The Story Of Willie Nelson’s Iconic Guitar Trigger
via The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon / YouTube
When a drunk person stepped on Willie Nelson’s Baldwin guitar in 1969, breaking its neck, it’s unlikely that Nelson saw it as a fortunate incident.
Faced with the pressing need for a replacement, he happened to stumble upon a new rosewood acoustic Martin guitar that he described in his autobiography, It’s a Long Story: My Life, as having the “richest, most soulful tone” he had ever heard.
He named this guitar Trigger, drawing inspiration from the close relationship between Roy Rogers and his beloved horse. And, just like the actor-singer Roy Rogers and his blond stallion Trigger, Nelson and his guitar were destined to be lifelong friends.
Together, they have endured countless performances and recording sessions and even survived a house fire that destroyed Nelson’s Nashville home. The guitar was essential in creating the famed country singer’s unique sound and was always there during special recording sessions with well-known musicians like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.
He bought it from Shot Jackson after failing to repair his old Baldwin
Harold Jackson, the talented steel guitar and dobro player known as Shot Jackson, is the reason behind Trigger’s creation. In addition to performing on stages alongside well-known country music performers like Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells, Jackson was a master instrument maker and repairer.
Willie Nelson went to Jackson for help after realizing that his broken Baldwin, but Jackson found the poor guitar beyond repair. Jackson recommended a recently purchased Martin N-20 nylon-string guitar to Nelson. “Is it any good?” Nelson asked. “Well, Martins are known for good guitars,” was Jackson’s reply.
Nelson decided to buy the instrument without previously seeing it, and he paid $750, or more than $6,000 in today’s money. It turned out that this was a smart investment.
Recounting the incident in It’s a Long Story, Nelson described how he sought Jackson’s assistance to modify the Martin by adding the old Baldwin’s pickup and parts. “It worked. I had the sound I’d been looking for. I heard it as a human sound, a sound close to my own voice,” the music icon wrote.
“Trigger’s like me. Old and beat-up.”
Less than a year after Willie purchased his dream guitar, his home outside of Nashville caught fire. In 1980, Nelson related the story to People, describing how the house was completely destroyed by fire when he arrived. However, in the middle of the chaos, he was able to save “a pound of Colombian grass” and, most importantly, Trigger.
Apart from this unfortunate incident, Trigger has racked up a number of scratches over the years, including a hole from string picking close to the bridge, multiple signatures from other well-known artists, and worn frets.
Although Shot Jackson had originally built Trigger to Nelson’s specifications, it was another Nashville instrument builder and maintenance specialist took on the task of keeping the guitar in good condition. Trigger’s vitality has been preserved in large part by Mark Erlewine, who has replaced tuning pegs, strengthened the guitar with more bracing and lacquer, and taken care of any other problems to keep it in top shape.
Trigger has been Nelson’s constant companion for more than fifty years. Nelson compared himself to Trigger while thinking back on their long collaboration, telling Texas Monthly that the guitar was “old and beat-up”.
The legacy of Trigger
In his 2006 memoir, The Tao of Willie: A Guide to Happiness in Your Heart, Nelson laid out the profound impact that his guitar had on the way he plays music: One of the secrets to my sound is almost beyond explanation. My battered old Martin guitar, Trigger, has the greatest tone I’ve ever heard from a guitar.
The folk icon went on: “If I picked up the finest guitar made this year and tried to play my solos exactly the way you heard them on the radio or even at last night’s show, I’d always be a copy of myself and we’d all end up bored. But if I play an instrument that is now a part of me, and do it according to the way that feels right for me … I’ll always be an original”
A documentary directed by David Chamberlin and narrated by Woody Harrelson, Mastering the Craft: Trigger, was released by Rolling Stone Films in 2015. Interviews with Nelson, his biographer Joe Nick Patoski, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and vocalist Jerry Jeff Walker are included in the film, which tells the origin of the guitar.
In 1998, Martin Guitars unveiled the Willie Nelson Limited Edition N-20WN in recognition of Trigger’s enormous influence on the music business.