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Tone Tip: Wobble 101—Get That Bigsby Working!

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

Vibratos come and vibratos go, but Bigsbys live forever. This most ancient of whammy bars has been with us since the early 1950s, and was first offered by inventor and guitar- and steel-guitar maker Paul Bigsby around the time that Gibson offered its first solidbody electric model, the Les Paul, in 1952. Despite its heritage, however, the Bigsby unit tends to elicit a “love it or loath it” response from many players: those who don’t work well with the device find it just gets in the way, or throws their guitar out of tune when they do try to use it, whereas those who get it wouldn’t want their wobble from anything else.

The Bigsby has proliferated because it is one of the only, and by far the most popular, vibrato tailpieces that can be retrofitted to a wide range of guitars without major modification other than the drilling of a few small holes for its mounting screws. As such, it often proves the best vibrato for use on classic Gibson and Epiphone models such as Les Pauls and SGs, where it partners perfectly with a Tune-o-matic or wrapover bridge. It is still available as an option on models such as the Gibson Custom Shop 1957 Les Paul Custom VOS and Epiphone ES-295. The keys to getting the most from your Bigsby lie in understanding its limitations, and in setting it up―and setting up your guitar―to allow it to function as efficiently as possible.

And limitations it does have, to be sure. The Bigsby has only a limited travel for down bends―about a semitone at best―and a little play for up bends when desired, and installing one inevitably alters the inherent tone of any guitar, even when it’s not in active use. Whether for better or worse is in the ear of the beholder. That said, a Bigsby vibrato has a smoother, more fluid action than most other vibrato units available, and its limited travel means you can evoke effective, emotive vibrato passages from it without inducing a tone that’s entirely too seasick sounding. It’s exactly the ticket for classic rock and roll, country and rockabilly vibrato tones, and is arguably more elegant sounding than the big dips and divebombs of other vibratos. Work within its limits, and a Bigsby can function beautifully. Your guitar will also stay in tune pretty decently, too, but to get this really happening to its maximum potential you need to…

String up the Bigsby right, and set your guitar up to maximize the Bigsby’s function. When loading new strings onto a guitar with a Bigsby tailpiece, first bend the last inch or so of string at the ball end to curve it to the diameter of the Bigsby’s roller bar; the barrel of a pencil or pen, or a wooden dowel or tool with the appropriate diameter will do for this. Load the ball end onto the Bigsby’s roller bar’s retaining pin, guide the string in a straight line over the bridge saddle and pull it rather tightly toward the nut, and clamp on a capo to keep it in place while you load the tuner. Load the string at the tuner using a self-locking technique (unless you have locking tuners anyway): this is achieved by threading the string through the tuner post hole, then pulling it half a turn clockwise back upon itself for the three bass-side tuners (counterclockwise for the treble-side tuners), then bending the string up under itself where it first enters the post hole before winding it onto the tuner. This will prevent slippage at the tuner post during vibrato use, and help to improve tuning stability in general. Wind the string up to pitch, then pinch it between your thumb and forefinger and pre-bend it by tugging it firmly but carefully away from the guitar all along its length. It will be out of tune again, so bring it back up to pitch, pre-bend it again, and keep repeating the process until it holds its pitch relatively well. Repeat for all strings. If your Bigsby unit has a tension bar that the strings pass under before reaching the bridge, be sure they are aligned in a straight run from roller bar to tension bar to bridge saddles.

Les Paul playing Les Paul with Bigsby

On top of all this, use the Bigsby a lot when you first restring the guitar to get the whole system working fluidly, and you’ll find it will return to pitch better than a guitar with a seldom-used Bigsby that hasn’t been strung up right. In addition, a little graphite (pencil lead) or proprietary string lubricant such as Big Bends Nut Sauce applied to the nut slots will help the strings return to pitch more accurately. If you hear “pings” or “creaks” near the nut when you use the vibrato it might indicate slots that are too tight for the gauge of strings you are using, in which case you should take it to a qualified tech to have the slots carefully widened (too wide, and you’ll loose tone and intonation). Even after all this, any guitar with a vibrato tailpiece―Bigsby or otherwise―will still go out of tune occasionally, but heck, so will any hardtail guitar. No big deal. It’s a guitar, tune it up