Paul Bigsby’s Myrtlewood Guitars

Paul Bigsby’s  Myrtlewood Guitars


Dale Granstrom with his 57-year-old baby.

Few things are as satisfying as a guitar with a good story to tell. Some vintage guitars might be beautiful and/or valuable, but boring as Paris Hilton – the guitar equivalent to a vacuous model with zero personality. Others, either by virtue of the lives they’ve led or the story of their origin, are way more fascinating. And if some have a good story to tell, the story of two special Paul Bigsby instruments is the War And Peace of vintage guitar tales!

In the last few years, there has been renewed interest in the guitars built by Paul “P.A.” Bigsby, inventor of the famed Bigsby vibrato. It’s long been known that Paul Bigsby made the first “modern” solidbody electric guitar for Merle Travis in 1947. It’s only been recently, however, that historians have begun to realize just how few of these solidbody electrics Bigsby actually made.

A vintage postcard showing Myrtle trees of the Oregon coast.

As the story goes, Bigsby ran a one-man operation and resisted mass production, turning out one instrument a month (the majority of which were steel guitars and pedal steel guitars, but there were also small numbers of solidbody electrics, re-necked acoustics, mandolins and tenor guitars) for customers who were willing to pay top dollar for his instruments and who didn’t mind waiting anywhere up to two years for delivery after making their down payment. It only makes sense that within this history of Paul Bigsby’s guitars, there would be one odd case that defied everything that we have previously known about Paul Bigsby and how he operated.

Dale and Harry Granstrom grew up along the Oregon coastline in the logging town of North Bend. They were both wild about music, mostly Western swing and country, and played in local combos after World War II. Dale was mostly a steel guitarist, but played guitar and upright bass; older brother Harry played accordion, along with drums and a little guitar. In early 1949, when the brothers saw Tex Williams’ Western swing band at The Dutch Mill, in Roseburg, Dale was blown away by Tex’s virtuoso steel guitarist, the legendary Joaquin Murphy – and the sound of his custom-made Bigsby steel guitar. Almost immediately, Dale placed an order for his very own triple-neck Bigsby steel guitar, and received it shortly after, in September of ’49. This began a phone friendship between Dale and Paul Bigsby that would last more than a decade.

An early picture of the myrtlewood Bigsby guitars, with their original tailpieces. Dale Granstrom is in the middle.

Bigsby has been described as one of those guarded old men – either really friendly or really cranky depending on how he viewed the intentions of the person he was dealing with. Apparently, he took to Dale Granstrom right away, and they remained in contact after Dale ordered his steel guitar.

Dale and Harry were woodworkers, working in a factory making souvenirs out of a local exotic wood from the Myrtle tree. Myrtlewood, as the legend has it, is found in only two places on earth – the Holy Land and on the coast between southern Oregon and northern California.

Dale (left) and Harry Granstrom onstage, circa 1955. Chuck Skog holds the five-string bass. Note the guitars have their Bigsby vibratos.

Dale had the idea to construct a couple of electric guitars from myrtlewood – one for himself and one for Harry. Dale called Paul Bigsby and asked for help building them. Surprisingly – and this seems to be the only time that Bigsby ever agreed to such an idea – Bigsby agreed.

Through 1950, Dale and Harry began stashing away the nicest and most highly figured pieces of myrtlewood that went through their factory, all the while getting ideas from Bigsby about their instruments. Bigsby advised them on such issues as the neck-through construction, headstock angle, scale length, and the like. The brothers already had put together two sets of Epiphone E-stamped tuners they wanted to use, so Bigsby sent a headstock template that was slightly elongated to accommodate the larger tuners. Per Bigsby’s instruction, a non-adjustable truss rod made of 1/4″ x 1/2″ steel was inlaid in the neck. Bigsby sent a pair of 25″-scale Bigsby fingerboards, fretted and bound, ready to be installed.

The brothers chose a body shape unmistakably influenced by the Fender Broadcaster, but slightly larger and with more curves. Throughout ’51 they worked on the bodies and necks. Many experts have looked at this instrument and can’t believe it was somebody’s first guitar. The fact is Dale and Harry Granstrom were already professional woodworkers, and took their time selecting woods and carefully constructing the guitars.

Dale Granstrom’s myrtlewood Bigsby double-10 pedal-steel.

The Granstrom brothers (Harry died in a construction accident in ’69) appear to have been ahead of their time – while myrtlewood was an unheard of timber for guitar manufacture 57 years ago, today, the difficulty obtaining good tone woods has meant wider acceptance of myrtle as a tonewood for acoustic-guitar sides and backs. Companies such as Taylor and Breedlove offer myrtlewood acoustics, and a dozen smaller luthiers are using the wood extensively.

When the Granstrom instruments were ready for finishing, the brothers sent the guitars to Bigsby’s workshop in Downey, California, where Bigsby installed pickups, hardware, strap hooks, wiring harnesses, and pickguards. He also finished the instruments by applying Bigsby decals to the headstocks (though rarely seen, Bigsby used water decals on the front of his single-neck lap steels and early instrument cases; he later changed to gold-foil stickers). There were also small decals that read “Approved By Bigsby” on the headstock. The instruments were finished in late 1951, and featured in a local newspaper article titled “And Now It’s Myrtlewood For Guitars!” in the January 7, 1952, edition of The Coos Bay Times.

