The Musical Legacy Of Merle Travis
Source: Sounding Board Newsletter Vol 25 - Jun. 2008
D-28M Merle Travis
Merle Travis ranks among the most gifted guitarists ever. A ground-breaking player – on both electric and acoustic - whose namesake “Travis picking” continues to influence (and frustrate), he also was a fine vocalist, superb songwriter and pioneering guitar designer. His legacy lives on in players like Pat Donohue, the late Chet Atkins and his son Thom Bresh, in songs that have become standards like “Sixteen Tons” and “Nine Pound Hammer,” and in guitar innovations that have stood the test of time.
One of his most distinctive guitar designs began with a 1941 Martin D-28 he acquired in 1946. Soon after its purchase, he took the Martin to friend and machinist Paul Bigsby – who previously had collaborated with Travis to create both the Bigsby vibrato and one of the earliest solidbodied electric guitars – to have the neck replaced with one similar to that on the electric guitar Bigsby made for him. Bigsby obliged, installing a maple neck with his distinctively shaped headstock, “Bigsby” headstock inlay, “six-on-a-side” tuners and unique fingerboard position markers. In addition, he replaced the pickguard with an oversized black one that approximated the shape of the new headstock.
Merle Travis liked both the feel and the unique sound of his modified Martin; he played it on virtually every acoustic recording he made from 1946 until his death in 1983, appeared with it in movies, including a memorable scene with Frank Sinatra in “From Here to Eternity” in 1953, and played it in concert. The guitar was left to his son Tom Bresh, a talented picker in his own right, who has played it on both instructional videos and albums.
To honor the legacy of Merle Travis, C. F. Martin is proud to introduce the D-28M Merle Travis Commemorative Edition guitar. Produced in a limited edition of just 100 instruments, it is a great sounding tribute to one of the guitar world’s true originals.
The D-28M Merle Travis Commemorative Edition is modeled after Travis’ original modified D-28 Martin, right down to the premium solid tonewoods. The back and sides are rare Madagascar rosewood, prized for its similarity in appearance and tone to the original’s now endangered Brazilian rosewood. The red (Adirondack) spruce top, the same topwood used in 1941, is matched to 5/16” forward-shifted scalloped braces for crisp, powerful tone.
The body appointments are similarly classic: a Style 28 rosette with wood fiber inlays, herringbone top purfling, and a zigzag backstrip accented by grained ivoroid binding and an ivoroid endpiece.
The 1 21/32” (at the nut) neck is carved from curly maple and approximates the contours of the original. The distinctive headstock features a polished figured walnut headplate, “Bigsby” inlaid in mother of pearl to match the original and Gotoh six-in-line nickel Kluson-style tuners with slotted string posts. The familiar Martin logo decal can be found on the back of the headstock. Mother-of-pearl position markers on the African black ebony fingerboard duplicate the mostly card-themed ones on the original; “Heart” at the 3rd fret, “Club” at the 5th fret, vertical “Diamond” at the 7th fret, “Spade” at the 9th fret, “Bar with Two Dots” at the 12th fret and horizontal “Diamond” at the 15th fret.
Martin’s polished gloss lacquer body finish with light amber aging toner on the top highlight the unique oversized black polished and beveled “Travis” pickguard. The nut and saddle are crafted from genuine bone: the bridge pins and end pin also are bone, both topped with tortoise-colored dots. The guitar Merle Travis created only hints at the uniqueness of the man himself. A native of Kentucky, Travis was raised in Muhlenberg County, a coal region that was home to several innovative guitarists. His first instrument was a banjo, but he soon moved on to guitar, learning from neighbor Mose Rager the syncopated right-hand technique that would eventually bear his name. With his sophisticated playing style, Travis began earning money playing dances and parties while in his early teens.
In 1936, Travis headed east to Indiana, where he played with several bands before connecting with the Drifting Pioneers, who performed on WLW Radio in Cincinnati. There he worked on the station’s barn dance show and various weekday programs, meeting and playing with Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers and Joe Maphis. After a brief stint in the Marine Corps early in World War II, he returned to WLW. He recorded his first record in 1943 with Grandpa Jones, with the two – due to contractual problems – billed as “The Sheppard Brothers.”
In 1944, he left Cincinnati for Hollywood, where he and his playing style quickly became famous through work on the radio, in recording sessions, in concerts and – a few years later – on television. He began recording for Capital Records in 1946 and a string of hits – many of which he wrote or cowrote – followed, including “Divorce Me C.O.D.,” and “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (that Cigarette).” It also was the period of his collaboration with Paul Bigsby on the previously mentioned vibrato and solid-bodied electric guitar.
He recorded for Capital well into the 1960s and also appeared in 16 movies, usually as a musician. In 1955, his “Sixteen Tons,” originally recorded in 1946, became a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford: another of his songs from that era, “Dark as a Dungeon,” became a folk standard in the 1960s. During the 1960s, heavy drinking and personal demons took a heavy toll professionally, but Travis reclaimed his life and regained a measure of his earlier popularity in the 1970s, beginning with his appearance on the landmark 1972 Nitty Gritt y Dirt Band album Will the Circle be Unbroken, continuing with The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, an album with Chet Atkins that won a Grammy Award in 1974, and culminating with induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977. He also took the opportunity to reconnect with son Thom Bresh, a Travis picker like his father whose own musical career began in the 1960s and took off in the 1970s with the Canadian television show “Nashville Swing” and with “Top Ten” country singles like “Homemade Love.” Merle Travis released a series of well-received albums in his later years, including 1981’s Travis Pickin’, which earned a Grammy nomination. He died of a heart attack on October 20, 1983.
What of the others in this saga? Paul Bigsby sold his company, which produced Bigsby Vibratos, to Ted McCarty, former president of Gibson Guitars, in 1966 and died two years later. In 1999, the Gretsch Guitar Company purchased Bigsby Accessories from McCarty, and today Bigsby Guitars continues to produce vintage-style Bigsby vibratos and bridges, and soon also may introduce a Bigsby Merle Travis solid-body electric guitar. Thom Bresh has showcased his brilliant Travis picking in two videos, “The Real Merle Travis Guitar, Like Father, Like Son” and “Thom Bresh in Concert.” As a videographer, he has shot and produced video projects for Hank Thompson, Lyle Lovett, Brooks & Dunn and George Jones. He was inducted into the Thumbpickers Hall of Fame in 2001.
Delivered in a hardshell case, each D-28M Merle Travis Commemorative guitar bears an interior label personally signed by Thom Bresh, Bigsby Guitars President Fred Gretsch and Martin Chairman C. F. Martin IV, and numbered in sequence. Due to the unique design elements of this guitar, only a right-handed version will be offered. Authorized C. F. Martin & Co. dealers will take orders for the D-28M Merle Travis Commemorative Edition until the edition of 100 guitars is fully subscribed: participating Martin dealers will be listed on this website.