Saturday, November 7, 2015

Paul A. Bigsby; His Guitars and Inventions

Paul Bigsby was not just the designer of the famous Bigsby guitar vibrato tailpiece, but he is also remembered as one of the pioneers of the electric guitar. The guitar designs that he created back in the late 1940’s have influenced Fender, Gibson, Epiphone and many other well-known guitar manufacturers. And I have not mentioned his influence on the steel guitar industry.

Paul Bigsby was born and spent his childhood in Illinois, but his family moved to Los Angeles in search of work. Bigsby acquired a job as a pattern maker and was carving wood patterns that were used to make metal molds for manufacturing. This skill gave him a useful start in his career building musical instruments.

He also developed a keen interest in motorcycles and motorcycle racing and won his first race at the age of 20. This hobby turned into a career and he went on to open his own motorcycle dealership and became well-respected in the cycling community as racer

P.A. Bigsby. As he got older, he joined the Crocker Motorcycle Company and assisted in designing the Crocker V-Twin engine.

When World War II rocked the world, Bigby enlisted in the U.S. Navy. World War II brought about many changes to the world and to the United States. California became a bastion of manufacturing and many families from the southern United States migrated there in search of work and the American dream.

Suffice to say, these men and women brought their passion for Country Music with them and movies, radio stations, clubs and eventually television would capitalize on Country Music.

By 1946 Paul Bigsby was married and divorced. He had a daughter by his first wife. He remarried a year later and his wife and daughter would attend Cliffie Stone’s radio show called Hometown Jamboree which featured Western Swing music.

Bigsby had learned to play guitar and bass and this show became a way for him to meet some of the stars, musicians and sidemen. Bigsby used this contact as an opportunity to capitalize on his skills.

The electric steel guitar was prominently featured in Western Swing. There were some prominent companies building electric steel instruments. Though Bigsby did not invent the steel guitar, he improved on it.

Joaquinn Murphy
In 1947 he built a double 8-string steel console guitar for Earl “Joaquin” Murphey, the steel player in Spade Cooley’s Orchestra. The instrument combined two guitars on one console which enabled the necks to be tuned to different pitches. The player could quickly switch between tunings. This is a standard feature today for most pedal steel players. The instrument was made of solid birds-eye maple with one neck elevated higher than the other.

Bigsby was the first to use a tapered headstock design, which is also featured on most professional steel guitars today.

As Bigsby learned more about the needs of guitarists he took the steel guitar a step further by creating a pedal steel guitar. Once again, there were manufacturers, such as Gibson, that already created a system of using pedals to change tuning on the steel guitar,

But Gibson’s early version utilized a system of pedals arranged on the left rear leg of their Electraharp. Bigsby was the first to arrange the pedals on a rack across the floor in front of the player, which is the configuration utilized to this day.

He presented his Bigsby pedal steel guitar to Speedy West, the guitarist that replaced Murphey in Spade Cooley’s group. Again Bigsby utilized a polished birds-eye maple chassis for this guitar, which became his trademark on all of his future instruments. The instrument was replete with a birds-eye maple front cover for the front of West’s instrument.

This also included inlay with Bigsby’s logo, which helped his name recognition wherever the band played. Instead of a wooden neck this guitar came with twin cast aluminum necks which gave this guitar incredible sustain.

Bigsby's pickup winder
It would not be long before other prominent steel players would seek out Paul Bigsby. Bigsby built his own pickups and experimented with them. His winding machine was made from sewing machine parts. He came up with a design that was similar to Gibson’s Charlie Christian pickup.

This used a blade magnet wrapped with a wide flat coil and an aluminum housing. The housing was a great way to shield the 60 cycle hum that is found in many single coil pickups.

There was a time when Paul Bigsby, Les Paul and Leo Fender would discuss electric guitar and pickup design. In fact Les Paul installed one of Bigsby pickups in the bridge position of the Epiphone hollow-body guitar that he used to record “How High the Moon.” Chet Atkins must have loved the sound, because he installed a Bigsby pickup on his D’Angelico guitar. Hank Garland and Merle Travis also used Bigsby pickups on their guitars.
The 3rd Guitar that Paul Bigsby built

Bigsby had tinkered around with the idea of building a solid-body electric guitar as far back as 1944. In an attempt to interest Gibson, he even built one for Les Paul.

However it was Merle Travis who was perhaps the first to observe that sustain quality found in Bigsby’s guitars. Travis sketched out a design for a solid-body guitar and brought it to Bigsby.

He wanted this instrument to have six-on-a-side turners on a headstock that looked mighty similar to what would nearly a decade later become the Stratocaster headstock. 

1st version Bigsby Files D. Dickerson
Travis also wanted playing card symbols inlaid on the neck; a heart, a diamond, a spade and a club. Not only that, but Travis wanted an armrest and a violin-like tailpiece.

