Description1949 Bigsby Birdseye Maple Solid Body Electric Guitar, #51649. Has some arm wear to body finish and moderate fret wear to what appear to be original frets. There is minimal checking to original finish. Both pickups are working but switch may need replacement. Center position is not working. Tuner buttons are original early Kluson single line with the smaller base plate but pot metal buttons are cracking and will need replacement. Low "E" tuner has been replaced. No other modifications or changes on this instrument. Truly one of the rarest and early guitars of Bigsby, possibly the fourth one made with the Merle Travis guitar considered the first one dated May 25, 1948. The original case is included also made by Bigsby and in fine condition both structurally as well as cosmetically showing moderate to light wear.
Based on the serial number, this Bigsby guitar was completed May 16, 1949. This guitar appears to have been the cover girl for the Bigsby brochure and catalog. It is the only example seen of the bridge posts mounted directly into top like Gibson eventually did on Les Paul guitars starting with the 1954 Les Paul Custom. This instrument has a decal logo as usually seen on the steel guitars Bigsby made. This can also be seen in the cover photo of this guitar on the brochure. The figure of the wood matches the guitar on the cover as well.
While it originally had a wooden pickguard (also seen in cover photo) the current guard was most likely the third version installed. The second one is broken and in the case with the name Freddie Hilst engraved in the plastic (Freddie Hilst was a musician that played on TV in the early 50s in Los Angeles). This is not dissimilar to the examples in the Bigsby book of other artist guitars. It is doubtful that this guitar was made for Freddie but the pickguard and engraving may have been done by Semie Mosley, employee of Paul Bigsby at the time. It is a slightly different font than most of the Paul Bigsby-made guards and somewhat lacking in the detail Paul would have exhibited. There is, however, one example in the Bigsby book showing identical letter type.
Included with this lot is a letter from Bigsby expert Deke Dickerson titled "Assessment of Bigsby Guitar #51649". It is quite detailed and methodical in its examination of this instrument. He lists his qualifications ("My educated opinion comes from owning two original Bigsby electric guitars..."), the "Points of Evidence," the "Anomalies," and his conclusions, in part: "In my educated opinion, the guitar being offered by Heritage Auctions, serial #51649, is a genuine Bigsby electric guitar. There are several details on the guitar that are unusual, and may lead some to believe that this guitar is not an original Bigsby, perhaps a copy, but in my educated opinion based on the guitars I've seen and several guitars that share identical characteristics; this is an original Bigsby electric guitar... I believe this instrument is the fourth electric standard solidbody Bigsby made. The first was made for Merle Travis. The second was made for Bigsby's neighbor George Grohs (and is currently owned by R.C. Alien). The third guitar was made for Ernest Tubb's guitarist Butterball Paige (and is currently owned by me). The completion date of this instrument, May 16, 1949, would place it a month and a half earlier than the next known Bigsby instrument, the single-neck guitar made for Grady Martin serial #7149, completed on July 1st, 1949." The complete text is available on our website.
Paul Bigsby (1899-1968) is maybe best known as the designer of the first successful vibrato tailpiece (or "whammy bar" as it's often called) for the electric guitar. It was so successful that, to this day, his device is still in production and known simply as "a Bigsby." In 1948, at the request of friend and fellow motorcycle and country music enthusiast Merle Travis, Bigsby built a custom electric guitar with a strangely-shaped headstock featuring the six tuners in a single row, and with the strings anchored in the body instead of a tailpiece. This was a revolutionary instrument that had incredible influences on most of the solid body electric models that would follow. He only built a few of these and the current Bigsby company website states that: "After 15 years of research, we can document only 47 steels, six standard guitars, one tenor guitar, two double neck guitars, two mandolins and six neck replacements that are still around today." Another chance to purchase one of these legendary, museum-worthy electric guitars may not come along in some of our lifetimes. Don't miss out! Original hard case included. Condition: Good.
ASSESSMENT OF BIGSBY GUITAR #51649
By Deke Dickerson
I have been asked to give my educated opinion on the Bigsby electric guitar, serial number #51649, being offered for sale by Heritage Auctions in the year 2012. I have a great deal of experience in researching Bigsby guitars, and was one of the five people involved in the Bigsby book published by Hal Leonard.
