Spotlight: 1954 Fender Telecaster with Bigsby B-16 Vibrato

By Ryan Gabrinetti, Burbank Shop Manager

After being introduced four years earlier, the Fender Telecaster model had already been through a few growing pains and was starting to come into its own by 1954. Through trials and tribulations, Mr. Fender finessed his invention from a humble and crude beginning to a finely tuned machine with a truss rod, a second pickup, and a new name. This instrument came to us from the second owner and shows the kind of love and care over time that you could only pray for if you were looking for a guitar with a reverence on par with St. Francis’ robes. The original Blonde finish is yellowed to a nice pale hue over the ash body, which puts it pretty far from some of the deep nicotine finishes you grow accustomed to seeing in modern reissues. The lacquered black pickguard has the perfect spot of wear right in the center, and the fingerboard has a tasteful amount of wear in the lower fret zone. The Bigsby is pure Duane Eddy twang and gives you just enough room on either end for that real “true vibrato” wiggle. The B-16 tailpiece was offered as a factory option through Fender for a brief window of time between 1953 to 1954, so that makes this guitar one of the last examples to make its way out of Fullerton and was likely installed by Paul Bigsby himself. Because of this, the guitar has no serial number, since they were typically stamped on the original bridge plate. There is a shim in the neck pocket to compensate for the B16’s angle that appears to match the materials used for the tailpiece.

The relationship between Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender was complicated to say the least. While they were reportedly good friends and flow of ideas between the two, there was certainly an inherent sense of competition, and history will tell you that Bigsby beat Fender to the punch on most of the Telecaster’s key innovations like the solid body and a six-on-a-side headstock — Leo was just the guy to capitalize on these features with mass production. The introduction of the Stratocaster with its “synchronized tremolo” later in the year 1954 significantly strained the Fender-Bigsby relationship, and thus the Bigsby option we see on this instrument was not offered again until he sold his business. Living by the adage “I can build anything” Bigsby kept poor records of his builds and is only known to have made six electric Spanish guitars, but these instruments and their designer have probably had a greater lasting input on modern guitar design than any single source shy of Ted McCarty or Les Paul.

In addition to simply being an extraordinary example of an extraordinary guitar, this instrument has some interesting quirks. One peculiar detail that stands out on this instrument is the screws. Prior to 1954, Fender exclusively used flathead screws on their instruments, a detail which has since been replicated on vintage reissue ’52 Teles, but this guitar features Phillips head screws throughout, with the exception of the Bigsby, which has flathead screws. Curiously, this guitar also came in a 1954 Stratocaster case, which appears to be original to the instrument. Considering guitar shop economics probably haven’t changed much in 70 years, the original retailer probably just grabbed the case they had laying around. 

This is the first Blackguard I’ve personally had the pleasure of handling and I have to say the sheer comfort and ease of the thing is disarming. It’s evident that this guitar was well played but also well cared for, and never got taken out too much or too recklessly. The low original frets ring out with a crystalline quality that makes you question how anything else could come close to the action and spank of the original model’s maple fingerboard. These tend to be the most rewarding vintage guitars over the clean case queens, and if you’re looking for a lifer, this one will deliver in spades. 

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