Willie Nelson's Guitar Has a Better Story Than Most Musicians


Arden Lambert


April 29, 2021


April 29, 2021


April 29, 2021

Every time before a show, guitar technician Tunin’ Tom Hawkins would put Willie Nelson’s guitar Trigger at the center of the stage. And for a few minutes before music legend Willie Nelson came out, Trigger was the star of the show. This beat-up, classical acoustic Martin N-20 is as legendary as its owner, which has been played for over 50 years and 10,000 shows and sessions. Not to mention that it’s also full of autographs not only by fellow musicians but as well as lawyers and even football coaches. 

Started with a Drunk

The story between Willie Nelson and his guitar Trigger was born out of an accident. As an RCA Records artist, many guitar manufacturers would either loan him or gift him instruments to test. He played a number of guitars and before a 1969 concert at Houston, Texas, Baldwin company gave him a promotional 800C Classical Acoustic-Electric Guitar model to test. While Nelson did not care much about the guitar, he really liked the guitar’s pickup, which was a revolutionary Prismatone piezoelectronic model made with six tiny ceramic sensors. With this, he could play on stage with his guitar with a band and still actually be heard. 

Sadly, the Baldwin guitar was destroyed beyond playability by a drunk. They took the guitar to a luthier in Nashville named Shot Jackson. Since the damage was irreparable, Shot Jackson offered Nelson, who was then at the crossroads of his career, a Martin N-20 nylon-stringed classical guitar instead with its top made of Sitka spruce and its back and sides from Brazilian rosewood. The fretboard and bridge were made from ebony from Africa, while the neck was mahogany from the Amazon basin. And all of its brass tuning pegs came from Germany. 

Trigger, the legendary guitar

Nelson purchased the Martin guitar unseen only with instructions to retain the electrical components from the Baldwin guitar. The resulting amplified acoustic guitar sound became a signature of Nelson, which was based on Django Reinhardt’s (who was the best guitar player according to Nelson) playing and guitar sound. 

He bought the modified guitar back then for $750 (or equivalent to $5,200 in 2019) and named it after Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger. When asked about the name, he would simply reply that for him, his guitar was his horse. 

Trigger has always been there for Willie Nelson and it has definitely seen all the ups and downs of this legendary artist. After all, he bought this guitar while he was just a small artist with a crappy record deal and a failing marriage. This guitar had grown with him from a hit-making songwriter to the musician that he is now. Trigger helped define Willie Nelson’s sound and made him stand out from the rest. 

The pair’s biggest challenge was when the IRS seized Nelson’s asset in 1990 due to a $32 million tax debt. As a prized possession, Nelson sent Trigger to his daughter Lana to hide the guitar in Hawaii. He only played it again after settling his debt in 1993. 

Over time, Trigger developed a large hole above the bridge which nearly reached the soundhole. This damage was mainly caused by Nelson with his use of a flat pick and constant strumming compared to the classic finger-style picking which slowly scraped away the wood. But even at that, he still played it. Trigger was his soulmate. 

Since 1977, Luthier Mark Erlewine did all of Trigger’s maintenance and repairs, and he would do an annual check-up of the guitar in Austin, Texas. 

The Impact and Legacy

Willie Nelson’s guitar has undeniably made a big impact and influence in his style. In his book The Tao of Willie: A Guide to Happiness in Your Heart, he described that the secret to his sound was almost beyond explanation. His battered old Martin guitar had the greatest tone he had ever heard from a guitar. And if he would play his solos with the new and finest guitar, it wouldn’t feel as right with his Martin. With his guitar, every song would always be an original. 

Trigger, Willie Nelson’s guitar, made such an impact on the music industry that Martin Guitars produced the Willie Nelson Limited Edition N-20WN. 


trigger, Willie Nelson



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