Bigsby’s Billy Byrd guitar was originally made for guitarist Jimmy Bryant, but Bryant ended up signing a contract with Fender. Bigsby carved out Bryant’s name and sold it to Billy Byrd.
Not content to just build instruments, Bigsby was constantly coming up with new ideas for products. Seeing that steel guitarists had to stop playing to change volume and tone with their hands, he invented a combination volume and tone footpedal: up and down controlled the volume, while left and right moves adjusted the tone.
When Bigsby first met Merle Travis, he attempted to make the guitarist’s Kauffman Vibrola vibrato system stay in better tune. When he failed, Travis challenged him to “build a vibrato contraption that works.” By 1951 Bigsby had succeeded: Using the same aluminum alloy employed in his pickup covers and bridges, he produced the first Bigsby True Vibrato.
The Billy Boy guitar was eventually reconfigured, but features the same bird’s-eye maple body as the original.
Early Bigsby trems had a fixed arm that could not be pushed away and a rubber stopper rather than a spring to push the arm back in tune. Designed to lower or raise the pitch one half-step, the unit came with a bridge that rocked back and forth to prevent the strings from sawing across it.
Customers quickly came to the shop to have the new vibrato installed. The first, of course, went to Travis. When retrofitting Billy Byrd’s guitar, Bigsby discovered the new tailpiece had to be inlaid into the body to create proper string tension over the bridge. By elevating the necks on future models, the bridge could be raised and the proper angle achieved without having to inlay the tailpiece.
Gibson’s president at the time, Ted McCarty, made an exclusive deal for the unit, with the proviso that McCarty would help revise the design so it allowed the arm to be pushed out of the way when not in use. Soon other guitar companies, including Gretsch, wanted the new, more stable vibrato. Bigsby worked out a revised contract with Gibson, giving them a preferential price and money to McCarty for help with the design, in exchange for a non-exclusive agreement.
By this time relations with Leo Fender were cordial enough that Bigsby designed a special vibrato unit for the Telecaster— one that incorporated the surround for the pickup. The fighting started up again when Fender introduced the Stratocaster, with its uncomfortably familiar headstock and a vibrato system of its own. A Bigsby lawsuit was unsuccessful, as the headstock design had existed on European instruments of the past.
With the hugely increased vibrato business, Bigsby had to expand his shop, hire employees, and job out the production of the device’s parts. It could be said that by inventing this iconic piece of equipment, he effectively put himself out of the guitarbuilding business. Though he designed a line of instruments for the amp manufacturing company, Magnatone, and continued to build steels for a while, by 1956 the era of the Bigsby guitar was over. Legend has it that when someone asked for a guitar like the one he’d made for Travis, Bigsby said, “Hell no! Go to Fullerton and look up Leo Fender. He’ll build you one.”
Grown and Gone
The late 1950s and early ’60s saw Paul Bigsby growing his vibrato business into a global enterprise. He traveled the world setting up international distribution deals that would result in Bigsby units appearing on instruments owned by the Beatles, Keith Richards, and David Gilmour.
With thousands of orders coming in, and the compromises of mass production testing his perfectionist nature, the 66-year-old Bigsby decided it was all too much. In 1965, he offered the company to friend Ted McCarty, who was ready to leave Gibson. Bigsby retired, soon dying of cancer on June 7, 1968. McCarty retained the business until 1999, when he sold it to the most loyal user of the product—the Gretsch Guitar Company.
Bigsby built relatively few instruments during his lifetime (an original guitar will set you back between $40,000 and $80,000), yet his pedal steels and volume pedals helped usher in the crying sound of country music, and his electric solidbodies revolutionized the way guitars look and function. It is hard to find a modern solidbody guitar that does not in some way reflect his innovations. And if that wasn’t enough, years before the Stratocaster, his simple vibrato device introduced guitarists of the world to the joys of a different kind of rocking.