Bigsby + Vibramate + Les Paul

It’s a holiday miracle! The 30-minute Bigsby tremolo installation.

Sometimes it pays to write for a guitar magazine!

My old pal and Premier Guitar colleague Andy Ellis hipped me to the Vibramate, an adapter that allows you to install a Bigsby tremolo on many types of guitars with no drilling or other permanent modifications to your instrument.

A Bigsby and Vibramate were a centerpiece of a cool makeover project the magazine concocted, transforming a beat-up ’70s Epiphone in a bitchin’ Bigsby-bedecked bombshell. Inspired, I decided to give myself the shakes for Xmas. I bought a Bigsby B7 and corresponding Vibramate kit and popped them onto my long-suffering Les Paul. Check it out:

Yup, this is the much abused ’82 Les Paul that I’ve used in many tonefiend experiments, especially the OCD-approved Pagey Project. What a journey this guitar has been on! Never a big Les Paul fan, I picked up the cheapest old one I could find because I needed it as a reference for the sound design work I was doing for Apple. Trust me — it was a thoroughly unremarkable instrument. But then I started playing with pickups … and alternate wirings … and replacement hardware … and after several years of hacking, I have an instrument I love.

Pity about the gold hardware though — I should have switched to chrome early on. It’s the downside, I suppose, of incremental makeovers. By the time I got to the Bigsby, I had to cough up extra cabbage for the vulgar finish. (My wife recoiled when she saw the Bigsby box on the counter: “Eww — what’s this gold thing?”)

IMG_0361

The Vibramate bracket screws into the existing tailpiece bushings.

I’m no Bigsby expert. I’ve never owned a Bigsby-fitted guitar (though I’ve had a couple of long-term loan). It’s odd, because I like how they perform, look, and feel, and “bling cringe” aside, I love it on this guitar. It definitely changes the tone — though in spectacularly unscientific fashion, I replaced the previous roundwound strings with flatwounds while doing the installation, and it’s tricky to sort out which changes are exclusively related to that hardware, and which to the strings. The guitar feels brighter and more resonant. (I’m reminded of Ry Cooder’s dictum: The more springs you add to a guitar, the livelier the acoustic response.) The treble response is WAY different — I needed to lower the treble sides of the pickups to offset the face-slapping response of the high E string.

I’ve bored everyone to tears with my incessant testimonials to the glory of great flatwound strings. This guitar has never worn flats — I’ve kept it in roundwounds for writing product reviews, and for sessions where I specifically need a roundwound sound. But I’m loving the way they sound and feel here, so I guess I’ll have to select another Gibson-flavored guitar as a dedicated roundwound instrument.

The installation was a breeze. The quality of materials is superb. I also added Vibramate’s String Spoiler, a clever little bracket that clips onto the tiny nubbins that usually secure strings to a Bigsby. The Spoiler makes string changes way easier. I’m deeply impressed by the Vibramate products — even in frickin’ gold.

Oh — the demo tune is the late John Barry’s wonderful Midnight Cowboy theme. Berry wasn’t a guitarist, but he contributed so much to the guitar vocabulary through his scores, especially for the early James Bond films. I was privileged to interview Barry for Guitar Player back in the ’90s. What a cool and brilliant musician!

35 comments to Bigsby + Vibramate + Les Paul

  • Colm

    Duesenberg make a Bigsby-style trem which works a lot better than an actual Bigsby. It’s mounting system is similar to the Vibramate requiring no hole drilling, and in use it is much sturdier and responsive. Restringing is also a lot easier as there are mounting slots as opposed to those fiddly nubbins Though, the Bigsby that comes on the Duane Eddy signature model Gretsch has longer mounting pins/nubbins for exactly the same reason.

    Bill Callaham also offers Bigsby upgrade parts as well as his own version of a Bigsby for Telecasters, which isn’t on his site as I think he had/has some legal woes with Bigsby. I put his front roller replacement on one of my guitars and found it to be a nice improvement, giving a more balanced sound.

    The response of a Bigsby can also be altered/tailored by changing the spring size.

  • smgear

    +1 on the Duesenberg
    +5 on the flatwound addiction

    Seriously Joe, it’s perfectly fine to just write another post about flatwounds. No need for the subterfuge.. ;)

    side query, for those who favor flatwounds and fingerstyle like me, do any of you play with a radiused/compensated/arced bridge? Something like http://www.truarcbridgeworks.com/ or a compton? I suspect I’d prefer it, but haven’t dropped the cash on one yet.

  • joe

    Ooh — tell me more. What makes the Duesenberg superior, IYHO?

