In the late-'40s, American inventor Paul Bigsby pioneered the electric guitar. The legendary solid-body guitar he built for Merle Travis hugely influenced Leo Fender, as did Bigsby's instantly-recognizable flared headstock. In the '50s, Bigsby focused mainly on his vibrato tailpiece design, but his forward-thinking guitar designs permanently impacted the development of the solid-body electric guitar.
In 1999, Gretsch acquired the Bigsby brand, mostly so they could take over manufacturing and distribution of the famed Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. But in so doing, they also acquired the rights to much of Paul Bigsby's intellectual property, including his innovative solid-body guitar concepts.
In the early 2000s, Gretsch began producing a limited number of Bigsby prototypes, mostly at their Terada, Japan facility. While never officially offered as production instruments, these rare, often one-of-a-kind axes were available in extremely limited quantities for just a few years. Ultimately, the project was abandoned as Gretsch moved in different directions.
According to Bigsby's official website, "Bigsby has produced a very few, limited edition, prototype guitars using many of the design features and ideas originally crafted by Paul Bigsby. The Bigsby prototype guitars are unique and specifications may vary from model to model."
This Bigsby BY48NR prototype appears to have been built around 2001. It features a carved Birdseye Maple top with intense birdseye figuring that absolutely pops. Its maple body is chambered, which reduces weight (only 7 lbs 12.7 oz) and also lends natural acoustic resonance. Its body shape looks a lot like a Les Paul, but it's well-balanced on your lap, and the distinctive Florentine cutaway sets it apart from the rest. For electronics, it uses two of Paul Bigsby's single coil "dog ear" pickups. With an EQ similar to P90s, these pickups pack a ton of clarity and have a wide dynamic range.
We acquired this 2001 Bigsby BY48NR from the Gretsch Family Archives, and although it's a 20-year-old guitar and it shows signs of having been in storage, it's virtually unplayed. The 4th-string bride saddle is cracked, but functional. In general, this guitar feels like it's still brand new. The Birdseye figure on the top is insane, and the Walnut peghead overlay is a nice match. The headstock really is eye-catching—the mother-of-pearl Bigsby inlay is just too cool!