Randy Bachman’s guitar collection on display at National Music Centre

‘We both took our Gretsch guitars and rode out into the world and started making music’

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Note to readers: This interview with Randy Bachman took place prior to the death of Tim Bachman, Randy’s younger brother and co-founder of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Tim Bachman died on Friday, April 28, at the age of 71.

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At some point this week, a documentary film crew will be in Los Angeles interviewing singer-songwriter Neil Young about the strange tale of two guitars.

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One belongs to Young, the other to his friend Randy Bachman. When they were teenagers in Winnipeg, they both had their eye on an orange 1957 Gretsch that was hanging in the window of Winnipeg Piano.

“I would go and stand there every Saturday and the guy who would be standing beside me would be Neil Young and a couple other guitar players,” says Bachman. “We would look at this guitar. We always watched American Bandstand on Saturday mornings at 11 o’clock. We’d see like Eddie Cochrane and guys like that play guitar on American Bandstand and then we’d go look at the guitar. Then another orange guitar came in that was the same with different pickups. I ended up buying one and Neil bought the other.”

Young was in Neil Young and the Squires at the time. In 1965, he left for what is now Thunder Bay and met Stephen Stills. They went to Los Angeles and formed Buffalo Springfield. There are clips of Young playing the Gretsch on American Bandstand.

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Bachman, meanwhile, was in Chad Allan and the Reflections, which would later become Chad Allan and the Expressions and then The Guess Who. He played the orange Gretsch on Shakin’ All Over, which became a No. 1 hit in Canada and made the Top 20 in the U.S. As part of the Guess Who, he also left town in 1965 to join the Kingsmen’s Louie Louie tour.

“We both took our Gretsch guitars and rode out into the world and started making music,” Bachman says.

Randy Bachman with his Hoyer Bianca guitar.
Randy Bachman with his Hoyer Bianca guitar. Photo by Jarrett Edmund

… And the rest is history? Well, not quite. The aforementioned documentary crew is actually focused on what became of Bachman’s guitar. While Young hung on to his, Bachman’s was stolen in 1977 from a hotel room in Toronto. In a miraculous story that made headlines around the world, Bachman and his 1957 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins guitar were reunited 45 years later after a fan/Internet sleuth tracked it down in Japan. Needless to say, the guitar has a special place in his heart, which is why it is now on display at the National Music Centre as part of Randy Bachman: Every Guitar Tells A Story. The temporary exhibit, which opens May 5, features 80 guitars from the iconic rocker’s expansive collection. But the significance of that Gretsch goes even deeper.

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As it turns out, it was the reason Bachman began obsessively collecting guitars. In what Bachman called his “mid-life crisis,” he collected more than 300 Gretsch guitars over the decades after word went out that he was searching for the one that was stolen. People would show up at gigs clutching Gretsch guitars, which Bachman would buy for $50 or $100 and have shipped home. Before he knew it, he had hundreds of them.

“So, basically my collection was a lot of Gretsch guitars,” he says. “I was trying to get my stolen guitar back because I had written Laughing and Undun and American Woman and Takin’ Care of Business on it and I was desperate to get it back.”

The story took a turn about a decade before the stolen guitar was returned to him. After the late 1980s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, which featured Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynn, George Harrison and Bob Dylan, helped popularize Gretsch guitars again in videos and photos, Bachman’s collection suddenly became very valuable. He ended up selling much of it to Fred Gretsch, CEO of the company, in the early 2000s.

Still, that only made a small dent in Bachman’s collection and the NMC  exhibit will feature a treasure trove of not only guitars but the stories behind them and tutorial kiosks that will feature guitar lessons from Bachman himself. Highlights include the Silvertone Sunburst F-Hole Acoustic Guitar that he bought out of a Sears catalogue at the age of 13 in 1956; a 1968 cream Fender Stratocaster that Bachman used on several rhythm guitar tracks on Bachman-Turner Overdrive tunes after his chiropractor recommended using a less weighty instrument; a rare 1954 White Fender Stratocaster that he used on Let it Ride and other BTO classics and a big collection of German archtop guitars favoured by players such as Django Reinhardt.

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Randy Bachman and his long-lost 1957 Gretsch.
Randy Bachman and his long-lost 1957 Gretsch. Photo by Jarrett Edmund

“They are staggering works of art,” Bachman says about the German guitars, some of which are worth $40,000 to $60,000. “They were made one at a time, not an assembly line. They were made by a father, a grandfather and a son after the war, into the late ’40s and all through the ’50s when there wasn’t any big guitar makers in the world. Fender hadn’t really kicked in yet, or Gibson, so everybody would buy these old German-made guitars.

“They are like a Mona Lisa or Andy Warhol painting hanging on the wall. These guitars are incredibly beautiful guitars. So they are guitars I’ve used to make my music and all this collection of German archtops.”

Bachman already has a relationship with the National Music Centre. His 1959 Gibson Les Paul has been housed there as one of the earliest exhibits at the centre, which dubbed it “arguably one of the most famous guitars in Canadian rock ’n’ roll history” due to  Bachman playing it on hits such as These Eyes, No Time and American Woman.

Randy Bachman and his 1954 Fender Stratocaster.
Randy Bachman and his 1954 Fender Stratocaster. Photo by Jarrett Edmund

Bachman flew to Japan on Canada Day 2022 to retrieve his long-lost Gretsch. At the time, he told CBC that he planned to play it once in Vancouver and then lock it up at his Victoria home where he could keep a close eye on it. But it wasn’t long after the reunion made headlines that National Music Centre CEO Andrew Mosker phoned him.

“He called me up and said ‘I just saw you got your Gretsch guitar back after 45 years. Is there any chance you would let that be here? It will be under lock and key,’ ” Bachman says. “I said I guess it belongs there, it’s my first real big guitar, it would be like Chet Atkins or Eddie Cochrane or Duane Eddie who had this orange, twangy guitar. So it should be there. So we just had it shipped there last week. They’ve got it now and it was insured for a heavy amount of money.”

Randy Bachman: Every Guitar Tells a Story opens May 5 at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

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