Gretsch numbered most of their guitars chronologically, which would give a pretty accurate picture of when it was built, but specs were pretty fluid, to say the least, so the serial number and the actual specs of any particular guitar may not match. The specs may have been changed over the years, as well. Gretsch also did a good business in special order guitars.

One last thing to remember is that Gretsch years are similar to model years for cars. They made some guitars early to unveil at the big trade shows and tried to be ready to fill orders immediately, so those guitars would have an earlier-than-expected build date.

On the other hand, some less popular models position:relative; may have sat on the shelf for years before being sold as new. Technically, they are new, since they've never been sold, but the build date could predate the sales date by a substantial amount.

In other words, try not to obsess over this stuff too much.

Early (sequential) serial numbers

Gretsch began numbering it's guitars sequentially in 1939, beginning with the better models. They started, sensibly enough, at 001, just writing the number inside the back. After the war that method continued, but some guitars had the serial number embossed on the headstock. With the advent of labels in the late '40s, the serial number is usually found on the label, which is usually visible through the soundhole on hollowbody models. On solidbodies, it's usually inside the control cavity.

Guitars were usually made in batches of 100, and specification changes can be tied to serial numbers with considerable accuracy (see Charting the Changes).

Be aware that these numbers — while considered by most authorities to be accurate — may be substantially off. The coded serial number style began in February or March 1965. (Numbers are consecutive, but all number/year matches are approximate)

1965 to 1972 serial numbers

(Most numbers are on the back or top of the headstock, and "Made in USA" is stamped next to the number starting in June 1967).

The first digit or first 2 digits = month (1-12).
The next digit = last digit of the year (1965 to 1972: 5,6,7,8,9,0,1,2).
The remaining digits = number of individual instrument, probably.

For example, 27136 should be February (2), 1967 (7) and the 1376th instrument made that year.

1972 to 1981 serial numbers

A hyphenated number was embossed into the back of headstock.

The digits before hyphen = month (1-12).
The first digit after hyphen = last digit of year. (i.e., 1974 would be 4)
Last 3 digits = number of the instrument.

For example, 3-8094 would be March (3), 1978 (8) and the 94th guitar made that month.

Modern (Pre-Fender) serial numbers

Serial numbers have six numbers, with a three digit suffix.

The first two digits are the year of manufacture.
The next digit is the month.
The next three digits are the model number, without the 6 at the beginning.
The final numbers are the sequential order of the model made during the lifespan of the model (not that year).

For example, 946119-976 would be a June 1994 Tennessee Rose, the 976th made.

Lower numbers will always appear on earlier guitars, higher numbers on later guitars. Remember that 2000 and 2001 guitars will, of course, not begin with a 9. Also, on guitars built in October, November or December, the third AND fourth digits denote the month.

Modern (Post-Fender) serial numbers

When Fender took over production in January 2003 the serial number scheme changed again. Serial number JT03074463, for example, breaks down as:

Specific models are no longer designated within the serial number. (Thanks to Mike Lewis of Fender for detailing the current numbering system.)

Finding your serial number

Beginning in the late 1940's, Gretsches have labels with a printed serial number and a handwritten model number. On hollowbodies, the label is usually visible through the f-hole. On other models such as solidbodies, it should be inside a control cavity. From about 1949 to 1957 watch for a white rectangular label that reads:

Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co. 
60 Broadway, Brooklyn 11, N.Y. 
Model ________ 
Serial No.__________ 
Musical Instrument Makers Since 1883 

The serial number will probably be printed in red, and the model number written in blue or black. The label has a fairly ornate border around it, but the "Gretsch" is usually printed in a plain font. However, some have "Gretsch" printed as the familiar logo.

Beginning in about 1957 a new label was introduced, which lasted until about 1965. On this one, "The Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co." was printed in black on an orange shape that vaguely resembles a musical note. This was superimposed on a gray over white label.

On the white part, the serial number is printed, and the model number should be handwritten. This label should be on all guitars after number 25000.

This would be a good time to note that some models, particularly 1962 -'65 models, had the serial number embossed on the headstock in lieu of a label.

Beginning in 1965, the model number was printed either on top or on the back of the headstock or engraved in the metal model plate on the headstock, and no label was fitted.

In the late '60s the labels returned on most models. For a brief period rarely found labels were used that look like the second-generation labels, except "That Great Gretsch Sound" is printed across the bottom.

Finally, sometime around 1972 a plain black and white label was introduced. With "Gretsch Guitars" in a logo-type font across the top. These labels list model and serial numbers and along the bottom reads "Made in U.S.A."

On modern Gretsches, the serial number is usually readily visible on the back of the headstock.