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Paul Bigsby: “Forgotten Hero” Remembered

Paul Bigsby: “Forgotten Hero” Remembered

June 7, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of Paul Bigsby.  Although Paul has been gone these past 50 years, his legacy lives on through his many innovative ideas and designs that have had a profound influence on the world of musical instruments.

Paul was born on December 12, 1899 in Elgin, Illinois. He was many things: a successful motorcycle racer, expert pattern-maker, machinist, inventor, poet, guitar-maker, and musician. Most widely known for inventing the Bigsby True Vibrato tailpiece, Paul also made the first modern solidbody electric guitar for musician Merle Travis in 1948.  Paul Bigsby was the “man who could build anything.”

No challenge was too big for Paul.  He did everything from re-necking guitars to building a variety of steel guitars, standard guitars, and mandolins, to winding his own pickups, and eventually inventing and producing the Bigsby True Vibrato.

But by 1965, Paul was experiencing some health problems and wanted to sell his company. He called up his old associate Ted McCarty, the retired president of Gibson guitars, and Ted purchased the Bigsby name and all inventory effective January 1, 1966.

Ted McCarty and Fred W. Gretsch

In 1999, Ted McCarty was nearing retirement after a long and successful career spanning over 60 years. On May 10, 1999, the Gretsch Guitar Company purchased Bigsby Accessories from Ted.  Ted was a long-time friend of the Gretsch family and especially close to William Walter Gretsch, father of current company president Fred W. Gretsch.  When the sale was announced in early 1999, Ted said “Fred is the obvious person to take over Bigsby. When Paul Bigsby wanted to sell his company in 1966, he came to me. When I wanted to sell Bigsby and retire, I approached Gretsch Guitars. It’s a very natural progression.”

As we honor Paul’s life and achievements, we revisit the December 2011 issue of Premier Guitar magazine which highlighted Paul Bigsby as one of the industry’s “Forgotten Heroes.”  The article detailed contributions made by Paul Bigsby to the world of modern music by focusing on some of his most enduring designs.  Included are details of how he modified the pedal steel guitar into the configuration we know today, used an aluminum case for the shielding of pickups, placed all 6 tuning machines on a single side to promote tuning stability, and, of course, designed the world-famous Bigsby True Vibrato.  The article also discusses Paul’s relationship with Leo Fender and the similarities of design components found on most modern electric guitars.  A nicely-crafted article on Paul Bigsby and how he contributed to the world of electric guitars.

We invite you to read this terrific Premier Guitar feature and when you’re finished, suggest you pick up a copy of the book The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solid Body Guitar–masterfully written by Andy Babiuk–for more on Paul’s life.  This deluxe, well-illustrated coffee table book includes over 300 color and black-and-white photos including many unpublished photos of over 50 actual Bigsby instruments.  It also includes an audio CD of Paul Bigsby himself, recorded in the late 1950s, telling stories about his business.  Lastly, make sure to visit the Bigsby website for more on Paul as well as the famous Bigsby Vibrato.

Bigsby B5 Matchplate