Callaham Guitars has recently added some cool upgrade options for Bigsby vibratos that fix some long-criticized design features on the Bigsby. The accessories are functional and add Callaham’s signature precision machining and premium materials. I’m installing the upgraded string shaft and front roller on a B-5 vibrato tailpiece. I’m also installing the upgraded Bigsby on a Suhr tele, which requires modifying the Wilkinson bridge to accept behind-the-bridge stringing. Callaham offers a beautiful bridge upgrade for teles that does the same thing, but modding the Wilkinson only takes about an hour, making it a little more affordable than the completely custom-machined Callaham.
The first step is swapping the string roller. Just loosen the set screw and the roller pin taps out easily.
The new roller fixes the age-old problem of the strings fanning out and slipping behind the bridge by adding perfectly spaced grooves in the roller. The new pin is a slightly tighter fit but taps in with a small punch. Replacing the string retainer shaft is a little more work, but after speaking to the folks at Callaham on the phone, it wasn’t too tough. The small, hollow pins that hold the string ball ends on the Bigsby are actually a tightly rolled metal pin. Callaham recommended just tightly squeezing them and rotating them out with pliers, saying that installing new pins isn’t hard if you ever go back to the original roller.
The new string shaft lets you thread the strings through the tailpiece, under the roller, and back to the tuners, without struggling with pre-bending the strings. Moreover, the Callaham part takes most of the slop and side play out of the arm for better coupling and more sensitive vibrato.
The arm back on, everything locked in place, the Bigsby is ready for install
but first we need to mod the bridge. I remove the bridge and pickup to keep fine metal dust away from the magnets. I mark out the general outline of the material I want to remove from the back edge of the bridge, and clamp the bridge in a bench vise, padded with some thick vinyl.
There are a lot of ways to do this, but the Dremel is easy to control in a small space with the flex shaft. I just V out the primary angles
then follow up to clean things up and profile the curves. It’s not perfect doing it by hand this way, and leaves a little of a burr, but it’s easily chased off with fine needle files and finished up with 220 sandpaper. One day I’ll get a mill to make these projects more exact. If the whole bridge were fine polished, I’d have more work to do to bring the reflective shine back, but the Wilkinson bridge is a little more forgiving than an all-chrome or stainless bridge..
Here it is reinstalled on the guitar. From here the Bigsby installation is standard procedure.
The guitar top is protected with tape while the Bigsby is marked out and drilled to depth. The Suhr has locking tuners which make the alignment with Bigsby’s string method even easier. The hardest part (for me) in installing a Bigsby is convincing myself that the vibrato is square to the neck and bridge; the installation instructions are useful for positioning the strings correctly over the pickup poles, but that doesn’t always mean the tailpiece isn’t slightly skewed. The Callaham string spacing roller makes this process dramatically easier. I might get an extra one to help during setup on Bigsbys in the future. Even with the extra markings, I triple check before making those critical holes in the top…
Here it is all strung up. The guitar still needs a full setup, but Suhrs always play splendidly. Start to finish roughly 3 hours of labor, plus parts, and you can have the best of both worlds on any Tele– the fun functionality of a Bigsby vibrato, and the signature tone of the vintage 3 saddle bridge. Of course with all the cool options in bridges, pickups, wiring, saddle materials, and other upgrades, there are still worlds of unique color to bring out, but that’s for another time.