Paul Bigsby—The Man Behind the Whammy Bar
In this edition of Guitar Notes we’ll look at the legendary Paul Bigsby, his guitars and iconic Bigsby vibrato, as well as the instruments and players that made Bigsby a key figure in electric guitar sound. You may be surprised just how pivotal Bigsby’s contributions have been to the evolution of electric guitar sound.
Gibson and Bigsby have a long history together. Here’s a recently sold Gibson ES-355 Bigsby VOS. Check out all Bigsby-equipped Gibsons at Musician's Friend Private Reserve Guitars.
Paul Bigsby was 11 when his family moved to Los Angeles in 1910. Paul loved motorcycles early on. He raced them, promoted racing, sold motorcycles and eventually got into building them. A pattern maker by trade, he crafted the wooden models on which motorcycle machine tools were based. By the 1940s Bigsby was a foreman at Crocker Motorcycles in Los Angeles.
A restless tinkerer and experimenter, Bigsby began building stringed instruments in 1944. With the help and input of guitarists, lap steel and pedal steel players in the Southern California music scene, he began building instruments from the ground up using revolutionary approaches in his designs.
At the request of lap steel player Joaquin Murphey, Bigsby built dual- and triple-neck lap steel guitars allowing Murphey to play in different tunings with ease. He also redesigned the pedal layout on pedal steel guitars while building an instrument for ace steel man, Wesley Webb “Speedy” West. Bigsby’s layout, which placed the pedals across the front two legs of the instrument, continues to be the standard layout to this day.
Paul Bigsby was also at ground zero during the development of the solid body guitar. He frequently collaborated with guitarist Merle Travis and designed the first Bigsby vibrato system to replace an inferior vibrato on Merle’s Gibson. Merle also had Bigsby build an innovative guitar with a solid body and six-in-line headstock. Paul Bigsby would share these design ideas with friends Leo Fender and Les Paul.
In fact, Les Paul owned and recorded with one of Bigsby’s earliest pickups. Leo Fender would later become associated with the same six-in-line headstock design Bigsby had used on the electric Travis guitar. Bigsby’s reputation for quality steels and guitars combined with his one-man building ethos and desire to make every piece of the instrument led to two-year waiting lists for Bigsby instruments.
Paul Bigsby’s pickups were already being used by many of the great guitar players of the time and in 1951 the aluminum alloy vibrato system he designed for Merle Travis was born. The Bigsby True Vibrato employs a spring under the bar to maintain string tension. When the bar is pressed down it turns a tailpiece bar which holds the ball end of the strings, lowering the pitch.
Many Bigsby players also use a bridge with roller saddles to make pitch bending and tuning even smoother. The Bigsby design promotes a subtle vibrato effect as part of its signature sound. Unlike Leo Fender’s synchronized vibrato and the Floyd Rose locking tremolos that would come later, the Bigsby doesn’t create drastic pitch bends but instead has a nice floating feeling and sound.
Paul Bigsby would soon focus on his new vibrato system and leave instrument building behind. Multiple Bigsby vibratos became available for hollow, semi hollow and solid body guitars. In 1965 Paul Bigsby would sell the business to Ted McCarty who worked for Gibson and would later be responsible for innovations at Paul Reed Smith.
In 1999 Ted McCarty sold the Bigsby business to Gretsch Guitars, Gretsch and Bigsby having enjoyed a long relationship. Paul Bigsby made pickups for Chet Atkins—widely considered the most masterful Gretsch player ever. The Bigsby-equipped Gretsch 6120 is an iconic part of electric guitar history, not only played by Chet and Duane Eddy but also modern players such as Brian Setzer and Jimmy Heath of Reverend Horton Heat.
Gibson has also used the Bigsby vibrato on hollow bodies and solid bodies including the Super 400, ES-335, SG and Les Paul. Bigsby-equipped guitars have been played by a who’s-who of rock artists ranging from Roy Orbison, Keith Richards, Neil Young and John Lennon to jazz guys like John McLaughlin and Bill Frisell. The subtle feel and vibrato of this unique tremolo system continues to be a big part of the vast palette of electric guitar tones available to players today.
This gorgeous Gretsch Guitars G6136TFM-DCHY Limited Edition Falcon sports a Gretsch-branded Bigsby vibrato.
Much more than just the guy behind the Bigsby vibrato., Paul Bigsby revolutionized lap steels, pedal steels, pickups and electric solid body guitars. His background fabricating parts for motorcycles gave his bridge a great look and tuning stability tto make his tremolo the one to beat on electric guitars. Check out our selection of Bigsbys and our vast collection of Bigsby equipped guitars here.
Until next time, keep playing!
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Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled "Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard".