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Paul Bigsby

by Ted Drozdowski

Paul Adelburt Bigsby lived by the motto “I can build anything.” And he held himself to it: modifying the motorcycles he raced and built with parts of his own design, constructing one- and two-neck solid body guitars and steel guitars, and perfecting the vibrato arms that bear him name.

Paul BigsbyBigsby was born in 1899 and, by most accounts, it took him roughly four decades to get involved with musical instruments. He was a foreman at a machine shop owned by the Crocker Motorcycle Company at the time (overseeing the construction of the first overhead-valve cylinder for the V-twin engine motorcycle), and a passionate country music fan. His love for bikes and country brought him into orbit with the great picker and songwriter Merle Travis, who was also a motorcycle bug.

One day, knowing Bigsby’s high level of mechanical skill, Travis brought him a Gibson L-10 guitar with a worn-out Kaufman vibrato arm. The Kaufmans, which were patented in 1935, were the first widely available vibrato bars manufactured. Rather than the up-and-down action of the Bigsby and other later vibratos, the Kaufman moved from side to side and was notorious for pulling guitars out of tune.

According to legend, Travis, the writer of such classics as “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon,” asked Bigsby, “Can you fix this for me?” And, true to form, the inventor responded, “I can fix anything.” Bigsby took the Kaufman arm apart and analyzed its function. He soon realized the side-to-side motion was less than ideal and set about making a device with a broad, comfortable handle that sat ergonomically in the player’s hand and moved down and back.

His design not only served Travis splendidly, it became the new industry standard and Bigsby’s calling card. A number of guitar makers adopted the Bigsby arm as their production standard. Even today, with such innovations as locking key transposing vibrato arms and deep-diving whammys with fine tuners and locking nuts, Bigsby’s device remains preferred for players seeking a truly classic sound. Among them stand such modern Gibson playing giants as Jeff Beck, Neil Young , Johnny A, John McLaughlin, Robert Fripp, Keith Richards and Mark Knopfler.

But the vibrato arm wasn’t Bigsby’s only killer creation. The small output of his hand-made instruments are highly collectable. With names like the BYSW, BY-48T and BY-50, his roundneck guitars typically feature custom wound single-coil pick-ups, 25-inch scale necks and heavyweight bodies in natural finishes that sustain like a choir.

Again, it was Travis who got Bigsby into the guitar building business. At lunch in 1946, Travis sketched out an idea for a guitar design and asked Bigsby if he could make it. By now, you know what his answer was. The compact six-string he delivered to Travis in 1947 was the first to have all of its tuning pegs on one side of its headstock. Top country session and touring players Grady Martin, Butterball Page and Billy Byrd all ordered copies, and Bigsby opened his own shop in Downey, California — a city that’s a Mecca for blues and R&B fans interested in West Coast music history.

That same year he made his first pedal steel guitar at the request of Joaquin Murphey, a soloist in Western swing bandleader Spade Cooley’s group. Like his roundneck guitars, the pedal steel was made with a frame of high-quality birdseye maple and a whopping pickup of Bigsby’s own design.

Speedy West, another superb pedal steeler, who cut several great instrumental records with flashy round-neck picker Jimmy Bryant, commissioned Bigsby’s next table style guitar. It was a triple-neck with four pedals. At the time, the instrument was still more a novelty than a staple in country music. It became essential when sessionman Bud Isaacs deployed one of Bigsby’s creations on the 1954 Webb Pierce single, “Slowly,” which climbed to #1 on the country chart.

Although it’s unclear how many instruments Bigsby built, it is known that he made them all himself. The inveterate perfectionist insisted on hand-fabricating nearly every part – even winding the pickups. By 1962, Bigsby was struggling to keep a pace of one guitar a month while simultaneously meeting the steep demand for his vibrato arms. In 1966, Bigsby sold his operation to Ted McCarty, who had retired as president of the Gibson Guitar Corporation the year before. Two years later, Bigsby died.

Whether he was perfecting motorcycle engines or innovating guitar design, Paul Bigsby was a maverick, who constantly looked for bold, new solutions to old problems — a true revolutionary.