annie were with them.

 

Collective recollections indicate that the purchase probably took place in the fall of 1960. After attending a matinee performance of The Miracle Worker at the Playhouse Theater, the playgoers made a quick jaunt up 48th St. to Manny‘s Music just before it closed so Carpenter could make his purchase.

 

“I don’t know why I decided on a Gretsch Anniversary,” he said. “I guess I thought at the time I was getting the top-of-the-line, and it’s a well-made instrument.”

 

Carpenter admired the two-pickup guitar’s “unplugged” sound, noting “I felt it did well without ‘being electric’.”

 

Debuting in 1958, the 75th annum of Gretsch’s history, the Anniversary series consisted of the single-pickup 6124 model and the 6117 two-pickup version in sunburst, as well as both configurations in a “Smoke Green” color (one-pickup = 6125, two-pickup = 6118).

 

Specs for Anniversary models included a 16”-wide single-cutaway maple body that was 2 ½” deep, and an ebony fretboard with “thumbprint” fret markers. The headstock features a small “Anniversary” plaque with a diamond logo etched into it.

 

Like many Gretsch instruments, the Anniversary series went through numerous changes in its history. The original twelve-polepiece Filter’Tron pickups that appeared on first-configuration models were supplanted by less-potent-therefore-less-desirable Hi-Lo’Tron pickups soon after this example was made, and the series ultimately underwent other numerous alterations concerning electronics, hardware and cosmetics.

 

The control layout of first-edition Double Anniversarys is particularly intriguing, however. Note the pickup toggle switch and three-position tone switch on the upper bout, the master volume control on the cutaway, and the individual pickup volume controls on the lower bout. The bottom-line revelation is that if this guitar was in an orange finish, and had a Gretsch “V” Bigsby vibrato instead of a “G” tailpiece, it would be Gretsch’s flagship model from the same era, the Chet Atkins model 6120.

 

This example has a replacement tune-a-matic bridge, which is more sonically-reliable than the original “Space Control” bridge, which had six threaded wheels that allowed string spacing but no intonation capability (details momentarily).

 

Scott Carpenter was the fourth American to venture into outer space, making his three-orbit journey in Aurora 7 on May 24, 1962. To put things into perspective, that’s almost 21 months before the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

 

Sadly, the space veteran sustained an injury to his left arm in 1964 that forced him to give up guitar.

 

“I can’t supinate my left arm anymore,” he said. “I can’t make barre chords, but I play four-string instruments on occasion, like a uke or a tiple, so I can still join in the fun.”

 

Carpenter ultimately gave the Gretsch to his younger daughter Candace, who graduated from Berklee School of Music. Candy counted the redoubtable Emily Remler (now deceased) among her instructors, and now teaches guitar and utilizes the 6117 in her own jazz combo, the Jean Poole Trio, in the Boulder area, where she and her father reside. She stated that since the guitar has been in her possession, the bridge has been replaced, a neck separation has been repaired, and the instrument has been re-fretted.

 

Carpenter’s older daughter, Kris, also resides in the Boulder area, and collaborated with her father on his life story, For Spacious Skies, published in 2003.

 

This Gretsch Double Anniversary model is cool and collectible as is, but it’s even more interesting due to its historic association with a real-life legend (as opposed to a music/entertainment legend).

 

The music of the Beatles has endured over the decades, and while such longevity should continue to be the case, the literally-groundbreaking adventures of the early astronauts have faded into the realm of history books and cable TV shows. Say the name “Paul McCartney”, and everyone will know who you’re talking about. Say the name “Scott Carpenter”, and an explanation, either via the internet or verbally (most likely from a Baby Boomer) would probably be requisite.

 

Photo by Tim Tucker

 

(A tip of the headstock to Kris Stoever and Candace Carpenter)

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Willie G. Moseley is the Senior Writer for Vintage Guitar Magazine. This article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of that publication, and is reprinted by permission. Willie may be reached at willie@vintageguitar.com

 


 

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