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Have Yourself
A Very Bigsby Christmas

by Glenn Kenny & Deke Dickerson

PART II

Butterball Paige Bigsby GuitarDecember also sees the completion of a long-term Bigsby project at Retrofret, the restoration of the original 1949 Bigsby electric solid body guitar originally made for Tommy "Butterball" Paige. At that time Paige was the lead guitarist for the nation's most popular Hillbilly band, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours. This particular Bigsby instrument is significant for a number of reasons, besides its being played in a legendary band. It was only the third Bigsby electric guitar made, out of a total of 23 known electric solid bodies.

It was the first Bigsby electric guitar to feature two pickups, the first two were single-pickup instruments. It was the first Bigsby guitar to sport pickups with individual adjustable pole pieces on the pickups (the earlier pickups had a single non-adjustable "blade" magnet running under the strings as on his steel guitars). It is also the only Bigsby electric guitar ever photographed in Paul Bigsby's hands (courtesy of a few snapshots taken in a 1949 visit to the Bigsby shop by a young Forrest White, who later worked at Fender for many years).

The guitar also has an obscure "first" - it appears to be the first two-pickup electric guitar to feature a switch allowing the player to select either or both pickups. Strangely, while several companies experimented with two-pickup archtop electric guitars going back almost ten years, up until this guitar, no commercial model had a pickup selector switch. In a most odd choice that can only be explained by the fact that the switch was indeed the first of its kind, the switch is mounted on the bottom edge of the instrument. This was a great idea to keep it out of the player's way on the bandstand, but a terrible idea should the guitarist want to play sitting down with the instrument on his knee. Butterball Paige and Ernest Tubb

The problem must have made itself evident as such in pretty short order, as this model is the sole Bigsby electric to feature the peculiar switch placement. (As a historical addendum, Leo Fender's famous Telecaster guitar, when introduced in 1950, featured a switch that allowed the player to easily choose between the two pickups, but not both of them together at the same time. Fender didn't offer that until years after this Bigsby instrument was manufactured).

"Butterball" Paige kept the guitar for less than two years. After Paige's departure from Ernest Tubb's band, the instrument is seen in photos, being played by another legendary country musician, Kenneth Ray "Thumbs" Carllile. Thumbs was a virtuoso guitar savant who played with the guitar laying flat on his lap with his left hand over the neck instead of under, almost like playing a piano. That being the case, he is probably the only player who didn't mind the oddly placed pickup switch on the guitar, and he used it with "Little" Jimmy Dickens' band for several years in the 1950s.

Thumbs CarllileThumbs may have been the country-western guitarist who left the instrument behind in a house in Palmer, Alaska, after a wild all-night gathering of pickers. The last snapshot of him with the guitar was taken in 1956. From there the trail ran cold, until many years later. The significant instrument, damaged but still recognizable to vintage-savvy eyes, was pulled out of a closet by the owner of the house - someone who presumably had no fond memories of the hillbilly musicians who had drunken all-night jam sessions there.

Fortunately, just as the owner was about to heave the piece into the trash, her grandson, a budding guitarist himself, intervened. He saw an instrument of value but couldn't quite put his finger on why; he published a photo of the guitar on an online forum, looking for information. That's where Deke Dickerson came in. Deke, eagle-eyed Bigsby acolyte and founder of the obsessively complete online blog "The Bigsby Files" compared the photos posted online to vintage photos of the Paige/Carllile guitar. He noticed the visual similarity in the grain pattern of the wood on the top of the guitar. When the unique birds-eye maple figuring of the wood proved an exact match to the vintage photos, Dickerson realized he was looking at the long-lost Butterball Paige/Thumbs Carllile instrument, re-surfacing after decades. Deke bought the guitar, and he immediately knew who to call to get it restored to its just-off-the-bench luster.

Retrofret, known for museum-quality restorations and repairs, received the Bigsby guitar and began the exacting task of making the guitar look and play as it did when it left Paul's workshop in 1949. Founder and head luthier, Steve Uhrik is no stranger to Bigsby instruments. A few years back he had brokered the deal to sell Country Music Hall-Of-Famer Lefty Frizzell's original Bigsby customized SJ-200 acoustic guitar to another Hall-Of-Famer, Merle Haggard. Uhrik's best friend, the late Bob Guida, had an extensive collection of original Bigsby instruments and memorabilia that were broken out at jam sessions in the shop and proved vital to researching members of what's now called "The Bigsby Brain Trust".

Despite being in the Gowanus section of industrial Brooklyn, three thousand miles from where Paul Bigsby made his guitars in Downey, California, Retrofret was the logical choice to take on the restoration. The guitar looked rough at first: it had a poorly repaired headstock, the pickups were gone, as was most other hardware. There was good news, though: miraculously, during the lost decades, no extra holes had been drilled in the piece. Nothing had been routed. Even the original finish was salvageable. Rare original pickups, tuners, hardware were sourced for the project.

The Retrofret Repair Shop

Retrofret used high-end "Spock-level" luthier techniques to take cracks and breaks and not only repair them structurally, but cosmetically to such a high level that upon completion, the original injuries were completely invisible to the naked eye. Missing parts such as the tailpiece and pickguard were handcrafted to exacting original specifications, and rendered to match the guitar's sixty-five year old patina.

The original finish we mentioned: yes, it was salvageable, but the job was no picnic. It looked to be intact underneath a thick layer of varnish that had been later applied by a would-be "refinisher." If you've ever watched "Antiques Roadshow," the same tenet that show uses for antique furniture: worn but original finish GOOD, refinish BAD also applies in the guitar world. Working under a black light (where original lacquer and newer polyurethane fluoresce differently), and using a technique of warming and scraping the new varnish loose one tiny layer at a time, the original finish was painstakingly revealed. This exacting and tedious process using surgical blades had to be applied to the over-finish on the entire body before any of the structural work could even be started. It took Retrofret restorer Guy Valic months to remove all of the non-original material. After this long and somewhat arduous restoration process, the guitar's journey back to life is complete.

On the advent of what would have been Paul Bigsby's 115th birthday, Retrofret invited Bigsby historian and roots musician Deke Dickerson to the shop to examine and play the finished instrument. This inevitably led to a jam session with the 1951 Bigsby mandolin also at Retrofret (played by Brooklyn musician Rob Hecht). Fortunately this monumental event was videotaped, and we've got a link to Dickerson's visit and these two incredible, historic instruments below.

Restoration of the 1949 Bigsby "Butterball" Paige Solidbody Electric Guitar

"Walking the Floor Over You" performed by Deke Dickerson and Rob Hecht

"I'm Too Old to Boogie Anymore" performed by Deke Dickerson and Rob Hecht

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

...back to Part I

Happy Holidays from Gowanus Brooklyn!

Season's Greetings from everyone at
Retrofret Vintage Guitars!

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