Trigger (guitar)

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Trigger Willie Nelson.jpg
ManufacturerC. F. Martin & Company
Body typeClassical Acoustic, Martin N-20
Scale25.4 inches
BodyBrazilian rosewood
Pickup(s)Prismatone stereo

Trigger is the Martin N-20 nylon-string classical acoustic guitar used by country music singer-songwriter Willie Nelson. Early in his career, Nelson tested several guitars by different companies. After his Baldwin guitar was damaged in 1969, he purchased the Martin guitar, but retained the electrical components from the Baldwin guitar.

Nelson based his desired style on Django Reinhardt's playing and guitar sound.[1] He opted to amplify the acoustic guitar, resulting in his signature sound.


As he was an RCA Records artist, guitar manufacturers would loan or gift Nelson their instruments to test them. Earlier in his career, Nelson played instruments of the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation with models including the Telecaster, Jaguar and Jazzmaster. Nelson later moved on to Gibson Guitars. In 1969, before a concert at Panamerican Ballroom near Houston, Texas, Baldwin Company gave Nelson the 800C Classical Acoustic-Electric Guitar model with a Prismatone pickup and an amplifier to test.[2]

The Martin N-20[edit]

During a concert at Floore's Country Store in Helotes, Texas, a drunk man stepped on Nelson's Baldwin. David Zettner and Jimmy Day, members of Nelson's band The Record Men, took the guitar to Shot Jackson, a luthier in Nashville, Tennessee.[3] Jackson, who considered the damage irreparable, offered Nelson a Martin N-20 nylon-stringed classical guitar made out of Brazilian rosewood. Nelson instructed him during a phone conversation to move the pickup from the Baldwin to the Martin.[4] The instrument allowed him to amplify his acoustic sound to perform in large dance halls, contributing to his signature style.[5] Nelson bought the guitar unseen for $750,[4] and named it after Roy Rogers' horse "Trigger".[6] Nelson desired to approach the playing style and sound of jazz musician Django Reinhardt.[1]

Nelson first used the guitar during the studio recordings of My Own Peculiar Way the same year, but the sound of the guitar was overwhelmed by the dubbing of strings and brass instruments on the mix.[5] The following year, Nelson recovered the instrument from his burning ranch in Bandera, Texas.[7] After Nelson's move to Austin, Texas and the revitalization of his music, Trigger defined his sound. The singer used the instrument in the recording of his acclaimed albums Shotgun Willie, Red Headed Stranger and Stardust.[8]


Willie Nelson's guitar, Trigger

Over time, a large hole was worn above the bridge, nearly reaching the sound hole. While the Martin was meant to be played with finger-style picking, the use of a flatpick by Nelson and constant strumming caused the damage.[8]

Its soundboard has been signed by over a hundred of Nelson's friends and associates, ranging from fellow musicians to lawyers and football coaches.[9] The first signature on the guitar was Leon Russell's, who asked Nelson initially to sign his guitar. When Nelson was about to sign it with a marker, Russell requested him to scratch it instead, explaining that the guitar would be more valuable in the future. Interested in the concept, Nelson requested that Russell also sign his guitar.[3]


In 1991, during his process with the IRS, Nelson was worried that Trigger could be auctioned off, stating: "When Trigger goes, I'll quit". He asked his daughter, Lana, to take the guitar from the studio before any IRS agent got there, and bring it to him in Maui.[10] Nelson then hid the guitar in his manager's house until his debt was paid in 1993.[9]

In his book, The Tao of Willie: A Guide to Happiness in Your Heart, Nelson described the influence of the guitar in his style: "One of the secrets to my sound is almost beyond explanation. My battered old Martin guitar, Trigger, has the greatest tone I've ever heard from a guitar. ... If I picked up the finest guitar made this year and tried to play my solos exactly the way you heard them on the radio or even at last night's show, I'd always be a copy of myself and we'd all end up bored. But if I play an instrument that is now a part of me, and do it according to the way that feels right for me ... I'll always be an original".[11]

Trigger is prepared for Nelson before the shows by his guitar technician, "Tunin' Tom" Hawkins.[8] In 2015, Rolling Stone Films presented a documentary directed by David Chamberlin, featuring interviews with Nelson, his biographer Joe Nick Patoski, harmonicist Mickey Raphael, singer Jerry Jeff Walker, and narrated by Woody Harrelson. "Mastering the Craft: Trigger" depicted the story of the guitar.[12] Due to Trigger's impact within the music industry, Martin Guitars produced the Willie Nelson Limited Edition N-20WN.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Washburn, Jim ; Johnston, Richard 1997, p. 224.
  2. ^ Patoski, Joe Nick 2008, p. 198.
  3. ^ a b Nelson, Willie (December 13, 2005). "How I Ended Up With a Classical". iTunes Originals (Interview). Retrieved February 27, 2012.
  4. ^ a b Hunter, Dave 2014, p. 182.
  5. ^ a b Patoski, Joe Nick 2008, p. 199.
  6. ^ Farndale, Nigel (May 4, 2010). "Interview: Willie Nelson". The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved May 22, 2011.
  7. ^ Reinert 1976, p. 103.
  8. ^ a b c d Gramon, Jim 2002, p. 228.
  9. ^ a b "Willie Nelson's Guitar Trigger!". Willie Nelson and Friends Museum and General Store. Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved March 27, 2011.
  10. ^ Draper 1991, p. 103.
  11. ^ Nelson, Willie; Pipkin, Turk 2007, pp. 72, 73.
  12. ^ "Watch Willie Nelson Tell the Story of His Legendary Guitar, Trigger". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media, LLC. February 11, 2015. Retrieved February 13, 2015.


  • Texas Monthly. May 1991 [Retrieved February 8, 2011];19(5).
  • Gramon, Jim (2002). Legendary Texas Storytellers. Taylor Trade Publishing. ISBN 978-1-461-66205-1.
  • Hunter, Dave (2014). Star Guitars: 101 Guitars That Rocked the World. Voyageur Press. ISBN 978-0-760-34701-0.
  • Nelson, Willie; Pipkin, Turk (2007). The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart. Gotham. ISBN 1-59240-287-9.
  • Patoski, Joe Nick (2008). Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. Hachette Digital. ISBN 978-0-316-01778-7.
  • Texas Monthly. August 1976 [Retrieved May 24, 2011];4.
  • Washburn, Jim; Johnston, Richard (1997). Martin Guitars: An Illustrated Celebration of America's Premier Guitarmaker. Rodale Press. ISBN 978-0-875-96797-4.

External links[edit]