Price paid: $ 315
Purchased from: eBay
Features — 9
My 5434 was made in China, but I don't know what year it was made. I've always looked at the Pro Jet line as Gretsch's own version of the Les Paul, and this is no different. This Pro Jet model has the hardtail tailpiece, so no Bigsby. I much prefer the look of the hardtail (Bigsbys are ugly as sin), but now that I've spent some time with this axe, I feel like it's missing a key component to being a Gretsch guitar. Let's face it - if you can't bend full chords because there's no Bigsby, it just doesn't quite sound like a Gretsch. I bought the two-tone sunburst version, and I love the look. The body and neck are fully bound, giving the guitar a cool, high end vibe. Gretsch also gets a huge thumbs up for putting Blacktop Filtertron pickups in as stock pickups - an enormous improvement over the lousy, muddy sounding "Gretschbuckers" they used to put in their 5100 series Electromatics. The Blacktops are much hotter, they have a much wider dynamic range, and are much better able to produce that Gretsch twang than the Gretschbuckers. The tuners look and feel great - they have a cool vintage look and feel tight and substantial; most importantly, they hold the guitar in tune well. All this for only $399 US as a typical street price, and you are talking serious bang for your buck. It looks, plays and sounds like a $1000+ guitar, seriously.
Sound — 8
I mostly play on clean setting, and I like to play jazz. It's not my first choice as a jazz guitar, mainly because the pickups are a little too high output for my taste, meaning that the sound gets distorted early. The way I remedy that is I roll down the master volume a little on the guitar, but I mean JUST A LITTLE, because the volume controls are very sensitive, too sensitive even.
I rarely play with distortion, but when I'm playing this guitar, I can't resist. This axe freaking SCREAMS when it's overdriven or played through a distortion pedal. It's got that low end grunt of a Les Paul, but with just enough brightness to give it a piercing, wailing sound when distorted. This would make a great guitar for classic heavy metal music.
On clean settings, the 5434 has a unique tone. It sounds like a cross between a Les Paul, a Strat, a Telecaster (in bridge position), and a guitar with P90 pickups. Plus, best of all, when you have the treble knob on your amp set all the way up, you get that awesome classic rockabilly twang that only a Gretsch guitar can produce.
I do have a big gripe, however, with the electronics. The tone is useless, and I can tell this was an area where Gretsch tried to cut corners. The knob basically is nothing more than a tone "ON/OFF" switch - you won't notice any change in tone unless you turn the knob almost completely to the left. The volume controls are almost as useless, but for the opposite reason - they are way too sensitive. Rolling the volume down will clean up the tone, but it will also cause a huge drop in volume and power. The electronics are therefore very frustrating to use, and should be replaced without delay if you plan on keeping your 5434 for the long haul.
Action, Fit & Finish — 9
My guitar was set up beautifully right out of the box. I had to adjust the truss rod a little bit because I changed the strings to heavier gauge strings, but I think it took me five minutes to set up the guitar.
The guitar feels sort of like a lighter, slightly slimmer Les Paul, with a somewhat longer neck. I totally love the way the 5434 feels and plays. I was able to lower the strings to almost a hair away from the frets with almost no buzzing, which is not something I can say about most guitars I've owned. The neck feels just right - it's not quite baseball bat thick like a '50s Les Paul, but it's not flyswatter thin either like the 2013 Gibson SG Standards. It's the perfect size for me, and I have big hands, and it allows me to go up and down the neck quickly and smoothly. The fretwork is also flawless.
My one gripe is that I wish I could lower the pickups more. I have them screwed down as far as they'll go without breaking the screws, and the pole pieces are still a little too close to the strings for my comfort level. I play mostly jazz, so I don't like a booming, high output sound. The tone for jazz is good on the 5434, but a little too intense; I need to roll back the master volume a tad when I play jazz with it.
Reliability & Durability — 10
Like I've said in another review, I'm not a professional musician, and I don't play live, so my comments are going to be limited on the issues of reliability and durability. Regarding durability, though, what I can say is that the urethane varnish on the body and back of the neck appears to be bulletproof. I'm not sure anything could damage this guitar. I think if I slammed the guitar, Pete Townshend style, into a concrete piling, the piling would take more damage than the guitar (slight exaggeration, but you get my point). Like I said before, the tuners look and feel firm and solid, not flimsy and cheap. My one and only gripe with my 5434 is that the metal and tone knobs keep coming loose. Fortunately they have a little screw on the side that you tighten with an allen wrench, which will tighten them back up, but it's kind of annoying nonetheless. Not a big deal, though.
Overall Impression — 10
Gretsch have scored a grand slam with their entire 5400 series of Electromatic guitars, with the biggest improvement being the stock Blacktop pickups. The 5434 is no exception. This guitar can do it all, like most Gretsches, because tone-wise it's got the bright sharpness of single coil guitars like a Strat, it's got the deep, rich, bassy warm undertone of a Les Paul, it's got the sharp twang of a Telecaster in bridge position, it handles both clean settings and distortion really well, and most importantly, it gets "The Gretsch Sound" when you want it to. The only thing lacking is a Bigsby. It's as good as a Gibson Les Paul (trust me, I've owned seven of them), but it's even more versatile. You'll never be embarrassed being seen onstage playing a Gretsch 5434.