Let's dive deep into the world of these revered vibratos, their history, and the popular mods and maintenance tips that will keep them in perfect order for years to come
Bigsby vibratos were the go-to accessory for pioneering country pickers, rockabilly tearaways, and experimentalists of 1960s psychedelic blues. These days, they're as popular as ever with indie rockers and ambient noiseniks.
That's pretty remarkable for a product that has remained essentially unchanged since 1951 - but Bigsby vibratos work because they work.
There was clearly a demand for a mechanical guitar vibrato device long before Paul Bigsby turned his attention to it, and if you were a professional player that probably meant a Kauffman vibrola.
Clayton Orr "Doc" Kauffman first developed his design in the 1930s while working for Rickenbacker and later founded the K&F Manufacturing Corporation with his close friend Leo Fender.
Kauffman Vibrola users included Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, and it was Travis who first approached Paul Bigsby to repair the problematic Vibrola on his Gibson L-10. The repair was not a complete success, so Travis encouraged Bigsby to design and build his own vibrato device instead.
How Bigsbys work
Paul Bigsby was a fix-any-build-any guy who started out designing and building parts for motorcycles. Much of his work involved casting and machining metal, and he was certainly influenced by Rickenbacker's aluminum griddle guitar.
When Bigsby got into instrument making, he combined figured maple with machined aluminum components. His vibrato design was largely derived from his biking background, but also incorporates some elements of traditional instrument making.
Before the solidbody eraelectric guitarPlayers were still playing high-volume archtops. The strings were usually anchored to a tailpiece that folded around the edge of the body and attached to the tail block. Bigsby replaced the tailpiece with a solid casting that attached in the same way, but rested on the body rather than hovering over it.
The Kauffman vibrola rocked back and forth, but Bigsby realized he could create a vibrato effect by rotating the string anchor points back and forth. Of course, the ability to accurately return to pitch is a prerequisite for any vibrato system, and Bigsby used some common technical components to achieve this.
Bearings and springs would have been more than familiar to him from his work with motorcycles. Low friction is crucial, so the main body of Bigsby's vibrato has two large holes drilled into the cast aluminum to accommodate a pair of roller bearings. A rod with string locking pins is passed through these bearings and secured at one end by a locking ring.
Bigsbys have a robust spring to counteract string tension. The main molding contains a small cup for the spring to sit in, and a bracket that attaches to the string rod with a grub screw rotates forward to cover the top of the spring.
When the strings are in pitch, the tension holds the entire assembly tightly against the guitar body, and the mount exerts enough downward pressure to hold the spring in place. The spring is calibrated to counteract string tension while remaining soft enough to compress when the bracket-mounted handle is pushed down.
Ultimately, Bigsby vibrato is a mechanical solution to a musical problem. As such, it paved the way for many of the guitar hardware innovations that followed in the decades that followed.
In the rapidly evolving electric guitar scene of the early 1950s, Paul Bigsby's "one size fits all" approach soon became untenable. For smaller semi-rigid archtops like the Gretsch Duo Jet, Bigsby introduced a shorter version of the B6 with a downsized hinge called the B3.
For guitars with a lower arc and flat top, such as B. Les Pauls and various ES models, the B7 has a front roller bridge to increase the string break angle over the bridge and must be screwed onto the top.
The B5, nicknamed the "Horseshoe Bigsby", also features a front roller but no hinge. Designed to screw onto the face of flat top guitars, it fits SGs,Telecaster, Juniors, Rickenbackers und Firebirds.
Bigsby even designed a vibrato specifically for Telecaster. With integrated bridge pickup mounting and a cutout for a drop-in bridge, the B16 is impressive, but it's a big commitment and there are other options that retain more of the authentic Tele tone and vibe.
By the 1960s Bigsbys were so popular that production was contracted out to Selmer, who built them under license in the UK. Bigsby also made branded versions for Gretsch and Guild.
In 1965, health problems forced Paul Bigsby to sell his company to former Gibson President Ted McCarty. Fred W. Gretsch bought Bigsby in 1999 and two decades later Bigsby was acquired by its current owner, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.
The basic Bigsby design has remained the same, but as a modular system it is possible to swap out some components to alter the feel and improve playability.
For example, Bigsbys were offered with different handles that can be exchanged very easily. Simply loosen the grub screw that secures the bracket to the header with an Allen key. Popular options include Merle Travis, Chet Atkins/Wire Arm, Duane Eddy, and vintage wide grips.
