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Bigsby Guitars

I'm not much of a guitar player... but I've long been a fan of guitar music of all kinds and I'm especially fascinated by the gear of the electric guitar culture. So I was very excited to see the latest book by Andy Babiuk (author of "Beatles Gear," which we featured on this program in 2002): "The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody Electric Guitar." Them's fightin' words to some gearheads, because there are other guitar pioneers who could certainly lay claim to that title ... Adolph Rickenbacker, Les Paul, and Leo Fender to name a few. But listen to our interview on Sunday's program (March 8th) and Babiuk will explain his position.

I never really gave much thought to Bigsby before seeing this book: I only knew the name from seeing it emblazoned on the famous vibrato devices found on the tailpieces of Gretsch and Gibson guitars. But it turns out he's famous to a few for the steel and pedal steel guitars he made in the 1940's for people like Speedy West and Joaquin Murphy. He would hot-rod acoustic guitars, too, putting Bigsby necks on Martins and Gibsons for people like Lefty Frizzell and Hank Thompson, but Babiuk's book focuses on the solidbody electric.

The first solidbody he made was for country star Merle Travis. There are many pictures of the instrument with Merle's name inlaid into the pick guard — but good luck finding a recording of it. Problem is, musicians often come to the studio armed with many guitars, but liner notes rarely document equipment used in the sessions. I put in calls to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and left messages for Merle's son Thom Bresh, to no avail.

But we do know that Hank Garland played his Bigsby on the 1951 recording of "Seventh and Union," we see Joaquin Murphy on film with Spade Cooley playing a Bigsby lap steel, and here for your viewing pleasure, an oldie but goodie from 1957 featuring an actual Bigsby solidbody electric in action, played by Billy Byrd as he backs up singer Ernest Tubb.