“Mr. Guitar Man” . . . Duke Kramer
Charles “Duke” Kramer, also known as “Mr. Guitar Man,” was pivotal in making Gretsch electric guitars what they are today – for guitar aficionados, they are synonymous with quality workmanship and a unique acoustic, breathy sound. Artists such as Chet Atkins and Brian Setzer have made the guitars famous.
Even though he couldn’t play a lick, “The Silver Duke” Gretsch guitar was named after him. Need a Gretsch guitar? No problem. An out-of-commission silver or gold knob? No problem. Duke Kramer was the man who knew anything and everything about Gretsch guitars.
Duke died on July 28, 2005 after a long illness surrounded by family and friends. He was 88. He had worked with Gretsch guitars for 70 years. He started out as a horn polisher with the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Co. and worked his way up to salesman, finally ending his time with them as vice president of the Cincinnati Gretsch Division in 1980. After retiring he opened his own business selling vintage Gretsch guitar parts.
“He would get calls from all over the world,” said his daughter Susan Hamilton of Nantucket, Mass. “George Harrison left a message on his answering machine looking for help with a Gretsch guitar. People who collected vintage guitars would send him pictures of guitars asking for information, and he would always give that freely.”
At age 19 in 1935, Duke started out at Gretsch making $11 a week in the repair department polishing horns. After polishing, it was on to the purchasing department, and before long Duke was traveling the South and Midwest selling Gretsch instruments. It was during these travels that Duke, as the youngest salesman in the company, took the time to talk to store owners and musicians to get an understanding of what they needed in their instruments. He took the information he collected back to Gretsch and was instrumental in creating the famous sound of Gretsch.
Duke met his future wife, Fritzie, when she asked him to a Halloween costume party in 1936. She dressed up as a clown and he didn’t dress up as anything but himself. They married in 1944 and were together for 62 years.
In 1941, Duke had to leave Gretsch when he was drafted into the Army. While in the Army he served in the Special Service Music Division and was in charge of bringing entertainment to troops stationed in the Pacific Islands. When he was discharged in 1947, he returned to Gretsch and eventually became vice president of the Chicago Division.
In 1967, the Baldwin Piano Company bought Gretsch and in 1972, Duke and Fritzie moved to Cincinnati. They settled in Watch Hill in Anderson and lived there for 30 years until moving into the New England Club retirement community in 2002. Duke ran the Cincinnati Gretsch Division until his retirement in 1980.
In the late ’70s, Baldwin stopped making guitars, and after retiring, Duke bought the remaining inventory for Gretsch guitars. With that inventory they started Duke & Fritzie Products. D & F Products, as it became known, specialized in vintage Gretsch guitar parts. They ran the business from home and Duke worked until his last week of life. “He was a man that really loved life,” said he daughter. “He was dedicated not only to the company but the family. He always left people smiling and feeling good. He was a lot of fun.”
In 1995, Duke was asked to be part of a symposium on the development of the electric guitar at the Smithsonian Institution. He was an honorary life director of the Gamma board, a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity of America, a long-time member of the Cold Stream Country Club, and an avid golfer.
May he rest in peace.
The original version of this story was written by Jennifer Koehler and published in 2005. This version includes edits.