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Have Yourself
A Very Bigsby Christmas

by Glenn Kenny

PART I

Bigsby Print Ad January 1949

When a young musician first starts falling hard for the electric guitar, there are a few names that he or she learns right off the bat. Most are commercial brands, but they're also often the names of the people who founded the companies, or at least had a lot to do with them. Those names include Orville Gibson, a uniquely inventive guitar and mandolin builder whose efforts led to the founding of the Gibson Company back in 1902. Orville passed away in 1918, many years before the Gibson company helped pioneer the electric guitar.

Then there is Leo Fender, founder of the company that bears his name. Fender Musical Instrument Corporation (FMIC) is today the largest company of its type in the world, with many other notable brand names under their corporate umbrella. This enormous organization still bears the name of the man who started it in the back of his radio repair shop in Fullerton, California, in the 1940s. Then there's Les Paul, the guitarist and recording pioneer who had considerable interaction with the Gibson outfit and who of course inspired a signature "Les Paul" guitar that has been manufactured by Gibson for over 60 years.

For the guitar lover who knows these names pretty well, it's time to get familiar with another: Paul Bigsby. Bigsby's relative obscurity in the mainstream world is underscored by the fact that the Wikipedia entry on the man doesn't even list his full birth date. The Retrofret crew and their many friends know it though: December 12, 1899. It's therefore fitting that this December there will be some terrific Bigsby-related activities at the shop. If you've been around these parts a lot it's possible you're already a Bigsby-phile, but if you haven't and you're not, well, the subtitle of Andy Babiuk's handsome 2008 book on the man speaks volumes: "Father Of The Modern Electric Solid Body Guitar."

Paul Bigsby's Crocker MotorcycleOne reason you don't hear about Paul as much as Les or Leo has to do with his insistence on remaining a one-man show. Bigsby was a motorcycle racer and also worked as a patternmaker for the Crocker Motorcycle Co. in Los Angeles. An amateur player and follower of Western Swing and hillbilly music, he became friendly with many top musicians in the genre and got into guitar design during the rationing of World War Two because he felt he could make better instruments than anything he saw available. Later, in the 1950's when Fender and Gibson were successfully adapting to rock and roll, Bigsby had moved on to building the first modern pedal steels, essentially his invention. The name "Bigsby" was the gold standard to the country steel guitar pickers, but he had already stopped hand-making his pioneering electric solid body guitars after only selling a few dozen. Still, another 1950's invention soon made him a household name in guitar circles: the Bigsby Vibrato tailpiece, an accessory that continues to be used on Gibsons, Gretsches, Guilds and even Fenders to this day.

Merle Travis Bigsby Guitar

John Lennon, Keith Richards and Jack White (and to be fair, hundreds of rock stars past and present) have played guitars equipped with the ubiquitous "BIGSBY"-stamped vibrato attached to the tail end. The instantly successful vibrato accessory gave Paul Bigsby commercial success, but his innovations in electric solid body guitars, electric mandolins, and steel guitars still reverberate today.

The influence of Bigsby's early six-string designs can still be seen in almost every electric guitar produced today. One can make the case that nearly every single electric guitar made in the last six decades can be traced back to the solid body electric guitar that Paul Bigsby made for Merle Travis in 1948. Paul Bigsby really was THAT significant.

The Bigsby world can also be a rarified one indeed, and Retrofret recently acquired an exceptional piece of it: a 1951 Bigsby 10-string solid body electric mandolin, one of only a handful Paul made in the early 1950's. The best educated guess is that Bigsby made a total of 8 or 9 mandolins between 1949 and 1956.

After several top "Hillbilly" and Western Swing musicians began playing Bigsby electric guitars, mandolins and steel guitars, he quickly had a waiting list two to four years long. Bigsby refused to consider mass-production (Leo Fender's stock-in-trade), instead making one piece a month in his garage completely by hand, which accounts for the cachet of any original Bigsby it was created by the hand of the man himself.

Retrofret's mandolin was originally ordered by a Jefferson City Missouri DJ named Johnny Muessig in 1951, who owned and played it for many years. It sports five courses of strings instead of the usual four, a configuration popular in western swing. It is all-original (albeit well played!), a birds-eye maple beauty that only re-surfaced a few years back. This ultra-rare bird also comes with the original hand-made rectangular case (Bigsby made his own cases as well), a period "cowboy" strap and a nearly unique piece of documentation: a copy of the original order letter from Muessig to Bigsby. The sound is both unique and spectacular, as is the piece itself; just holding the instrument is an unforgettable experience.

1951 Bigsby Mandolin  1951 Bigsby Mandolin

Johnny Muessig's 1951 Bigsby 10 string mandolin

Happy 115th to Paul Bigsby, the inventor of the Modern Electric Solid-Body Guitar, Retrofret-style!

...to be continued


Happy Holidays from Gowanus Brooklyn!

Season's Greetings from everyone at
Retrofret Vintage Guitars!

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