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.”
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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