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    Tuesday, November 19, 2019-10:15:39A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Thoughts on a Monday Morning: Willie Nelson and Trigger

YOU’VE probably seen Trigger, Willie Nelson’s beat-up guitar, the one he still plays. There is quite a story about this guitar.

Back in 1969 Willie Nelson was just another straight-laced singer-songwriter who had a string of hits, but wasn’t making much progress as a performing artist. Still, he played gigs and was popular, but nothing like he would eventually become.

The guitar he played was a rare instrument, a Baldwin. It was a classical guitar (nylon strings) and it had a good and unique sound because it came with a Prismatone electric pick-up. Nobody ever thought of amplifying a classical guitar before then. Classical guitars were concert instruments, more suited to J.S. Bach than to honky-tonk.

The Prismatone pickup was special also, something which Baldwin had designed for the guitar, and it had a great sound.

Unfortunately, a drunk staggered into the Baldwin guitar and smashed it so badly that it could not be repaired.

When word got around that Willie’s guitar was smashed, he got a call from a music dealer in Nashville. The dealer said he had a very fine Martin classical guitar, with solid Brazilian rosewood back and sides, for $750.00. In 1969, this was expensive, but still a good deal. Willie bought the guitar and it would become his lifelong companion. Willie named his guitar Trigger, after Roy Roger’s famous palomino horse.

Willie Nelson is, with the exception of Chet Atkins, the only country artist to play an electric classical guitar.

Virtually every country artist and folk-singer plays a steel-string guitar, often a Martin, or a Gibson. These two brands are the most sought-after steel-string guitars. They are played by Eric Clapton, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and thousands of other performers. Steel-stringed guitars have a “twang” that classical guitars do not have.

It all began with Elvis in the 1950’s, who played a Martin steel-string guitar. As we all know, Elvis completely changed music, and was the key bridge from country music to rock & roll. When John Lennon met Elvis for the first time he said, “Before you there was nothing.”

Lennon had a point. Although there were singer/songwriters before Elvis (Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers) Elvis was an electrifying performer, the first to draw huge crowds of screaming girls. This was in the mid-1950’s

Back then — and it is still true today — there were two types of guitars: electric and acoustic. Most all of the performers played acoustic guitars, but the backup band usually had an electric guitar in the band for leads, or solos, and for extra effects.

A decade later, in the 1960’s, an electric pickup was created to fit into the sound hole of an acoustic guitar. With this pickup, the guitar could be heard clear out to the parking lot.

Today, many acoustic guitars are offered with “onboard” electric pickups. These guitars are versatile because if you just want to sit on a sofa and play a song, the guitar will sound just fine. However, if you’re playing to a crowd or have a band behind you, then just plug it in to an amp.

Acoustic instruments

As I mentioned previously, there are two kinds of acoustic guitar: classical and steel-string. Steel-string guitars are more suited to pop, blues, or rock music. Classical guitars are usually reserved for the concert repertoire: Bach, Vivaldi, Rodrigo and other serious composers. When a classical guitarist plays a concert, he rarely uses a microphone, allowing the guitar to fill the hall on its own.

To produce a fine classical guitar is not easy. It requires an experience craftsman (called a luthier), the best possible tone woods, and a keen ear to the physics of the instrument. The really phenomenal classical guitars cost thousands of dollars and the guitars made by Ignacio Fleta (Spain) are especially prized. If you can afford one, a used Fleta costs around $30,000.

For the young student of classical guitar, there are some pretty good budget brands, particularly Yamaha. As you might imagine, Yamaha not only makes some extremely good instruments, the prices range from a $150.00 starter guitar to well into the thousands.

What makes a good guitar?

In the world of acoustic guitars, the tonewoods play a key role. There are two kinds of woods for an acoustic guitar: solid and laminate. A solid spruce top will sound a hundred times better than a laminate (veneer) top. The sound is reproduced more cleanly. However, a laminate guitar will better endure changes of temperature and humidity, though the sound is not quite as good.

The back and sides

The most popular woods for the body of the guitar (also called back and sides) are rosewood and mahogany, although almost any tonewood can be used. For example, I have a solid walnut guitar with a Carpathian spruce top, and it has an astonishingly clear sound.

The most expensive wood for an acoustic guitar is Brazilian rosewood. Not only does it have a clean, bright sound, it has been illegal to import Brazilian rosewood to the USA for decades. This means that guitar makers must use the Brazilian stock they acquired before the ban.

However, rosewood is also available from other countries, particularly Asia. It does not have the clear tone of Brazilian, but it’s still rich-sounding.

Mahogany, compared to rosewood, has a brighter tone. That is, it has a sharper attack, and many prefer the sound of mahogany — particularly on large body guitars — to most rosewoods. But Brazilian rosewood is still the best.

Willie’s guitar

When Willie Nelson bought Trigger in 1969, he had the old Baldwin Prismatone pickup installed. The actual instrument was a Martin N-20 classical guitar, with a solid spruce top and Brazilian rosewood back and sides. Although the C.F. Martin company primarily made (and still makes) steel-string guitars, they did produce a line of some very fine classical guitars, including Trigger. (Martin no longer makes classical guitars).

Over the years, many artists have signed Trigger, but its most famous aspect is the hole above the bridge, created by years of playing. One of Willie’s band members said that if Willie was playing hard, Trigger would produce shrapnel — in the form of wood chips.

And yet, despite looking beat-up, Willie’s guitar tech says that Trigger is just fine and that the damage is only cosmetic; the sound is still there. And it’s Trigger’s sound that matters.

So whether you’re listening to “Red Headed Stranger” or something more recent, you’re also getting an earful of Trigger’s beautiful Brazilian rosewood and Willie’s exceptional playing.

Opinions expressed by Marianas Variety contributors are their own.