A handful of musical instruments are so closely associated with certain artists that the instruments themselves are known by their first names.

Maybe you’ve heard of Lucille, B.B. King’s favorite guitar, or Eric Clapton’s Blackie, the famous Stratocaster you see photos from the 1970s.

But in the rarefied world of musical instruments known by their first names, none are quite as elite or historically significant as that beat up old warhorse Trigger. It’s an acoustic guitar that’s as much a part of the iconography of Willie Nelson as his braids or bandanna – an instrument so cherished by its owner and considered so irreplaceable that it travels with its very own 24/7 bodyguard.

A few days before Christmas, I got a call that Nelson would be spending a little time in Hawaii, a recharge of sorts before the next tour. Trigger wouldn’t be traveling with him, instead he would be returning to Texas for some repair work. Would I like to come and see? Would I ever.

In a quiet, older neighborhood in the Texas capitol city, tucked behind fences draped with hydrangeas, I walk up to what looks like a backyard studio – an unassuming place, given all the history here. In this cluttered but immaculate workshop, in a dark green smock, Mark Erlewine hovers over his workbench.

He’s surrounded by mallets and electric screwdrivers, bottles of solvent and jars of q-tips. His patients, priceless electric Gibsons and Fenders and more exotic six- and four-stringed creatures hang along the wall, waiting for Erlewine’s undivided attention.

On this day, a familiar old friend is back on the table – Trigger, an iconic Martin N-20 named for Roy Rogers’ horse.

“I have been fortunate to work on that guitar and to witness the growth of the second sound hole and numerous signatures come and be worn and be worn off,” Erlewine says.

Trigger is tattooed with signatures of Nelson’s famous friends and it bears the battle scars of nearly 50 years on the road. Besides the usual sound hole, there’s a gaping crater worn right through the top of the guitar, as if someone slung a hammer into it. The Sitka spruce top is worn through by Nelson’s playing. The sides and back of the guitar are made of Brazilian rosewood.*

“When there’s this much hoodoo in a guitar, this much love in the playing of it, you have to be in awe,” Erlewine says.

He’s not sure if the second hole affects the sound, but that’s not what matters, he says.

“Willie swears it does and that’s what counts,” he says. “You can be listening to the radio and you hear a guitar part and you go ‘That’s Trigger.’ Buzzes and all.”

It’s a testament to Erlewine’s reputation that he’s the sole caretaker of Nelson’s closest musical partner.

In the 60s, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Erlewine apprenticed as a luthier before following a migration of musicians to Austin. He arrived in town at just about the same time as a certain red-headed stranger. Ever since, he’s been taking care of legendary guitars and the stars who own them.

“In many ways, I feel like Forrest Gump,” he says. “People needed work done and some of them were famous. Some I was just able to help out at a good time and was able to do it well for them, so they would pass the word. It’s mostly word of mouth.”

Erlewine has designed namesake instruments used by legends like Johnny Winter and Martin Knopfler. He’s carved custom instruments for Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. He’s designed custom guitars for Don Felder and Joe Walsh of the Eagles, among others.

There aren’t many luthiers as well known as their famous customers, but Erlewine is a modest celebrity in his own right. The travel guitar he and Gibbons designed from scratch, the Chiquita, scored a cameo as Marty McFly’s companion in “Back to the Future”, and Erlewine’s automatic and headless laser guitars have been the stuff of MTV videos since the beginning of MTV.

Erlewine says he might consider another custom piece today, but one gets the sense that his greatest reward comes not from putting his name on the headstock of another invention, but keeping older pieces alive.

“Working on instruments, creating instruments – it’s sort of a therapy,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to make an instrument play better. And when you can do that and the person picks it up and ‘Wow, this is great. It’s like an old friend back to life.’ It’s just priceless.”

Without Willie Nelson there would be no trigger, but as more than a few have suggested, without Trigger, there might not be a Nelson as we know him.

As the man himself once put it: “Trigger will probably wear out about the same time I do.”

If that’s the gauge, then the good news is that thanks to Mark Erlewine, Trigger’s never been better. And now both guitar and Nelson are back together – on the road again.

*We originally reported that the top of the guitar was made of Brazilian rosewood. This story has been corrected.

