Willie Nelson’s 50-year Love Affair with Trigger, His Faithful Guitar

SPICEWOOD, TEXAS - MARCH 14: Detail view of Willie Nelson's Martin guitar "Trigger" during the Luck Welcome dinner benefitting Farm Aid on March 14, 2018 in Spicewood, Texas. (Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images)

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit

Willie Nelson’s been playing the same guitar — a Martin N-20 classical — since 1969. In this fantastic profile from 2013 at Texas Monthly, Michael Hall chronicles not only the life and times of Willie and his trusted sidekick, Trigger, but the laborious care and tending of a love-worn instrument that is the primary tool of a living musical legend. Trigger bears not only the marks of Willie’s playing style but also autographs from Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, and members of Willie’s staff and touring crew.

Erlewine looks forward to Trigger’s semiannual physicals. He oils the bridge and cleans the fretboard, the wood of which is so eroded it looks like waves between the frets. Then comes the lacquering. The mottled area just above the sound hole shows the effects of fifty coats of lacquer applied over 35 years. The darker parts are colored by dirt and dead skin that can’t be removed; the lighter parts are where Willie has dug deep into the spruce. Erlewine carefully rubs the gouges in the wood that run parallel to the strings between the bridge and the sound hole, a sign of the force with which Willie plays.

He inspects the wood along the curve at the top of Trigger’s body, where Willie’s right arm has rubbed for 43 years, and the scratches at the bottom of the sound hole that are left by the strap clip. He’s especially careful around the thirty or so signatures that are still legible. In the right light he can see the impressions left by others, names or parts of names fading into the wood, like faces receding into memory.

Finally he inspects Trigger’s maw, staring into its abyss. Willie has always insisted, in that Zen-like Willie way, that the hole is a good thing. “I always thought it enhanced the sound,” he says. And he may be right. Luthiers have long experimented with a second hole, and there’s a Hawaiian custom guitar company that crafts many of its acoustics with two of them. The thinning of the spruce around the hole has probably helped too. “You walk the line between strength and tone,” says Dick Boak, a longtime designer and archivist at Martin Guitars. “The wood that is missing may improve the sound. As you scratch away at the top, the diminished thickness of the membrane will most likely make the guitar sound better.”

All things considered, Erlewine says, the guitar is in pretty good shape—except for the frets. “There are certain notes that are just pffft!” he says. “Everyone around Willie knows it. They just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘He’s doing pretty well—he doesn’t want to change!’ ” Erlewine finally gave up trying to get Trigger re-fretted. “Willie’s living his life, and Trigger’s living it with him, with all the aches and pains that go along with it.” The truth is, the worn frets just force Willie to play with more force, more vibrato, more bending, more shaking, more attitude.

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