Retrofret Presents: Restoration of the 1949 Bigsby "Butterball" Paige Solidbody Electric Guitar
On the advent of what would have been Paul Bigsby’s 115th birthday, Retrofret invited Bigsby historian and roots musician Deke Dickerson to the shop to examine and play the finished instrument. This inevitably led to a jam session with the 1951 Bigsby mandolin also at Retrofret
(played by Brooklyn musician Rob Hecht). Fortunately this monumental event was videotaped, and we’ve got a link to Dickerson’s visit and these two incredible, historic instruments below.
This particular Bigsby instrument is very significant for a number of reasons, besides its being played in a legendary band. It was only the third Bigsby electric guitar made, out of a total of 23 known electric solidbodies. It was the first Bigsby electric guitar to feature two pickups – the first two being single-pickup instruments. It was the first Bigsby guitar to sport pickups with individual adjustable polepieces on the pickups (the earlier pickups had a single non-adjustable “blade” magnet running under the strings as on his steel guitars). It is also the only Bigsby electric guitar ever photographed in Paul Bigsby’s hands (courtesy of a few snapshots taken in a 1949 visit to the Bigsby shop by a young Forrest White, who later worked at Fender for many years).
“Butterball” Paige kept the guitar for less than two years. After Paige’s departure from Ernest Tubb’s band, the instrument can be seen in photos being played by another legendary country musician, Kenneth Ray “Thumbs” Carllile, a virtuoso guitar savant who played with the guitar laying flat on his lap with his left hand over the neck instead of under, almost like playing a piano. Thumbs is probably the only player who ever played this instrument who didn’t mind the oddly placed pickup switch, and he used it with “Little” Jimmy Dickens’ band for several years in the 1950s.
Thumbs may have been the country-western guitarist who left the instrument behind in a house in Palmer, Alaska, after a wild all-night gathering of country-western musicians. He was last photographed with the guitar in 1956 and from there the trail ran cold, until many years later. The damaged but significant instrument had been pulled from decades of repose in a closet and was about to be thrown into a dumpster by the owner of the house, who had no fond memories of the hillbilly musicians who used to have drunken all-night jam sessions there.
The instrument was saved by the woman’s grandson as it was being heaved into the trash. The young man, a budding guitarist himself, published a photo of the guitar on an online forum looking for information. Deke Dickerson, eagle-eyed Bigsby acolyte and founder of the obsessively complete online blog “The Bigsby Files” compared the photos posted online to vintage photos of the Paige/Carlille guitar, and noticed the visual similarity in the grain pattern of the wood on the top of the guitar. When the unique birds-eye maple figuring of the wood proved an exact match to the vintage photos, Dickerson realized he was looking at the long-lost Butterball Paige/Thumbs Carllile instrument, re-surfacing after decades.
Retrofret, known for their museum-quality restorations and repairs, received the Bigsby guitar and began the exacting task of making the guitar look and play as it did when it left Paul’s workshop in 1949. Retrofret’s founder and head luthier, Steve Uhrik, was no stranger to Bigsby instruments. A few years back he had brokered the deal to sell Country Music Hall-Of-Famer Lefty Frizzell’s original Bigsby customized SJ-200 acoustic guitar to another Hall-Of-Famer, Merle Haggard. Uhrik’s best friend, the now-deceased Bob Guida, had an extensive collection of original Bigsby instruments and memorabilia that were often used at jam sessions in the shop and for research by visiting members of what they referred to as “The Bigsby Brain Trust”. Retrofret, despite being in the Gowanus section of industrial Brooklyn, New York, three thousand miles from where the guitar was originally made in California, was the logical choice to take on the restoration.
Happy 115th to Paul Bigsby, the inventor of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar, Retrofret-style!
For more information on the Bigsby 10 string electric mandolin, visit our website:
Video and Editing by: Teale Failla
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