    • smgear

      I’ve played around with a couple duesenberg-fitted guitars over here in europe. They just feel ‘right’ – the mass, tension, and movement are dead-on. Also, the duesenberg multibender is a pretty inspired bit of tech. It’s on my ‘want’ list, as is the Pomona 6 of course…

  • Colm

    The Duesenberg is more responsive – the spring is slightly taller than the one that comes standard on a Bigsby and you can rotate the bar through the full 360 degrees. I have tried using a slightly taller spring on my Bigsby and it improved touch sensitivity, but it still wasn’t as good as on the Duesenberg. I also filed off the nub that prevents the bar from rotating through the full 360 degrees on the Bigsby and it was an improvement but left me wondering why it wasn’t like that in the first place.

    I haven’t done any direct A/B tests but I feel that the Duesenberg unit doesn’t just feel more solid but is in fact more solid, I’m not sure what it’s made of but I get the feeling that it doesn’t alter the tone if the instrument as much as the Bigsby. When I replaced the front roller with the Bigsby with the one for Callaham I was surprised to find that the original roller wasn’t in fact solid but was completely hollow with an insert at each end through which the pin went. It was easy to see (and hear) why the Callham roller was an improvement.

    And of course changing strings on a stock Bigsby without the proper tools (something to hold the ball ends of the strings in place on the nubbins and a capo to hold the main part of the string in place) or the help of another person can be a real pain in the ass. This is the reason that aftermarket products such as the string spoiler and the rear roller replacement from Callaham exist. The Dusenberg has slots into which you can easily place the ball ends of the strings and in which the ball ends stay, meaning that changing strings is an easy one man job not requiring any aftermarket products.

    If I had know of the existence of the Duesenberg sooner I would have never bought a Bigsby; the Bigsby has required a number of aftermarket purchases and extra work to get it to the level of the Duesenberg tremolo, and that’s not including drilling holes into the top of my guitar to install it in the first place,

  • Colm

    And smgear, I haven’t used a TruArc bridge but I have a Gretsch that came stock with rocking bar bridge and a Bigsby and I ended up firstly replacing the bridge with a Callaham ABR-1 and then replacing the Bigsby with a floating tailpiece. I found the combination of rocking bar bridge and Bigsby on this particular fully hollow body guitar made it unsuited to playing fingerstyle, lack of definition/boominess in the bass and weird/harsh overtones on the treble end. Your mileage may vary, but having talked to a few other people it would seem that I am not alone in not being a fan of Bigsby’s on fully hollow body instruments, though then again go onto any of the Gretsch forums and there are plenty of guys who would disagree with me :-)

  • Oinkus

    You sand the paint off that neck and Tung Oil it and you will be caught up to me and my 81 Custom. Course I played mine for 32 years and wore the paint off the neck but end result is the same. Oh wait , told you this before! Not a fan of the Bigsby , but anything that makes you like your guitar more or improves the sound is a good thing!!!!!! I want a Duesenberg as much as I want a Heritage (don’t make me drool in public) nice guitars all around.

  • I’m a bit of a Bigsby addict, although by no means an expert. I have four Bigsby-equipped guitars and a Duesenberg Starplayer TV (Mike Campbell model).

    I got started with my 1967 ES-345 (converted to 335 specs) with a gold (ugh!) B7 Bigsby. I used to call that guitar “The Thunder”. There’s something about those overdriven humbuckers and some wild Bigsby action!

    Then I got the Duesenberg. The trem bar is nice, but I don’t find it superior to the Bigsby in any way. It’s not worse either.

    Then I got a Gretsch 6120 with Dynasonics and a Bigsby B6 (no retainer bar). This is my favorite. The touch is like butter, the bar feels great in your hand, and it creates fantastic pedal-steel like overtones with the slightest movement.

    I bought a cheap guitar with a “licensed” B5 Bigsby. That was a mistake. The feel of the licensed verson is very different and clearly inferior. I know there are people that swear by them though. I had no choice but to buy the real thing and drill new holes in the guitar – they are not compatible!

    Finally, I did the Vibramate thing to my trusty Les Paul, including the string spoiler bit. It looks awesome! To me, plays and sounds just as well as without the Bigsby, but I didn’t do any before/after comparisons really.

  • on a stock Bigsby,I wrap the ball end of the string tightly around the end of a pencil,or dowel,so the end is set and curled;it allows the string to stay on the roller stick easily.On a guitar with good headstock angle use as few turns as possible on the tuner-post,as there's enough break angle over the nut to eliminate nut-buzz,Lock the string on the post if you know how,Play the strings in,and it'll stay in tune if the nut is cut properly.I like GHS Nickel Rockers,a semi-flat string,as well as standard flats.Labella makes a 'tension-wound' nickel string that's similiar and sounds great, but they're expensive..Thanx,Joe!

