Few instruments combine excellent craftsmanship, historical significance in the development and evolution of the guitar, and memorabilia appeal as much as this Bigsby guitar, custom made in 1952 for the late, great Nashville session player Grady Martin.
Paul Bigsby was not the first man to make a solidbody guitar. Rickenbacker introduced a Spanish-neck version of its style B Bakelite guitar in 1936. While this instrument had small, hollow chambers to reduce weight, it functioned essentially as a solidbody guitar. Slingerland had a wood solidbody Songster model in its catalog in the late ’30s. The prototype Rickenbacker Frying Pan made in 1932 had a round neck with functional frets. The fact that there is wear on the fingerboard of the guitar indicates somebody was well aware that it could be played Spanish-style as well as being used as a steel. Bigsby, however, built the first modern-looking solidbody guitar used onstage by a major performer when he built Merle Travis’ Bigsby guitar, circa 1947. Merle had sketched a pattern and had Bigsby produce the instrument. This guitar was seen by numerous other performers as well as by makers such as Leo Fender.
While Paul Bigsby (1899-1968), Merle Travis, and Leo Fender are no longer with us to tell their stories, it seems more than a bit of coincidence that the Fender Broadcaster solidbody, with six tuners in a line on the peghead, came out soon after Merle got his Bigsby solidbody. It was not long before well-known performers such as Billy Byrd, Hank Garland, and Grady Martin were playing Bigsby guitars in Nashville.
Exact production totals are not available for Bigsby instruments, however, they are very rare. Bigsby is known to have made more pedal steels than Spanish-neck guitars. Estimates of Spanish-neck guitar production indicate that he probably made no more than about 50 such instruments of which hardly any two were alike. Whereas Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, and other large-scale manufacturers produced standardized models, Bigsby was a machinist who operated a one-man shop specializing in custom orders. His one standardized production item was the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. If he had accomplished nothing besides this tailpiece, his name would have gone down in history. But he was a creative genius who also has come to be known as the father of the modern pedal steel. Although Harlin Brothers, of Indianapolis, and Gibson both developed pedal steels in the late ’30s, their pedal system was not nearly as versatile as Bigsby’s. Modern pedal steels to this day use a system directly evolved from Bigsby’s designs rather than from the early Gibson or Harlin Brothers models.
When I acquired this instrument from Grady Martin in ’95, he told me that he drew the body outline on a piece of cardboard and submitted the design to Paul Bigsby. Bigsby took the pattern and proceeded to build the instrument. The five-string mandolin neck is angled to provide the player sufficient clearance away from the guitar neck such that both necks can be played comfortably. There’s a three-position neck selector switch with guitar in the up position, middle position being a standby, and mandolin in the down position. The guitar neck has three pickups, each with an independent volume control. The remaining knob is a master volume. The five-string mandolin neck is one of the first of its kind. The guitar side, with three pickups and a vibrato tailpiece, is also a historic breakthrough. Leo Fender introduced the Stratocaster in ’54. This Bigsby is significantly earlier and features many of the concepts later standardized in the Stratocaster.
While this instrument looks like a solidbody guitar, it is in fact a semi-hollow instrument, as are most other Bigsby Spanish-neck guitars. While Bigsby is no longer with us to question on the subject, I suspect the semi-hollow construction was intended to reduce weight. The workmanship of this guitar is very fine and its design is extremely sophisticated, especially in view of the fact that Bigsby had virtually no other guitars of similar design to study or copy when he made his early instruments.
Bigsby was a guitar builder in the truest sense of the term. Today, many luthiers who construct solidbody guitars purchase pickups or wiring harnesses from manufacturers such as Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, or EMG, and buy bridges, tailpieces, tuners, and virtually all other hardware. Paul Bigsby made his own pickups, bridges, and vibrato tailpieces such that virtually the only outsourced components on a Bigsby guitar are the tuners and tone and volume pots. While today it is possible to buy a solidbody guitar from a dozen or more makers with virtually the same sound and function, due to identical electronics and hardware, a Bigsby guitar offered the player a truly unique look, feel, sound, and function. Bigsby didn’t work cheaply. His guitars cost $500 or more for a custom instrument in the early/mid ’50s. By contrast, a Gibson Les Paul Standard listed for $265 in ’59. But when the player got a Bigsby guitar, he was assured of a fine instrument which, especially during the early ’50s, offered options simply not available elsewhere.
Grady Martin used this guitar to record his track on Red Foley’s great hit, “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” as well as numerous other tunes.
Today, Martin is considered one of the most creative players to have ever worked the Nashville studio circuit, as evidenced by his recordings with a variety of artists from Red Foley, Marty Robbins (“El Paso” and “Don’t Worry”), Merle Haggard (“That’s The Way It Goes”), Roy Orbinson (“Oh, Pretty Woman”), Sammi Smith (“Help Me Make It Through The Night”), and Willie Nelson (“On The Road Again” – Grady toured with him for 16 years).
While Bigsby produced very few guitars, each was a masterpiece of design, craftsmanship, and function such that their importance is far out of proportion to their sheer numbers. The vast majority of instruments made by large-scale manufacturers such as Martin, Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, and Gretsch were purchased by amateur musicians, but virtually all Bigsby guitars were ordered by professionals who used them prominently onstage and in the studio. These guitars and the music performed and recorded on them were at the cutting edge of a musical revolution.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.