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Trigger: The story of Willie Nelson’s beloved guitar

Trigger: The story of Willie Nelson’s beloved guitar

Willie Nelson has entertained audiences since he was 13 years old, and through the decades his guitar Trigger has become almost as famous as he is. Trigger is an old Martin N-20, and few instruments have been played as much, or as well as it has.

Nelson met the nylon string Martin guitar in 1969 after a drunk destroyed his last guitar. He wanted an instrument that could help him get a sound more like Django Reinhardt – his biggest musical influence. The Martin fit the bill, and he named it Trigger after Roy Rogers’ horse.

Willie Nelson's "Trigger" Guitar Close-Up

The story almost ended before it began. On Christmas 1969, Nelson’s house caught fire, and he dared the blaze to save the guitar. In Rolling Stone’s documentary about Trigger, Nelson remembers the day fondly, “Well, I saved Trigger, so it was a good day.”

A new start for Willie Nelson’s music

The house burning down seemed like a sign, and Nelson and Trigger moved from Nashville to Texas to play honky-tonk clubs. He had done well as a songwriter for others, but his solo career had yet to take off. Texas offered another climate for musicians, and Nelson was a success. In Texas he could push the boundaries and experiment with his music. At the time no one else had amplified acoustic guitars, and he used this technique to craft his own unique sound.

The two have been virtually inseparable over the decades, and if Trigger can’t go on stage, Nelson won’t go on either. Band members consider Trigger a part of the band, but with one important difference: if something happens to one of them the show will go on. If Trigger can’t play, Nelson won’t play.

How long can the guitar stay together?

There are instruments older than Trigger, but few guitars have logged as many playing hours in a lifetime, and Nelson plays hard. This type of acoustic guitar wasn’t intended to be played with a pick — and the wear shows on the top — but Trigger is also a testament to just how durable a fine guitar can be.

By now the frets are worn down, the top is covered in cuts and autographs, and despite several repairs there is a large hole through the front of the guitar. Trigger sees a guitar technician at least twice a year, and despite everything the instrument has been through it has no major cracks, the back is whole, and the headstock has never been broken.

All this wear has shaped the timbre into something unique – Trigger is an instrument that sounds like no other.

Nelson has said in interviews that he thinks they’ll give out at about the same time. The only time they’ve been apart was when the IRS went after Nelson’s possessions and Trigger had to hide away in Hawaii until the dust cleared.

The material of a legend

Trigger has a Sitka spruce top, Brazilian Rosewood back and sides, and a mahogany neck. The fretboard and bridge are made of ebony. This combination of tonewoods gives the guitar a warm and mellow sound.

The Martin Guitar Company made a limited edition Willie Nelson signature in the late 1990s — model N-20WN. Thirty guitars were made with the rare Brazilian Rosewood of the original, and the rest were made in East Indian Rosewood.

Willie Nelson recently hit the headlines again, not as a musicians, but as an author. His autobiography will be released on May 5th, shortly after his 82nd birthday. The book is called, It’s a Long Story: My Life, and Trigger will surely feature prominently in its pages.

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7 Responses

  1. I seen Willie in concert in Rome Georgia and when I seen tiger I was amazed I was looking at a piece of history none other like it thank you Willie for all your great hits you are one of the last of a special breed

  2. I heard that Willie Nelson got the guitar from a man from Ga his name was Shot Jackson? Does anyone know who Willie got the guitar from?

    1. It was Shot Jackson, a noted pedal steel guitarist and guitar designer, who also was half of the team that developed the beloved “Sho-Bud” pedal steel guitar and other music instruments/amplifiers,(from the combined first names of Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons).

  3. Does Willie know a man by the name Jim Headrick known as Jimmy Fox that had told me he had became upon hard times and pawned the guitar with the hole to Willie that was to let Jim get it back at a later time but this didn’t happen. I don’t this Jimmy would have lied to me

    1. Sounds to me like this Jim guy is just trying to lay claim to Nelson’s guitar. Can you imagine what it must be worth just because it’s Nelsons and still playable in the condition its in. BTW… you know that hole is there because Nelson uses a pick on a guitar that isn’t supposed to be played like that. Look at old pictures of Nelson with Trigger.

    2. Jimmy lied to you. Willie bought Trigger sight-unseen from Shot Jackson after his old Baldwin guitar was damaged, and put the pickup from his old guitar in it. He paid $750 bucks for it.

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