Before Willie Nelson hits the stage every night, there’s a commotion in the audience when his longtime guitar tech, Tunin’ Tom Hawkins, brings out the country legend’s famous guitar, Trigger, placing it at the center of the stage. “The whole front row will come up photographing for several minutes before the show starts,” says Hawkins. That’s the power of Trigger.
Trigger, a beat-up, autograph-covered Martin N-20 acoustic, is just as recognizable as Nelson himself. And in the debut documentary in our “Mastering the Craft” series by Rolling Stone Films presented by Patrón, MaggieVision Productions and director David Chamberlin interview Nelson, his band and crew — plus friends including Jerry Jeff Walker, music journalist Joe Nick Patoski and fans like Woody Harrelson, who provides the documentary’s voiceover — to tell the story of how this instrument helped change music history.
Nelson discovered Trigger at a crossroads in his career. By 1969, he had spent nearly a decade trying to become a clean-cut solo success in Nashville. After a drunk destroyed his Guild acoustic, he decided to look for a new guitar with a sound similar to his gypsy-jazz hero Django Reinhardt (“I think he was the best guitar player ever,” Nelson says). His buddy Shot Jackson suggested the Martin classical “gut-string” guitar; Nelson bought it sight-unseen and gave it a name. “I named my guitar Trigger because it’s kind of my horse,” he explains. “Roy Rogers had a horse called Trigger.”
Later that year, Nelson’s house caught fire, and he raced inside to rescue Trigger and a pound of weed. He took the blaze as a sign it was time to relocate, returning to Texas to play the honky-tonk clubs he grew up around. The scene in Texas was more eclectic and wild, and Nelson began to thrive, pushing the boundaries of what everyone expected from an acoustic player. “No acoustic guitar at that time had been successfully amplified with a pickup,” Patoski says. Willie had a sound literally nobody else was getting.
Trigger has stayed by his side ever since, through the famous Fourth of July Picnics he started hosting in Texas in 1972, his experimental Number One breakthrough Red Headed Stranger, and all the rough times; when the IRS seized his possessions in the early Nineties, Willie sent his daughter, Lana, to hide the guitar in Hawaii. He’s had Trigger for so long and played it so hard and so much that his pick wore a sizable hole through its front. “My God! How do they keep that thing together?!” Patoski exclaims in the film. “I mean, it shouldn’t be playable.” Willie’s response? “I don’t want to put a guard over it,” he smiles. “I need a place to put my fingers.”
After five decades with his trusty companion, Nelson is still going strong. “I figure we’ll give out about the same time,” he says of the well-worn acoustic. “We’re both pretty old, got a few scars here and there, but we still manage to make a sound every now and then.”