Paul Bigsby Customized Martin D-28

ANY GUITAR MADE OR CUSTOMIZED BYPAUL BIGSBYIS A RARITY, but this month’s guitar may be one of the oddest creations to ever come out of Bigsby’s Downey, California, workshop. We’ve talked about Paul Bigsby before in this column, and we know that he was a pioneer guitar inventor who not only created the first modern solidbody electric, but also manufactured the first modern pedal-steel guitar, and the first road-worthy vibrato arm— which is still in use today, almost 50 years after he invented it.

Looking at this oddity, it’s tempting to say that Bigsby also made the first modern acoustic/electric as well. This guitar started out life as a 1948 Martin D-28, a classic post-herringbone model that would have been a mighty bluegrass machine had it been left stock. Instead, it became a classic California cowboy guitar after Paul Bigsby customized the instrument a few years later. It’s anybody’s guess as to exactly what year the custom Bigsby neck, double pickguards, and pickup were added, but it was probably around 1951 or 1952, judging by the minute details that us guitar geeks love to obsess over. To whit, the “Bigsby” logo on the headstock has no dotted “i”, which would indicate an early pre-’52 guitar, but the neck also has a trussrod, which would put it at 1952 or later (any other expert guesses should write us here at GP).

The beautifully crafted Bigsby neck is made of salivatingly figured birdseye maple, with two strips of walnut sandwiched in between the four strips of birdseye in varying widths. Bigsby became famous for making what Hank Thompson termed “the easiest guitars to fret,” and that is certainly true of this one. With its low action and perfect intonation, this guitar virtually plays itself. The double pickguards, a decorative item popular with country-western performers of the era, are screwed directly into the top, but what makes this a one-of-a-kind instrument, however, is the Bigsby electric pickup suspended in the Martin’s soundhole. While electrified acoustics are common today, 50 years ago they didn’t exist, and amateurish add-on pickups of the era sounded bad and looked worse. This Bigsby pickup is elegantly mounted in the soundhole by using a regular surround to hold the pickup, then adding another surround on top to clamp the entire assembly to the Martin’s spruce top.

A standard Bigsby guitar pickup is a low-output device, with a DC resistance of about 3K½, but this one measures 2.4K½. As a result, it makes this Martin sound like an amplified acoustic guitar, which highlights that fact that this guy knew what he was doing! Bigsby instruments are rare, but when one-offs like this start coming out of the woodwork, it really makes you appreciate Paul Bigsby’s amazing achievements. Had he been interested in mass production instead of building only custommade instruments, the guitars we play today might be quite different.
Thanks to Bob Guida, Steve Uhrik, and Mike from Retrofret for their help with this article.