Updated version Bigsby Files D. Dickerson
The first instrument had all of these accouterments, but the headstock extended further and scrolled in the opposite direction. Later on this headstock was cut off and a new one added. The first version did not have the cutaway, but this feature was also added.

Johann Stauffer Gutar
The six-on-a-side tuning system had been used in the past, notably on Stauffer and early Martin guitars, but it was Merle Travis who incorporated this feature on his Bigsby that first introduced this to the electric guitar. The advantage of this arrangement is that the strings are all wound in the same direction and the straight pull helps with tonality.

Travis’ Bigsby guitar utilized Kluson tuners. Today this would have been easy, but tuners manufactured at this time were set up for 3-on-a-side guitars. Bigsby had to machine the screws and remove the screw holes on one side of the tuners to make the 6-on-a-side arrangement work. Once Fender and other companies started using the 6-on-a-side arrangement, Kluson used Bigsby’s idea for manufacturing their tuning keys.

Once again Bigsby built this guitar using a birds-eye maple body. As it was too heavy, the body was hollowed out to reduce weight. The guitar had a decorative violin tailpiece, but the strings were actually retained through the body by steel ferrules ala the Telecaster.

A metal bar across the back reinforced the body and the back of the instrument was covered in plexiglass. Bigsby had built the guitars nut and compensated bridge from aluminum that he cast.

A single handmade pickup as already described was placed in the bridge position. It was controlled by volume and tone potentiometers and a 3-way switch which had differing capacitors for variations in tone which predated the Fender Esquire guitar.

The instrument was replete with a decorative walnut armrest on the guitars bout.

All in all, Paul Bigsby made three versions of the Travis guitar. The first had the reverse scroll on the headstock, the second had a more traditional headstock and the third incorporated two pickups with adjustable pole pieces. Bigsby referred to this as his standard guitar.

We may wonder if Fender copied Bigsby's designs. In the book, The Story of Paul Bigsby references a letter written by Don Randall, one of the first founders of Fender Guitars. In the letter, Randall is talking about Merle Travis and says, “He is playing the granddaddy of our Spanish guitar, built by Paul Bigsby— the one Leo copied.

In fact it appears that Fender copied several features from Bigsby’s creation. The popular Telecaster and Esquire utilized the 6-on-a-side headstock. And though the prototype Telecaster did have 3-on-a-side, the production models did not.

Fender also copied the string-thru-body string arrangement and in the case of the Esquire, the 3-way switch with activated some capacitors that gave the guitars the tonal characteristics. Additionally the Telecaster/Esquire both featured a body depth of 1 ½”, which was the same size Paul Bigsby used on his first electric guitars. Bigsby also adopted the use of the blade switch before it became a Fender standard.

And though Fender had essentially copied some of Paul Bigsby’s designs, Bigsby persevered to build high quality instruments for individuals.

Bigsby went on to create his style of guitar for notable Nashville session player Grady Martin. This instrument had a neck-through-body design, Bigsby’s signature birds-eye maple body and a scroll on the top cutaway of its body that was a mirror-image of the scroll on the instruments headstock.

Later on he produced another guitar for Martin. This one had two necks. The top neck was for a 5 string high-strung guitar neck that was tuned an octave about usual tuning. This neck was slightly angled from the main guitar neck. The other neck was a traditional guitar neck. Both necks were topped with the scroll style headstock that had become Bigsby’s trademark. The upper neck came with a single adjustable pickup while the lower neck had 3 single coil Bigsby designed pickups.

The upper instrument had a cast violin style tailpiece, while the lower neck had the strings terminate on Paul Bigsby’s latest invention, The Bigsby Vibrato tailpiece. A three-way switch controlled the pickups on the lower neck. Each neck had individual tone and volume controls.

Guitar build for Jimmy Bryant, but owned by Tommy Butterball Page

In 2012 sold for $266,500
Bigsby also made a guitar for guitarist Jimmy Bryant. However Bryant did not wait for the completed instrument and purchased Bigsby’s third guitar which was owned by Ernest Tubb’s guitarist, Tommy Page.

Billy Bryd Bigsby
Ironically Tubb’s current guitarist was Billy Byrd and he purchased the Bigsby guitar that had been ordered for Jimmy Bryant. This model was possibly the first double cutaway guitar. This guitar sported two adjustable pole single coil pickups and a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece.

Billy Boy Bigsby
It also had some unusual decorative indentations on the bottom of the instrument. Ironically Billy Byrd signed with Fender. Paul Bigsby reconfigured this guitar as the Billy Boy guitar.

Paul Bigsby designed and built a five string custom electric mandolin for Tiny Moore, who played guitar and mandolin in the group, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Paul Bigsby also built a full size electric guitar that may have been meant for Merle Travis. It can be seen in a short film that Travis being played by Merle, but this guitar was acquired by of a guitarist known as Jack Parsons.

This instrument looked more like a traditional wide bodied arch topped instrument. However the top was flat and had no f-holes. There was a walnut arm rest on the upper bout.

The guitar sported twin Bigsby adjustable pickups and after Parons acquired it, a Bigsby vibrato unit.

It had one volume and one tone control and a three-way blade switch.

During the early 1950's studio guitarists were installing Bigsby’s pickups on their instruments.

These artists included Keith Holter. Holter owned the 1953 model Bigsby that was made for Tommy Butterball Page. It was also owned by Thumbs Carlisle before Holter purchased it.

Holter owned that guitar for a long time. It was found in Alaska and restored by Retrofrets Music.

But there were other artists that really liked the Bigsby neck.

Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, Hank Thompson and others had their Martin guitars retrofitted to accommodate the Bigsby neck.

Paul Bigsby also was responsible for some other inventions. Pedal steel players had long used volume pedals to create those swells used in their music, Bigsby was the first to create a volume pedal that worked in the traditional up and down method to raise and lower the volume.

However his pedal also pivoted left and right which adjusted the bass and treble. During the 1960's Rowe DeArmond offered a similar pedal.

Merle Travis wanted Paul Bigsby to build a vibrato bar tailpiece that stayed in tune. At the time Travis was using a Kauffman vibrato. So Bigsby set out to build his vibrato which was made from cast aluminum and it worked by pulling the strings up and down. In fact it was designed to raise or lower the pitch a half step and was meant to be utilized with a bridge that rocked back and forth to prevent the sawing motion that it would have on a fixed bridge saddle.

Travis style bar
The first units utilized a piece of rubber instead of the spring. Harking back to his days of building motorcycle engines, Bigsby eventually settled on using a type of spring found in motorcycle engines.

Initially the bar on the units were fixed, so that the arm could not be pushed away. There are guitarists that liked this arrangement. Others modified the to fit their needs, although it was still fixed.

Merle Travis preferred a long arm with a loop on its end that he could rest his little finger in to control vibrato.

Chet Atkins bar
Chet Atkins preferred a short fixed arm that he could use with the palm of his hand.

1950 ES-175 with a Bigsby
Gibson Guitars president at the time, Ted McCarty was very impressed with this unit. His company was utilizing a design similar to Kauffman's that moved the strings from side to side instead of up and down. McCarty made a deal with Bigsby, with the provision that he build the vibrato unit with a bar that could be pushed away, when not in use.

Keith Holter's 1953 Bigsby
Though Bigsby guitars were excellent high quality instruments, it was this vibrato unit that was to be Paul Bigsby’s biggest success. Up to this time he had been running a one-man shop.

Now he had to hire employees to keep up with the demand for Bigsby vibratos. This would eventually become a global business for Paul Bigsby.

Magnatone Mark V
Bigsby designed a line of guitars for the amplifier company Magnatone. For a brief period of time and he continued to build steel guitars for a while, but in 1956 once the vibrato became very successful Bigsby quit building guitars, to concentrate his efforts on his vibrato unit, which by now was offered in several forms to retrofit different style guitars.

Paul Bigsby in later years

Ted McCarty
By 1965 Paul Bigsby was tired of business and his health was failing. He sold “Bigsby” to his friend Ted McCarty who had given his company its biggest boost. This would allow Bigsby to retire, which he did in 1966. Paul Bigsby died two years later in the summer of 1968.

McCarty & Fred Gretsch
Ted McCarty continued building Bigsby vibrato units until 1999 when he sold the rights to manufacture to Gretsch Guitars.

Due to the scarcity of Bigsby guitar, if you are interested in buying one the price will be very steep, in the five figure range.

There are other builders that have taken up Bigsby’s designs, such as T.K. Smith that build fine quality Bigsby style guitars.

Though some modern players may find the Bigsby vibrato to be antiquated, the unit was not meant for the wild pitch fluctuation that punctuate the music of Vai, Malmstrom, Satriani and others. The Bigsby vibrato was meant to give a little vibrato to each note. It has become an industry staple and has been and is still being imitated.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


Mercury4 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mercury4 said...

Fascinating post. Thanks.

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Sandra said...

what i can say about this post!! really amazing i like it

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

What a great blog, so much essential history I never knew. Thank you!

Deke Dickerson said...

I just saw this! Only saw one error--the guitar built for Butterball Paige (#3) is not the one that was originally made for Jimmy Bryant. That was #5, which was originally made for Jimmy Bryant but never delivered, so it went to the next guy on the waiting list, who was Butterball Paige's replacement in Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours: BILLY BYRD. The Billy Byrd guitar is the one that was originally made for Jimmy Bryant. --Deke Dickerson

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