Rants And Raves: June 2009

PRINT THE STORY OF PAUL BIGSBY: FATHER OF THE MODERN ELECTRIC SOLIDBODY GUITAR By Andy Babiuk The names Adolf Rickenbacker, Leo Fender, and Les Paul loom large in the history of the solidbody electric guitar, but when it comes to who had the greatest influence on solidbody design, Paul Bigsby gets the nod. Documenting the life and times of this forward-thinking guitar builder, author Andy Babiuk takes us on a fascinating journey though Bigsby’s early days as a patternmaker, motorcycle racer, and chief engineer for the Crocker Motorcycle company, to his becoming the high priest of the country-guitar scene in the 1950s. The story begins with the double- and tripleneck steels that Bigsby built for Joaquin Murphy in 1946, and the very advanced solidbody guitar he crafted for Merle Travis in 1948—a neck-though design that featured such innovations as in-line tuners and through-body stringing.
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Babiuk details how Bigsby evolved his designs at his workshop (which was in the back of his home) in the Southern California town of Downey—a convenient location in the late ’40s and early ’50s, as country music was huge and stars like Merle Travis, Hank Thompson, Spade Cooley, Lefty Frizzell, and super-picker Joe Maphis regularly performed and made film and/or television appearances in Hollywood and the neighboring areas. Word spread quickly in the guitar community about these new guitars with their distinctive body shapes and headstocks (a design element that a certain Leo Fender obviously admired), innovative pickups, cast-metal bridges, and fast-playing necks. Bigsby’s neck shape became so popular, in fact, that many acoustic guitars were refitted with them. Bigsby also invented a vibrato unit that became one of his best selling products— thanks in no small part to Merle Travis and Hank Thompson having the first ones made installed on their Gibson Super 400 archtops. This was indeed the era of hot-rod guitar!

The Story of Paul Bigsby contains a wealth of images of his guitars and steels—many of them portrayed in glorious detail on multipage fold outs. There are also photos of Bigsby’s motorcycles, machinery, templates, vibratos, correspondence, and drawings, as well as black-and-white snapshots of live gigs featuring prominent Bigsby players of the time. There’s even a CD of recorded “letters” that Bigsby made for his friend and former bandmate Jack Parsons, where you can hear him talking about his business dealings with a variety of well-known guitar companies. From reading this fantastic book it’s clear that Paul Bigsby had no interest in mass production, and that the only music he cared about was country and western. But in his messianic zeal to create the best guitars possible for the players he adored, he charted the course of solidbody evolution for the benefit of us all. FG Publishing.

Andy Babiuk is also the author of Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four’s Equipment from Stage to Studio.