Today, people spend thousands of dollars on relics, brand new guitars that through some secret process, are aged to look like a guitar with a story. However, no matter how cool your Murphy Lab, or Custom Shop guitar looks, it will never have the backstory of Willie Nelson’s Trigger, one of the most iconic guitars in music history.
Like Nelson himself, Trigger’s very appearance paints a picture of its life that words could never explain. It’s beat to hell, and its very existence defies the laws of nature. It shouldn’t even be playable, but like its owner, it perseveres.
In this KillerGuitarRigs special, we’re bringing you 5 must know facts about Willie Nelson’s Trigger.
Nelson and Trigger Met as the Result of a Happy Accident
In 1969, Willie Nelson was playing a gig at the John T. Floore Country Store, a honky tonk in Helotes, TX, and the results of that night changed country music forever.
Being a honky tonk, things tended to get a little rowdy; drinks were flowing, people were dancing, an otherwise ordinary night. After Nelson’s performance, a drunk bargoer managed to get up on to the stage, and stepped on his Baldwin 800C acoustic, causing catastrophic damage.
In an attempt to salvage the guitar, Nelson took it to his friend, and fellow country singer, Shot Jackson, who at the time owned a guitar store by the name of Sho-Bud Music. Jackson delivered the bad news to Willie that his guitar was far beyond repair.
Of course, Nelson still needed a guitar, and Jackson offered him a replacement, the replacement. For the princely sum of $750 (an astronomical $5890 in today’s money), Shot Jackson sold Willie Nelson a Martin N-20. The Martin N-20 is a classical guitar, and came without electronics, so Nelson asked Jackson to salvage the Prismatone piezo from his Baldwin and fit it to the Martin – Jackson obliged and Trigger was born.
Trigger Was Named After a Famous Horse
As a native Texan, Willie Nelson loved cowboy culture, and this reflected in the name he gave his guitar. Like any good cowboy, having a faithful steed was paramount, and there were no horses more iconic at the time than that of Roy Rogers – his name? Trigger.
“I named my guitar Trigger because it’s kind of like my horse” – Willie Nelson
Trigger Was Almost Lost…Twice
For all his success, Willie Nelson has had more than his fair share of bad luck. In the same year he acquired Trigger, he almost lost him. On December 23, 1969, Nelson returned home from a Christmas party to find that his house was burning down, and if it hadn’t been for his love of weed, Trigger might not have made it out.
Nelson sprinted into the blaze to attempt to retrieve his stash, a whole pound of Colombian pot. He wasn’t so much concerned about the drugs themselves as he was being caught with them. While running back into the house to save the weed, he also grabbed trigger, a move that would continue to add to the lore of this legendary guitar.
In 1990, Trigger was in jeopardy once again. Due to tax issues, Nelson purportedly owed the IRS somewhere in the region of $32,000,000. He began negotiations with the tax bureau to try and limit the damage, but on sensing that things weren’t going in his favor, Nelson had to think outside of the box.
In anticipation of an asset seizure raid, Nelson had his daughter secretly ship Trigger to his Hawaii home. Trigger laid low in the “Aloha State” for some time until the heat was off. The IRS did seize a significant portion of Nelson’s estate, but he wasn’t fazed, “As long as I got my guitar, I’ll be fine”, he stated.
Trigger’s Famous Hole is Closely Tied to a Belgian Jazz Musician
The whole reason that Wille Nelson chose to purchase a gut string classical guitar to replace his Baldwin was down to his biggest influence, the Belgian musician, Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt was famous for his pioneering “Gypsy Jazz” style, which was a very percussive, upbeat genre. Unusually, Django played with a makeshift pick, in his case a tortoiseshell button, the fact that he used it with a classical guitar made it even more unusual.
In Nelson’s quest to imitate Reinhardt’s tone, he also used a pick with his new Martin N-20. Being a classical guitar, it was always intended to be played gently with fingers, and with Nelson’s gypsy jazz inspired hard strumming style, he quickly wore a hole in the Sitka spruce top, just underneath the sound hole on the treble side.
A pickguard would have ensured the continued structural integrity of Trigger, but Nelson actually finds the hole useful, “I don’t want to put a guard over it, I need a place to put my fingers.”
There’s Only One Luthier Nelson Trusts to Take Care of Trigger
Wille Nelson is famously protective over Trigger, in fact, he even punched Jerry Jeff Walker for playing with it after being told not to. This largely stems from Trigger being an extension of Nelson himself – with this in mind, it’s easy to see why there are few people who are even allowed to touch Trigger, let alone perform repairs and maintenance.
The one man entrusted with the care and maintenance of the priceless guitar is Texas Luthier, Mark Erlewine. He’s a kindly man who is, in his own right, a celebrity. He’s been working with Trigger for years, and has a knowledge of the guitar almost as intimate as Nelson himself.
Erlewine regularly performs life extending surgery on Trigger. Over the years a number of braces have been installed to shore up the “second sound hole”, but everything he does to the guitar is purely a band aid.
Repair work also has to take into consideration maintaining the aesthetics. Nelson is not at all interested in restorative work, in fact, he is dead set against it. Trigger’s top is adorned with the signatures of his closest friends and family, and while some have naturally worn away through the years, Erlewine does his best to maintain the integrity and image of this iconic guitar. It’s a job that comes with significant responsibility, but when you hear Mark Erlewhine talking about this guitar, you know that he carries as much love and passion for it as the Red Headed Stranger himself.
Final Thoughts on Willie Nelson’s Guitar, Trigger
While many guitarists and musicians are synonymous with a particular brand or model, there are few, if any, whose guitars have become household names. Ask an average Joe the make and model of Willie Nelson’s guitar, and they’ll probably draw a blank. Ask that same person what Nelson actually calls his guitar, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with Trigger.
Trigger has played well over 10,00 shows and recording sessions, and that number will no doubt continue to grow as long as Nelson wants to keep on playing, and long may that be.