About a year after Smashing Pumpkins issued their fuzzy, trippy debut, Gish, a thief stole Billy Corgan’s favorite guitar. The band had just finished a gig at Detroit’s Saint Andrew’s Hall in June 1992 when a friend who was acting as a roadie told him, “Somebody just walked out the back door with your guitar.” It hadn’t even been five minutes since the band finished the show, as Corgan recalls. “I was like, ‘How is that even possible? Where’s security? Where were you?’” He filed a police report and offered a $10,000, no-questions-asked reward for its return.
For the past 27 years, he’s heard rumors of the guitar resurfacing. “It got to the point where you started not believing it, because you heard it so many times,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It was like the lost treasure of Blackbeard or something.”
On Tuesday, Corgan’s fortunes changed. A friend of his contacted him with a picture of a guitar that looked like the stolen instrument. But he was still incredulous because he’d been tricked before. “Somebody sent me a picture a couple of weeks ago of another one of my guitars, and I wrote the guy back and said, ‘How did you get my guitar?’” he says. “And he wrote back, ‘Oh, it’s a recreation.’ He’d literally gotten the same stickers, worn them down in the same way and scraped the paint so it looked worn. You could have fooled me.” So he decided to check it out in person. Sure enough, it was the early Seventies Fender Stratocaster that he had been looking for for more than 25 years.
Corgan knows it’s his guitar because it had certain distinguishing marks beyond the psychedelic paint job he’d given it. He recognized the place where a previous owner had carved the initials “KM” into it, and he remembered the placement of certain cigarette burns on the headstock “that I always thought were unsightly.” These were things he’d never talked about in the press, so it would have been impossible for someone to copy them.
The guitar made its way back to him via Beth James, a mother of three who doesn’t play guitar and lives in Flushing, Michigan, about 80 minutes northwest of Detroit. She’d spotted the guitar at a Detroit yard sale and plonked down $200 for it because she thought it would be a cool conversation piece in her basement. “I thought it was painted cool,” she says. “I literally don’t know anything about the guitar. I actually told my husband I only paid $100 for it because he would have killed me if he found out I paid more.” And there it stayed for the last 10 to 12 years.
Her daughters never played the instrument and it resurfaced as she was looking for things to sell. “I really wanted a hot tub, frankly, and my husband wouldn’t buy me one, so I said, ‘Well I’m gonna sell some of this stuff,’” she says. “People always said it was probably worth some money. I didn’t know if it is or not and then I got the article about it.”
She’s not much of a Smashing Pumpkins fan – she’s more into the Rolling Stones — but she recognized a few of their songs when a girlfriend of hers helped her connect the dots about the instrument’s provenance. Her friend had recognized it from an article online and said, “Isn’t this the guitar you have in your basement?” “I just freaked out and I’m like, ‘I don’t know,’” she says. She tried sending Corgan a Facebook message about six months ago but didn’t get through to him. This past December, her friend’s brother connected her to Alex Heiche, who founded Sound Royalties, a company that offers royalty financing to artists in need of quick money.
“If you look at Billy, he’s very stoic,” says Heiche, who coordinated the reunion. “He doesn’t give a lot of facial expressions. But he looked down, and as she opened the case, he looked at it for a second and froze. Everybody was dead silent. And he goes, ‘That’s it.’”
“He was pretty happy,” James says.
The guitar has a particularly special meaning to Corgan, since it changed the way he played the instrument. The Pumpkins’ drummer, Jimmy Chamberlain, had sold it to him around 1989 or 1990 for $275, and he’d never played a Stratocaster before. He’d grown up playing Gibson Flying V guitars because that’s what his father played, but this one suited him differently. “It instantly changed the way the band sounded and the way I played,” Corgan says. “When it was stolen, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, gee, my guitar just got stolen.’ It was the guitar that affected the way I played and I was heavily identified with the guitar.”
The difference, he explains, was the instrument’s neck, which he describes as being like that of a violin. Because he is a southpaw who plays on righty instruments (his dad told him he’d never find good guitars if he played left-handed), it was the first time he could really feel what he was playing. “The minute I started playing on the Strat, it was like it came to life,” he says. “It was like everything I was doing suddenly was amplified. I’m way over aggressive on the left hand and less obviously aggressive in the right hand, and that’s the style that people associate with the band. That sort of bending, pulling and riffing really comes from that. On that Strat, it was like you suddenly could hear every little thing I was doing.
“We started interpolating that style into what James [Iha] was playing, and suddenly the sound of the band got way more beautiful, psychedelic and wide,” he continues. “Obviously, it changed the direction of our lives.”
Although he’s not totally sure about the year, Corgan believes the instrument is a ’74 Stratocaster. “You usually don’t know the exact year until you take the neck off,” he says. It wouldn’t be a heavily coveted instrument for a guitar collector other than the fact that Corgan had played it. The Seventies were a bleak era for Fender since CBS had purchased it in 1965 and cut costs in production through 1985 when it sold it. “There was a great inconsistency at the time in their manufacturing,” Corgan says. “Literally, one guitar would be great and one would be not so great. It’s like trying to find the Holy Grail of guitars. I always felt I had that guitar. So when it walked out of the back door of Saint Andrews, it felt like a great lost love. I was never able to find it.”
“When it walked out of the back door of Saint Andrews, it felt like a great lost love.”
At one point, he found a guitar that came close to the sound, but it didn’t quite match up. Fender employees later told him that the instrument’s unique sound may have something to do with where the wood came from in the tree that produced the instrument, as well as the temperament of whichever technician hand-wound the wires in the pickups that day. Regardless, there was just a special quality to this Strat. “Obviously, we were playing very aggressively at that time,” he says. “So it had all the attack of a classic Strat but a real clear chime to it. Usually when you crank Strats up, as we did, it would sound really shrill. For whatever reason, this guitar didn’t sound like that. So I was able to have everything you’d want with a Strat but with a heavier attack, and that became what would be known as the Pumpkins sound.”
