27 years ago, Smashing Pumpkins were performing at Detroit’s Saint Andrew’s Hall behind their 1991 debut, Gish. It was June 1992, and the band was enjoying their first taste of success outside of their Chicago home. Unfortunately, that night took a turn when, just minutes after they left the stage, Billy Corgan’s beloved ’70s Fender Stratocaster was stolen.
Now, nearly three decades later, the frontman has finally been reunited with the long lost instrument he credits with defining the Pumpkins’ early sound.
“I always felt the guitar would come back,” Corgan told Rolling Stone. “And I know that sounds strange, but today didn’t surprise me. I always felt the guitar would come back when it was time.”
The story of the guitar is a long and fascinating one. It turns out the Fender Strat was sort of stolen before it first came into Corgan’s possession. Pumpkins’ drummer Jimmy Chamberlain had sold it to Corgan for $275 sometime around 1989 or 1990, but it wasn’t really Chamberlin’s to sell. He’d borrowed it from a friend, but said his pal was fine with Corgan taking ownership of it. “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,'” recounted Corgan.
It was the first Strat Corgan had ever owned, having grown up playing Gibson Flying Vs like his father. According to him, it was only once he began playing the Fender model that his music “came to life.” A southpaw who plays righty, Corgan said the instrument made it so “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.”
As for the psychedelic paint job, Corgan did that himself. He’d decided the body’s creamy yellow was too close to Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore’s instruments, so he repainted it himself. Of course, not being an artist, he didn’t think to sand it down first, so the paint didn’t adhere entirely and became “kind of blotchy,” a look Corgan liked.
When the guitar was first stolen back in ’92, Corgan filed a police report and offered $10,000 — no questions asked — for the instrument’s return. Years later, he’d up the bounty to $20,000. Murmurs and close calls followed him through the years. He’d seen replicas and heard false rumors before, so he was a bit incredulous when he was informed that his ’74 Strat had turned up in Flushing, Michigan, some 80 miles from Detroit.
The guitar had fallen into the position of Beth James. James isn’t a guitarist, but when she saw the guitar at a yard sale in Detroit, she thought it would make for a fun conversation piece. She paid $200 because she “thought it was painted cool,” but told her husband it had only cost $10 “because he would have killed me if he found out I paid more.”
For over a decade, it sat in James’ basement. None of her three children ever played it, and she only fished it out again when she was looking for things to sell to pay for a new hot tub. A friend recognized it as Corgan’s lost guitar from a picture in an article and informed James. She eventually got in touch with the Pumpkins’ frontman through Alex Heiche, founder of Sound Royalties. James didn’t want anything in return (not even that $20,000 to pay for her hot tub), only to have Corgan sign a different guitar for her.
Corgan came out to see his old friend for himself, and instantly recognized it. There was the “KM” carved into it by a previous owner, and the cigarette burns on the headstock that he “always thought were unsightly.” One thing he didn’t recognize was a skull sticker on the back. “It seems to me I probably put it there right before it got stolen and I just didn’t remember,” Corgan reasoned. “It might have to come off now that it’s mine again.”
And now that it’s his once more, Corgan intends to use it. He plans on fixing it up and using it, especially as it’s come back to him at an “auspicious” time when he’s back together with Chamberlin and James Iha. Corgan is currently working on the follow-up to their reunion album, Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun., and you can expect to hear the ’74 Strat on Vol. 2.
“It’s very guitar-driven. 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. 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.”
Corgan has a reported nine total projects in the works, so perhaps we’ll be hearing quite a bit of the guitar soon.