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Everything you ever wanted to know about a Bigsby vibrato system

Bigsby B50

For a really long time you didn't see too many new guitars out there with Bigsby vibrato systems on them. But given the fact that since 2012 there have been a lot of older designs reimagined into new guitar offerings (like the Squier Cabronita Telecaster with Bigsby), we've been seeing Bigsby vibratos making a comeback of sorts.

Is Bigsby a model or a company?

Bigsby is an actual company, named after Paul Bigsby. And at one point they did make guitars, although it's next to impossible to find one because they were basically all prototypes.

Why so many vibrato models?

There are 13 different Bigsby vibrato systems because they're designed for different types of guitars. Solid-body, arch top, acoustic/electric guitars, etc.

The ones you're most likely interested in is the solid-body models made for flat-top guitars, the B5 and the B50, a.k.a. the "horseshoe" design (it resembles a horseshoe in the way it looks).

What are the differences between a B5 and a B50?

The B50 is smaller than the B5. The B5's length is 120.65mm and has a width of 95.3mm, while the B50 model's length is 109.5mm and has a width of 96.8mm.

As far as I'm aware, the B5 is meant for American guitar use and follows Gibson Les Paul USA measurements, while the B50 is meant for non-American guitars and spacing.

It is very easy to tell the difference between a B5 and a B50 just by looking at it. The B50 has "Bigsby LICENSED" stamped right on it (seen in above photo) while the B5 just has "Bigsby" stamped in there and nothing more.

Can you put a B5 or B50 on any solid-body electric?


There's a reason that the product description states it's for flat-top guitar use, and that reason is that the guitar's top must be flat, meaning not arched.

If you decided to put a B5/B50 on a guitar with an arched top, the vibrato either won't mount correctly, or it will but you'll have this huge chunk of steel that's supposed to be resting near the body just hanging in the air (which can seriously screw up the intonation).

Another thing to take into consideration is that you must have the space near the back of the guitar body to actually install the thing. Remember, a B5/B50 is just a tail piece and not a bridge. This means a bridge must come after the Bigsby vibrato, and that takes up quite a bit of space. On that Cabronita Telecaster I mentioned, you can easily see that even on a Telecaster body, the B50 system just barely fits - and that's the smaller of the two Bigsby flat-top models.

What does a Bigsby act like?

If you've ever played a Fender or Squier Jaguar or Jazzmaster, the Bigsby system acts similar to that in the respect it's for "slower" note bends, as in the kind where you're actually trying to achieve note vibrato.

What most players aren't prepared for is the size of the vibrato arm of a Bigsby. All other vibrato systems use a small, skinny bar, while the Bigsby uses something significantly larger than resembles a thick butter knife.

At first, you'll find the Bigsby's vibrato arm odd to the touch just because of its size, but you get used to it fairly quickly. What you may not get used to quickly is that swinging it out of the way is always a manual process, meaning when done using it, you have to manually move it out of the way.

Something a Bigsby allows you to do however that no other vibrato can is that you don't have to grab the arm to use it. You can get vibrato out of it just by lightly patting and pressing the the arm. The advantage there is that you can hold your pick, extend your ring and pinky finger and just use those two fingers to pat-and-press while using your other fingers to pick with.

How does a Bigsby compare to a Jazzmaster style vibrato?

The throw of a Jazzmaster's vibrato system is long, if not the longest of any vibrato system that exists for guitar (for mass-produced guitars, anyway). A Bigsby's throw is shorter. Not as short as a Stratocaster, but shorter than a Jazzmaster would be.

I can't say in words what the throw will feel like because everyone feels differently. What I can say is that it is something you'll get used to over time.

How does a Bigsby compare to a Floyd-Rose system?

FR systems are a totally different animal with a totally different feel. All I can say about that is that if you prefer FR, you won't like Bigsby. But if you like the "slow" vibrato style of the Jaguar and Jazzmaster, you'll feel very much at home with a Bigsby.

Does a Bigsby make the guitar go out-of-tune?

That depends on the guitar it's used on, and what kind of strings you're using.

For any guitar where the strings are on an angle after the nut (Les Paul, SG, Explorer, etc.), that always causes tuning problems because there's extra pressure at the nut where strings can get caught. You can compensate for that by lubricating the nut slots.

For guitars where the strings are straight after the nut (almost any Fender guitar), tuning problems don't happen as often.

Where string choice is concerned, using strings that have less tension when tuned to pitch will help out in keeping the guitar in tune.

D'Addario strings are usually a bad choice for Bigsby use because the core is hexagonal shaped, resulting in stiffer tension. Ordinarily, players want that, but that can make for going out-of-tune happen often when using a Bigsby vibrato. DR strings unless stated otherwise use a round core and suit a Bigsby vibrato better.

After that there are string types sure as pure nickel, which several companies make. They don't last too long, but those would also work well with a Bigsby.

Ultimately, when it comes to string choice, you'll have to try out a few different types to see which works best for your Bigsby-equipped guitar. If you find the string you usually use just doesn't work, don't be surprised. What works on a Strat or a Jazzmaster or whatever you normally play may be inappropriate for the Bigsby-equipped guitar.

Just remember that when experimenting with different string types, pay attention to things like material (nickel-plated steel, pure nickel, coated, etc.), core type (hex-core or round-core) and winding type (roundwound, half-round or flatwound). It's not just string thickness that counts.

Weight considerations

Both the B5 and the B50 are just over 10 ounces (290 grams) in weight, which is under a pound. On its own, that sounds light. But when added to a guitar, it can make it a heavy beast.

If your guitar is 8 pounds now, adding on the Bigsby basically makes it a 9-pound guitar, and you will notice that when playing it standing.

Is there any way to make it lighter? No. In the way a Bigsby is made, it's just a chunky piece of metal and there's no way around that.

However, for some guitars, the extra weight back there is beneficial. For example, if you have a Gibson or Epiphone SG guitar that has neck dive problems, slapping on a Bigsby should cure that. True, you end up with a heavier guitar, but that's certainly better than dealing with neck dive.

Published 2014 Aug 26

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