Meet the man who takes care of Willie Nelson’s beloved guitar

He’s been a luthier since the 1960s.

By David BrownJanuary 3, 2017 12:56 pm

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 in 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 capital 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, Mich., 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 Mark 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.

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