C. F. Martin D-28 With Bigsby Neck, Made for and owned by Zeke Clements Flat Top Acoustic Guitar (1949)

C. F. Martin  D-28 With Bigsby Neck, Made for and owned by Zeke Clements Flat Top Acoustic Guitar  (1949)

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C. F. Martin D-28 With Bigsby Neck, Made for and owned by Zeke Clements Model Flat Top Acoustic Guitar (1949), made in Nazareth, PA, natural lacquer finish, Brazilian rosewood back and sides, spruce top; maple neck with ebony fingerboard, original black hard shell case.

In the late 1940s and early '50s, a number of country music greats including Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Joe Maphis, Speedy West, Billy Byrd, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, Tiny Moore and more had instruments built or modified for them by Paul A. Bigsby of Downey, California. "P.A.", as he was known, worked almost entirely alone running a virtual custom shop for the country scene of the day.

As with his contemporary (and friend), Nudie the rodeo tailor, each of Bigsby's creations was custom-designed for an individual artist and each was handcrafted and unique, making authentic Bigsby instruments extremely rare. Some of the players who ordered full instruments or conversions from Bigsby were not as famous or successful, but in each case got an instrument to spur on their dreams, a Cowboy Cadillac of the highest order. With a Nudie suit and a Bigsby, you were as hip and ready for showbiz glory as it was possible to be in that time and place, and the instruments are still redolent with that history.

Paul Bigsby is an extremely important figure in 20th century guitar history, contributing heavily to the development of the electric guitar and essentially inventing the modern the pedal steel. He built hot-rod solid body guitars well before Leo Fender but was not interested in commercializing them to any large extent. Instead, the vibrato unit he designed for Merle Travis became widely popular as an add-on accessory in the mid-1950’s and was eventually adopted by Gretsch, Gibson, Guild, Harmony, Magnatone, and Kay as standard equipment on their guitars. It is still a familiar accessory and widely used today.

Bigsby was a trained as a patternmaker with a specialty in motorcycle construction, but through his friendship with Travis and steel player Joaquin Murphy became involved with guitars. Around 1947, Travis conceived a solid electric guitar and jokingly asked his cycle-building friend if he could make it. “I can build anything” replied Bigsby, and within a short time had made from scratch the instrument Merle sketched out on scrap paper.

Travis’ use of this uniquely flashy guitar caused a local sensation and inspired other country musicians to seek out Bigsby for custom jobs. Bigsby would do what the customer required, from a full guitar build to fitting his singular and fantastic-sounding pickups to instruments the player already owned. While Bigsby built only fully electric instruments, he would add custom necks and extra personalized decoration to existing acoustic guitars. His customers were overwhelmingly country & western artists and a Bigsby instrument was a mark of distinction, a status symbol among musicians announcing to the audience-and perhaps more importantly your peers and competitors-you could afford the very best instrument available.

This particular guitar is a 1949 Martin D-28 fitted not long after it was made with a custom Bigsby neck for Zeke Clements, a country music journeyman if ever there was one. While Zeke never became a major star, he is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and enjoyed a long and varied career in Country & Western (both, actually -- when that distinction was still extant) spanning many decades, always with a guitar in hand. Singer, guitarist, songwriter, and yodeler Clements was born near Empire, Alabama in 1911, and spent much of his youth learning songs from amateur players in the region.

In 1928 he got his professional break joining Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, a very well-known touring and vaudeville act of the day (and incidentally major Gibson endorsers!). He appeared on the National Barn Dance, famously broadcast by WLS in Chicago. This led to spots on the WSM Grand Ole Opry in the early 1930's. In 1933, he became a member of Texas Ruby's Bronco Busters. "Zeke Clements & The Bronco Busters" became full members of the Opry in the 1930s. Over the next decade Clements appeared as a singing cowboy in quite a few films, including some of Charles Starrett's B-grade Westerns. During this time, he also was hired by Walt Disney to provide the voice of "Bashful", the yodeling dwarf in the all-time animated classic "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". This ensured his melodious yodeling would be facelessly enjoyed by generations unaware of his identity!

Cartoon fame only goes so far, though, and in 1939 Clements formed "The Western Swing Gang" and was back performing at the Opry. As a songwriter he scored a major country hit with a song entitled (strangely enough!) "Smoke On the Water". This patriotic ode to America's eventual victory in WWII was recorded by an up-and-coming Red Foley in 1944; it went on to become the No.1 Country Recording of the year. It was also a major hit for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in 1945. Clements founded his own record label with some of the proceeds, but another big hit proved elusive.

After a stint on the Louisiana Hayride in the later 1940s, he became an itinerant radio and TV entertainer appearing on various stations around the South. Through the decades of change in the country market his recordings stayed contemporary; he cut some great hillbilly boogie sides in the 1940s and even proto-rockabilly like "I Don't like It" in the 1950s. By the 1960s, his country career wound down and he moved to Florida, keeping his musical hand in performing on the banjo with Dixieland jazz bands. He died in Nashville, Tennessee in 1994.

