Most musicians are familiar with the famous Bigsby Vibrato, but not as many know about the wonderful guitars that Paul Bigsby built in the 1940s. Bigsby, who was responsible for developing and refining the pedal steel guitar, also built the first modern solid body electric guitar for Merle Travis in 1948, predating Leo Fender and Gibson's Les Paul by a number of years.
“I can build anything.” Paul Bigsby
With that statement, Mr. Paul Bigsby switched from building Crocker motorcycles to making musical instruments.
In the 1940s, Paul Adelburt Bigsby was a skilled foreman at a machine shop in Los Angeles owned by Albert Crocker of the famous Crocker Motorcycle Company. Paul’s interest in motorcycles and Western music brought him into contact with Merle Travis. As they both were avid motorcyclists and music lovers, Paul and Merle became good friends.
During this same time, Merle brought his Gibson L-10 guitar to P.A., as Bigsby was called, with a worn out Kaufman vibrato that wouldn’t stay in tune. “Can you fix this for me?” asked Merle. “I can fix anything” said Paul. But seeing the shortcomings of the Kaufman vibrato and at Merle’s suggestion, he ended up designing a whole new mechanism which worked perfectly. This device set the standard and became the vibrato of choice for most guitar manufacturers the world over and remains so today.
One day in late 1946, Merle and P.A. Bigsby were having lunch. Merle, an accomplished cartoonist, had sketched an idea for a new guitar on a Pasadena radio station’s program sheet and passed the drawing to Paul. “Can you make this, P.A.?” asked Merle. P.A. answered, “I can make anything.”
And indeed he could! That drawing of the Solid Body electric guitar with all six tuning pegs on one side of the headstock was built the following year and played by Merle on recordings, radio and in public appearances. The guitar attracted a lot of attention, and caught the eye and ear of other players and builders, famous and not so famous. This compact-sized guitar changed the sound and look of guitars forever. Billy Byrd, Butterball Paige and Grady Martin, to name but a few, ordered a copy of this guitar, and Paul set up shop in a small building built next to his house on Phlox Street in Downey, California.
That same year, a local steel guitarist, the legendary Joaquin Murphey, asked Paul to build him a steel guitar. With his “I can build anything” attitude, Paul set out to build the best steel guitar there ever was. And he did, delivering it to Joaquin in 1947.
Not to be outdone, Speedy West, another local up-and-coming steel guitarist, asked Paul to build him a steel guitar, this time with pedals. On February 8, 1948, the second steel was finished: a triple neck with 4 pedals.
As the word and sound of these new steel guitars traveled, more players wanted one for themselves. When Bud Isaacs played his Bigsby with pedals on the groundbreaking Webb Perce song “Slowly,” most steelers felt they had to have one.
Because Bigsby’s instruments were built on a custom basis, he could not keep up with the orders that poured in, and a waiting list of two or more years followed. Slowing him down even more was the fact that Paul wanted to make almost every part himself, even winding his own pickups. He was kept busy for several years trying to build one guitar a month. Over time, the Bigsby Vibratos took up more and more of his time, and his instrument making dwindled down to a precious few.
This is a 1956 Bigsby T8 pedal steel guitar custom made for legendary steel guitar player Maurice Anderson. The guitar is all original, and in pristine condition and is the way it was the day it left Paul Bigsby's workshop in 1956.
Reece Anderson on his T8 (excerpts from different blog entries):
My first pedal guitar was a triple neck 8 string Bigsby with 4 pedals.
The waiting time was scheduled for 4 years for my triple 8. However I received the guitar in about 3 years. I believe the deposit was $50.00 at the time. The wait was a long time, but to me and the relatively few others who owned Bigsby guitars, it was well worth it. Anyone who owned a Bigsby in that era was almost assured a playing job and "stood out" among steel players other musicians, and artists as well. I had the pleasure of visiting Paul Bigsby at 8114 East Phlox St.(if memory serves correct) at about the time he was ready to begin building it. He was a fine gentleman. Looking at the pictures closely you will see that the distance between frets 8 and 9 are "wider" than the distance between the lower frets 7 and 8, AND the distance between frets 13 and 14 are WIDER than the distance between the lower frets 12 and 13. I have often wondered why.
Although I done some recordings with my triple 8 Bigsby, it's been too long to remember who or when. I can say with certainty I played that guitar while on the road with Tex Ritter, Sons Of The Pioneers, Jimmy Wakely, Smoky Rogers and others. I also used that guitar on what I understand to be the first nationwide weekly country TV show called the "Red Foley Show" which originated each Saturday night in Springfield Missouri.
If memory serves correct, these are the tunings I used on my triple 8 Bigsby.
Top neck: G E C A F D Bb G
Middle neck: Ab E Db B Ab E Db A
Bottom neck: Ab E Db B Ab Gb D B
The tuning is a series of alternating major third and minor third intervals.
There's a picture of me in my written biography sitting behind my brand new Bigsby triple neck with Bigsby volume pedal, AND, sitting beside me, is my matching Standel amp.
The sales history of the guitar:
Original owner Maurice Anderson, pedal steel player;
One time owner Bobbe Seymour, pedal steel player;
Todd Clinesmith, Oregon-based luthier who specialises in resonator, steel, and Hawaiian-style guitars bought it from Bobbe Seymour
Todd Clinesmith sold it to Larry Shaeffer of Sand Springs, Oklahoma in 2008.
Larry Shaeffer owns Indian Territory Guitars and had listed the Bigsby for sale before it got in this collection.
A great piece of music history!