Some players, including Darrel Higham, prefer the original non-rotating style fixed grip, but that's down to personal preference. You can also adjust the "pivot ability" of your handle by tightening or loosening the mounting screw. But if it's set too loose, the vibrato may feel less responsive and precise.
The height and stiffness of the spring affects the feel of the vibrato and the height of the grip. Again, it's really a matter of taste, but some players prefer the softer feel of the Reverend nib.
Keep in mind that a softer spring can compress as the strings flex - just like a three-spring Strat setup. If you like the feel of your nib but would like your grip to be a little higher, try placing a coin under the nib. It needs to be wider in diameter than the spring but narrower than the "cup" that the spring sits in.
Owners sometimes have difficulty attaching strings to the pegs of Bigsby-equipped guitars. In recent years, "pinless" Bigsbys have been introduced to allow stringing with through poles. You can remove the pins and drill out the bar to pull through, but it's safer and easier to retrofit a Callaham pinless bar or Vibramate String Spoiler.
Elsewhere, some note that front-roller Bigsbys have compromises in sustain and frequency response. If you think so, check out the Callaham Front Roller Upgrade Kit. This direct replacement is made of stainless steel and is designed to improve sustain and tuning stability.
Front rollers can create a very sharp break angle across the bridge, which can prevent strings from sliding freely across it. The BiggsFix Tuning Stabilizer mounts in the existing roller holes but is raised to soften the break angle and improve tuning stability.
If you're looking to upgrade a Bigsby to a stop-tailpiece guitar but are reluctant to drill holes in the body, check out the Vibramate range. They offer non-destructive Bigsby assembly systems forLes Pauls, SGs, ES Models, Telecasters, Flying Vs and more.
Also check out Towner's range which includes a down tension bar that mounts to stop tailpiece jacks and allows the use of B3 and B6 bigsbys on guitars that would otherwise require a front roller bigsby .
It also offers a hinge plate adapter that allows for a solid attachment via the strap knob screw hole, as well as spacer blocks for additional mounting options on various guitars, including Firebirds.
As long as you understand their limitations, Bigsbys are reliable and stable. If you have tuning problems while using it, you can usually trace the problems back to the bridge, bridge saddles, saddle or machine heads rather than the Bigsby itself. You should also make sure that the device is properly seated on the guitar and is not wobbling from side to side. It may be necessary to use additional felt spacers.
Very old Bigsbys can become stiff from clotted fat, dried oil and dirt build-up. However, it usually takes years (or even decades) for these problems to manifest themselves, and many old Bigsbys still work perfectly.
The next time you remove your strings, try turning the pin rod and front pulley (if you have one) by hand. Both should spin freely without resistance, but if they don't, it's time to clean up. You will need an Allen wrench to remove the grub screws that secure the string pins and locking ring pliers to loosen the pin header.
With the locking ring and grub screws now removed, the pins can be pushed out of the rod and the rod will slide out of the casting. You will see roller bearings mounted in the casting and these should be flushed out with naphtha (aka lighter fluid) - so remember to work in a well ventilated area.
Once dry, apply fresh lithium grease to the bearings and wipe off excess grease. The header will most likely be sticky too; If this is the case, you can clean it with naphtha or acetone. Then do some chrome polish on the areas where the rod contacts the bearings.
The front rollers are secured by a grub screw on the underside of the casting and can be removed with an Allen key. The center rod can be pulled out of the casting and separated from the roller tube that is supported on both sides.
Dip both parts in naphtha until all old oil and grease can be removed, buff rod and apply fresh grease to bearings before reassembling. The entire process shouldn't take more than a few hours, and your Bigsby should be good for another decade or so.
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Huw started out in recording studios, working as an engineer and producer for David Bowie, Primal Scream, Ian Dury, Fad Gadget, My Bloody Valentine, Cardinal Black and many others. His book Recording Guitar & Bass was published in 2002 and a freelance journalism career soon followed. He has written reviews, interviews, workshop and technical articles for Guitarist, Guitar Magazine, Guitar Player, Acoustic Magazine, Guitar Buyer and Music Tech. He has also contributed to several books including The Tube Amp Book by Aspen Pittman. Huw builds and services guitars and amps for customers and specializes in vintage restoration. He advises equipment manufacturers and occasionally allows himself to be lured back into the studio.