December 12th 2009 marks the 110th birthday of Paul Adelbert Bigsby. When it comes to guitar history, names like Leo Fender, Adolph Rickenbacker, and Les Paul may be more widely known. But their work would not have been possible without the man who designed and built the first solidbody electric guitar.
A skilled motorcycle machinist—and also a music fan—Paul Bigsby got into the world of guitars in the mid-1940s when he designed a replacement vibrato mechanism for C&W artist Merle Travis’s Gibson L-10. Paul’s device set a new standard, and it rapidly became the vibrato of choice for most guitar manufacturers the world over—a reputation it still enjoys today.
In late 1946, Travis approached Bigsby with a concept for a new guitar. Travis’s rough sketch depicted a solidbody electric with all six tuning pegs on one side of the headstock. Bigsby, whose personal philosophy was “I can build anything”, immediately went to work to make the concept a reality. When the guitar was completed, Merle Travis played it on recordings, on radio, and on public performances. The revolutionary design caught the eyes and ears of guitar players and builders alike—and it changed the sound and look of guitars forever.
Paul Bigsby continued to hand-craft custom guitars and vibrato units for the next twenty years. But by 1965 health issues prompted him to sell the Bigsby name and inventory to his friend Ted MCarty. That sale that was effective on January 1, 1966. Paul Bigsby died on June 7, 1968, leaving a legacy of innovation and craftsmanship for which every guitarist today should be grateful.
Speaking of Ted McCarty, his is the other Bigsby birthday to be celebrated (his 100th, as of October 10th of this year). Ted was no stranger to the guitar business when he purchased the Bigsby Company. In fact, he’d been president of Gibson Guitars since 1948, having led that company through its one of its most successful periods.
When Ted McCarty took over Bigsby, he retired from Gibson. He focused on filling the demand for Bigsby’s True Vibrato, which was being ordered by virtually all major US guitar manufacturers. Of all Bigsby customers, Gretsch Guitars was the single largest, establishing a strong relationship between the two companies. That relationship led to Bigsby’s purchase by Gretsch in 1999 when Ted McCarty retired after sixty successful years in the music business. Ted died on April 1, 2001.
Fred Gretsch describes the care that has been taken to preserve the Bigsby heritage, saying, “Gretsch guitars have featured Bigsby vibrato tailpieces for fifty-five years. Gretsch and Bigsby are often thought of together, and now we’re one company. We’re continuing to manufacture vintage-style Bigsby vibratos and bridges using the same hand-made methods prescribed by Paul Bigsby more than half a century ago.”