My Bigsby Steel Guitar
Christmas came a little early this year. Santa brought me a triple-neck Bigsby steel guitar.
Well, not really Santa. More like the UPS man. And this one’s been a long time coming.
From 1944 to 1963 Paul A. Bigsby meticulously crafted electric guitars, steels and mandolins – at his peak never more than one a month and most of the time a lot fewer than that, often with a waiting list of several years. P. A. Bigsby was a huge influence on Leo Fender, and the vibrato tailpiece he invented remains the standard today. Only about 60 to 70 Bigsby instruments are known to exist. Bigsby steel guitars are prized not only because they are rare but because they sound incredible. As old-time steeler Garland Nash told me, “In 1956 if you had one of these, you had a job.”
I found my Bigsby in Nashville in the 1990s. In those days before the Internet, I subscribed to George Gruhn’s inventory list by mail every week. When the Bigsby showed up I called and said, “Hold it for four hours until I get there from Atlanta.”
The thing was trashed. It was filthy. One neck was missing, and the side panels had been crudely sawed short and bolted back together. The aluminum fretboards were painted red. The guitar still had two pickups, but I couldn’t test them because the wiring and switches were all stripped out. Most Bigsby steels had the original owner’s name inlaid on the front panel. This one was blank. Later I learned that all the main Bigsby collectors had already passed on the instrument. If it hadn’t been in such rough shape, I would have never even heard about it, much less had the chance to buy it. And buy it I did, without hesitation.
I took the guitar apart, stripped the red paint from the fretboards and painted them black according to pictures I’d found and phone conversations with other Bigsby owners. I hotwired the pickups and, lo, they still worked. I replaced broken or missing tuning machines with the correct vintage parts. Then I strung the thing up — and discovered it was a time machine. On playing the first note, I was instantly transported to Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa in 1956, watching couples swirl clockwise around the wooden dance floor.
And so the instrument stayed for years. I played it regularly at home and now and then on gigs with various bands around Atlanta before Delta Moon started taking all my time.
I often wished and wondered about the Bigsby’s third neck, especially when I came across photos like the one below of a Bigsby neck-ectomy. Could that be the missing piece of my guitar?
Then I learned that Todd Clinesmith of Glide, Oregon, had purchased the remaining inventory of original Bigsby parts and was making impeccable reproductions. His work was getting thumbs up from collectors and players alike. I called Todd and he agreed to restore my Bigsby. It took a while, because at that time he didn’t have the right mold to match the raised graphics of the other two fretboards. But Todd got the mold made and cast a new neck. He took great care to match the aged finish on the curly maple of the two original necks. In every detail, Todd did a beautiful job.
The guitar looks and sounds fantastic. Thank you, Todd Clinesmith.
And thank you, P. A. Bigsby.