big in Southern California and Bigsby met
many stars and sidemen.
Steel guitar (in its pre-pedal form)
featured prominently in Western swing,
with some of the players using Adolf
Rickenbacker’s Hawaiian lap steel. Its
long neck and round body had earned it
the nickname the “Frying Pan.” In 1937
Rickenbacker’s company with George
Beauchamp, the Electro String Instrument
Corporation, built less than a hundred
“Spanish Necked,” or round-necked versions that could be played like a regular guitar. Slingerland, a company better known
these days for drums, also produced an
early solidbody guitar, but it, too, was more
like a flipped lap steel than the guitar we
know today, and neither instrument caught
on. Former Rickenbacker employee, “Doc”
Kauffman, teamed up with a radio repairman named Leo Fender to form the K&F
Manufacturing Corporation. Together they
too developed a round-neck lap steel instrument and patented it in 1944.
The popularity of Bigsby’s steel guitars, standard guitars,
and retrofits—combined with his refusal to delegate any
of the work—soon resulted in a two-year waiting list. The
principled artisan ran the list as a strict democracy. Once
when a country star pulled the “Don’t you know who I
am?” card, Bigsby replied, “I don’t care if you are Jesus
Christ, you will wait your turn like everybody else.”
That same year Bigsby began building
instruments in his spare time. Going straight
to the top, he built a double 8-string console
steel (a lap steel with legs) for Earl “Joaquin”
Murphey, the steel player with the popular
Spade Cooley Orchestra. Two necks enabled
players to quickly switch between tunings
(usually C6 and E9). Murphey’s instrument
was made of solid bird’s-eye maple, with
the neck furthest from the player raised for
easier access. The instrument was soon seen
in several movies featuring Cooley’s band.
Joaquin Murphey’s 1946
triple-neck lap steel, shown
here, is the oldest surviving
Bigsby instrument. Bigsby
supplied most of his steels
with a built-in ashtray (right).
Photo courtesy Perry A.
Margouleff, taken by Greg
Bigsby later built the steel-guitar whiz a
triple- 8 version, the necks arranged in graduated steps, as per Murphey’s specifications.
The raised neck and tapered headstock
design developed by Bigsby and Murphey
became the basis for the machinist’s next
innovation—the pedal steel.
Like the solidbody electric guitar,
Paul Bigsby did not invent the pedal
steel—he merely revolutionized it. Gibson
had introduced a system of pedals to
change the tuning of the strings on their
Electraharp steel in 1940. The pedals,
arranged in a cluster radiating from the
left rear leg, operated like the pedals on
a harp. Bigsby’s pedal steels were the
first to feature pedals mounted across a
rack between the front legs of the instrument—the configuration we see today.
Once again the inventor went straight to
the top, building one of his first pedal steels
in 1948 for Wesley Webb “Speedy” West.
West, whose fame stemmed from replacing Murphey in Cooley’s band, received
an instrument with three necks and four
pedals. A sheet of bird’s-eye maple with
Speedy West in black letters acted as a “
curtain” in front of the player’s legs. Bigsby’s
logo was inlaid as well, giving the builder
exposure through West’s touring and television appearances. In contrast to Murphey’s
wooden necks, West’s were cast aluminum.
Other players were blown away by the tone
they heard on West’s legendary duo records
with guitarist Jimmy Bryant. More famous
steel players, like Noel Boggs and Bud
Isaacs, began to seek the Bigsby sound.
An incorrigible tinkerer, Bigsby soon
began to experiment with pickups, building his own winding machine from sewing
machine parts. At first he wound his own
coils for the established horseshoe style;
later he came up with his own design,
employing a blade magnet with a wide, flat
coil wrapped around it. Similar to Gibson’s