From working in a print shop to the military during World War I, Paul Bigsby has always drawn attention to himself. He was a motorcycle racer in the 20’s, featured in many magazines and ads of the time, and also owned his own Indian Motorcycle dealership at one time! While working for a pattern making company that made the patterns and molds for Crocker motorcycles, P.A. Bigsby met a man by the name of Al Crocker which soon sparked a friendship that would last a lifetime. This friendship took Bigsby to the Crocker Motorcycle Company and gave him an immortal name in the industry having been one of the minds behind the Crocker V-Twin engine, the largest displacement motor of the time.
However, let’s jump forward to the 1940s…
Bigsby, being an amateur guitarist and upright bass player, played in a band and always looked at the guitars of the time thinking they were junk and could be made better by himself. Well folks, this is where the story starts to get fun! Bigsby already had friends in the industry and a knack for making things so why not start making instruments? Bigsby started his craft of building instruments back in 1944 starting with a lap steel guitar for legendary steel play Joaquin Murphy. According to legend, Murphy wanted to keep this prototype and Bigsby told him he would bring a better, double neck 8-string lap steel (you can actually see this D-8, double neck 8 string, steel in the Three Stooges movie “Rockin’ In The Rockies”)! With Murphy now infatuated with Bigsby’s D-8 prototype, Bigsby decided to make an even better and more revolutionary piece for the famous player with a Birdseye maple triple neck steel with legs known as a “console steel”, which became the basis for all his future steel guitars. The steel had three necks all on different levels for easy access to whichever neck you decided to use. Granted, Murphy wasn’t a pedal steel player but this was the instrument that paved the way for the layout of those instruments! By the late 40’s, Bigsby had built a couple steel and pedal steel instruments. He also had the two biggest names in the steel guitar world playing his instruments, Speedy West and Joaquin Murphy. He had an ad in a popular magazine of the time called Western Music Magazine offering any player the opportunity to buy a Bigsby Steel. The biggest reason for the fame of the Bigsby steel was the pickups that P.A. Bigsby made himself which had a unique tone to them. The pickups were first made with a single blade magnet housed in an aluminum housing. Bigsby made every single aspect and part for his instruments, including the machine used to wind his pickups, and was always looking for ways to improve them. These pickups were so unique that even the great Les Paul had a Bigsby pickup installed in his famous Clunker guitar!
You may be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with the Bigsby Tremolo?” Fast forward to 1947 when Paul Bigsby meets Merle Travis. As mentioned previously, Bigsby was heavily into the motorcycle scene and at this time he was announcing the motorcycle races. With a quick name drop by Joaquin Murphy to Travis who was at a race the night before, Travis decided to go to the races the following evening and introduce himself to Bigsby which would soon blossom into a beautiful friendship. Bigbsy lived down the street from a studio where Travis would perform and would also frequent the studio to hang out with Travis. One of these times, Travis had a Kauffman Vibrato that he complained wouldn’t keep the strings in tune and asked Bigsby to fix it and Bigsby gladly accepted the challenge. When Bigsby returned with the vibrato, he found it still didn’t work correctly so he set off to make one that was far superior. In between working on the ever so famous Bigsby Vibrato, he built Merle Travis the incredibly ahead-of-its-time solid body guitar that we all know. Over the years, Bigsby built a number of custom guitars for the Western music stars of the time. He also did a number of modifications and re-necks of Martin, Gibson and mandolin guitars.
Jumping ahead again to 1951, Bigsby finally finished his industry changing vibrato. The first version of the Bigsby vibrato was a fixed arm vibrato and was given to Travis as a gift as a token of never forgetting the challenge set forth by Travis and his Kauffman Vibrato. Later, Bigsby made the arm moveable and added the spring to the system which is the common form you see today. All of the molds and parts were again hand made by Bigsby in his shop located in his home garage. Cast from aluminum, these products were built to last, and last they did. With Bigsby’s growing popularity, it was time to expand his shop. So he later issued catalogs that included his steels, guitars, and his new vibrato system, which cost $50 (not a bad deal at the time!). His vibrato system was an immediate success and this product helped secure Paul Bigsby’s name in music history. Seeing it’s popularity soar, Bigsby filed for a patent on the new system in March of 1953 and it was granted on August 4th. The system was so popular he even offered a B-16 model for his friend Leo Fender’s newest guitar: the Telecaster. In 1954, that changed due to the introduction of the Fender Stratocaster that had its own vibrato system Leo called a “tremolo system” and Bigsby felt their headstock design was an infringement on Bigsby’s design. At some point in the mid 50’s, Bigsby decided to focus all of his attention on his revolutionary vibrato system. This system had become so popular that it gained the attention of the president of the Gibson Guitar Company, Ted McCarty. McCarty saw the potential of this vibrato system and decided to buy up as many as he could to use on Gibson guitars. He soon contacted Bigsby to work out an exclusive deal for the vibrato system and Gibson guitars. The tremolo system is growing even more popular thanks to Gibson. Fred Gretsch, of Gretsch guitars also contacted Bigsby to use his vibrato on his Gretsch guitars, but Bigsby wouldn’t sell to Gretsch without McCarty’s permission (Talk about an honest businessman!)
Unfortunately, this system would not only be the lifeblood of Bigsby, but his end as well. With all the orders coming in for is vibrato system and requests for guitars, Bigsby eventually couldn’t handle the workload and by the 60’s he was looking to retire. His daughter, Mary, had no interest in instruments nor did she want to take over the family business. Although that broke Bigsby’s heart, he eventually took the offer from Ted McCarty to buy the company. In 1965, McCarty wasn’t liking what the Gibson Company was doing and decided to buy Bigsby. He moved the whole workshop to Kalamazoo and started production of the vibratos. Since Bigsby was very particular for having things done his way and afraid McCarty would ruin his brainchild, he would have Mary go to the factory for the first two weeks since she could be trusted to make the vibratos the way her father made them. Eventually, Mary had enough of trying to argue with McCarty about how to build and assemble the vibratos and left three weeks into the journey.
With the Bigsby company in the hands of Ted McCarty, the vibrato system is now making its way onto all the major US brands. In 1968, McCarty struck a deal with Fender and started making F-branded vibratos for the telecaster. With 14 different models available, business was booming. This went on for decades and finally in 1999, Ted McCarty decided the only person that should own the Bigsby company is Fred Gretsch III; the Gretsch family had been friends with the McCarty family since the 60s so it only seemed right to offer the Bigsby company to someone who would appreciate and continue the legacy for years to come.
With Bigsby in the hands of the Gretsch guitar company, the tremolo system has been readily available to everyone worldwide. The Gretsch company has since released a few prototype reissues of the original Bigsby guitars and has been using the tremolo on almost every model they offer. The original idea Paul Bigsby had to make a working tremolo that would not inhibit the tuning stability of the instrument has lived on thanks to Gretsch. You can see this magnificent piece of industry changing hardware on many famous players’ guitar today. Neil Young, Brian Setzer, Paul McCartney, Bill Duffy and Lonnie Mack are just a few of the major names that use Bigsby Tremolo Systems to this day.