Videos by American Songwriter
The name rings out like a beautiful chord. The songwriter and performer remains one of the most indelible acts in modern music, just celebrating his 89th birthday on April 29.
But what makes the artist so special?
Is it his braided hair? His signature nasally voice? His incredible songs like “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”? Yes and yes! It’s all those things.
But one more aspect that adds the proverbial exclamation point to his remarkable life and career is Trigger, Nelson’s old, beat-up and beloved acoustic guitar.
Let’s dive into the history of his relationship with the six-string here.
Nelson’s First Guitar
Nelson’s grandfather bought him a guitar when he was just six years old. It was on that instrument that he learned his first few guitar chords. Later, Nelson began singing gospel songs in church. He wrote his first song at seven years old and when he was nine, he played guitar for a local band called Bohemian Polka.
During the summers, Nelson’s family picked cotton but he disliked the job, so he sought to earn money singing in dance halls and bars ever since he was 13.
Nelson enrolled in Abbott High School where he played halfback on the football team and guard on the basketball team. He also played shortstop on the baseball team. After leaving school in 1950, Nelson joined the U.S Air Force where he served for nine months before a medical discharge due to back issues.
Later, he was hired by guitar instructor Paul Buskirk to teach the instrument. He wrote songs, too, and sold a few, like “Family Bible,” to Buskirk for $50 and “Night Life” for $150.
Nelson incorporated jazz, pop, rock, folk, and gospel into his songwriting output. He wrote with a relaxed, behind-the-beat style. As his career continued to blossom, he influenced a number of artists and became famous for his Outlaw Country style.
In 1969, Nelson acquired an amplifier and a guitar with a “Prismatone” pickup from the Baldwin company. But during a show one night in Helotes, Texas, Nelson left the guitar on the floor of the stage and it was later stepped on by a drunk guy.
Nelson sent the guitar to Nashville to be repaired by Shot Jackson, who told Nelson, however, that the damage was too much. Jackson offered Nelson a Martin N-20 Classical guitar (with nylon strings) and at Nelson’s request, Jackson moved the pickup to the new Martin. Nelson bought the guitar (sight unseen) for $750 and named it after the famous cowboy Roy Rogers’ horse: Trigger. A year later, Nelson rescued the guitar from his burning ranch.
When asked about the name, Nelson once said: “Roy Rogers had a horse named Trigger. I figured: ‘This is my horse!'”
Nelson doesn’t play any guitar other than Trigger. Constant strumming with a guitar pick over the many decades has subsequently worn a large hole in the body around the sound hole. The guitar has no “pick guard” since it’s a nylon string guitar and meant to be finger-picked.
In addition, its soundboard has been signed by over 100 of Nelson’s friends and collaborators, ranging from musicians to lawyers to football coaches. The first to sign it was songwriter, Leon Russell. Nelson got the idea to get signatures on his own guitar when Russell asked him to sign his, saying it would make the instrument more valuable.
In 1991, when the IRS was hounding Nelson for back payments, Nelson fretted that Trigger could be auctioned off, saying “When Trigger goes, I’ll quit.” In fact, the idea worried him so much that he asked his daughter Lana to take the guitar from his studio before any IRS agents could arrive and see it there. Lana later delivered it to him in Maui where he concealed the guitar in his manager’s house until his debut was paid off later in 1993.
The Martin Guitar Company announced in 1998 that they would build a Limited Edition Signature Model N-20WN guitar. This instrument was a collaboration with Nelson. It was only sold through authorized Marin dealers and distributors.