My educated opinion comes from owning two original Bigsby electric guitars, inspecting first-hand (and photographing) eleven Bigsby electric guitars, two Bigsby electric tenor guitars, three Bigsby electric mandolins, six Bigsby acoustic instruments (Bigsby necks put on Gibsons, Martins, etc.), and twenty-seven Bigsby steel guitars. I have seen these instruments close-up and studied their details. I believe that I have inspected first-hand more Bigsby instruments and have a better working knowledge of Paul Bigsby's building techniques and construction details than anyone besides Paul Bigsby himself.
In my educated opinion, the guitar being offered by Heritage Auctions, serial #51649, is a genuine Bigsby electric guitar. There are several details on the guitar that are unusual, and may lead some to believe that this guitar is not an original Bigsby, perhaps a copy, but in my educated opinion based on the guitars I've seen and several guitars that share identical characteristics; this is an original Bigsby electric guitar.
The serial number, #51649, indicates that the guitar was completed on May 16,1949. (Bigsby's serial numbers corresponded to the completion date, month/date/year) This makes the guitar a very early example of Bigsby's work. As such, I believe that he was still experimenting with different elements of building construction and thus could explain the anomalies found on this instrument.
I believe this instrument is the fourth electric standard solidbody Bigsby made. The first was made for Merle Travis. The second was made for Bigsby's neighbor George Grohs (and is currently owned by R.C. Alien). The third guitar was made for Ernest Tubb's guitarist Butterball Paige (and is currently owned by me). The completion date of this instrument, May 16, 1949, would place it a month and a half earlier than the next known Bigsby instrument, the single-neck guitar made for Grady Martin serial #7149, completed on July 1st, 1949.
POINTS OF EVIDENCE:
(1) If you look in the Bigsby book (The Story of Paul Bigsby) on page 66 in the upper left hand corner, you will see a photograph of this instrument, serial #51649, pictured on the cover of the first Bigsby catalog. If you look carefully at the birdseye maple grain pattern on the top of the guitar in the photo, and the walnut grain pattern on the headstock cap, it is possible to match the birdseyes and the grain patterns to this guitar. This guitar can also be seen in the photo on page 105 of the Bigsby book, in the upper right hand corner, being played by Paul Bigsby's friend Jack Parsons. Again, the wood grain of the birdseyes in the maple can be matched to the guitar, especially in the area between the bridge and the violin tailpiece. It is my opinion that matching the birdseyes in the maple and the grain on the headstock to vintage photos is the best way (timber "DNA") to conclusively identify a Bigsby guitar as an original.
(Note: Although there is an inlaid pickguard included with the guitar with the name "Freddie Hilst" on it, the vintage pictures of this instrument indicated above show that it was originally made with a dark walnut pickguard with no inlay. Therefore both the white pickguard currently on the guitar and the Freddie Hilst pickguard are both later replacement pickguards and not the original)
(2) Another element that proves to me that this is a genuine Bigsby guitar is the graceful neck-body joint. Bigsby was unique in the way he crafted a sloping fade where the neck seamlessly flows into the body of the guitar. I have seen many examples of genuine Bigsby instruments with this feature and also several examples of Bigsby forgeries (made by R.C. Alien and others). This neck-body joint sloping fade is a feature that nobody else has duplicated correctly. In my opinion the graceful sloping fade in the neck-body joint on this instrument #51649 is more proof that it is an authentic Bigsby guitar.
(3) Other features found on this instrument #51649 that correspond correctly with other verified authentic Bigsby instruments I have inspected:
A. Violin tailpiece looks correct.
B. Pickups look correct.
C. Serial number stamp looks correct,
D. Switch and knobs look correct.
E. Tuning machines (earliest Kluson pre-1950 tuners) look correct (with one replaced key).
F. All construction techniques look correct for a 1949-era Bigsby (his construction techniques changed subtly from 1948 until 1956 when the last Spanish guitars were made)
G.The inside cavity (removing the back plate) shows wiring, pots and capacitors that look correct.
H.The case, case lining and case pockets look correct and are identical to the case for Bigsby guitar #3 (the Butterball Paige guitar that preceded this one) and Bigsby #2 (the George Grohs guitar now owned by R.C. Alien).
All in all, the construction techniques for this guitar #51649 are completely correct for a 1949 Bigsby electric guitar.
What is interesting about this guitar, #51649, are the anomalies. With the extensive research that I put into the Bigsby book, the interesting thing that came to light was that Bigsby did not build everything exactly the same. During the approximately 18 years he made instruments (steel guitars 1945-1963, Spanish guitars 1948-1956) there were a great number of anomalies and different build techniques.
