In a recent interview with Tony Conley of Rock Guitar Daily, Randy Bachman goes into detail and tells the whole story behind the incredible collection of Gretsch guitars that he amassed prior to selling them in 2008.
Of course Gretsch’s have had their high spots and they’ve had their low spots but luckily the company led by Fred Gretsch saw a resurgence and the brand fell back into flavor with guitar players and collectors. He acquired the rights to begin making the guitars that bear his name but he had a slight problem. He needed some Gretsch guitars to copy and make prototypes. A couple of fires in 1973 had destroyed many of the older prototypes. Enter Randy Bachman. For years he had been adding to his collection and that exactly what Fred Gretsch needed.
Bachman first tells how he began playing a Gretsch, explains how he started the collection and ultimately how the guitars ended up back in the hands of the Gretsch family.
Randy Bachman: “Well, the first guitar I got, of course, I got a little Harmony for thirty or forty bucks from the Sears catalog, just a little F-hole Harmony to learn chords, and stuff.
“And then I saw a guy play in town, in Winnipeg. His name was Lenny Breau, and he was an incredible guitar player. He was a year older than me, and had just moved to town. He had been playing professionally since he was ten, in his family’s band.
“His family was a traveling band, they had a Cadillac that pulled a Jetstream trailer behind them. When I met him he was sixteen, and he had been playing since he was six!
“He played all the Chet Atkins, Merle Travis finger style guitar on a G Brand Gretsch.Then I saw Elvis on TV, and I realized that Scotty Moore plays the same guitar as this guy Lenny Breau. So, the first guitar I wanted was an orange 6120 Gretsch. I saved my money – washing cars, mowing lawns, baby sitting, delivering newspapers, until I got the $400 to buy that Gretsch.
“That Gretsch layer on Shakin’ All Over (1964), and the same guitar played on Takin’ Care Of Business. And I played it on a lot of records in between. But those were the two big hits I played it on.
“Then, in 1976, that guitar was stolen from a studio in Toronto, Phase One Studios, where I was recording a BTO album. And on my search to find this stolen guitar – because I had worked so hard to get it, when I took that guitar on the road, I took a chain and two padlocks.
“I would take that guitar every night, and put it next to the toilet, and put the chain through the guitar case handle, around the guitar twice, and around the toilet, then lock it with two padlocks. If anyone wanted to steal it, they couldn’t open up the case, because the chain went around the case twice, and it was chained to the toilet. They’d have to tear the toilet out of the floor, and they’d have a gigantic flood!
“So, I give the guitar to a roadie for ten minutes. From the studio to put into the van. Then he leaves it in a Holiday Inn for 10 minutes, it gets stolen, and I never see it again.
“I go on a quest to get this Gretsch back. I call the Ontario police, I call the mounties, I call the border patrol, I give everybody the description and the serial number of the guitar, yet I never get it back. But I have all these guys calling me, and saying, ‘Well, we didn’t get your orange Gretsch, but we got a green one traded in.’
“No one wanted Gretsch guitars because they’re unreliable, and the bridges fall off because they weren’t pegged – they just sat on the arched top, so you had to put on your own sticky tape under there, or a lot of guys put little finishing screws into the top of the bridge, but nobody really wanted Gretsch then, so I’d end up buying them for nostalgia’s sake. I end up having six, then twelve, then twenty. It became my mid-life crisis on the road.
“Everybody heard I was looking for this Gretsch, but they wouldn’t bring me my Gretsch, they’d bring me any old Gretsch, and it’d be a hundred or two hundred bucks. They weren’t a lot of money at the time, so I just bought them. Find the guitar that doesn’t exist, and buy it.
“Then I became called a Gretsch expert. I had them all, I had hundreds of them hanging on the walls of my basement – as one of my kids would grow up, leave the house and go to college, or get married, wow- another room! I’d take their bedroom and turn it into a shrine, hang 50 Gretsch guitars on the walls, and on stands.
“Then one day I got a call from Fred Gretsch.
“This is like in the nineties, and he said, ‘I got the name back to Gretsch Guitars, because it had been owned by Baldwin for some time. I always had the Gretsch drums name, but now I can make Gretsch Guitars again, but I don’t have any templates, they were destroyed in a fire. You’ve got the ultimate Gretsch collection, can I copy your guitars?’
“He came to my house with a guy from Pete’s Music in Minneapolis, and they looked at all my guitars and they were blown away. I had 350 Gretsch guitars. He asked if they could take two or three at a time, get them calibrated, calculated, and calipered, and we’ll make the new Gretsch’s from your collection.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I won’t charge you for this, but what I want is prototype #1 for each guitar when you make it, and I want to compare it to mine, and if there’s any corrections, you can make the corrections, blah, blah, blah…. So, I ended up with all the prototypes. Then about ten years go by, and Fred calls me up again. He says, ‘How are you doing with the Gretsch collection?’
“I said that I had added to it, and there were now 385. Fred says, ‘Wow! You know, Fender has this museum, Rickenbacker has a museum, Framus, Hofner, they all have museums in their home towns. You own the Gretsch museum. Can I buy your collection?’
“By then, I had so much hassle from my wife to sell this collection, which I never used! You know, 350 guitars – you can’t play them all! I had them all in cases, carefully labeled, it’s like a library of beautiful books that you never read. You’re too busy reading the Rolling Stone, or the latest guitar magazine. So now is the time to sell them.
“I sold Fred Gretsch the entire collection – this was about five or six years ago. How many guys can sell their mid-life crisis? I don’t know, but I sold mine, and made money doing it. I actually just got word that he has donated that collection to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville. It’s being documented now, and shipped there. They’re doing little placards for everything. I’m going to go there and narrate a DVD documentary called, The Randy Bachman Gretsch Guitar Collection.
“So that’s my connection with Fred Gretsch! This weird obsession of mine became an incredible investment. I couldn’t afford the old Les Pauls, and Fender Stratocasters. I’ve got a ’59 Les Paul, my American Woman Les Paul that’s probably worth a million bucks today, and my ’54 Strat, I’ve got them, I’ve got a ’52 Tele. But they’re not something I’d collect like Joe Bonamassa, who’s got a bunch of ’59s, and Billy Gibbons, who has about twenty ’59s. I was insane in my own world, but it did pay off quite incredibly!”
Check out the entire Randy Bachman interview on Rock Guitar Daily