The Bigsby Vibrato

April 16, 2020

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1. Bigsby History

The Bigsby Vibrato tailpiece was invented by Paul Bigsby and commercially produced by Bigsby from the 1950s onwards. The US patent was granted in 1953. The vibrato bends and varies the pitch of individual strings, or whole chords, when the arm is depressed, producing a classic tonal effect. Also commonly referred to as a “whammy bar” or “tremolo”. The term tremolo is technically incorrect but seems entrenched in guitar speak.

Paul Bigsby was a very interesting character and also famed for his highly collectable electric guitars, only produced in small numbers. He was friends with both Les Paul and Leo Fender and went on to produce one of the first solid-body guitars which looked very similar to a Strat’. Strangely this was well before Leo “invented” the Strat’ that we all know…… but that’s another story.

The Bigsby Vibrato is hand made from molten aluminium, cast into a sand mould. The technique and design has changed very little from the original process. The vibrato has a distinctly retro’ vibe about it and is now recognized as a classic design piece from the 1950s.

Ownership of Bigsby has changed over the years, passing through Gibson and Gretsch and now owned by Fender.

Practically Bigsbys are very robust, easy to fit, top-mounted and stay reasonably in tune.

2. Which Bigsby Model?

Bigsbys are factory fitted on many different leading brand guitars as an option. They can also be retrofitted.

There are a variety of models to suit most guitar body shapes. The B3, B5, B6, B7, B11 B12 & B16. Perhaps the most popular being the B5 (aka Horseshoe) for Tele’s and flat top guitars and the B7 for Thinline electric archtops, such as the ES 335.

The following list is not definitive:

B3 Thin hollow body, semi-solid hollow body electric guitars, such as Epiphone Casino or Gretsch Duo Jet. Commonly used where the guitar originally had a trapeze tail.

B5 Flat top electric guitars, Telecaster Gibson SG, Gibson Les Paul Junior, Rickenbacker 325

B6 Large hollow body guitars.

B7 Archtop solid body guitars, semi-solid body guitars, such as Gibson Les Paul, Gibson ES 335. Commonly used where the guitar had a stop-bar.

B11 Thin hollow body, semi-solid hollow body electric guitars, such as Epiphone Casino or Gretsch Duo Jet

B12 Archtop solid body, semi-solid body electric.

B16 Original vintage pattern for a 1950’s Tele’.

There are subtle variations between some models and variants within a model. For instance, the B5 is available as B5 ST, the body is shortened to prevent it fouling the pickguard on guitars such as the Gibson SG.

The USA produced models are now referred to as the “Kalamazoo Series”

There is a cheaper licensed version, which is die-cast aluminium, produced in the Far East, known as the “Lightning Series” These models are not as sought after and designated B30, B50, B70 and so on.

3. Vintage Bigsby Vibratos

The original US patent was granted in March 1953. There have been small design changes over the years but most are difficult to date accurately. Wording on front of the tailpieces varied over time. Original US castings stated “Patent Pending”, then around 1954 “Patent D,169,120”, until about 1960 when they went to “Patent No. D, 169, 120”.

Early Bigsbys had a slotted head screw, changing to a Phillips head screw, holding the arm to the top of the spring compression unit. On newer models, starting around 1961/62 or so, the screw was changed to a rivet style design. Arms are often lost and replaced with different style fixings.

Earlier US models had three hole tail tabs, this changed to a four hole-tab in the late 1950s. String retainer pins appear to have been originally threaded pins with an Allen (hex) head, drilled through the axle. This was later changed to straight pins forced into blind holes in the axle. US bearings are stamped KAYDON KN-060910, although I have seen bearings with no stamp.

As usual, the above design changes were not implemented overnight and often Bigsbys can be found with a mixture of features.

In the early 1960s Bigsby licensed production to Selmer for manufacture in the UK. These were originally intended for Hofner guitars but also sold separately. There are subtle design differences between the Selmer units and US units. It is reported that John Lennon used a Selmer produced B5 on his famous Rickenbacker 325. It is unlikely Selmer units followed the continuing design changes implemented in the US, such as the change of arm screw from Phillips to dome head.

Selmer units were sand cast from original US Bigsbys, not the original moulds. Therefore the Selmer Bigsbys are fractionally smaller, not that you would notice. There are a number of variations, suggesting that Selmer moulds were produced from a range of US Bigsbys with different features, often a mix, including three-hole tabs, usually associated with early US models.

Most are stamped on the back “Made under Licence granted by Bigsby USA”. This is stamped into the metal after casting. The bearings are usually inscribed “B-610 Torrington, Made in England” Wording on the front face states “US Patent No …” Selmer string retainer pins are threaded with slot heads, drilled through the axle. Sometimes the pins are removed to allow stringing through the axle.
Screw threads are imperial on both US & Selmer models.

4. Fitting

It is not intended to draft detailed fitting instructions, as these are supplied with each Vibrato unit.

Fitting the Vibrato is relatively straightforward. There are two options :

  1. Screw the unit to the guitar body, as originally designed. This leaves permanent screw holes in the guitar top if the Vibrato is ever removed. It is most important to set out the position of the Vibrato unit correctly. Otherwise, string spacing to the edge of the fingerboard can be compromised. If you are not confident drilling your guitar top, take the guitar to your local repair shop – it’s not an expensive exercise.
  2. Purchase a separate “Vibramate” fitting bracket. These are manufactured by a different company and specifically designed to avoid drilling the guitar body. The process is very simple and totally reversible, without damage. Brackets are designated V5, V7 etc. Cost of the bracket is relatively high but seen as a good option by many people. They do spoil the overall aesthetic in my opinion.

The Vibramate V7 is available in two slightly different lengths for the Les Paul and ES335.

Good operation of the Vibrato is helped by the smooth transition of the strings over the saddles and nut. Both sometimes require attention. String trees, pulling the strings down to increase break angle over the nut, can cause slight problems. Various roller bridges and roller string trees are available as an option but not usually necessary. It is best to play the guitar and become familiar with the Vibrato before changing hardware, but most likely not required.

Bigsby also offer an aluminium rocker bridge to replace a standard rosewood floating bridge, in a flat top or arch top version. The flat top is sometimes referred to as a “dog bone bridge”

Re-stringing takes slightly longer and if a string breaks during play the guitar will drop out of tune on the remaining strings due to the overall drop in total string tension.

Different height Bigsby springs are available, this alters the height of the arm above the guitar body.

When fitting to a standard or vintage Telecaster the bridge plate must be altered to allow strings to pass over the back of the bridge. There are various replacement bridges on the market ready-modified. Mastery Bridge manufacture an excellent version.

5. Finishes

Bigsby Vibrato units are available in polished aluminium, chrome-plated aluminium and gold plated. The gold versions are considerably more expensive.

6. Bigsby at Nottingham City Guitars

We supply and fit Bigsby’s at competitive prices and usually have a good stock available, including Vibramate brackets. Guitars are set-up during fitting. We will also fit Bigsby Vibratos supplied by the customer.

We stock Bigsby ready Mastery bridges for Telecasters. We often have a stock of vintage Bigsbys and can hand age new units to a “vintage” finish if required. Please phone or email for a quote.

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