The History of Willie Nelson’s Famous Guitar, Trigger

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    The History of Willie Nelson’s Famous Guitar, Trigger
    Published: November 17, 2021

    Willie Nelson at the Heartbreaker Banquet in Luck, TX in 2015. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro / Shutterstock.

    Few guitars have such a storied history as Willie Nelson’s Trigger. The country music legend and noted marijuana advocate has been playing the Martin N-20 Classical since he was just a young outlaw in the year 1969. The guitar has been with him for over fifty years and he has played it on every album, and during every live performance ever since he got it. That’s over 10,000 concerts and over 85 studio albums, by the way.

    The story begins, oddly enough, with Nelson’s previous guitar, an 800C Electric Classical that was gifted to him by the piano company Baldwin, in 1968. Nelson and his band had a show one night in 1969 at the John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes, TX, and it was broken when a drunk dude stepped on it after Willie placed it in its case at the foot of the stage.

    Nelson sent the busted guitar to his old buddy Shot Jackson, a luthier based in Nashville. Jackson told Willie that the instrument was damaged beyond repair, and instead offered him the Martin N-20 that was soon to become known as Trigger.

    While Willie wasn’t a huge fan of the bulky neck on the Baldwin guitar, he was a huge fan of the sound generated by the pickup, the proprietary Prismatone piezoelectromatic that boasted six ceramic sensors, allowing the guitar to be amplified with a stereo cable similarly to an electric guitar.

    Prior to this technology, the only way to get an amplified sound out of an acoustic guitar was to play into a microphone, which obviously has its drawbacks when paired with a backing band of amplified guitars.

    Willie Nelson at the US Festival in Devore, CA, June 1983. Photo by Michael Tweed / AP.

    Shot Jackson told Willie that he could rig up the Martin with the Prismatone pickup so that amplify it in the same way he could with the Baldwin, plugged directly into the C10 amplifier that they had also gifted him. That was all Nelson needed to hear. He agreed and purchased the instrument for $750, sight unseen.

    Thus, Trigger was born. Though Willie did not name it until years later.

    When he first got Trigger, it didn’t look much at all like the beat-up and ragged old guitar that it has become today. It was still a crisp, clean amber color, without the recognizable hole worn through beneath the fret board or any of the other scars that it has acquired over the years, though it did have the sound that Willie was looking for – one that was inspired by the great songwriter Django Reinhardt.

    Willie had not owned Trigger very long when a fire broke out at his home in Ridgetop, Tennessee, not far outside of Nashville, in the winter of 1969. The house burned to the ground along with everything in it (including some unreleased masters), but not before Willie rushed back inside to rescue two very important items: his now-famous guitar, Trigger, and a pound of some real good weed.

    This turned out to be a major life-changing event for Nelson, because while he was a respected country singer in the Nashville scene, and he had enjoyed some early success with his songwriting, he wasn’t happy with the direction that the country music industry had taken.

    Willie’s house burning allowed him a fresh start, and it was when he moved back to his home state of Texas in 1971 that his career, and thus the story of his trusty old axe Trigger, truly started to blossom.

    The first album on which Willie Nelson played Trigger was 1973’s Shotgun Willie, his Atlantic Records debut, containing now-classics “Shotgun Willie” and “Whiskey River”. He has since played the instrument on every single studio album that he has released.

    In 1974, Willie performed in the pilot episode of the television series Austin City Limits, which is now the longest-running music series in television history, on October 17th, 1974. The entirety of his performance is available on Youtube these days, and I’ve included a stream of it below.

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