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Paul Bigsby: Father Of Electric Solidbody Guitar
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Paul Bigsby: Father Of Electric Solidbody Guitar
Paul Bigsby: Father Of Electric Solidbody Guitar
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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Now a music trivia question. Who was the father of the modern electric solidbody guitar? Leo Fender, Les Paul? How about Paul Bigsby?

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Actually, the history is somewhat complicated. The Fender and the Gibson companies brought the solidbody electric guitar to the masses. Les Paul built an instrument called, the log, out of a solid pine block with electric pick-ups in the early 1940's. But the title of a new book by Andy Babiuk is "The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: We spoke to Babiuk a few years ago about his book, "Beatles Gear," and today he joins us from the studios of WXXI in Rochester, New York. Welcome back, Andy.

Mr. ANDY BABIUK (Author, "Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar"): Thanks for having me, Liane.

HANSEN: Now, you admit that this title is probably going to raise a couple of eyebrows among all the guitar gear heads. So, in a nutshell, why do you think Bigsby deserves the title, father, instead of Les Paul or Leo Fender?

Mr. BABIUK: Well, in truth, when I did the research for the book, it really just shows in facts. And as you dig deeper into this information, you find that people like Leo Fender and, you know, the Gibson company, they did borrow the ideas from Paul Bigsby.

HANSEN: But what about the log? I mean, you know, Les Paul did build an instrument.

Mr. BABIUK: Well, yes, he did. But Les himself admits, you know, he started experimenting with the concept of the solidbody, but it was primitive at best. There's obviously lots of pictures of people seen of it, but it was a very awkward strange-looking thing. And he took it to Gibson in 1941 and as Les himself says, you know, they laughed him out the door saying he was the kid with the broomstick with pick-ups on it. So it wasn't really a functional instrument as you would think.

It was really Paul Bigsby, who, by 1948, crafted a real instrument. And I've actually had the pleasure of being able to play that instrument and hold it and it was a fine-crafted instrument.

HANSEN: You have a strange little aside in the book. Is it true that Bigsby made one of his first electric solidbody guitars for Les Paul?

Mr. BABIUK: Yeah. It's one of the things that we discovered while doing the book. Bigsby literally was a craftsman who made guitars one at a time for key players of the day. They were the biggest players of the day and one of the things we found out that Les Paul, Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby would hang out together. They were actually drinking buddies and would just hang out at Les Paul's house.

On one of these hangouts, Les was telling me that they were having a conversation about solidbody instruments, and Les said - told Paul Bigsby he had this idea of a solidbody instrument. So Paul Bigsby went back and actually built a prototype for Les Paul. And when Bigsby would make an instrument, he'd make a template and write the person's name on each template.

So we discovered all these templates, and they have, you know, 30, 40 different templates with different famous celebrities on there. We found the actual instrument and then the template matched perfectly and it had Les Paul's name on it.

HANSEN: Wow. So tell us a little bit about Paul Bigsby. I mean, who was he and how did he end up making guitars?

Mr. BABIUK: Well, in the early '20s, his profession - he was a patternmaker, which is a lost art. You take a piece of wood and you craft a carburetor part and then you would give it to, you know, a car company, and they would make the actual metal cast out of it and create the parts needed for a car, for instance. Well, this was his profession.

His passion was racing motorcycles. So, then he teamed up with a guy by the name of Al Crocker. And by the mid to late '30s they would building Crocker motorcycles, which are very sought after at this time. They didn't build that many of them, about 150 or so.

Soon after that after the war, he was very interested in music, and he took up the guitar and he realized that the guitar wasn't that well-built. And he decided he could build one himself better.

HANSEN: Was he also - did he kind of fool around making steel and pedal steel guitars too?

Mr. BABIUK: Yeah. His first instrument was a steel guitar. Hawaiian music was very popular in the early '40s and western swing music in California was, by 1945, was really popular. He had gone to see Spade Cooley and his orchestra. And the player was Joaquin Murphey, the steel player, and he went up to him with one of his instruments. He says, I build instruments, would you like to play this?

