Bigsby Vibrato Prototype

Paul Bigsby is known for several of the modern electric guitar’s milestone achievements, but, technically, Bigsby didn’t invent any of them—he just refined them. Similarly, Bigsby didn’t invent the vibrato bar, but he certainly set the standard. Earlier units such as the Doc Kaufmann vibrato, or the motorized “Vibrola” installed on a few Rickenbacker guitars, such as the Vibro Spanish, didn’t work reliably, and they made the guitars go out of tune. Other concepts, such as the Gibson “Vibra-Rest,” were goofy units that simply didn’t work at all.
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Using many of the concepts he had learned while building racing motorcycles (Bigsby worked for a time with the Crocker motorcycle company, which produced a limited-production, hot-rod motorcycle in the ’30s and ’40s), Bigsby figured out the principles of the vibrato, and how it would relate to neck/body angle, intonation, bridge movement, and hand ergonomics, and he cast the whole thing from heavy-duty polished aluminum.

The crude looking device seen here is one of the original units Bigsby made sometime in the early 1950s. This was his first attempt at a hand vibrato for the electric guitar, and there’s a reason why you haven’t seen any of these particular models on your favorite Gibsons or Gretsches. According to Kent Kistler—who ordered one of these early units—a rubber stopper was used instead of a metal spring to facilitate the up-and-down motion of the bar. This didn’t work, of course, and Bigsby soon began using metal springs. In addition, the fixed arm on this unit is made of two pieces that are tacked to the main device. The place where the two pieces joined wasn’t strong enough for the manly gorillas of the day, and most were snapped off. Some things never change. As a result, according to Kistler, almost all of the broken units were sent back to Paul Bigsby to be melted down and recast as the next model of Bigsby vibrato—which Bigsby sent to his original customers free of charge. This would make our example here one rare bird. Have you ever seen another? The proof in the pudding of Bigsby’s vision is the fact that nearly 60 years after he made this prototype, the Bigsby vibrato is still made today, and is standard issue on Gibsons, Gretsches, Guilds, and many other guitars found in the hands of top professionals and beginners alike. Anyone who has ever played a Duane Eddy song—or attempted a dive bomb—owes Paul Bigsby a debt of thanks.

Special thanks to Bob Guida, Kent Kistler, and R.C. Allen.