In the words of Buddy Emmons:
I like to jokingly refer to the original Emmons guitar as a Sho-Bud reject. While that may not be one hundred percent true, some of the basic ideas from which the Emmons design evolved were changes I had suggested for the Sho-Bud guitar during my tenure with the company.
When we started Sho-Bud in 1957, Shot Jackson was almost twice my age and becoming set in his ways while I was 20 with a lot of crazy ideas running through my head. After spending time with my first Sho-Bud, I suggested changes that I thought might improve the cosmetics and weight of the guitar. Shot felt like the Sho-Bud was a success and didn't want to rock the boat with changes. After several more ideas were met with the same response, I felt that the only way I'd have a guitar with all the features I wanted, would be to design it from scratch. Starting in 1959, I spent the next two years putting ideas on paper.
I had wanted an aluminum neck on the Sho-Bud without the tuning problems associated with temperature change. Shot consented to that idea, so I made a pattern for a neck that mounted independent of the bridge and keyhead. A flaw in the pattern resulted in a crooked neck and a lot of laughs from Shot, so he discarded the neck, but I kept the idea.
To distance the new guitar from the Sho-Bud and reduce the weight, I wanted a smaller cabinet constructed of half-inch thick maple. I designed a black and chrome twenty-four and a quarter inch scale fretboard, using atoms for fret markers.
Most of the other ideas were based either on features I had wanted in guitars I had previously played or pure and simple necessity. I wanted a tough burn resistant finish because of someone who had left a cigarette burning on my Bigsby guitar after playing it. My volume pedal slipped off the top of my Bigsby when I carried it from one location to another, so I designed a lightweight volume pedal that would attach to the pedal bar. I wanted stereo pickups, five strings per pickup, with balance and tone controls and a switch to bypass the capacitor for a direct signal from the pickups to the amp. Another switch would bridge the stereo pickups to a ten-string mono signal for single amp use.
My push-pull mechanism worked on the same principle of Shot's permanent system except that I integrated his undercarriage mechanics into bell cranks and changer fingers. The major mechanical advantage over the Sho-Bud was the ability to raise and lower the same string. My father, an employee at the Bendix factory in South Bend, Indiana, made the dies for the changer fingers. All I lacked was a name.
My initial thought was to use the name Legrande, after the jazz musician Michel Legrand. My friends questioned the logic of using someone else's name. Of course there was no logic; I just liked the sound of the name. After getting the same response from everybody, I decided to go with the name Emmons. The final step was to find someone qualified and willing to build a prototype.
I met a fellow by the name of Ron Lashley while touring in North Carolina. Ron wanted to show me a pedal steel he had built, so I asked him to set it up in the dressing room. It appeared to be a Sho-Bud clone but I was more interested in his mind than his guitar, so we talked. I learned that Ron had majored in physics at the Boone State College in North Carolina, which meant he had the credentials to handle the mechanics of a pedal steel. I mentioned the guitar I had on paper and discussed the possibility of him building it. He took a look at my drawings and offered to take a shot at it.
For the burn resistant finish Ron tried a liquid layering process called Mica Glass and found it to be too tedious and time consuming for production. That left Formica as our only option. We had never seen Formica on a steel guitar so there were no guidelines as far as choice of finish. The wood grain patterns didn't match the beauty of natural wood, so we agreed on black Formica and polished aluminum trim.
The pedal action of the first prototype was stiff but the guitar was gorgeous. The slim cabinet with the black and aluminum theme set it apart from any other steel guitar on the planet. A choice of Formica finishes would be offered, but the guitar I saw in front of me would be our standard model. Ron took the guitar back to Burlington and adjusted parts and linkage related to the mechanism. The next time I played it, it was right on the money.
Few players used two amps in 1962, making stereo pickups more trouble to install than they were worth, so we scrapped that idea after two or three guitars. Ron wound a ten-string single coil pickup with a three-point adjustable mount and added swivels to the bell cranks so the rods would travel with less friction. Most of the fine-tuning was left to Ron and what ever suited him from a manufacturing standpoint
The wrap-around neck on the original guitars was replaced with the bolt-on design some time in the mid sixties. That change was short lived because the bridge was bolted to the neck, which defeated the purpose of the independent wrap-around design. By the end of 1967, Ron went back to the wrap-around neck with a cutout in the tail end. This cut-tail design has remained the standard for all Emmons guitars.
One of my two contributions to the all-pull Emmons guitar was suggesting the integration of a tunable split feature I had used on a 1964 push-pull guitar. The other, and perhaps my favorite, was my answer to a question I thought Ron would never ask, which was, "Do you have any ideas for a name." I said, "Sure, how about Legrande?"
What started as a vision in 1959 ended as a benchmark for pedal steel guitars that remains prevalent to this day, and that's more meaningful to me than anything I've ever accomplished as a musician. I'll always be grateful to Ron Lashley for making my dream a reality. I wanted the best and he delivered.
Buddy's '64 guitar with split-tune feature
John Lacey 403-473-7450
[In Buddy Emmon's Words] [In Bobby Bowman's Words] [Evolution Of The Tailpieces]
[A Wilderness Guide To The Basic Setup Of An Emmons Push Pull Steel Guitar]
[Some Additional Notes on Spacers and Shock Springs]
[Interesting Emmons Guitars]
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Last update May 7, 2013