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December 2014
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Forgotten Heroes: Paul Bigsby

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Forgotten Heroes: Paul Bigsby

Albert Paul Bigsby
Born: December 12, 1899, in Elgin, Illinois
Died: June 7, 1968
Best Known For: Reinventing the pedal steel, producing one of the earliest prototypes of the solidbody electric guitar, developing the six-in-a-line tuner arrangment, inventing the Bigsby vibrato.

The real story of the modern solidbody electric guitar is more complicated than the story many of us grew up on. True, Les Paul and Leo Fender helped usher this new instrument into mass production, popularized it, and made it a driving musical force since the second half of the 20th century. But had they not been inspired by the design innovations of Paul Bigsby, the electric guitar might have looked very different today. It turns out Paul Bigsby was much more than just the man who designed that “other” whammy bar.

Motorcycle Man
Paul Adelburt Bigsby was born in Elgin, Illinois, on December 12, 1899. The family moved to Los Angeles when Paul was 11. There he learned to be a patternmaker, carving the wood patterns used to make metal part molds for manufacturing—a skill that proved handy for making music equipment as well.

While still in his teens, Bigsby developed an interest in motorcycles and motorcycle racing. By age 20 he had won his first race, quickly becoming famous in the cycling community. Then going by P.A. Bigsby, he opened a motorcycle dealership in the 1920s. A decade of rough road racing led to a shelf of trophies and more than a few injuries, so by 1934 Bigsby preferred promoting races to riding in them. Still working as a patternmaker, he produced parts for Crocker Motorcycle Company. There he helped design the Crocker V-Twin, famous for having the largest engine of its time. The advent of World War II saw Bigsby’s designing skills servicing the US Navy.

Blade Runner
A short-lived relationship in 1946 led to Bigsby’s first and only child, Mary, and by 1947 he had remarried. An amateur upright bass and guitar player, Bigsby would take little Mary to Cliffie Stone’s radio show Hometown Jamboree, where they would enjoy the Western swing and country music he loved. Western swing’s combination of big band, country, hillbilly, and polka was big in Southern California and Bigsby met many stars and sidemen.

Steel guitar (in its pre-pedal form) featured prominently in Western swing, with some of the players using Adolph Rickenbacker’s Hawaiian lap steel. Its long neck and round body had earned it the nickname the “Frying Pan.” In 1937 Rickenbacker’s company with George Beauchamp, the Electro String Instrument Corporation, built less than a hundred “Spanish Necked,” or round-necked versions that could be played like a regular guitar. Slingerland, a company better known these days for drums, also produced an early solidbody guitar, but it, too, was more like a flipped lap steel than the guitar we know today, and neither instrument caught on. Former Rickenbacker employee, “Doc” Kauffman, teamed up with a radio repairman named Leo Fender to form the K&F Manufacturing Corporation. Together they too developed a round-neck lap steel instrument and patented it in 1944.

Joaquin Murphey’s 1946 triple-neck lap steel, shown here, is the oldest surviving Bigsby instrument. Bigsby supplied most of his steels with a built-in ashtray (right). Photo courtesy Perry A. Margouleff, taken by Greg Morgan.

That same year Bigsby began building instruments in his spare time. Going straight to the top, he built a double 8-string console steel (a lap steel with legs) for Earl “Joaquin” Murphey, the steel player with the popular Spade Cooley Orchestra. Two necks enabled players to quickly switch between tunings (usually C6 and E9). Murphey’s instrument was made of solid bird’s-eye maple, with the neck furthest from the player raised for easier access. The instrument was soon seen in several movies featuring Cooley’s band. Bigsby later built the steel-guitar whiz a triple-8 version, the necks arranged in graduated steps, as per Murphey’s specifications. The raised neck and tapered headstock design developed by Bigsby and Murphey became the basis for the machinist’s next innovation—the pedal steel.

Like the solidbody electric guitar, Paul Bigsby did not invent the pedal steel—he merely revolutionized it. Gibson had introduced a system of pedals to change the tuning of the strings on their Electraharp steel in 1940. The pedals, arranged in a cluster radiating from the left rear leg, operated like the pedals on a harp. Bigsby’s pedal steels were the first to feature pedals mounted across a rack between the front legs of the instrument—the configuration we see today.

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