Instrumentalists--especially guitarists-- and instrument collectors do not always get along. We tend to be annoyed at collectors driving up the prices of the things we need to use to do our jobs, and there is a general feeling of irritation at seeing guitars that should be being played locked up behind glass. But earlier today, I got the chance to play an amazing, truly unique instrument, and that would not have been possible without the man who purchased it, Gary Hustwit.
This instrument was the very first instrument made by Paul Bigsby, and, if that wasn’t enough, it was played by the legendary steel guitarist Joaquin Murphey. To make a long story short, Bigsby asked Murphey to play it on a concert (ie, some weirdo comes up to one of the best steel players in California and tries to get him to play his homemade steel guitar) and Murphey loved it so much he played it all night and then asked for a custom-made double 8, the success of which turned Bigsby from a motorcycle builder for Crocker into one of the world’s best-known and most inventive luthiers.
And what is this instrument like? Well, it’s not like any other Bigsby I’ve ever seen or played; it was actually made as an imitation or a Rickenbacker frying pan, a popular lap steel model that was unavailable at the time (1942) due to a war-time aluminum shortage. Bigsby’s lap steel teacher apparently played one, and the sound of it inspired him to use some of the extra motorcycle aluminum he had at his disposal to make himself a steel.
This is not an instrument that you would look at and say, “wow, not bad for a first try.” The main body is technically impeccable and gorgeously designed. The frets, fret markers, and initials on the headstock are all part of the same piece of aluminum that the body is cast from, so they look and feel really solid and substantial. The paint job (starting to peel after 75 years) is a nice brown purple which Gary told me was used for the motorcycles he made for Crocker. The pickup is a horseshoe shape; another direct imitation of the Rickenbacker he admired, and--here’s where it becomes thrillingly homemade-- the volume control seems to be a potentiometer borrowed from a TV or some piece of stereo equipment. It clicks on and off, and the screws holding it to the body look to me like the screws you would use on an outlet cover. Bigsby also added a leg rest out of a nicely-varnished wood (not bird’s-eye maple, though) which makes the steel lie perfectly straight across your lap. Amazingly, for someone who was at that time neither a professional player nor a luthier, Bigsby made a genuinely pro instrument. Admittedly, lap steels are a relatively simple thing to make, but you can definitely get them wrong, and little touches like the leg rest show that even from the very beginning he was concerned with making things that would be a help to players rather than a hindrance.
The electronics are also remarkably good; you would never guess the pickups were hand-wound on, I believe, a sowing machine. There is a lot of sound and even through a (decent) Blues Jr., the pickup is bright and crisp. It really imposed its sound on the amp; even with the amp EQ in drastically different positions it was still basically the same sound--very dry, bright, and with absolutely nowhere to hide. I could imagine it being a frustrating instrument to learn on for this reason; every mistake would have been jarringly loud and abrasive. But that exact quality would have been very appealing to a pro like Joaquin Murphey who would have wanted to have every nuance of his playing faithfully represented.
In preparing for this incredible opportunity, I did a lot of listening to Joaquin and transcribed two melody choruses of standards that I felt exemplified the best elements of his playing: his elegance, his creativity, and his ability to use the limitations of the instrument to his advantage. The lap steel, even in the hands of a master like Murphey, is an instrument with limited capabilities. When you get right down to it, it’s basically a guitar that you play with one finger, and any arrangement of strings that you choose to put on it will create as many obstacles as it does possibilities.
For example, steel players frequently comment on his single-string work-- and it is incredible. I’ve frequently had the distressing experience of listening to one of his recordings and being convinced that it’s a guitar solo before I hear something that is unquestionably a steel. Heart-dropping moments like that are what send Joaquin fans over the moon (and send me to the woodshed). When you listen closely and transcribe, you realize that most of the really quick licks he plays happen over one fret--instead of moving the bar up and down he moves horizontally across the steel, which is must faster and cleaner than any kind of bar movement. A single-string passage of his will generally include a few of these fast runs--always beautifully-phrased, harmonically interesting, and rhythmically perfect--and then other passages of slower notes. His playing on these kind of passages is reminiscent of Bix Beiderbecke, and the overall impression is of a virtuosic player, even though there are really only a small percentage of what he plays.
And of course, instrumental virtuosity isn’t measured by the amount of notes crammed into a measure, but in a player’s ability to sound interesting and musical. By that yardstick, Murphey, even with the limited palate of the steel guitar, is a virtuoso’s virtuoso. His phrasing is as sophisticated as Django Reinhart’s or Charlie Parker’s and his use of extended harmonies makes it clear that he was absorbing the innovations of the bebop era that were happening around him. For an example, look at measures 10-11 of his melody chorus of “Honeysuckle Rose” for an astounding chromatic passage which, incidentally, is very easy to play on the steel--again he uses the nature of the instrument to its full advantage to create exciting and interesting music. Another example is his superimposition of a C diminished chord over the F#7 chord in measure 22; this is a classic way to build tension in jazz improvisation that, again, in Murphey’s tuning is relatively simple to play--straight across the neck. Murphey here has combined the most sophisticated of harmonies and rhythms with one of the simplest steel techniques, to remarkable effect.
After his brief time playing this instrument, Murphey would go on to make some of his best-known recordings on his custom-made Bigsby double eight. His reputation and quality of playing would quickly inspire other steel players such as Bud Isaacs and Speedy West to order custom steels from Bigsby, including ones with a few pedals that changed the tuning of the strings on the fly (ironically, the pedal steel which Bigsby helped to innovate would essentially put lap players like Joaquin Murphey and Speedy West out of business). Bigsby too would eventually give up the guitar-making business, leaving behind a remarkably unique collection of instruments and, perhaps more famously, the Bigsby vibrato bridge system for electric guitars. This guitar was never sold, nor was it really ever played that much--I might have been one of about five people to play it in its entire history. What an amazing privilege to be one of those lucky few, especially considering that two of the others were Paul Bigsby and Joaquin Murphey! Thank you so much for this opportunity, Gary!