This guitar dates to the period Clements lived in Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 1940s. Probably still riding on the cachet of his one big song success, he was a well-known figure on the thriving Southern California country scene. Although more a rhythm player than hotshot picker, he was friends with the guitar-centric names of the day: Merle Travis, Les Paul, Leo Fender, and others during the time the modern electric guitar was taking shape there. Like a small number of contemporaries, he had Paul Bigsby custom-make a neck for his Martin D-28, probably when the guitar was fairly new. This D-28's serial number dates it to the second half of 1949, and the Bigsby work appears to have been performed within the next year or so. The guitar itself is a lovely example, with the typical conservative Martin appointments and very nicely grained Brazilian rosewood on the back and sides.

Zeke Clements' D-28 is not the flashiest custom guitar Bigsby ever fitted out, but it still has all the hallmarks of P.A.'s finest work, and like all is a one-of-a-kind unique piece. The sleek Bigsby-made neck is crafted from one piece of fantastically grained tiger-striped maple, and simply has that "perfect" feel as well as a superbly striking look. The fingerboard is fairly plain for a Bigsby; clean, unbound ebony with simple and elegant pearl block inlay like a Gibson L-5. Many Bigsby conversions featured the performer's name inlaid into the fingerboard or pickguard, but this one does not. This may have been Zeke's preference (although we doubt he was "Bashful' about it!) or perhaps he was watching the budget -- Bigsby's work was not cheap!

The distinctive single-sided headstock (the same as on the Travis guitar and direct inspiration for Fender's Stratocaster) is faced in walnut and inlaid with an ivoroid script BIGSBY inlay. The "I" has no dot, a hallmark of Bigsby's earlier work. The original tuners are 1949 era nickel Kluson Deluxe, the earliest version where the shaft does not go through the outer side of the casing. These were hand-cut by P.A. to fit his headstock design, a production shortcut soon adopted by Leo Fender. The high E-string tuner is the same style but slightly later, likely the result of a bump or fall damaging the fragile original. The bridge and pickguard are the standard Martin style, and were not customized by Bigsby. The Brazilian rosewood back and sides and spruce top retain the original finish, and there was no custom decoration to the body. The strap attachments are curved aluminum brackets, another Bigsby trademark.

Clements seems to have played the guitar for a while, and used it in his act after getting a Gibson SJ-200 a bit later that he appears to have had Bigsby apply a custom pickguard to. There are pictures extant of Clements playing that newer guitar while his cohort Vin Bruce strums the Bigsby Martin. At one point Clements appears to have painted his name on the top, but no sings of this remain today. The instrument was eventually sold to Bigsby associate R.C. Allen, who kept it for many years and passed away fairly recently. The guitar still has a small name tag inside (it appears to be the top section of an old-style address label) glued to the backstrip reading "ZEKE CLEMENTS" and Clements' name and Florida address are also written on a piece of paper taped to the case pocket lid.

This guitar is an amazing survivor of a long-gone era in America, when TV was in its infancy and radio and film cowboys roamed Southern California in nudie suits. The music business was still largely local, the guitar business a small but growing segment, and a single motorcycle-trained craftsman could build guitars that would end up influencing the world. While Zeke Clements himself may be largely forgotten, the eras of country music he moved through are very much still a part of the American story. We are thrilled to have Zeke's Bigsby D-28 with us for a time; it's not only an important piece of musical history, it is one of the best sounding and playing 6-strings we have ever heard.
 
Overall length is 41 in. (104.1 cm.), 15 3/4 in. (40 cm.) wide at lower bout, and 5 in. (12.7 cm.) in depth at side, taken at the end block. Scale length is 25 1/2 in. (648 mm.). Width of nut is 1 11/16 in. (43 mm.).

This historic guitar has had some standard maintenance repairs over the decades, but remains in extremely fine playing condition with an almost outer-worldy sound. There is a light general overspray to the body, which looks very old and not intrusive either visually or sonically -- there is actually not a lot of wear to the finish overall. This is most noticeable on the bottom edge of the sound hole, where there is more wear than anywhere else with some clear finish over it. The finish on the Bigsby neck appears entirely original. There is a bit of pickwear to the top just above the pickguard's upper edge and a small solidly repaired B-string crack.

The Martin style bridge and bridgeplate are modern correct replacements but the originals are included, with the remains of two bolts added to help secure them at one point (hence the replacement!). As noted above, the high E string tuner is a slightly later part than the rest, and was probably replaced long ago. The guitar has been expertly refretted, and again, the original frets are included in a baggie. At some point the "bulb" of the Bigsby headstock took a knock and there is an old repair where it joins on the lower edge -- not nearly all the way through and completely solid.

The guitar plays superbly, with a sound we can only describe as sublime. This guitar also still resides in the original case, expertly hand-modified by Paul Bigsby with a bulge at the top end to accommodate the wider headstock. The hinges show some old repairs, but this one-of-a-kind case is the ultimate testament to this instrument's authenticity! Excellent - Condition.