The first myrtlewood bass and guitar. Note the unusual handrest for the bass and the question-mark-shaped Merle Travis arm on the guitar’s Bigsby vibrato.

The brothers used the instruments in their band, letting various others play them whenever the brothers were playing steel guitar, accordion, or drums. When the Fender electric bass (and to a lesser extent, the Audiovox bass – made in Seattle, a short hop from the Granstrom brothers stomping ground) began making the rounds of the Western swing and Hillbilly bands of the region, Dale knew instinctively that he should think about making a electric bass from myrtlewood.

Again, they enlisted Bigsby’s help, though to a lesser extent than on the guitars. Bigsby supplied a finished 25″-scale fingerboard, as he had on the guitars, but Dale used a blade pickup from a Kay electric bass (model K5965), and various other parts obtained through mail order, to make a five-string(!) electric bass in the summer of ’54. Dale remembers the tuners had to have custom elongated key shafts to accommodate the unusual design. When the instrument was done, Dale sent Bigsby a picture of the instrument, and Bigsby sent up another water decal to put on the headstock of the bass. As far as we have been able to ascertain, this is the only electric bass that Paul Bigsby ever had any direct involvement in – not to be confused with the two Bigsby tenor guitars that are known to exist (though there has been at least one fake Bigsby electric bass to surface in recent years).

The myrtlewood Bigsby five-string electric bass, built in 1954. Note the myrtlewood handle on the handmade case!

The group’s bass player, Chuck Skog, used the myrtlewood Bigsby electric five-string bass. As Dale remembers, like any short-scale electric bass, the intonation was far from perfect, and as a result the group only used the bass for a few years. Skog is deceased, and his son says the bass was not in his possession when he died. Granstrom thinks the bass may be floating around Oregon.

In addition to building the electric bass, Dale and Harry were consistently refining the two guitars they had made in 1951. The biggest modification involved installing two of the brand new Bigsby vibratos on the guitars, which they did circa 1954. A common problem with Bigsby instruments made before the invention of the Bigsby vibrato in ’52 is the neck angle – Bigsby instruments previous to 1952 are virtually flat instruments, with no neck pitch. To solve that issue, all of Bigsby’s post-’52 instruments must have a steeper neck-body angle to accommodate the downward angle of the strings from the bridge to the tailpiece. For the instruments made before ’52, including the myrtlewood guitars – and before the advent of the double-bar B-7 Bigsby – this necessitated digging a channel, or submerging the Bigsby vibrato into the face of the guitar, to give the proper downward angle to make the vibrato work properly. Again, Dale did elegant work, carefully creating a form-fitting cavity in the face of the guitar to make the Bigsby vibrato work perfectly. Originally, the vibratos had the fixed arm Merle-Travis-style handles, but eventually they were replaced with the swivel-arm handle, which debuted in ’56.

Back of the myrtlewood bass shows the figuring of the wood, the unusual tuning keys with extended shafts, and the odd string-through-body ferrule at the other end.

A small but interesting feature of these early Bigsby vibratos involves the rocker bridges that Paul Bigsby gave to Dale and Harry with new vibrato units. The rocker bridge units appear to be an early evolutionary version, and surprisingly work better than the later bridge that is still included with Bigsby vibratos to this day.

Anyone who has tried using a standard Bigsby rocker bridge has noticed the bridge piece has a V fulcrum under each end, which is supported by a flat roller disc underneath it. Ideally, when the player works the vibrato bar, the bridge is supposed to rock back and forth on the fulcrum of the V. Sadly, in real use (especially when playing rock and roll), hand and palm pressure from the player will make the rocking bridge fall forward or backwards, resting on one edge of the V, making the guitar intonate improperly.

The interesting idea behind these early prototype rocking bridges involves threading upside-down oval head straight-slot machine bolts into the bottom of the bridge piece (which is flat on the edges, no V fulcrum) and having the bridge rock on the bottom of the upside-down oval head in a scooped out hole (replete with a slot for the straight-slot of the bolt head to keep it aligned, and from turning in the channel) of the bridge base. A simple idea, but one that works perfectly, unlike the later and more common version of the Bigsby rocking bridge – in fact, it’s one of the unanswered questions of the Bigsby legacy; why Bigsby went with a later idea for the rocker bridge that didn’t work as well as this earlier prototype version.

Another amazing chapter in the story of these guitars came a couple years later, when Gibson and Gretsch began making guitars with humbucking pickups in 1957. Dale called up Paul Bigsby and asked if he was making any of the “new” (humbucking) pickups. Bigsby replied that he was not; as he had basically quit making standard guitars (the last known electric solidbody Bigsby was made in late 1956), but he mentioned that a man named Ray Butts was making replacement humbucking pickups for Bigsby instruments.

