help revise the design so it allowed the
arm to be pushed out of the way when
not in use. Soon other guitar companies,
including Gretsch, wanted the new, more
stable vibrato. Bigsby worked out a revised
contract with Gibson, giving them a preferential price and money to McCarty for
help with the design, in exchange for a
By this time relations with Leo Fender
were cordial enough that Bigsby designed a
special vibrato unit for the Telecaster—one
that incorporated the surround for the
pickup. The fighting started up again when
Fender introduced the Stratocaster, with
its uncomfortably familiar headstock and a
vibrato system of its own. A Bigsby lawsuit
was unsuccessful, as the headstock design had
existed on European instruments of the past.
With the hugely increased vibrato business, Bigsby had to expand his shop, hire
employees, and job out the production of
the device’s parts. It could be said that by
inventing this iconic piece of equipment,
he effectively put himself out of the guitar-building business. Though he designed a
line of instruments for the amp manufacturing company, Magnatone, and continued
to build steels for a while, by 1956 the era
of the Bigsby guitar was over.
By this time relations with Leo Fender were cordial
enough that Bigsby designed a special vibrato unit for the
Telecaster—one that incorporated the surround for the
pickup. The fighting started up again when Fender intro-
duced the Stratocaster, with its uncomfortably familiar
headstock and a vibrato system of its own.
Legend has it that when someone
asked for a guitar like the one he’d made
for Travis, Bigsby said, “Hell no! Go to
Fullerton and look up Leo Fender. He’ll
build you one.”
Grown and Gone
The late 1950s and early ’60s saw Paul
Bigsby growing his vibrato business into
a global enterprise. He traveled the world
setting up international distribution deals
that would result in Bigsby units appearing
on instruments owned by the Beatles, Keith
Richards, and David Gilmour.
With thousands of orders coming in, and
the compromises of mass production testing
his perfectionist nature, the 66-year-old Bigsby
decided it was all too much. In 1965, he
offered the company to friend Ted McCarty,
who was ready to leave Gibson. Bigsby
retired, soon dying of cancer on June 7, 1968.
McCarty retained the business until 1999,
when he sold it to the most loyal user of the
product—the Gretsch Guitar Company.
BIGSBY LIVES ON
The Bigsby vibrato has inspired guitarists for more than 50 years. Check out the following clips from these 6-string titans on You Tube.com.
Joaquin Murphey shows his incredibly fluid bar technique on a 1945 Bigsby
double-neck lap steel.
You Tube search term: Joaquin Murphey plays his Bigsby steel guitar 4
Duane eddy spices up “Ghost Riders in the sky” with subtle Bigsby shimmies.
You Tube search term: Duane eddy - Ghost Riders in The sky
Bigsby master Neil young does his stuff.
You Tube search term: Neil young & crazy horse. cortez The Killer.
25/4/87, casa de campo, Madrid.
Brian setzer shakes up “sleep Walk.”