It wouldn't be farfetched to assume that Paul Bigsby's legacy began in a tiny guitar workshop in Southern California. You'd be half right, but you might be surprised to learn that some of the expert design skills he used to revolutionize the modern guitar stemmed from the time he spent building motorcycles! As a cyclist himself, Bigsby started racing at a young age, even winning his first race by the age of 20, but soon several injuries shifted his focus from riding to building. This is when Bigsby's knack for design first began to develop. During this transition he worked as a foreman at Crocker Motorcycle Company, based in Los Angeles, where he assisted in designing the V-Twin, which had the largest engine of any bike at the time.
In his spare time, Bigsby fancied himself as an amateur guitarist and developed a particular interest in Western swing, a style he enjoyed for its distinctive steel guitar sound. Uniting his passions for music and design, he began building instruments in his spare time, applying the same skills he used to build motorcycles parts to build guitars. One of his first guitars was built for Earl “Joaquin” Murphey, a guitar player for Spade Cooley Orchestra. This guitar, a double 8-string console steel, allowed for its player to quickly alternate between tunings. As the story goes, Bigsby approached Murphey after a show with the instrument and offered to let him play it. Murphey enjoyed the guitar so much that he wanted to keep it, but Bigsby suggested something even better: he would instead build Joaquin a triple-8 version of that model, allowing for even more variation in sound. That guitar, along with other similar custom models, helped spread the word about this new guitar building prodigy.
With a foot in the industry’s door, Bigsby began experimenting with different pickup designs. When Les Paul installed a Bigsby pickup on the Epiphone he used to record his upbeat hit “How High The Moon,” word of Bigsby’s design skills spread to many other big musicians in the scene, including the man who would inspire arguably Bigsby’s most significant contributions to the music industry – the Bigsby vibrato and the first modern solid body guitar.
Merle Travis, a country singer/songwriter from Kentucky, came in contact with Paul through using his pickups. Helped by their mutual interest in motorcycles, the two quickly became friends. One day, Merle brought in his Gibson L-10 with a faulty Kaufman vibrato and asked if Paul could fix it. He replied, with his famed can-do confidence, “I can fix anything.” And he did more than just fix it. In fact, he was so dissatisfied with the piece of equipment that he scrapped it altogether and created his own vibrato mechanism that worked flawlessly. The Bigsby vibrato to this day remains the vibrato of choice for most guitar manufacturers worldwide.
In 1946, Merle again approached Paul, the man who could build anything, seeking a guitar that would sustain its sound similarly to the Bigsby models made for artists like Murphey. This time he presented Paul with a sketch for a solid body guitar. Even though the solid body design had been done before, Bigsby's design revolutionized the way the modern solid body would be built. The instrument had six-on-a-side tuners on its headstock, a characteristic of today’s Stratocasters, and a body design that later evolved into the shape seen on today’s Les Pauls. Most agree that these similarities are a direct result of inspiration drawn from Bigsby’s work.
Even though other companies were mass-producing Bigsby inspired guitars with great success, Bigsby himself was never interested in doing the same. Quite the contrary, he preferred to build one unique guitar at a time, working in his own shop without any assistance for big-name musicians in the country scene.
Even though Les Paul and Leo Fender tend to be credited for introducing the solid body electric guitar into the mainstream, their popularization of the instrument could not have been done without the inspiration of Bigsby’s designs. His one-at-a-time production model wasn't exactly prolific, but it made each guitar he made even more special. Although he built relatively few instruments, the number of guitars built because of his influence is impossible to measure. Without doubt, Bigsby will forever be remembered as one of the most influential and lasting makers the guitar world has ever seen.