The Emmons Guitar
The Emmons guitar originated from two changes I wanted on the Sho~Bud pedal steel we were manufacturing: a smaller cabinet and aluminum necks. I had designed the original Sho~Bud cabinet, but the more I became accustomed to the mechanics of pedal mechanisms, the more I saw in the way of overkill in cabinet size.
Shot Jackson didn't want to "rock the boat," as he put it, so he nixed the suggestions along with a few others I'd throw in from time to time. Eventually I logged enough features to design a totally new and different pedal steel. After two years of putting my thoughts on paper, the plans for the Emmons guitar were completed in 1961.
Bigsby was the benchmark design for cosmetics, but the cabinet was bulky and the one piece cast aluminum neck created tuning problems from temperature change.
I still revere the Bigsby, but at a time when we traveled in cars three fourths of the year, a bigger cabinet meant a bigger case, more weight, and more space taken up in a trunk.
My first step was to design a cabinet no larger than it took to house the mechanics. Next was a two piece aluminum neck with a bridge that mounted on the cabinet. The keyhead would have rollers to keep the strings from sawing across the nut, as it did with the Sho~Buds.
Cigarette burns on my personal guitar gave me cause to think the world could use a cabinet with a burn resistant finish, so I threw that in.
The Sho~Bud fretboard scale was 24 ½ inches with black frets on a white background. My fretboard would have a 24 ¼ inch scale with chrome frets and atom symbols on a black background. Three quarter inch maple was the standard for cabinets so I chose one half-inch.
I made wooden patterns for a keyhead, beveled foot pedal, and a lightweight volume pedal that mounted on the pedal bar. That idea came from my Bigsby volume pedal sliding off the top of my guitar when rushing to work an Opry spot.
A silk screen company in Nashville made fifty fretboards and fifty Emmons Stereo Guitar decals from drawings I submitted to them.
For the push-pull changer, I drew from Shot Jackson's system: a random array of bell cranks and reverse pulleys permanently welded to the undercarriage. A changeable mechanism was necessary, so I integrated his method into two changer fingers for each string, one to pull, and one to push. My reverse pulleys would be on the cross shafts of the guitar.
The Sho~Bud permanent raised or lowered a string but never the same string. To achieve that, I used springs of various lengths that butted against collars on the push/pull rods. When properly sized, the spring was strong enough to pull a finger to pitch and weak enough to override when pushed for a lower.
My father had the dies for the push-pull fingers made at Bendix in South Bend, Indiana. The rest of the design: cabinet¾ end plates¾ bell cranks¾ tone bypass switch¾ and neck with a stereo pickup configuration, was drawn to scale on graph paper.
While touring with Ernest Tubb, I met a fellow named Ron Lashley. Ron invited me out to his car to show me a Sho~Bud clone he built and wanted my opinion on. Outside of a pitted lacquer finish, the overall workmanship looked very good.
I learned that Ron had a major in physics, so I showed him a few of my drawings and gave a brief description of what I had in mind. He offered to work on a prototype and a month later, made a trip to Nashville to pick up my patterns, dies, fretboards, and decals.
We tried a burn resistant finish called Mica Glass, but the process was tedious and time consuming, leaving Formica as the only alternative. I couldn't picture wood grain Formica on a cabinet so I chose a glossy black sample that matched the fretboards. Once the black and aluminum theme came together, polished aluminum strips became the obvious choice for the trim.
The first prototype was brought to me at a show date with Ray Price in North Carolina, and it was gorgeous. More importantly, it was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. The only setback was the pedal action, which was stiff, so Ron took the guitar back to Burlington and modified the raise fingers for better leverage. The next prototype was on the money.
After a couple post-production models, we found that the stereo pickup created more assembly problems than it was worth. I wanted two five pole pickups that allowed the use of two amps, something not popular at the time. Rotary controls for balance and tone stuck out through slots in the back side of the neck and rotated with the thumb. It would have been a nightmare to service, so we went to the conventional single coil pickup.
After some minor tweaking, the Emmons push-pull was ready for production. Through Nashville recordings, show dates, and players like Jimmy Crawford, Hal Rugg, Ben Keith, and Weldon Myrick, the demand for the guitar took off.
For two years, I had control over any changes Ron thought necessary for production. Then I heard about a "bolt-on" guitar and called to ask about it. Ron told me he thought mounting the bridge on the neck might improve the sound. My concern was that it would defeat the purpose of the wraparound design and his response was, "We'll offer both models and they'll have a choice."
I knew that temperature would affect tuning in some way but gave him the benefit of the doubt and said okay. Later, I played a bolt-on that sounded great, but not without tuning problems. As for its acceptance, it was discontinued two years later.
After that, the split-tail neck was introduced, consisting of a cutout at the end of the neck with an aluminum insert to replace the cutout. To this day, I only guess as to why it was done.
In the eighties, the mechanical advantages of the all-pull guitar made it necessary to offer that type of changer. Ron came up with a system and I added the integration of a split tune feature that allowed you to raise and lower the same string and tune the note between the two pitches. I dubbed the new model Legrande; a name I had originally considered for the push-pull guitar.
After years of fixing things that weren't broke, I felt that the sound of the Emmons Original was lost forever. The demise of the push-pull mechanism and a year of legal wrangling with the company left me with little incentive to stay. By 1990, I was gone.
I've been blessed by being able to work with the best in the business, but I'll always hold designing the Emmons guitar above anything I've ever accomplished as a musician.