Dale wrote to Ray Butts, who ran a workshop in Cairo, Illinois, and inquired about his pickups. Ray Butts, of course, is well known in guitar-geek circles for inventing the Echo-Sonic amplifier in 1955, which was the first amplifier to have a built-in tape echo (and was used by Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore). He was also the man who developed the first humbucking pickup for Gretsch, the Filter’Tron. Ray Butts and Paul Bigsby became acquainted through their involvement with Gretsch and Chet Atkins, and Bigsby visited Butts’ Illinois shop when he drove one of his new Cadillacs home from Chicago to Los Angeles. Bigsby respected Butts enough to recommend Butts’ pickups as replacements for his own – something Bigsby wasn’t known to do.

Chuck Skog, in Western finery, holds the myrtlewood bass in 1954.

When Dale heard back from Butts, he was shocked that Butts was asking $100 each for the humbucking replacement pickups (roughly $700 in today’s money!). Dale could only afford one, so he sold one of his original single-coil Bigsby pickups to a friend (who mounted it in a Telecaster) and installed the Butts humbucker in the neck position of his main myrtlewood guitar. The Butts pickup mounted directly into the Bigsby pickup ring; its cover was cast and polished aluminum, just like the Bigsby’s. In terms of appearance and construction, it’s very similar to an early Gretsch Filter’Tron, but is a custom made creation with a low output to match that of the standard Bigsby pickup.

What makes this story fascinating is the fact that although Bigsby was apparently recommending Butts’ pickups, as of this date, the pickup on the myrtlewood Bigsby is the only Butts humbucking Bigsby replacement pickup known to exist! More than likely, the cost kept away potential customers, and probably only a handful were ever made.

How does the Butts pickup sound? Spectacular. It has the chime and sparkle of the early Filter’Trons, with no high-end loss, and it matches the tone, timbre, and volume of the single-coil Bigsby perfectly.

The myrtlewood story continued to evolve for Dale and Harry Granstrom as the years went on. There was a myrtlewood amplifier cabinet, which housed a Bogen P.A. amplifier head (with a JBL D-130 15″ speaker and an 8″ Diffusicone tweeter) that the brothers used for guitar. More ambitiously, Dale began building a myrtlewood double-10-string pedal steel guitar, based on the Bigsby steel guitar design, but updated to the pedal requirements of the early 1960s. Originally, Dale looked into getting two 10-pole Ray Butts humbuckers installed in the steel (and kept the hand-signed letter from Ray Butts detailing the costs), but eventually decided on Bigsby-style pickups instead. He studied the construction of the pickups on his other instruments, and phoned Paul Bigsby to learn how his pickups were constructed, and made the pickups himself. This beautiful instrument took several years to finish, and only a few years after completing it, Dale wound up trading it in on a new MSA pedal steel. Dale’s attempts in recent years to track down his original 1949 Bigsby steel and his ’60s myrtlewood pedal-steel guitar have not yielded any results. In addition, the second 1951 myrtlewood Bigsby standard guitar got sold off in the late 1950s, and Dale believes it may have wound up in Michigan.

A newspaper article from the Coos Bay Times, January 7, 1952, showing the newly constructed instruments.

In fact, out of all the myrtlewood guitars, basses, steel guitars and amplifiers that Dale and Harry Granstrom made, the only one that is still known to exist is the guitar pictured in this article. Dale kept it all through the years, mostly tucked under the bed, since he was a working pedal steel guitarist, and didn’t play much standard guitar. A few years ago, Dale decided to refinish the guitar, and made a few modifications in the process, as seen in the current photos of the instrument. The two controls mounted on the pick guard always got in Dale’s way, so he drilled two new holes in the body and arranged the four controls in a more standard configuration. The old Epiphone E-stamped tuners finally gave up the ship (anybody with an old Epiphone archtop can relate), so Dale very carefully reworked the headstock by installing a new headstock cap (the Bigsby decal you see here is a replica of the original one), and neatly installing a solid wood plug on the back of the headstock to start over with a new set of tuners (most recently, a vintage set of 1951 Kluson tuners similar to the ones used on early Bigsby guitars have been installed). While us vintage guitar guys wince at his fearlessness in drilling holes in such a historical guitar, to Dale it was simply another improvement, another evolution in the instrument he created nearly 60 years ago.

Dale Granstrom is not the kind of guy who goes around waving his own flag, so it wasn’t until I found Dale as a result of research for the upcoming Bigsby book that the story of these amazing myrtlewood Bigsby instruments came to light. In many ways, with Paul Bigsby and so many of the major players in the evolution of the electric guitar gone from this earth, finding Dale Granstrom was a revelation. With his incredibly interesting sidebar contributions to the electric guitar evolutionary tree, his detailed photos, and his great memory, getting to know Dale (and his wonderful wife, Betty) has been a real honor and privilege. The myrtlewood Bigsby guitar is in itself quite amazing, but the stories this guitar has to tell are even more amazing indeed.

If you have any leads as to where the other myrtlewood guitar, bass, pedal steel, amplifier cabinet, or his original Bigsby steel guitar may be hiding, drop a line to Deke Dickerson at

This article originally appeared in VG’s March 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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