I’m currently in the process of building a guitar for my buddy Ashley Kingman. Ashley is the guitar player for Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys. He’s one of the best rockabilly guitarists on the planet and he’s a real nice bloke as well.
For years now, Ash’s guitar of choice has been a late fifties Magnatone Mark V (right). The Mark V was designed for Magnatone by none other that Paul “P.A.” Bigsby, legendary pioneer of the solid body electric guitar, forefather of the modern pedal steel guitar and inventor of his namesake vibrato tailpiece.
Magnatone contracted Bigsby to design three guitar models for them. The Mark V was the top of the line model and while it differs considerably from Bigsby’s own custom-built guitars, there is no denying that the shape of the Mark V is classic Bigsby all the way.
In fact, Bigsby designed a similarly shaped double-cutaway electric as early as 1949. That guitar was made famous by country guitar great Billy Byrd.
But getting back to Ashley’s guitar, the first thing you’ll notice when you see his Magnatone (below) is that the headstock does not look like the example above. That’s because Ashley had a new neck made for his guitar, which was damaged.
Instead of replicating the original Magnatone headstock, Ashley opted to give the guitar a Bigsby-style headstock. This he thought, not only looked cooler, but it emphasized the Bigsby/Magnatone connection. So what he ended up with is a one-of-a-kind “what-if” guitar that historically never existed. A Bigsby/Magnatone mash-up, if you will.
I’m not sure if Ash realized it at the time, but he had effectively created his own signature model—one that he’s now been associated with for the past fifteen years or so.
Well, fifteen years of touring will take their toll on a guitar and to say that Ashley’s Mark V is starting to show it’s age would be a vast understatement. What once was a clean looking vintage specimen is now a road-worn relic. Not only that, but the market for vintage Mark V’s has risen considerably. If Ashley wanted to replace his guitar today, he’d be looking at quite an investment.
I suggested to Ashley that I build him a new guitar, using his as the starting point. It would be a fully realized signature model—not pieced together, but built his way from the very start.
I met with Ashley (below) and took measurements of his guitar, traced the body shape and scribbled down as many notes as I could. We discussed the options and agreed that the level of craftsmanship and finish of the new guitar should be more along the lines of a true Bigsby guitar. Since Bigsby used birdseye maple to make his guitars, we decided to use the same for Ashley’s. Other critical details like the neck profile, fingerboard width and fret height we agreed should be kept as close to Ashley’s original as possible.
I know Ashley’s guitar will not be an easy build. There are many aspects of the Mark V’s construction that make it more complex than it looks. I expect there will be endless details to work out before I’m finished—like what am I going to do for pickups?— but I’m up for the challenge and I look forward to delivering Ashley a guitar that we can both be proud of.
(Thanks to Kim Smallwood for the photo of me and Ashley.)