    • joe

      My pleasure, Al.

      Sadly, I’m addicted to INSANELY expensive Pyramid flats. Though I’m going to try the Nickel rockers on a couple of guitars where the flats are just a little too … flat. Oddly, I don’t love how flats sound on my old Trini Lopez — I was sure they’d be perfect on that guitar! Maybe half-flat is the answer?

      • mwseniff

        Half-flat sounds and plays great IMHO but they sound like modded round wounds rather than flat wounds. I have used ground round wounds which are standard round wounds that were ground down to a smooth finish like a flat wound. They feel and sound great but they seem to wear out faster (not a big problem). However the ground round wounds seemed to break easier which I think means they are not as strong due to the grinding of the string.The ground round wounds have little to no string noise like flats but they still have the same response as round wound with a little less of the highs. Might be good for lap steel and short scale guitars (22″ or less) but I probably won’t use them much on my regular length guitars.

        I use burnished round wounds on some of my guitars that need a bit more highs these are more like 35% flat. These strings are inherently smooth having the windings burnished makes them less prone to corrosion, stronger and kills string noise. These strings are a bit more mellow like flat wounds but they still have round wound’s tone overall. For me they work well on the guitars that need a bit more “zing from the string”. Live they come thru the mix very well but still blend well musically.

  • Jeremy

    Great arrangement of a beautiful tune (makes me want to go watch the movie again).

    On the topic of re-stringing Bigsbys, the brilliant Steve Hunter has recently launched his own solution…

    http://stringchangebuddy.com/

  • Sally Dana

    This is gorgeous….It's true what folks are saying…the demo of the bigsby thingy is the objective, I know…but your playing!!! so beautiful, Joe and you know how much I love that song!

  • I love your demos! What a tone. Those adaptor parts look handy.

    I have a US made genuine Bigsby on a Supro Belmont clone I made with fibre glass parts from Guitar Kits USA (great company that makes high quality, repro Supro/National GRP parts).

    When I first tried the Bigsby on the guitar it did nothing – no vibrato at all. I found that for one thing the tension on the arm pivot bolt was too low – when I moved the arm, the pivot spring compressed and the pivot bolt just moved up and down without shifting the vibrato roller at all. I now suspect most factory fresh Bigsbys require a lot of setting up. Only after I had tightened the pivot nut to maximum, so the pivot tension spring was fully compressed, cleaned machining swarf out of the roller lever holes and tightened the grub screw so that lever was not loose, fitted the longer spring and packed the bottom of the spring cup with a thicker washer, did the the thing work properly. I also spent some time smoothing and polishing the stainless steel parts, like the underside of the arm, which had a noticeable stamping burr, so they felt better.

    I used a Schaller roller bridge to minimise tuning problems. I did find that the strings could crab sideways on the second tension roller and this can cause tuning drift. The Callaham parts seem to fix this problem with grooves in the tension roller and the Callaham vibrato roller looks less of a pain to string. A slightly larger diameter vibrato roller would maybe give the Bigsby more bend range and a clip might stop the spring falling out on up bends. I really don’t understand why Gretsch haven’t updated the design to fix some of its problems.

    • joe

      Hi Terry — thanks for both the kind words AND the extremely helpful advice. I used a very light touch with the Bigsby in the video, but over the holiday I was experimenting with heavier motions. The up-bends are interesting, especially since those flatwounds are SO heavy that it just about maxes out my muscles to play a whole-step bend on the third string. I was really intrigued by combining finger and bar bends — but of course, I ran smack into the tuning issues, with the strings sticking. I was going to lubricate the nut, or maybe replace it was a TUSQ II one, but it didn’t even occur to me to consider a roller bridge. I just ordered a Schaller bridge (again, paying extra for the tacky gold finishing), and I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks!

      • Oinkus

        The first Les Paul I ever touched was a black Custom with gold hardware early 70s and I still consider that to be the pinnacle of Les Pauls. If it wasn’t a Custom our group considered it a lesser guitar. Have to say I have played a few 100k 50s standards and wouldn’t give you a nickel for one.And have gold hardware on my 335 build ! nyah nyah nyah nyah ! :cuckoo:

      • I don’t know if you read new comments to your old posts, but here is an update on my Bigsby experience.

        As I said before I spent a lot of time tweaking before I could get even a hint of vibrato and even then, with the standard 7/8 inch Bigsby spring I had, the response was not very sensitive.

