Many people associate the name “Bigsby” with the iconic tremolo system that has been seen on nearly every popular guitar design over the years. Vibrato systems have become so popular that it’s easy to forget that Paul Bigsby made his own guitars before he started making tremolo systems.
The Bigsby Electric Guitar company was founded in 1946, and although Bigsby specialized in steels (lap and pedal), he made a handful of standard guitars that would go on to shape the way all solid-body guitars would be made in the decades that followed.
Bigsby was known locally as a guy who could build anything. Everything was handcrafted by Bigsby himself in his garage/workshop – he even wound his own pickups. On the other hand, he was not a great record holder, which made it quite difficult to document the number of guitars he had built.
Company historians have only been able to document 47 steels (lap steel and pedal steel), six standard guitars, one tenor guitar, two double neck guitars, two mandolins and six replacement necks in the world. Its self-winding pickups have been used by artists like Les Paul and Chet Atkins.
So, to say the least, Bigsby guitars are quite rare – almost all of them were commissioned and custom made for musicians. Bigsby guitars were actually the first to feature all tuning pegs on one side – something we now associate most with Fender guitars. His headstock also featured a “scroll” shape that bears more than a passing resemblance to the iconic Fender Stratocaster headstock.
Paul Bigsby is often left out of the conversation when it comes to talking about solid body guitar innovators, but the truth is he was – not Leo Fender or Ted McCarty – who created the first solid body electric guitar. modern bodysuit.
And it’s not like it’s a lost secret – the guitar in question was created for country superstar Merle Travis and currently resides at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Of course, Les Paul had created The Log in the early 1940s, which could be considered the first solidbody electric guitar. But while the Log was revolutionary in many ways, visually the sight of an Epiphone jazzbox sawn in half and strapped to a 4×4 pine board wasn’t exactly going to win any awards.
Bigsby’s guitar was designed from the ground up to be a solid body instrument, and it’s a design that revolutionized the guitar industry from that day forward – you can see the influence it has had on many mass-produced solid bodies throughout design.
Bigsby Merle Travis guitar from 1948. Image: Nigel Osbourne / Redferns So how did this remarkable instrument come about? Well, the story goes that Merle Travis met Paul Bigsby at a local motorcycle racetrack. [Bigsby raced motorcycles at the time] and asked him to make a solid body guitar that would have the same sustain as a lap steel.
At the time, electric guitars were still just electrified acoustics. The Merle Travis guitar was solid curly maple and featured some weight relief [today we might call it “chambered”]. The guitar did not originally feature a cutaway. This was changed a few years after its original construction. At the same time, the doll was also modified into the form we see today. The single cutaway shape was later co-opted by the Gibson Les Paul model.
The book The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Solidbody Electric Guitar, refers to a letter written in 1950 by Don Randall who was in charge of distribution at Fender at the time. The letter implies that Leo Fender copied Paul Bigsby’s design, as it says, “[Merle Travis] plays the grandfather of our Spanish guitar, built by Paul Bigsby, the one Leo copied.
The Travis guitar has become a centerpiece of music history. Before that, Bigsby created an octagon-shaped guitar with an aluminum plate on top. This guitar featured a headstock similar to what one would find on a Gibson [3×3]. This guitar was a through-the-neck design and also featured a through-the-strings design at the bridge.
He used to label his models with the name of the person they were intended for – one of his models says “Les Paul”, leading many to believe he also made a guitar for him . Bigsby also made guitars for country greats like Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland, Billy Byrd and Grady Martin.
Most Bigsby guitars were originally built with a standard fiddle-style tailpiece. The Bigsby vibrato we all know and love today made its first appearance in 1951 and of course went to Merle Travis. The molds and parts were all built by Bigsby in his aluminum garage. They quickly became popular. Bigsby offered a Model B-16 for his friend Leo Fender’s new design, the Telecaster, although he was reportedly upset by Leo Fender’s use of his headstock design – a design that would eventually become iconic for the brand. .
In the mid-1950s, Bigsby decided to focus all his attention on his new vibrato system. Ted McCarty, Gibson’s crafty big boss, had an exclusive deal to use the optional tremolo system on Gibson guitars. This exclusive deal was, in part, made because McCarty offered an improvement over the original design that allowed the arm to be moved out of the way when not in use.
Soon after, Gretsch asked for a similar deal – eventually Bigsby ended up doing the deal but didn’t accept it unless Ted McCarty agreed. This kind of business ethic has followed Paul Bigsby throughout his career. In 1965 he sold his business to Ted McCarty, but died soon after in 1968.
Under McCarty’s ownership, exclusive relationships with other companies continued. In fact, in 1968 McCarty made a deal with Fender to start making tremolos with the Fender “F” mark on them instead of the Bigsby logo. In 1999 the brand was sold to Gretsch, and in 2019 it was sold back to Fender.
Although the Bigsby name is most closely associated with the revolutionary vibrato tailpiece, it’s important to remember the incredible legacy of Paul Bigsby’s guitar designs. He was a common thread and inspiration to those we commonly consider the godfathers of the modern electric guitar – Leo Fender and Ted McCarty. The music industry owes Paul Bigsby a great debt of gratitude and respect.
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