I think that perhaps guitarists are a bit like lemmings – oftentimes the same kind of guitars and the same kind of work all comes in to the shop in waves. This week has brought in wave upon wave of Bigsby work: I’ve installed two Bigsby trems (one Fender Telecaster, one Gretsch White Penguin), ordered in six Vibramate Spoilers, two specialized Bigsby arms (Chet Atkins & Duane Eddy), and will be installing a Stetsbar on a Gibson Explorer in the next day or two. Installing a Bigsby is fairly straightforward, but it has to be done exactly right, otherwise the guitar is completely wrecked and the trem won’t function properly. Here’s how I went about installing a Bigsby onto a Fender Telecaster.
My friend Matt had done his research, and decided he wanted a permanent installation of his Bigsby (it can be installed without drilling any holes using a Vibramate V5, but where’s the fun in that?). First I removed the bridge, and plugged the screw holes with poplar dowels:
To ensure that the Bigsby was on dead straight, I mapped out the centerline of the guitar based on the location of the neck, rather than just trusting the original bridge location. Using a straight edge set against the sides of the neck, I marked out the centerline onto the tape I had placed on the body. Sure enough – the original bridge was slightly off center. Good thing I didn’t just trust Fender’s work!
Then I installed the bridge pickup into the new bridge plate, centered it on the body, and very carefully marked where the new holes where to be drilled:
Now for the fun part: drilling! I loaded the body onto my drill press, and very carefully drilled each hole with the appropriately sized brad point bit. I ALWAYS flag the bit to match the screw’s depth, so I don’t accidentally drill a hole right through the guitar. Sure, I could eyeball it, but a little bit of healthy paranoia can be a good thing.
Them’s some fine looking holes – high quality drill bits make all the difference! It’s a good thing I filled the original screw holes: notice that the two larger new holes intersect with dowels. Leaving them unfilled would have left a gap, and gaps are not pro.
After installing the new bridge, I set the tailpiece on the centerline, and then ran some string through it, attaching each end to the low and high E tuners. This allows me to be absolutely dead sure that the tailpiece is in the right spot, and that the strings will run as straight as possible from the bridge to the trem. This also ensures that the strings will run at the proper distance from the neck’s edge, and won’t pull off the edge of the fretboard during play.
Confident with the tailpiece’s location, I again marked out the screw holes and drilled them out, and installed the trem. Now that the Bigsby was installed, it was vitally important to do a fret level and proper setup. Bigsbys can be persnickety, and if the nut isn’t cut properly and if the action is wonky, they will never stay in tune. It’s not good enough just to drill a few holes and call it a day – it’s the small details that really matter.
That’s a wrap! It looks great, plays great, and stays in tune beautifully!