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Bigsby Triple Eight High Steel Electric Guitar made for Joaquin Murphy (1947)
Bigsby Triple Eight Model High Steel Electric Guitar (1947), made in Downey, CA, natural varnish finish, bird's eye maple with aluminum fittings, original black hard shell case.
This instrument, personally handcrafted by Paul A. Bigsby for Joaquin Murphy in 1946-7, is one of the most historically significant steel guitars in existence. Built just after WWII by the seminal maker of early electric instruments for the era's most flamboyant and influential steel stylist, it is essentially the first prototype for the pedal steel guitar. This beautiful and imposing triple-eight console steel was the result of a master player and innovative craftsman combining their talents to create a truly magnificent showpiece like none seen before.
Paul A. Bigsby is a deserved legend in the history of American guitar making. Born in rural Kane, Illinois in 1899, he relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1910's, training as a highly skilled patternmaker. With a strong interest in motorcycle racing and cycle design, Paul became designer and foreman for the Crocker Motorcycle Company by the 1940's, personally building some of the most highly sought-after racing cycles ever made. He also served as a director of the Los Angeles Motorcycle Speedway Association.
One of Bigsby's cycle-enthusiast friends was the young Earl "Joaquin" Murphy, then an up-and-coming West Coast steel guitarist. Hired by star Western swing band leader Spade Cooley while still a teenager, Murphy was considered the finest player of his day, influencing nearly every future steel guitarist in country music. His importance to the technical evolution of the instrument and his involvement with Paul Bigsby is less well known, but it was Murphy who first encouraged his motorcycle designer friend to build guitars. Dissatisfied by the steels commercially available, Murphy spurred Bigsby's earliest electric experiments and immediately used the first examples on stage and in the studio.
Joaquin Murphy began playing this guitar upon completion and it was used for hundreds of shows and on his most important and influential recordings. After owning it more than ten years, he traded it back to Bigsby in 1958 as the down payment on a new guitar. The instrument was subsequently sold to another steel guitarist who played it locally for many years before retiring.
While Murphy is known to have used at least four Bigsby-made guitars over the course of his career, he was quoted as saying that this original T8 was the “best guitar he ever owned.” Besides being featured on hundreds of the greatest 1940's and 50's country music records, this triple-neck steel is the only extant Bigsby instrument pre-dating Merle Travis’ Bigsby solid-body Spanish guitar. The Murphy triple-neck is not only the earliest known Bigsby instrument; it documents Bigsby's extraordinary skill and craftsmanship even at the beginning stage of his guitar-building career.
By 1947, guitarist/singer/songwriter Merle Travis was a recent West Coast transplant, often working with Murphy's sometime boss Tex Williams. Travis, another cycling enthusiast, soon struck up a friendship with Murphy, impressed both by Joaquin’s musicianship and with his newly acquired Bigsby triple-neck steel. Joaquin introduced Merle to Paul Bigsby, and besides talking motorcycles, they began discussing ideas for guitars. Bigsby soon designed an improved vibrato system for Merle’s Gibson, which became the prototype for the phenomenally successful Bigsby True Vibrato.
Travis asked Bigsby if he could construct an electric solid-bodied Spanish guitar with no hollow sound chamber so it would “sustain like a steel.” Bigsby, saying offhand he could build anything, applied the steel guitar's solid neck-through construction to a Spanish style instrument sketched by Travis on a loose sheet of paper. Like Murphy’s steel, Travis' guitar body was built of figured bird's-eye maple with burnished aluminum fittings. Today this guitar is considered the first modern solid-body guitar and the turning point in electric guitar design.
All of Paul Bigsby's instruments were completely hand-built by P. A. himself, but the Murphy triple-neck is so early that there are no standard pattern parts and each piece is individually crafted. The three maple necks with separate raised fingerboards are built separately and joined by aluminum end-pieces; this is the earliest steel guitar designed this way. The aluminum-shrouded pickups are built with horseshoe magnets and non-adjustable polepieces and are unlike later Bigsby units, representing some of P. A.'s first designs. The underside of one of the necks is hand inscribed with a late 1946 date; there is also a stamped 1947 marking visible. The three necks are arranged in a stair-step design, a feature never seen before. Murphy specified it originally for this guitar and it has since become the standard configuration for multi-neck steels.
With this instrument the basic layout of the modern pedal steel was created; all that remained was to add a reliable pitch-changing mechanism (which Bigsby would do for Speedy West in 1948), and the future pedal steel was at hand. This Bigsby/Murphy Triple Eight embodies not only an extremely important benchmark in the American art of the steel guitar, but the first major work of one of the 20th century's most influential guitar builders.
Murphy's original steel, although a sensation at the time, was eventually forgotten. Bigsby soon crafted increasingly sophisticated pitch-changing devices and players quickly adapted to the evolving pedal steel guitar. The greater playing range and new styles possible with pedals eventually rendered obsolete non-pedal multi-necked steels like Murphy's. By the late 1950's, this once futuristic instrument had become a footnote in guitar history, not to re-emerge for nearly fifty years. Paul A. Bigsby is now recognized as the father of the modern pedal steel, and this long-lost instrument was the first step in its creation.
The guitar comes with its original Bigsby-made hard shell guitar case, a hand signed letter from P. A., an original Bigsby volume pedal with case, a box of original Bigsby string sets, fifteen 78rpm records of the ’47-49 Tex Williams band, photos of Joaquin Murphy playing the instrument, and a copy of P. A. Bigsby's First World War era draft card.
This instrument is suprisingly well-preserved for such a well-used guitar and has been restored to its appearance at the time Murphy initially used it. There is evidence of a later added pedal, but otherwise the guitar is in very well-preserved condition. Excellent Condition.
Item # 3226
This item has been sold.
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