More inside info on Willie Nelson's Trigger guitar

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Issue 292 August 24, 2017

Willie Nelson told Mark Erlewine: “As long as this guitar’s working, I’m working.” In this video, Mark shares insider details you could only learn from the guy who keeps Trigger ready to go On The Road Again.

About the guitar in this video: Trigger is a Martin N-20 classical guitar with a unique PrismaTone pickup from Willie's previous Baldwin Guitar. It's a great story that Mark Erlewine tells in the previous Part One of this two-part Trade Secrets video.

In this Trade Secrets video:
  • Crazy fret wear from nylon strings!
  • Why Willie's D-tuner always breaks
  • Fixing a seam separation caused by Willie's picking arm
  • Testing Willie’s original Baldwin amplifier

Video Transcription

[on-screen text reads: Mark Erlewine, Erlewin Guitars. Repairing Trigger part 2]

Mark Erlewine: Trigger, Willie Nelson's guitar, is here for an annual checkup and maintenance stop. This guitar that's played over 10,000 shows and it's just got a lot of hoodoo.

Repairing a loose top

Willie has created a loose top right up here where his arm goes. I guess the heat and moisture has contributed to that happening. Okay. So we're really just trying to get some glue to work behind the purfling under the loose wood of the top so that we can glue it back in place. I'm going to use some high glue just because it's a very good glue and it is pretty thin [on-screen text reads: Titebond Liquid Hide Glue -] and I believe will be the best possible glue to work its way up in there. I'm also going to blow, gently blow it in as I pull up on the gap [on-screen text reads: Crack Repair Air Gun -].

That way it works its way in. I'm going to press down on it a bit. So I believe I've got it well up in there. I'm going to clean off the excess, remove my tape that was protecting it and put on a clamp right where it needs it, right there, and just let that set up and that should take care of it.

Now, several years ago, Poodie brought Trigger in and said, "Oh, Willie's having back problems." And he was thinking maybe we ought to put a regular strap system on this [on-screen text reads: Keep watching to see Mark test Trigger on the original Baldwin Amp]. So we mounted a regular guitar strap button so that he could use a regular strap. That lasted two weeks and he said, "Get it off of there." And he went back to his mariachi style strap.

No new fret wire

One thing about Trigger that Willie is adamant about is that we don't put new fret wire in it. And because he likes the way it feels, he likes the sound he gets, buzzes and all. And it's amazing to me that this as a nylon string guitar, it could have worn this fret wire as much as he does. That is a measure of how much he plays Trigger.

Checking the neck of Trigger [on-screen text reads: Precision Straightedge -], it appears to have a slight upward bow, but because of the extreme wear to the frets, it's hard to really tell just by judging it with a straightedge. If we were just to look at the fingerboard [on-screen text reads: Notched straightedge -], avoiding the height of the frets, it's actually quite straight. One thing I've also noticed is that whether because of the ebony shrinking or just being worn so much, some of the ends of the frets are sticking out and a bit sharp. So I'm just going to trim those lightly with a file. I put a guard on the top and tape it with some of that drafting tape, then with a relatively smooth mill file come in and gently smooth out and even up the ends of those frets with the ebony again.

Smoothing out the fret edges

About the time that Trigger was created in '69 is when I moved to the Ann Arbor area and was apprentice to my cousin Dan Erlewine. We went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where there are many... It's a big furniture manufacturing center in the country. We went, started walking through these vast caverns of old equipment and said we were looking for a buffing wheel. They found us this, It was driven by the large leather belts to a central steam engine, so this is probably turn of the century, painted orange like that, and said, "Yeah, it came from an old guitar factory in Kalamazoo. A Gibson factory." And our eyes lit up and we thought, well, this is what we want.

Replacing the D tuner

We're going to smooth out the fret edge ends. Another interesting idiosyncrasy of Willie's playing is as he plays between songs, he often will reach up and mess with his D tuner. It's a nervous habit or something. And if you watch him enough, you start to notice it too. I've had to replace these tuners, and these are wonderful German made Houser style schaller tuners. But this is probably the 13th or 14th set over the years I put on them and it's just because of that.

[on-screen text reads: Zap-It EZ-Winder -]

Testing trigger on Willies original Baldwin amp

Now these are going to stretch for a long time. All right, so we're going to test out Trigger on Willie's amp, which is the original Baldwin amp that went with this Prismatone. It's unique in that it uses a stereo cord, which has two live tips, one of which is the phantom power that powers the preamp inside of Trigger for the Prismatone pickup.

[Mark slowly plays trigger on the Baldwin amp]

Sounds pretty good. And I've tried to keep up with it, and so far so good. Looks pretty spry to me. Well, I think it's in good shape now. I think it's ready to go on the road again.



Mark Erlewine

Guitar Builder and Tech

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