Tell it like it isTweet @TexasStandard or leave a comment here
  • Donna September 13, 2017 at 6:00 am

    Loved the article. I have been fortunate enough to have seen Willie and Trigger on may occasions as I operated a spotlight at Caeser”s Palace in ‘Vegas when it was still small enough to run into Willie at the Stage door. One day, as I came to work, he had been out (by himself) jogging. We almost bumped into one another. I told him about a photograph I had taken of him when the band played downtown @ the Golden Nugget. He asked to see it so I brought it in a few nights later. He was surprised and remarked that his hair was still red in the photo. He signed it to me and gave it back. Many nights as I ran my light I almost missed a cue while just being taken away listening to him pick on Trigger and sing. Good Times.

  • Anonymous January 5, 2017 at 8:20 pm

    Who signed it, please tell!!!

  • Sean O'Dowd January 5, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    I held Trigger (carefully) before a concert by The Highwaymen in Dublin several years ago … I also held Waylon’s Tele that night !!! … and on another night I held Albert Lee’s Music Man … gonna learn to play a geetar sometime hahaha!!!

  • alanritchie January 5, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    I am 75 years young and before I check out my wish is to meet and chat with Willie from reading autobiography and following his music I know he is a real family man and has a heart of gold and with native American blood running through his.veins he is a champion of the true American race and aware of the injustices they have suffered I have a real admiration for him.God bless Willie and his family

  • Robert H Alzapiedi January 5, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    I have been lucky enough to own 4 Taylor Guitars and I treasure them always. So I understand why Willie Nelson treasures Trigger his guitar.

  • Gene January 5, 2017 at 10:17 am

    I love it go Willie fan forever roll one for me

  • Thomas Ouimet January 5, 2017 at 9:17 am

    I love these stories. I have a Martin guitar, short neck that was built in 1921 and I have been the only owner. Any way to tell how much it might be worth?

    • Anonymous January 6, 2017 at 8:58 am

      What is the model ? Also serial number if there is one? I have a book that might have it listed

  • Linda Polzin January 5, 2017 at 2:30 am

    My mother gave me her old Martin. She had her own show.she played with Tex Ritter.He asked her to join his show.Her manager was Mack Lundsford.called The Texas Ranch girls.She was the star of the show.Called her the Dixie Lee.She yodeled like no one ever heard.And sang country,played her Martin like Dynamite!The news articles say, she put Gene Autury to shame.I can still here her.In fact.She had 2 Martin’s.I believe one was a lone neck.She sold.MaMa was short and then found the short neck Martin.MaMa’s real name Was VIOLET Youngbauer at that time.Grew up in Oshkosh Wis.There was only a few old Martin’s.I know Tex had one.Very Proud daughter here.would love to know what Year Trigger is.

  • alex berukoff January 5, 2017 at 1:25 am

    i justhad my only playable guitar smashed to peace’s ; i was riding my bike and lost control of my balance and she took my fall for me .

  • alex berukoff January 5, 2017 at 1:23 am

    far out

  • Bill Turner January 5, 2017 at 12:31 am

    Nice article, but one error–the Martin N-20’s worn top is NOT Brazilian Rosewood–it’s Spruce, a much softer wood widely used for quality guitar tops. however, it’s the back and sides that are made from Brazilian Rosewood.

  • David January 4, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    super article! …….. Mark must be related (I’m thinking) to Dan Erlewine of Stewart Macdonald fame

    • Anonymous January 5, 2017 at 4:41 pm

      He is. Dan is his brother.

  • Gabriel January 4, 2017 at 10:56 pm

    The article incorrectly identifies the guitar’s top as Brazilian rosewood. The back and sides and fretboard are Brazilian rosewood, the top is spruce or cedar. No guitar maker would make a top out of rosewood. The only acoustic guitars that feature hardwood tops are typically mahogany, such as the Martin D15 or Taylor 524ce.

  • Shirley & Verl Day January 4, 2017 at 9:55 pm

    What an honor that would be. We love Willie and Kris
    Kristofferson. My husband is 82, I only wish we were
    able to meet Willie or Kris. They are tops in our book.
    Love to both, The Day’s in Vidalia, Louisiana

  • Anthony Pelletier January 4, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    I never thought about how “Trigger” kept that unique sound. Very interesting history lesson. Thanks! Love Willie since the 60s. I still sing his older hits. ????❤?

  • Sam January 3, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    I had the opportunity to get on the stage once face to face with Willie Nelson and his guitar calling Trigger early 90’s Saratoga California Paul Mason’s winery gave Willie my Vietnam Vet hat had honor of watching Willie sing a song rearing my hat then he turned around and hung my hat on one of his guitars

    • Linda Polzin January 5, 2017 at 2:35 am