        Then I saw a post elsewhere about Reeves Gabrels and his signature Reverend guitars with Bigsby’s. He said he had spent quite a lot of time getting the Bigsby to do what he wanted. He subsituted a lighter spring to get the right feel and these springs are now used on the Reverend guitars. So I contacted Reverend. They were very helpful and sold me a Gabrels approved 1 & 1/16 inch spring.

        I don’t know how Mr Gabrels managed to find a suitable spring. It isn’t an easy item to find. The only place he might have got one is a good motorcycle parts supplier. The original springs were motorcycle valve springs and he might have been able to find a really light tension, valve spring.

        Now I have a Bigsby with a smooth wide response on light gauge strings (9’s). Having thought about it my guess is that Gretsch ship the Bigsby with a spring that suits the very heavy gauge strings that were used in the 1950’s. I don’t know what the alternate spring that they offer is like (my Bigsby had a 7/8 spring, Gretsch offer an alternate 1 inch) but I get the impression it is still quite a stiff spring.

  • Sebastian Enriquez

    Guitar Fetish also sell some cool tremolo stuff; the Xtrem tremolo is like a Bigsby but pretty easy to attach in a guitar, should check it out.

  • Tim

    I’ve always thought Les Paul’s looked the best as solid body guitars go..but I’ve been underwhelmed by the sound. I like Fenders but they look a bit boring in comparison. The Bigsby on a Les Paul just looks great….like some sort of agricultural implement…and it sounded lovely.I’m tempted to try and get one myself.. The arrangement and playing were tops too!….love to hear that played on a strat a la Hank Marvin of The Shadows fame….

    • joe

      Hi Tim! I know what you mean! Adding the Vibramate “Spoiler” to the Bigsby makes it look even more like agricultural machinery. The whole contraption is just so gloriously mid-20th-century industrial. Weird thing: Between the Bigsby, which brightens the strings, and the flatwounds, which make the treble string jump out, you get a sound that’s not so far removed from a Fender — just more mass. That setup would sound great for Hank Marvin tunes!

    • Saw a Ry Cooder once upon a time…
      One of his guitars was a strat with a Bigsby installed.
      Very agricultural impression indeed.
      Much of the gig he played bottleneck, on that very strat, too!

  • Tim

    Okay, so I’m going to have to replace the humbuckers with P 90’s but, damn your eyes man, you’ve persuaded me I need a bigsby loaded Les Paul!!! (even if I can’t really afford it!). Still, despite the expense, at least I can console myself that sporting the guitar with my purple, crushed velvet suit, I’m going to look an absolute BABE MAGNET!….now then, where did I leave my piggy bank and hammer…..

    • joe

      Hey, I have three words for you: Epiphone plus parts.

      Cheapo Epi bodies and necks are almost unbelievably good these days. A $500 Epi plus $350 or so in replacement parts = well, something more like a $2K guitar. If you can hang with the look of the Epi headstock, it’s a budget-friendly option for a totally pro guitar.

  • I bought a Bigsby B7 + vibramate some time ago to put it on my Gibson Deluxe, but the end of the Bigsby stands over the Body of the guitar . I mean the B7 is too long for my guitar and on your video it seems the same on your Gibson. if it`s true what i see, how do you fix the end pin ? On Neil Young's old Gibson it fits perfectly, i think the old Gibsons have a longer body, I`m german i hope you understand me. btw i like your blog very much and you're such a taste and soulful player

  • Oiram

    I bought a Bigsby B7 + vibramate some time ago to put it on my Gibson Deluxe with P90s, but the end of the Bigsby stands over the Body of the guitar . I mean the B7 is too long for my guitar and on your video it seems the same on your Gibson. If it`s true what i see, how do you fix the end strap pin ? On Neil Young’s old Gibson it fits perfectly, i think the old Gibsons have a longer body, I`m german i hope you understand me. I like your blog and your taste and soulful playing.

  • Brent Gable

    Here’s a pic of a Jazzmaster I built for a friend of mine. He wanted a Wigsby by Wilkinson on it and a Wilkinson roller bridge. The Wigsby which isn’t available anymore (more lawsuit issues I suspect) is pretty sweet but I’ve never owned a Bigsby equipped axe before so I can’t really compare. The roller bridge is really nicely done with a lot of flexibility for adjustments and it’s very reasonably priced. Anyone else have any experience with the Wigsby term?

  • Brent Gable

    I meant Wigsby TREM as in tremolo as opposed to term. Spell check is my worst enema…

  • These were interesting Tremolo upgrades I did this year

    2011 JTV-59 with Bigsby B7

  • 2013 Godin LGX-SA with GFS Xtrem

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