There are many American musicians who have written country and western songs. But none is as well-known as Merle Travis (1917-1983).
While others may be close, they are not as famous as this historical icon. He was popular in a time when people needed to be heard and validate their emotions and experiences.
Through his lyrics, he reflected the struggles and lives of fellow Kentucky coal miners. This propelled him to stardom. He was also a great guitarist.
Although Merle was a folk-artist icon, many musicians today aren’t aware of his collection of western and country songs. However, it is certain that every guitar player who has studied the techniques of Merle Travis will use them, even if they aren’t aware.
Merle is cited by many world-renowned guitarists as a major influence in their styles. These include Chet Atkins and Steve Howe as well as Tommy Emmanuel. Merle’s influence can still be felt today through the music of contemporary songwriters.
Merle, like many greats, was captivated by guitar when he was a young boy. Because his family couldn’t afford one, Merle had his first guitar made by his brother.
After learning solo fingerpicking from local musicians, he was invited to an amateur radio program’s amateur hour. He was then hired by a fiddler for his band and was soon off to the races. Some of the earliest music videos were made on 16mm film, in the 1940’s. The rest is history.
Let’s look at some of the reasons Merle Travis is still an iconic figure in guitar history.
- fingerpicking innovations
- Ventures into the first electric guitars
- Early customizations of acoustic guitars
- And especially the controversy surrounding his scroll stock!
We will now begin…
The Famous “Travis Picking”, Guitar Technique
The “Travis Picking,” a technique that allows guitarists to pick six strings, has been regarded as one of the most distinctive musical textures in history.
This creates a piano-like sound, which can be misleading until you realize that only one person is actually playing all the notes. It can be confusing to hear an alternating bass line and melody with accompaniment.
You’ll instantly recognize “Travis Picking” if you don’t know the technique. https://www.youtube.com/embed/tH2w6Oxx0kQ?feature=oembed
All of this in mind, Merle is an important figure for the guitar community. Merle was a popular songwriter of his day and invented the modern finger picking pattern.
Merle’s work with Bigsby, Fender and others has also made an important contribution to the popularity and development of the electric guitar. His efforts earned Merle a place in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (both 1970).
Merle Travis’ history with Bigsby Guitars
Merle preferred Bigsby guitars in the pre-Fender days. Along with Charlie Christian, who preferred to use a Gibson, he was an early electric guitarist.
Merle was so impressed by Paul Bigsby’s workmanship that he had the company make a new neck to fit his Martin acoustic. Travis considered the Bigsby neck guitar to be the best quality workmanship, made from the finest Birdseye Maple.
Today, we wouldn’t consider replacing any part on a vintage Brazilian Rosewood Martin D-28. But Merle Travis didn’t hesitate (it wasn’t vintage). Paul Bigsby made a new neck for him and he used it for most of his career, whenever the muse required a flat-top box. You might recognize this iconic headstock. The Bigsby Solid Body Electric Guitar – the first electric model ever with a run of 23 units made
Bigsby was the producer of the first solid-body electric guitars in the 40’s. This is a far superior product to Fender. Merle Travis was so in love with their guitars that he bought the third Bigsby Birdseye Maple Solid Body Electric Guitar from Paul Bigsby back in 1949.
Numbering the first Bigsby Solid Body Guitars was done sequentially. The fourth guitar Merle built is equally famous in the world of guitar. While most of the 23 were found, #4 is unique in history because it did not have any documentation from an owner.
It was sold at auction in 2012 for $266,000, and it has earned a permanent place in the history of old-school guitars.
These instruments were created even before Bigsby invented the Bigsby Tremolo. Its functional simplicity has earned it a place in the books even parts of Bigsby’s instruments, such as his Bigsby whammy bars.
Merle Travis was so impressed with the workmanship of his neck that he had Bigsby create another neck for his Martin D-28. We saw him perform for so many years with this neck.
Many of his coal miner songs, like Sixteen Tons and Dark As a Dungeon, are probably familiar to you. These songs were performed on his Martin D-28 half Bigsby/Martin D-28. His peers were so impressed by this move that Lefty Frizell and Hank Thompson asked Bigsby for new necks.
Trend-setters are used to being copied. But imitation is the best form of flattery. https://www.youtube.com/embed/-FPmSLzsbdM?start=14&feature=oembed
Dark as A Dungeon is a 1951 film that Merle shot with his custom D-28. The set and costumes were designed to reach the coal mining community. This was accepted as authentic and touching.
Fender vs. Bigsby Headstock Debate
What’s the deal? The Bigsby headstock looks familiar. It reminds us of the head scroll on old violin family instruments. However, we now associate it to a single instrument: the Fender Stratocaster.
This distinctively shaped symbol is immediately recognized by everyone as a mainstay of Fender’s electric guitar.
Legend and guitar legend have it that Leo Fender researched many guitars before creating the Telecaster and Stratocaster. He was intrigued by the headstock shape of older European guitars, which resembled the scroll of a violin’s headstock during one of his museum visits.
Many believed that Leo Fender made his own guitar shape after seeing the one Paul Bigsby used. His museum visits prove that Fender wasn’t trying to copy the beautiful scroll headstock curves, but was actually honoring tradition by creating his own versions.
Merle Travis’ reputation for using the Paul Bigsby necks was a major factor in Leo Fender following his lead. The debate will continue because the truth has vanished in time, and the rest is speculation.
Although we know Bigsby invented the scroll headstock for electric guitars before Leo Fender, it is possible that it was used on other instruments before then.
Fender used a similar but subtler shape for his Broadcaster headstocks (later renamed to the Telecaster), before he introduced the more prominent version on the Stratocaster. This could be an example of two men working on a similar idea at the same time.
The truth is that we won’t know all the details at this time. That’s probably the best thing. Legend and lore are more entertaining than facts, especially when the truth doesn’t matter. What other topics can we discuss on the internet? Everything, apparently.
The Merle Travis Guitar Story is a great story…
Merle Travis exposed the masses to the scroll headstock by using his Martin D-28 custom neck electric acoustic guitar dreadnought (pictured below) and one of the first Bigsby electrics.
Merle used the Martin custom guitar from the moment he had it re-necked to his death in 1983.
Music history can be compared to studying a family tree. We reach an indelible trunk when we descend the branches. This trunk can only be reached by forking into many other roots.
It’s all about the journey. We learn from the best acoustic guitarists where the core features are. Keep watching for more lessons in guitar history!