Trigger: “Old and beat-up”

By Miche Archetto:

This post is first about a guitar, and then about his legendary player. Yes, I’m talking about Willie Nelson’s “Trigger”. The video is about one of the few instrumentals played by Willie: “Nuages”, by Django Reinhardt.

Willie Neslon shared recently on his facebook page a beautiful article about his fascinating guitar, and commented “Trigger is like me. Old and beat up.”

Following are some excerpts from that article:

“The guitar—a Martin N-20 classical, serial number 242830—was a gorgeous instrument, with a warm, sweet tone and a pretty “mellow yellow” coloring. The top was made of Sitka spruce, which came from the Pacific Northwest; the back and sides were Brazilian rosewood. The fretboard and bridge were ebony from Africa, and the neck was mahogany from the Amazon basin. The brass tuning pegs came from Germany. All of these components had been gathered in the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and cut, bent, and glued together, then lacquered, buffed, and polished. If the guitar had been shipped to New York or Chicago, it might have been purchased by a budding flamenco guitarist or a Segovia wannabe. Instead it was sent to a guitarist in Nashville named Shot Jackson, who repaired and sold guitars out of a shop near the Grand Ole Opry. In 1969 it was bought by a struggling country singer, a guy who had a pig farm, a failing marriage, and a crappy record deal.

Willie Nelson had a new guitar.”

“[...] Willie became the guitarist he is by playing this instrument, which he has worn and shaped with his own hands, working his very personality into the wood until it sounds like no other guitar on earth. Most nylon-stringed guitars have a rich, round tone, and they are difficult to tell apart. Trigger is so distinctive—low tones that thump like they have mud on them, high ones that chime like glass—that you can hear one or two notes on the radio and know immediately whom you’re listening to.
No guitar is as beloved—or as famed. On Trigger’s face you can see the topography of modern music, the countless hours Willie has spent playing country, blues, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, swing, folk, reggae, thirties pop, forties pop, and eighties pop. “

“IT ALL BEGAN WITH A DRUNK
[...] According to legend, Willie stumbled across his famous Martin guitar back in 1969, after his previous guitar had been knocked out of commission. He and his band were playing at the John T. Floore Country Store, in Helotes, Willie remembers, and at some point he laid down his Baldwin acoustic guitar in its case on the stage. “A drunk stepped on it,” Willie says. He had a couple of his guys take the guitar back to Nashville, to Shot Jackson, whom Willie had known since the early sixties.

The thing is, Willie didn’t much care about the guitar, an 800C Electric Classical, which had a thick, beefy neck. The guitar had been a promotional gift from Baldwin—a piano company—in 1968, along with a C1 amp. What Willie really liked was the sound he could get from the guitar’s pickup, a revolutionary Prismatone piezoelectronic model, made with six tiny ceramic sensors. Before the Prismatone, acoustic players like Willie had to play into a microphone, which meant they were usually drowned out by the band. The new pickup allowed him to play an acoustic guitar onstage with a band and actually be heard, especially with the C1 amp, a solid-state piece of machinery that was designed by Baldwin’s organ engineers to work with the Prismatone via a special stereo wiring system. The amp had a brushed aluminum top and five colorful “Supersound” tone buttons—red, lime green, yellow, blue, and purple—that evoked the groovy sixties. “Hear it,” promised the Baldwin catalog, “and you might think it’s a happening!”

Jackson couldn’t salvage the guitar, he told Willie over the phone. It was too busted up. Jackson did mention, though, that he had a Martin N-20 on hand and could transfer the pickup into it. Martin was the premier maker of steel-stringed guitars; the N-20, which had been introduced the year before, was a nylon-stringed, or gut-string, guitar, an attempt by Martin to make inroads in the Spanish-style market. Willie liked gut-string guitars well enough, but he was a little uncomfortable buying one over the phone. “Is it any good?” he asked. “Well, Martins are known for good guitars,” Jackson responded. Willie asked the price. Seven hundred and fifty dollars, Jackson told him. “I had just bought a roping horse for seven hundred and fifty dollars,” Willie recalls. “So I said, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ ” He bought it, sight unseen.”

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