May 04, 2015
Last month, the National Music Centre (NMC) brought an important piece of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll history back home—a guitar that helped to conceive some of the biggest hits of the ’60s and ’70s.
The ‘American Woman’ guitar—owned by Randy Bachman, founding member of legendary Winnipeg rock act the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO)—was used to write and record hit songs “American Woman,” “No Time,” “Undun,” and “Laughing.”
NMC’s Manager of Collections and Artifact Care Jesse Moffatt retrieved the guitar from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, where it had been on loan since 2009.
“American Woman” by the Guess Who appears on the 1970 album of the same name.
The Guess Who’s 1969 hit “Undun.”
Aside from the instrument’s provenance, the make and model of the guitar is also extremely rare. A 1959 Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, which weighs approximately 15 pounds, the model was apparently discontinued because musicians felt it was too heavy to play. Bachman is said to have played the guitar sitting, while in the studio.
“During the official exchange when the rep from the Rock Hall handed the guitar to Randy, he pretended to drop it because it was so heavy,” says Moffatt. “I dove in to catch it!”
From top to bottom: Bachman inspects his ’59 Les Paul in front of media; the official hand off to Moffatt; Bachman and Moffatt with the Rock Hall’s Greg Harris and Karen Herman. Credit: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Bachman also shared some insight into the guitar’s history. It is among three Les Paul guitars that were purchased from a small guitar shop in Nanaimo, B.C. in the early 1960s. In a series of serendipitous circumstances, the guitars are said to have ended up all over the world, and into the hands of some of the most famous rock musicians in history.
One guitar stayed in Canada and became the instrument that Bachman would use to write and record “American Woman.” Another guitar wound up in California, where it was purchased by Joe Walsh (of the Eagles). Walsh then gave it to Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), who then used it to conceive “Whole Lotta Love.” The third guitar found its way to London and into the hands of Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones). As the story goes, Richards gave it to fellow bandmate Mick Taylor, who then used it to play and record “Honkey Tonk Women.”
“I’m trying to track them all down,” said Bachman at the Rock Hall. “I’ve got the original bill of sale and serial numbers. It would be the world’s greatest half an hour documentary on these three guitars that played a part in ‘American Woman,’ ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ and ‘Honkey Tonk Women.’ I mean, are you kidding me?!”
In addition to the guitar, NMC also brought back a fringed leather jacket that once belonged to Bachman.
The iconic songwriter, who rose to prominence in the late 1960s alongside fellow one-time Winnipegger, Neil Young, has previous joked that he bought the jacket, which was made by a taxidermist, so that he could look just like Young. Bachman also appears wearing the jacket on the cover of The Guess Who: Anthology.
Neil Young in concert for the BBC in 1971.
Bringing these valuable pieces of Canadian music history back to NMC was a journey in and of itself.
As Moffatt explains, there are a lot of complexities when bringing objects across the border. All documentation needs to be in tact and a thorough condition report must be completed before the objects can even leave the museum.
“When getting into the cab from the Rock Hall, they escorted me out with security where the cab driver was waiting for me. Then my route was from point to point to point, until I arrived in Calgary,” he says. “In my left hand I’ve got the suitcase with the jacket and in my right hand I’ve got the guitar. That object was with me every step of the way. It only left my hand when I went through customs. It was a long journey.”
This is not the first time that NMC has worked with the Rock Hall. Elton John’s famous songwriting piano, now part of NMC’s collection, was formerly on loan to the Rock Hall. When its previous owner planned to put the piano up for auction, the Rock Hall tipped off NMC staff in time to find a donor to purchase it.
“They felt that that instrument should reside at the National Music Centre,” says Moffatt.
Alternately, NMC has also loaned its Buchla Box to the Rock Hall for a Grateful Dead exhibit. The Buchla Box is a PA system that was used on the bus “Further” by the Merry Pranksters on psychedelic road trips. Inventor Don Buchla was a fellow Prankster, along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, and members of the Grateful Dead. The box is signed by both Buchla and Kesey.
NMC and the Rock Hall share the same goals to preserve music history and educate people, and NMC hopes to continue to build on this cross-border relationship.
Soon after arriving in Calgary, the ‘American Woman’ guitar was reunited with Bachman during the Studio Bell announcement at NMC’s construction site, where he paid homage to the instrument’s legacy by playing none other than “American Woman,” and other tunes.
Speaking to the Globe and Mail after his performance, Bachman expressed his delight to bring the guitar back to Canada:
“It’s great to have a home for it in Canada, because up until now, there’s been no trophy room for us Canadians … to put our tools of our trade and the things that help us achieve worldwide rock and roll domination for our 15 minutes of fame,” Bachman told the Globe.
“We repatriated a piece of Canadiana, and I think that’s an important point to make,” says Moffatt. “For many years, a lot of important Canadian artifacts would end up in the U.S. Now there’s a home.”
Bachman’s ‘American Woman’ guitar and jacket will be on long-term loan to NMC, and will be on display when Studio Bell opens to the public in the spring of 2016.
— Julijana Capone