Among the rarest of all truly rare guitars is the Gretsch White Penguin— perhaps the most uncommon and elusive electric guitar ever made. A mere handful were built, no more than fifty or so from 1958-1962, and the guitar never appeared in a Gretsch catalog. Adorned with gold sparkle binding originally borrowed from Gretsch drums, the Penguin featured jeweled G arrow control knobs, dreamy white lacquer and the head stock was finished with white Nitron drum material. The White Penguin’s list price in 1959 was a stunning $490— two hundred more than a ’59 Les Paul. David Gilmour purchased a White Penguin in 1980 that recently sold at auction for $447,000— the second highest price ever paid for a Gretsch guitar.
The first Penguins featured DeArmond single coil Dynasonic pickups, a Melita bridge and an ebony fretboard. From ’58 to ’61 the Penguin received Filter’Trons, a Space Control bridge and NeoClassical thumbnail fretboard inlays. The ’61-’62 models were built with a double cutaway body, following the trend throughout the Gretsch line and these guitars were equipped with a gold-plated Burns vibrato.
The current Vintage Select White Penguin has been built since 2003 as part of the Gretsch Professional Series with TV Jones Classic Filter’Tron pickups and a gold Bigsby tremolo, in the style of the original ’58 model. It features a mahogany body and neck with an arched, laminated maple top, U-shaped mahogany neck with medium jumbo frets, 24.6” scale length, 12” fingerboard radius, pearloid neoclassical thumbnail inlays, ebony fingerboard and gold sparkle binding. In addition to the standard two pickup wiring and tone switch it also has a master volume control. The Space Control bridge is accompanied by a Bigsby B3 tremolo, tuners are gold Grovers and the pickguard is a cool gold plexi with the penguin image. The standard finish is vintage white and the list price is $3199.99.
When we found the White Penguin at Big House, we’ll admit to being a little skeptical of its glitzy appearance, but our skepticism quickly melted away as we played it. We actually brought it home for a solid and extended audition. Simply put, if we weren’t in the throes of launching a new website, we would find a way to buy it. Here’s why…
Looks a little heavy with all that gold doesn’t it? It isn’t. At eight pounds five ounces the Penguin is a virtual featherweight, well-balanced and comfortable to play. This guitar is lavishly adorned with its gold sparkle binding, gold sparkle truss rod cover, control cavity covers and heel cap. That’s just the cosmetic stuff… The gold TV Jones Filter’Trons, gold Space Control bridge, gold Bigsby and Penguin pickguard complete the look, and rest assured, this guitar is a looker. With all its glitz it doesn’t come across as cheesy or cheap in the least and you won’t forget what it is because there is a small gold plaque on the headstock that intones “White Penguin.”
The first thing we noted about the Penguin was its intense resonant sustain. When you play a big cowboy chord you can feel the body of the guitar anxiously vibrating on your chest and stomach (we’re sitting down). You might think that with all that bling on the top it would be a dead plank, but the Gretsch is an extremely resonant guitar— a real rumbler. They got their mahogany right, and that’s what compelled us to take it home. We suspect that the big headstock has a little something to do with that, too…
The Penguin features a Master Tone Selector (second switch upper left). The rear position boosts bass, the middle is neutral and the front delivers a slight high-frequency roll-off (nice). Basically, this guitar sounds like a classic Gretsch in every way. The bridge pickup is bright but sweet and alluring with no harsh or brittle tones, whatsoever, and it overdrives beautifully through a modestly cranked amp like our Princeton Reverb or the Blues Deluxe. It has that Gretsch tone that is unmistakably unique and we
love it. Actually, through the Blues Deluxe the guitar sounds much ‘bigger’ with good presence and sustain, deep bass response and utterly vivid treble tones. The middle position is a rhythm player’s dream, lush, still bright but with warmer underpinnings on the bottom three strings. The neck pickup is all Chet. Jazzy yet vividly defined with excellent clean definition on the top three strings despite its warmer character. These pickups are simply outstanding and completely embody the vintage Gretsch sound. They are also stunning at higher volume levels with overdriven sustain. The true sound of rock & roll.
It is also important to note just what an easy, effortless guitar the White Penguin is to play. The frets are tall and wide enough for great fingertip sustain, and the neck is a very comfortable rounded shape. The ebony fretboard is as smooth as black onyx, with virtually no grain. The Penguin also holds pitch beautifully with the Bigsby— waggle it and it comes right back, perfectly in tune, and the tuners are very precise.
In terms of design, craftsmanship, playability and tone, the White Penguin is without exception a phenomenal instrument that looks as good as it plays and sounds. We’ll admit to being very pleasantly surprised and progressively thrilled with this guitar the more we played it. It is in many ways a masterpiece of modern guitar building. Quest forth… TQ