Headstock EvolutionFrom left to right: 1830’s Martin Stauffer-style, 1940’s Bigsby Prototype, 1948 Bisby Travis, 1949 Fender Prototype, 1950 Fender Braodcaster, 1954 Fender Stratocaster, 1959 Fender Jazzmaster.
Bigsby vs. Fender
Merle Travis always contended that Leo Fender borrowed his Bigsby guitar for a week before bringing it back, along with the prototype for what would become the Telecaster. In The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar, author Andy Babiuk references a letter written in 1950 by Fender employee Don Randall. In his letter, Randall, in charge of Fender’s distribution at the time, describes meeting with Merle Travis and observing his Bigsby guitar. Randall writes: “He is playing the granddaddy of our Spanish guitar, built by Paul Bigsby— the one Leo copied.” Fender has claimed that he never borrowed the guitar, but the similarities seem to substantiate Travis’ story. Though the first Fender had a three-on-a-side headstock, it copied the Bigsby in its single cutaway, inch-and-ahalf thick body, and its through-the-body stringing system. The second Fender solidbody increased the resemblance further with a six-in-line tuning system using the same cutoff Klusons as on the Bigsby Standards.
It is widely acknowledged among guitar aficionados that Bigsby’s designs directly inspired Fender’s. “The Bigsby peghead shape is very distinctive and so close to the design later introduced by Fender that it would stretch the imagination to think this was a random coincidence,” notes one of the foremost authorities on the history of vintage guitars, George Gruhn of Nashvillebased Gruhn Guitars.
Already competitive with Fender when it came to lap steels, the similarities of the new Fender production models angered Bigsby considerably. If the Telecaster headstock irked him, the even more similar Stratocaster version would make him see red.
Though Bigsby was upset, the fact is, he was not interested in the kind of low-cost mass production that drove Leo Fender. You might say that P.A. Bigsby was one of the first boutique instrument manufacturers, concerned with handbuilding highquality pieces one at a time, rather than churning out assembly line quantity.
“Although Bigsby operated a one-man shop,” says Gruhn, “and produced a low total number of instruments, his influence on the evolution and development of modern electric instruments was profoundly greater than his numerical output.”
Bigsby was so adamant about handling every aspect of the instrument’s construction, he even resisted hiring an assistant.
Guitars for the stars
Undaunted by Fender’s new business, Bigsby continued to make instruments for a “who’s who” of country guitar legends. The instrument he built for session great Grady Martin had a neck-through design, a bird’s eye maple veneer on its spruce top and back, and a scroll on the top of the body offsetting the one on the neck. Another version was originally built for Jimmy Bryant, but he changed his mind at the last minute and Ernest Tubb’s new guitarist, Billy Byrd, bought it. This model sports what may be the first double cutaway.
In addition to building custom instruments, Bigsby was installing his unique pickups on guitars from other manufacturers for players like the aforementioned Les Paul, Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland (who also played a Bigsby guitar at one point), and Chet Atkins. His shop also provided custom inlaid pickguards, as well as replacement necks for acoustic guitars. Merle Travis was so fond of his Bigsby guitar’s neck that he had the custom builder replace the one on his Martin D-28 with a Bigsby six-in-line version. Travis’ conversion inspired fellow country stars Joe Maphis and Hank Thompson to have their acoustic guitars refitted as well.
The popularity of Bigsby’s steel guitars, standard guitars, and retrofits—combined with his refusal to delegate any of the work— soon resulted in a two-year waiting list. The principled artisan ran the list as a strict democracy. Once when a country star pulled the “Don’t you know who I am?” card, Bigsby replied, “I don’t care if you are Jesus Christ, you will wait your turn like everybody else.”