To Corgan’s ears, it was the perfect instrument for playing rhythm guitar, and it’s all over Gish. It’s the sound of the fuzzy, slinky intro riff to “Siva” and the contemplative strumming heard in “Snail.” “The unique sound of that guitar is in the beginning of ‘Snail,’” he says. “It’s hard to explain. Strats, especially in that era, were kind of whiny. When you run into a lot of gain, they just take your head off. Somehow this guitar didn’t do that, but it also didn’t feel like you were giving up something.”
When he listens to Gish now, he hears the club band Smashing Pumpkins were at the time. “We were playing places like the Metro in Chicago,” he says. “So our approach was a bit concussive and more psychedelic. We didn’t really think like a pop band. And it didn’t mean anything for us to write five- or seven-minute songs. It was only when other bands blew up that suddenly it became about being on the radio. I just hear a band that’s really free and, in many ways, probably the closest articulation of our personalities. After that, it became about he world we were in and the pressures we were under for better or worse.”
Corgan painted the instrument because he didn’t like its complexion. The creamy yellow reminded him too much of the instruments Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore played, as well as shredder extraordinaire Yngwie Malmsteen. He didn’t want to paint it black, and he had another guitar that a friend of his had painted in a way that was reminiscent of Eric Clapton’s guitar circa Disraeli Gears. “So one day I just took some paint out and I’m no artist, but I painted it the way I liked it,” he says. “It still had some gloss on it — I didn’t sand it down — so immediately the paint started falling off, and it took on this other look, which is kind of blotchy.”
When he saw a picture of the guitar as it is now, he wasn’t sure if it was his because the paint had worn off even more. The other confusing thing was a skull sticker on the back that he doesn’t remember putting on. “It is exactly in the spot where I would put stickers on the back,” he says. “So it seems to me I probably put it there right before it got stolen and I just didn’t remember. It might have to come off now that it’s mine again.”
“I always felt the guitar would come back when it was time.”
There was, however, a silver lining to the theft. “Strangely, because the guitar was stolen, I had to go out and buy new guitars,” Corgan says. “Those guitars became the sound of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. I’m not trying to say the person who stole it did me a favor, but I was forced to innovate and it did send me in a different direction.
“I always felt the guitar would come back,” he continues. “And I know that sounds strange, but today didn’t surprise me. I always felt the guitar would come back when it was time.”
Over the years, he heard rumors that the guitar was around. Someone had told him he’d seen a person with the guitar but wouldn’t tell him the person’s name. The guy would occasionally pull it out of a closet and say, “Do you know whose guitar this is?” Corgan at points offered a reward up to $20,000 with the hope of the person coming forward. “Even if the person came forward, I didn’t want to prosecute him,” Corgan says. “I just wanted the guitar back. I wanted the person to cough the thing up and just kind of move on. And obviously that never happened.”
Corgan’s reunion with the instrument comes at a fortuitous time. He’s currently in the studio writing new music for a follow-up to 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. It’s going to fit right into the music he’s working on now.
“I’m literally gonna take it somewhere, and get it fixed up,” he says. “And I’ll start using it. It’s a really valuable guitar to me. And I mean, the timing is sort of strange, and auspicious, and so I take it as a sign that it’s supposed to be part of what we’re doing.”
The new material is shaping up to be Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 2 but with a shift in direction. “It’s very guitar-driven,” he says. “Again this guitar showing up, it’s kind of like back to the beginning of why I played, and if there’s anything that we hear from people who love the band, they want more, not less, of what we do. So I’m just in there riffing away. If you had told me 27 years ago that A) the guitar would come back to me some day and B) I would still be in a band with James and Jimmy, I wouldn’t have believed you in either count,” Corgan says. “So I think it’s cool we’re still playing and that the guitar is going to be a part of the new record, and I think it’s pretty cool that we’re still rocking, to quote James.”
So now that he’s got the guitar back, will he be paying James the $20,000 reward he offered in 2009 for the instrument? “She didn’t want anything,” he says. “God bless her. It falls under the ‘miracles can happen’ category. Even for a cynic like me.”
“It wasn’t about the money,” James says. “I was just grateful that this was the right one and it’s his. It would have been a shame for all of us if it wasn’t his and it wasted everybody’s time. It deserves to be back with him.”
“The only deal with Billy was, ‘Hey can you sign a guitar for her?’” Heiche says. “And he did. That’s the way it should be.”
“It’s an incredible story,” Corgan says. “And I’m really, really happy. It’s a happy day.”
Perhaps the most incredible part of it all is that the guitar was ostensibly stolen in the first place; it’s an instrument worthy of a story by Homer. Corgan recalls that about 10 years after Chamberlain sold him the instrument a person he didn’t know asked him if he still owned his guitar. He then described the one that Corgan just got back. “He said, ‘I lent it to Jimmy, it was actually my guitar,’” the singer says. “And I said, ‘Oh, I feel so bad.’ And he wasn’t mad. He was like, ‘Oh, that’s OK. Jimmy’s my friend. If Jimmy sold it to you and you used it, that makes me happy.’
“But that’s the guitar’s circuitous history,” he continues. “Jimmy procured it and somebody procured it from me, and now it’s back. This guitar has a certain magical mystery to it. It changed the fortune of my life. So that’s why I felt it would come back to me. It was like the talisman or something, like in Lord of the Rings. It was meant to come back to me.”