The guitar built by Paul Bigsby for legendary picker Merle Travis in the late 1940s is one of the icons of solidbody electric guitars. Its single-cut body and pre-Fender, Stratocaster-like headstock are recognized elements. The guitar now sits on permanent display (alongside Les Paul’s “log,” another icon) in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
But that’s not how the guitar originally look-ed.
Longtime California luthier (and Merle Travis fan) R.C. Allen was interviewed by Vintage Guitar in l994, and his friendship with Travis, as well as Mr. Allen’s own Bigsby guitar (the second one made) were cited in our conversation. When comparing his 1948 Bigsby electric guitar (which he purchased used in ’52) to the original Travis Bigsby, Allen noted his own instrument was actually the first to have the scrolled headstock that wound up in a similar configuration on the Fender Stratocaster more than half a decade later.
“It belonged to a player named George Grohs,” Allen said. “He’d built Paul Bigsby’s shop in exchange for the guitar. Grohs designed the peghead of this guitar. Originally, Merle’s peghead was different; the scroll on it went the other way. He got Bigsby to change it like this one, which was the second one made; Merle’s was the first. Neither guitar had a cutaway originally, either.”
And here’s how the Merle Travis Bigsby looked in its original configuration. Mr. Allen recently presented Vintage Guitar with this photo of Merle Travis and Ginny Cushman, a member of his band. According to Allen, the original photo was found on the wall of a pizza parlor in Santa Barbara, California, which is owned by Cushman and her husband. Allen noted the only other time this photo has been seen in print was in a small Merle Travis fanzine.
Close inspection of this grainy photograph (which, according to Allen, was taken in late ’47 or early ’48) reveals the guitar is indeed a non-cutaway instrument with an extra portion of scrolled wood trim where the cutaway would ultimately appear. The shadow from Travis’ left hand causes a shadow that looks sort of cutaway-ish here, but don’t let that fool you.
Even tho-ugh the end of the headstock isn’t in the photo, it obviously doesn’t have a scroll (a la the Stratocaster), even though other parts of the headstock exhibit “pre-Fender” influences. Curiously, the guitar only has two knobs instead of the three now found on the Travis Bigsby, nor does it have a toggle switch (which would end up being installed near the inlay of Travis’ first name on the wood scratchplate).
Allen believes Merle Travis had his guitar modified with a “Fender-ish” headstock (and, most likely, the cutaway) soon after Travis saw the Grohs Bigsby, which was completed in August of ’48. When Allen acquired the Grohs Bigsby, he returned it to the builder for its own modifications. In his ’94 interview, Allen recounted: “After I bought George Grohs’ Bigsby in 1952, I took it to Paul Bigsby to make it just like Merle’s, which meant my Bigsby got a cutaway, an armrest, a pickup ring, and a bridge like Merle’s instrument.”
Note, Allen doesn’t mention the headstock style in his list of modifications.
The Grohs/Allen Bigsby’s headstock is also shown here; the entire instrument can usually be seen at the Vintage Guitar booth during Los Angeles-area vintage guitar shows, courtesy of Mr. Allen.
A recent addition to VG‘s exhibit has been the Standel amplifier hand-built for Merle Travis by Standel founder Bob Crooks, and the most recent show (in September, 1997, at the Orange County Fairgrounds) included a display of an R.C. Allen guitar the luthier built in the ’60s for Roy Lanham (of the Sons of the Pioneers), and recently restored by Allen.
So apparently, a relatively-unknown player and builder named George Grohs may deserve more credit and/or notoriety for a certain facet of the legendary Bigsby-Fender solidbody guitar controversy. Merle Travis’ guitar may have been the first Bigsby Spanish electric guitar ever built, but the second one appears to have been the first to feature the headstock silhouette that is probably a large part of discussions concerning the earliest California-made solidbody electric guitars.
And as an intriguing coda, note the two templates used by Paul Bigsby in his work on headstocks and armrest trim (not surprisingly, they are also owned by Mr. Allen). As for the seventh hole in the headstock template, Allen reports the only reason it’s there is so Mr. Bigsby could hang the template on a nail on the wall of his shop!
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.