A Gretsch Abroad – Candlelit Interview in Denmark
Fender’s legendary Regional Sales Manager Knud Damgaard turns 60 and the earth shakes!
I am an admitted fan of Knud Damgaard for many reasons. Though we only cross paths every couple of years or so, it’s always a good time and a rock ‘n’ roll experience in every way. Last month I attended his 60th birthday celebration in Roskilde, Denmark, about 30 kilometers west of Copenhagen. It was a real blowout event with a roasted pig, a walk-up beer tap, and a parade of musicians across the stage jamming throughout the night. Turning 60 is a big deal, yet despite reaching this landmark age, Knud shows no sign of slowing down. On top of his family and business obligations he has recently managed to publish a book, run for a local office, and continue playing and writing music.
I recently sat down with Knud here in Denmark over a candlelit Jack Daniels and discussed his impressive career in the musical instruments business and what Gretsch means to him.
Q: You grew up with rock ‘n’ roll.
A: Oh, yes, I did. I was born in 1957 and I had two older brothers who were into the early stuff. Mostly Mills Brothers but also Tommy Steele and his “A Handfull of Songs” was actually my lullaby falling to sleep every night. Perhaps on a subliminal level that music prepared me mentally for what was to come with the arrival of the The Beatles whose records I began buying as early as 1964.
Q: So you were turned on by the loud music.
A: Well I was turned on by the whole scene. I developed a memory of gear, particularly guitar gear, very early on and I still remember stuff like that in detail. I certainly remember George Harrison’s Gretsch guitars and even the way he was standing with closed legs and his feet in a V-formation. All those details were very important to me – and still are.
Q: Did you play guitar in those very early years?
A: Not really. My dad had a mandolin but was not very happy with me playing it and I remember thinking that it didn’t look real. I did manage to build a lot of cardboard guitars so I could play air guitar along with The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. I remember building a cardboard Gretsch Country Gentleman with f-holes and painting it blue. I didn’t have access to the real deal so I just had to use my imagination to make it work.
Q: So when and how did you get your first guitar?
A: It’s a bit of a blur but I think it was around 1967. It was not a great guitar but it looked cool. It was a hollow body mahogany thing with a round sound hole and it had a maple neck. It didn’t last long. I kept breaking strings on it all the time. I even experimented with making a vibrato on it. All the while I was still dreaming about a particular guitar that I had seen in a shop window. You see back then in Denmark there was this big music store chain called Alfred Christensen and they had a store in the town next to mine. It was located in one of the first shopping centers in Denmark. In the window I saw this ’62 Gretsch Duo Jet in firebird red glistening with its golden parts and all. I fell for it immediately. To me it represented a world of big American cars and rock ‘n’ roll and all that rolled into one and that vibe would fuel my fantasies for many years. It still does even though I have recently drifted more towards a small size Falcon (but still, of course, in firebird red). In any case, the windows in that music store would entertain me so much that I would just stand there dreaming away in front of that store window while my mom did all the shopping. I remember vividly that it wasn’t just the guitars but also those really cool Gretsch drums in all those sparkle variations that really drew me in.
Q: So then you became a guitar player.
A: Well a few years later I got this real acoustic guitar and started learning some chords but for me it was not about playing guitar it was about rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t really care what instrument I was playing. I remember convincing our Danish class teacher to let us work on a musical. The school didn’t have any real gear except for a xylophone and a couple of bongos, so I began hauling in gear that I managed to scrape together. By now I had an electric guitar and an old Teisco amp. My next door neighbor was a drummer so I borrowed some of his gear which included a white pearl 24″ Gretsch bass drum and a 18″ floor tom a snare of unknown origin and an enormous ride cymbal. I was the only one in class who could play anything other than the piano so I was solely responsible for making the other instruments work in the musical.
Q: What was your first real instrument?
A: Well it got to the point where I really began focusing on the guitar and had a Kawai electric and then a Guild Starfire IV that I really loved. But it was not so much about brands at the time as it was about looks. If they had had a firebird red Gretsch in that store and in my price range, that would have been the one I had taken home for sure.
Q: So you eventually started in the musical instruments business at one point.
A: Yes, I bought a music store in my hometown of Roskilde, just outside Copenhagen, at the age of 25. The name of the store was Rockilden. Thinking back now I realize that I was not experienced enough for such an undertaking. One of the guitars we had on stock at Rockilden was an orange Gretsch Super Axe that caught my attention and which I ended up using in the studio a lot with my band Cazino. I just loved the flat ebony fingerboard that would allow me to lower the strings so they almost engaged the frets without buzzing. I have always missed the built-in compressor on that Super Axe. It wasn’t until I got my hands on Dan Armstrong’s Orange Squeezer compressor pedal that I was able to get that kind of sound again. Since that Super Axe was part of my stock at Rockilden I eventually sold it, but I do know it’s still with the original owner who lives nearby. It’s somehow comforting to know its close by.
