Famed Canadian guitarist, songwriter and vocalist Randy Bachman’s six-stringed soulmate disappeared forty-six years ago from a Toronto hotel room. This is the epic tale of how he got his baby back.
Randy Bachman and Neil Young were just a couple of teenagers in Winnipeg when two orange Gretsch electric guitars—both 6120 Chet Atkins models—appeared in a local music store’s show window.
He remembers them glowing like pumpkins lit from within, and that the price was four hundred dollars—a small fortune at the time. “I mowed lawns and delivered papers,” he remembers, “and washed cars every Saturday and babysat cousins and brothers and sisters.”
Randy eventually bought that guitar (and Neil Young got the other). Randy went on to write and play on massive hits for The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive such as “These Eyes,” “No Sugar Tonight,” “Let It Ride” and “Taking Care of Business.” And like Chuck Berry’s Lucille and Brian May’s Red Special, that Gretsch was his magic axe, part of Randy’s heart and soul. “Of all the instruments that exist, the most intimate is the guitar,” he explains. “You put your arms around it, you breathe and it breathes with you.”
And he went to extremes to protect it. “I carried my Gretsch in a big, sturdy hopsack bag along with eight feet of tow truck chain and a heavy padlock,” he recalls. “If I had to go to a hotel and leave my guitar, I’d thread the chain through the case handle around the toilet twice and padlock it, or chain it to the van’s steering wheel.”
Then the unimaginable occurred. It was 1976, Bachman-Turner Overdrive had just finished recording an album in Toronto, and Randy was exhausted after an all-night mixing session. His roadie put the Gretsch in their room at the Holiday Inn just long enough to check out—and just long enough for someone to steal it.
Devastated and frantic, Randy called the Toronto Police, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Mounties, and searched every pawn shop on Yonge Street in Toronto. The police told him it was probably gone and out of the country.
Pre-Internet and even pre-fax, searching for his prized axe meant phoning, traveling and boots on the ground. Randy went to Toronto, Buffalo, Rochester, Detroit, Minneapolis, Grand Forks and every town within fifty miles of the border. He didn’t sleep for days.
Nothing. His baby was gone.
The Accidental Collector
Despite all his music realm connections, Randy hunted for decades with no luck. And yet as he did, he picked up other Gretsch guitars, usually for a few hundred bucks each. People would even approach him at gigs to offer them. His collection grew to well over three hundred, lining the walls of the basement and other rooms in his house and spotlighted just like a museum would.
In the 1990s, they became a phenomenon all their own. A man named Jay Scott, writing a book about Gretsch, asked for photos. Later on, Fred Gretsch—whose factory had fallen to flames twice and who had finally reclaimed the rights to the brand—heard about Randy’s collection, which included every Gretsch ever made in every color.
Gretsch needed templates for his guitars and asked to borrow from the collection so they could calibrate and measure them. Every new Gretsch guitar made is modeled after one in Randy’s collection. And now most of those guitars are in the Gretsch Museum in Savannah, Georgia—a display that would not exist without them.
Selling most of his vast collection to Gretsch, incidentally, paid for Randy’s penthouse flat in Covent Garden that overlooks the Thames.
Trainwrecks and Digital Sleuthing
A few years back, Bachman began making YouTube videos with his son Tal, who’s an accomplished guitarist and hitmaker in his own right. Their Friday Night Trainwreck series mixes songs from different eras and genres. They challenge each other to tackle unfamiliar material, play raw, make mistakes and have a blast, and they’ve gained fans all over.
One of those fans was a computer guy named William Long. One fateful day, Long posted a note in the Trainwreck chat section that simply said, “I found your orange Gretsch.” For fun, Long had taken a screen grab of the guitar from an old BTO video and used Google to do a facial recognition scan of other orange Gretsch models out there. The scan spotted a singular feature of the vanished guitar.
“There’s a dark orange spot with lines like a tiger’s stripes or a bird’s eye,” Randy notes. “You would see it as a flaw, but I see at it as the fingerprint of my guitar.”
A young Japanese guitarist and songwriter in Tokyo known as Takeshi owned it. Randy knows no Japanese, but Tal’s partner, KoKo Yamamoto, is Japanese. She contacted Takeshi online via Zoom and he showed them the guitar. “I couldn’t breathe,” Randy says. “It was like finding out your dog Skippy that you’d been told had been run over was alive.”
As Takeshi told Randy, he’d gone to a vintage guitar shop intending to buy another guitar, but the Gretsch spoke to him, telling him it would help him make good music.
“Takeshi told me that he would give me my guitar back,” Randy says, “but only if I could give him its twin sister in return.”
On mission again, Randy put the word out to every dealer he knew: find me that sister. No mods, the same pickups and setup.
Gary LeBlanc Guitars in Loveland, Ohio had one. Out of a production run of only around three dozen, it was just a few serial numbers away from Randy’s own Gretsch. LeBlanc promptly shipped him the guitar. Takeshi agreed to the trade, but only if they could do the handover in person.
Then COVID hit.
COVID pandemic travel restrictions, double pneumonia, whooping cough and a life-threatening bout of COVID combined to keep Randy from coming to Japan to reclaim his lost axe for over two years. At one point, he was told he wasn’t going home at all. But he beat COVID and the other threats to his life, no doubt spurred on by the chance to reunite with his long-lost guitar.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things is that guitar has led its own charmed existence. It’s still in pristine condition—no dings, no repairs, no smoke damage. Another is that the owner of the vintage store in Tokyo who bought it at the Dallas Guitar Show went with a list of guitars to buy for clients, such as a white Strat like Hendrix played, but he had no buyer waiting for the Gretsch. It was an afterthought.
Finally, on July 1, Canada Day, the two met on stage to exchange the guitars and play together at the Canadian Embassy’s Oscar Peterson Theatre. An emotional Randy declared that he and Takeshi are “guitar brothers.” He doesn’t speak Japanese and Takeshi doesn’t know English, but they do speak that universal language–music. Appropriately, one of the first songs they played was “Taking Care of Business.”
This epic feel-good tale is being turned into a documentary called Lost and Found. Randy is writing a song for it. Being only the second person (other than Paul McCartney) to have a number one song and album with two different groups, he hopes to make this tune a top hit as well.
After all this time away from his beloved axe, that kind of payback seems only fair.
Totally in tune
Randy Bachman on stage with Takeshi on Canada Day