The real story of the modern solidbody electric guitar is more complicated
than the story many of us grew up on.
True, Les Paul and Leo Fender helped usher
this new instrument into mass production,
popularized it, and made it a driving musical force since the second half of the 20th
century. But had they not been inspired
by the design innovations of Paul Bigsby,
the electric guitar might have looked very
different today. It turns out Paul Bigsby
was much more than just the man who
designed that “other” whammy bar.
Paul Adelburt Bigsby was born in Elgin,
Illinois, on December 12, 1899. The family moved to Los Angeles when Paul was
11. There he learned to be a patternmaker,
carving the wood patterns used to make
metal part molds for manufacturing—a
skill that proved handy for making music
equipment as well.
While still in his teens, Bigsby developed
an interest in motorcycles and motorcycle
racing. By age 20 he had won his first race,
quickly becoming famous in the cycling
community. Then going by P.A. Bigsby,
he opened a motorcycle dealership in the
1920s. A decade of rough road racing led
to a shelf of trophies and more than a few
injuries, so by 1934 Bigsby preferred promoting races to riding in them. Still working as a patternmaker, he produced parts
for Crocker Motorcycle Company. There he
helped design the Crocker V-Twin, famous
for having the largest engine of its time.
The advent of World War II saw Bigsby’s
designing skills servicing the US Navy.
Guitars weren’t Paul Bigsby’s only passion—he was also a professional racer for Crocker motorcycles. Photo courtesy of May Bigsby/FGE Archive
A short-lived relationship in 1946 led to
Bigsby’s first and only child, Mary, and by
1947 he had remarried. An amateur upright
bass and guitar player, Bigsby would take
little Mary to Cliffie Stone’s radio show
Hometown Jamboree, where they would
enjoy the Western swing and country music
he loved. Western swing’s combination of
big band, country, hillbilly, and polka was
Paul Adelburt Bigsby
Born: December 12, 1899,
in Elgin, Illinois
Best Known For: Reinventing the
pedal steel, producing one of the earliest
prototypes of the solidbody electric guitar,
developing the six-in-a-line tuner arrang-ment, inventing the Bigsby vibrato.