I will detail the most obvious anomalies on this instrument, #51649, and give evidence why I think they are genuine Bigsby features.
(1) The most glaring anomaly of this instrument, #51649, is the Bigsby decal on the headstock. Traditionally Bigsby inlaid his logo into the headstock, and the vast majority of instruments have inlaid logos. However, there are two examples of Bigsby instruments that I think point to this decal on the headstock being original.
A. The "Hank Penny" acoustic guitar.
I own a vintage photo of Western singer Hank Penny holding a Martin guitar with a Bigsby neck. In the photo, you can't see the end of the headstock, but you can see enough of the headstock to see that it's a Bigsby. In the vintage photo there is also a Bigsby pickguard with Hank Penny's name inlaid on it. A few years ago during the research of this book, a guitar surfaced with the story that it was Hank Penny's. The guitar had a Bigsby headstock, but no logo on it. The guitar was definitely old, and there were vintage pictures from the new owner going back to the 1960's with the same guitar. The guitar showed all signs of having a real Bigsby neck, but there was no inlaid Bigsby logo on the headstock. After seeing this guitar, #51649,1 believe that the Hank Penny acoustic was another instrument that had a decal on the headstock, which had come off over the years, leaving a blank headstock. The Hank Penny acoustic shares another unusual feature with the guitar #51649, detailed below, which makes me believe they were probably constructed around the same time in 1949.
B. The Dale & Harry Granstrom "Myrtlewood" Bigsby guitars
As detailed in the Bigsby book as well as a Vintage Guitar article I authored, Paul Bigsby helped two brothers in Oregon, Dale & Harry Granstrom, build two guitars a 5-string electric bass, and a pedal steel guitar, all out of the native Oregon timber "myrtlewood."
Bigsby furnished completed fretboards and gave construction details (headstock templates, etc) to the brothers. When the brothers finished their instruments, they sent them down to Paul Bigsby to have Bigsby pickups, wiring harness, pickguards, etc. put on them. At this time (late 1951), Bigsby also put decals-not inlay-on the headstocks of the Granstrom instruments, the same as this guitar #51649.
C. By studying the vintage picture of this guitar #51649 when it was featured in the earliest Bigsby ads and the first Bigsby catalog, I believe it is possible to see that the headstock has a decal on it-careful viewing of the vintage photo will note the black outline of the Bigsby logo, just as the decal has on it. The inlaid Bigsby logos did not have a black outline.
(2) The odd strap hook. The second anomaly found on this guitar, #51649, is the unusual strap hook found on the upper bout. Typically Bigsby guitars, mandolins and tenor guitars had a piece of bent wire in a "U" shape, that was used to attach a strap hook (country western musicians of the era liked to have a strap button on the bottom end of the guitar, and a strap hook on the top end of the guitar, so they could remove a guitar strap quickly while wearing a cowboy hat, without having to take the guitar with strap over their cowboy hat). Most of Bigsby's instruments feature the same type of strap hook (although hi my research, I have seen five different types of strap hooks used on Bigsby instruments). This guitar, #51649, has an different type of strap hook that looks like something bought at a surplus or hardware store intended for another use and repurposed as a strap hook. While some might see this unusual strap hook and think it to be non-original, I have seen several other authentic Bigsby instruments with the exact same strap hook. These instruments include:
The Zeke Clements acoustic guitar (now owned by R.C. Alien)
Merle Travis' Martin D-28 with Bigsby neck
Eschol Cosby's Bigsby tenor guitar
The "Hank Penny" Martin with Bigsby neck
(all four of these instruments were completed in 1949, presumably around the same time as this guitar, #51649)
(3) The bridge with no base. The third anomaly found on this guitar #51649 is the solid-anchored bridge with no base. I have seen no other full-sized instruments made by Paul Bigsby with this feature, where the bridge studs anchor directly in the guitar with no bridge "base." However, there were two small prototype instruments made around 1948 that also had this feature. Also, if one studies the photograph of this guitar in the vintage Bigsby catalog photo, you can see that this guitar didn't have a bridge base in the photo, as well, proving it to be an original feature. My best educated guess is that Bigsby tried it once and decided he liked the other way better. It would certainly not be the only one-off feature found on a Bigsby instrument. They were made by one man in a small garage, by hand, so it only goes to reason that there would be instruments with one-off features.
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