Repairing Willie Nelson’s Trigger: A Good Look at How a Luthier Gets America’s Most Iconic Guitar on the Road Again

Many gui­tarists are of two minds about trib­ute mod­els. In some cas­es, they seem like shame­less cash grabs, par­tic­u­lar­ly when the artist is no longer with us and can’t con­sent to the process. Fender’s “Jimi Hen­drix Stra­to­cast­er” (reg­is­tered trade­mark) is in no way, after all, Jimi Hendrix’s Stra­to­cast­er. His white Strat was a right-hand­ed gui­tar he mod­i­fied him­self, turn­ing it upside down to play as a lefty. Born of neces­si­ty, it was nonethe­less a bril­liant mechan­i­cal inno­va­tion that defined his sound. The mass-mar­ket ver­sion flips every­thing over on a left-hand­ed gui­tar for the more numer­ous righty cus­tomers, under­min­ing the pur­pose of the design, mass-pro­duc­ing Hendrix’s hand­made alter­ations, and turn­ing a one-of-a-kind his­tor­i­cal arti­fact into a com­mod­i­ty.

Fel­low lefty Kurt Cobain’s inge­nious Jag-Stang—a mashup of Fender’s Mus­tang and Jaguar guitars—seems more legit, on the oth­er hand, since Fend­er made pro­to­types for Cobain from a design he him­self sent to the com­pa­ny (or rather from two Polaroids he taped togeth­er). There’s a pro­pri­etary rela­tion­ship here between artist and gui­tar mak­er, a pri­or arrange­ment. We don’t see that rela­tion­ship between anoth­er famous play­er and his guitar’s famous mak­er. Like Hen­drix and Cobain and their Fend­ers, Willie Nel­son has inspired gen­er­a­tions of play­ers to pick up Mar­tin acoustics. But I very much doubt that Mar­tin would ever pro­duce a repli­ca based on Trig­ger, Nelson’s stal­wart clas­si­cal ax, even if such a thing were pos­si­ble.

That’s for the best. Trig­ger is and should remain an entire­ly unique object. It has an aura of its own, much of it ema­nat­ing from a huge hole in the mid­dle of the gui­tar. Like its own­er, Trig­ger is weath­ered and worn, and instant­ly rec­og­niz­able. It has been with Nel­son since he restart­ed his career in Austin after his first bout of Nashville fame, and it rep­re­sents Nelson’s trans­for­ma­tion from tra­di­tion­al croon­er into the out­law trou­ba­dour who emerged in the ear­ly sev­en­ties to change the course of coun­try music. (Read the sto­ry of the man and his gui­tar here.) To real­ly appre­ci­ate Trig­ger’s ragged mys­ter­ies, you don’t need to hear from Mar­tin gui­tars, but from one of the instrument’s elite hostlers, so to speak. Respect­ed luthi­er Mark Erlewine takes care of Trig­ger when it’s at home in Austin and can explain, as he does in the video above, every one of the guitar’s pecu­liar­i­ties.

“There are a num­ber of things wrong with it,” says Erlewine, “but they’re just minor repairs to keep it going.” As for that hole and the craters sur­round­ing it, he seems uncon­cerned. Though it looks like it might cave in at any moment, Erlewine has kept it struc­tural­ly sound. “Willie is not con­cerned about the looks of this gui­tar so much as the playa­bil­i­ty and func­tion­al­i­ty of it.” How did Trig­ger come to take on its dis­tinc­tive wounds? Not in the way you might expect. Rather than a stage acci­dent or tour mishap, the way these things can hap­pen, Nelson’s gui­tar became dam­aged through the sheer pas­sion of his fin­ger­style play­ing. Over the years his fin­ger­nails would “often chip into the wood and pull out wood as he plays.”

In per­fect con­di­tion when he bought it, Trig­ger has record­ed in its beat­en-up top the motor mem­o­ries of “over 10,000 shows and record­ing ses­sions” in the deep impres­sions of only its own­er’s fin­gers and per­son­al­i­ty. There is no way to dupli­cate this phe­nom­e­non for mass con­sump­tion. Stick with the video, from gui­tar tool and parts giant Stew­art-Mac­Don­ald, and see how Erlewine keeps Trig­ger healthy, “alive,” and “shored up over the years.”

via Uncrate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Willie Nel­son and His Famous Gui­tar: The Tale of Trig­ger: Watch the Short Film Nar­rat­ed by Woody Har­rel­son

Willie Nelson–Young, Clean-Shaven & Wear­ing a Suit–Sings Ear­ly Hits at the Grand Ole Opry (1962)

Mark Knopfler Gives a Short Mas­ter­class on His Favorite Gui­tars & Gui­tar Sounds

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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