And the story goes that Joaquin liked the instrument so much that he wanted to keep it. Bigsby told him, well, I'll build you one even better and that was the first actual Bigsby instrument, which ended up in a Three Stooges film.

(Soundbite of Three Stooges film)

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You're kidding.

Mr. BABIUK: No, that was the fun part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BABIUK: Finding Joaquin Murphey in a Three Stooges film playing a Bigsby instrument.

(Soundbite of Three Stooges film)

Unidentified Man: Spade Cooley, king of western swing.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: There is a beautiful picture of one of Bigsby's guitars on the cover of the book, but inlaid is the name Merle Travis, the very famous country star. What was his relationship? How did Bigsby end up making his guitar?

Mr. BABIUK: Well, Merle was also fond of motorcycles - very much into that culture. And he had seen Joaquin with the steel guitar that he was playing and it said Bigsby on it. And he said, well, what's this instrument? He goes, well, my friend built it for me. He's the announcer over at the motorcycle races. Why don't you go meet him sometime?

And so, as it stands, they became friends and one day Merle asked him, you know, can you build me a guitar that was solid and that would sustain like a steel guitar, you know, but I want to be able to play it like this? And lo and behold, he drew some pictures, and he said, while you're at it, I really had a miserable time tuning my guitar and restringing it because three tuning pegs are on one side, three on the other side.

So can you do them so they're all six on one side? And lo and behold, we have this instrument with six-on-a-side tuning head and a solid body and that was the first solidbody electric guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BABIUK: It's interesting because most people know Paul Bigsby for his vibrato unit that appeared on Gretsch guitars, on Gibsons and oh, a world of other instruments, but it was really his vibrato, his own genius of building this vibrato that took off that actually killed his building of the instruments themselves.

HANSEN: Hmm. What does it do? What does the vibrato do?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BABIUK: The vibrato actually takes and bends the string in and out of pitch. So you get this wobbling effect.

(Soundbite of vibrato)

HANSEN: Did he play?

Mr. BABIUK: Yes. Paul Bigsby had his own band, and we actually dug up some pictures. He was an upright bass player. He belonged to the musician's union and western swing band. And, you know, all the players in his band played Bigsby instruments, but he played an upright bass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BABIUK: Which wasn't a Bigsby instrument.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: That's kind of ironic, isn't it?

Mr. BABIUK: Sure.

HANSEN: This really is an amazing book. I mean, it's the coffee table book. Lots of photographs and stories, documents, you even put in a Bigsby hall of fame. You have comments, you have photos of some famous players. Besides being a writer, you also are the co-owner of a music shop and is it Fairport, New York?

Mr. BABIUK: Fairport, New York. Yes.

HANSEN: And you play in a band called The Chesterfield Kings. Do you play Bigsby guitars?

Mr. BABIUK: I don't have a Bigsby guitar, but I do have instruments that have Bigsbys on them. Bigsby vibratos.

HANSEN: Oh, the vibratos, but not a guitar itself.

Mr. BABIUK: They're very, very, very rare, you know. He built between 25 and 30 Spanish-style instruments. About 75 to 80 steel instruments and that's it. So they're very, very valuable and very hard to come by.

HANSEN: So how much do they cost? Do you sell them?

Mr. BABIUK: Well, if I had one I'd probably keep it. But average price, I've seen them selling from anywhere from 40 to $80,000.

HANSEN: Wow.

Mr. BABIUK: In the guitar community, a lot of the collectors know somewhat about Bigsby guitars. But hopefully this book is a historical document that will help shed the light on these beautiful instruments that Paul Bigsby built.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Andy Babiuk is the author of "The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar." And he joined us from the studios of WXXI in Rochester, New York. Andy, thanks a lot.

Mr. BABIUK: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: You can see photos and hear music featuring Bigsby guitars on our Web site, nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music)

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