Q: Did you sell a lot of Gretsch guitars in your store?
A: My assortment was really all over the place. I mostly had cheap Japanese and Korean stuff and it wasn’t until just before I sold my store that I had high end guitars. I can tell you a funny story about a green Gretsch Rally with two Hi-lo trons on it and a Bigsby. We all treasured it but none of us could make it play like we wanted. Remember this was mid 80s so it was all about stereo chorus, lots of distortion and tapping so the semi-acoustics were having a tough time. However one day one of my more excentric customers came in and started fancying this green Gretsch Rally and I eventually ended up trading the rally for a Volkswagen transporter van. The van was in terrible shape but I painted it matt black and it became a hit in the neighborhood.
Q: What about Gretsch drums?
A: Well you know bits and pieces. I mostly sold Pearl and the like but I do remember that I had to get this guy a big Gretsch kit he wanted it in yellow and the normal 12-13-16-22 but the guys at Drumstick, the Danish distributor of Gretsch drums at the time, advised us to get a 24″ bass drum and we did. Back in those days all the shells came without hardware and you could choose from either Tama or Pearl and he chose Tama. That was a really novelty kit and it was around town for many years and it sounded absolutely fantastic. I remember doing a charity gig were that was the house drum kit and a lot of the drummers were turned off by its color but when they heard it they were blown away.
Q: So whatever happened to your music store Rockilden?
A: I eventually sold Rockilden after 8 years to a large music store chain here in Denmark called Super Sound because I felt there was more money to be made as a wholesaler. Super Sound then hired me on to manage their Copenhagen store as well as their own wholesale business, and then on weekends and at night I would work on building my wholesale business importing Warwick guitar, Lag guitars and GHS strings. My wholesale business was called EO Engros. I even remember approaching your uncle Fred Gretsch at the Frankfurt Musikmesse around 1988 to try to get a line on Gretsch products into Denmark but he was apparently satisfied with his Danish distributor at that time.
Q: So now you have been with Fender and doing Gretsch almost 18 years – tell us about that?
A: I have to tell you that some of those new Gretsch models are absolutely amazing. Whether it is an Electromatic or a Professional, I am totally blown away with the quality – and so are the customers. Lately I have been focusing hard on promoting Gretsch. I recently had four White Electromatics on TV for the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a huge deal in Europe, and the lead singer had an orange double cut Chet Atkins. That show gave Gretsch a lot of attention and it really has boosted sales. In addition to my responsibilities in Denmark I also handle Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania. Unfortunately Fender doesn’t handle the drum business for Gretsch any longer but when we did I sold a lot of kits out there in the Baltics. In my rehearsal room I’ve got a Gretsch kit that we use all the time and my drummer Eli even played on it at my 60th birthday bash.
Q. What is the hardest part of your job?
A: That’s definitely making dealers aware that they need to have products physically in the store. That is the number one most important thing and is even more important than reliability and pricing. Today people see these online shops with tons of gear, so when they do go down to the local store and see it’s half empty they won’t buy anything – it’s as simple as that. Get a good display on the floor and you will sell.
Q: What will you be doing 10 years from now?
A: Well I will definitely still be loving guitars, musical instruments and the whole scene. Recently I even wrote and published a book about what’s going on behind the scenes of the music business. It is about my 16 years as a chef behind the Orange Stage at Roskilde Festival cooking for the likes of Bob Dylan, Ozzie Osbourne, Neil Young and so forth. The book doesn’t focus so much on the scandals but rather on how these people we see on stage in front of 60,000 people are also normal people just going about doing their job. You can actually get far with these people just by treating them in a nice and calm way. It can be very tense on tour so you need to add some diplomacy but then you get along fine. The book is only out in Danish but its selling surprisingly well. The Roskilde Festival is a charity festival so everybody is working for free in exchange for a ticket to the festival. These days though I just buy a ticket and hang out, but my 16 year-old son Lukas recently took over and is now working there. Lukas recently moved away from home for the first time this year and he has decided to start playing guitar. Over the years he has gotten several electrics from me but has never bothered to play them, but now I guess he found out that guitars are a great way to get attention from the opposite sex and so he drifted off with my old battered Ranger Jumbo. Just a chip of the old block really.
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)