Music fans and guitar heads have been raving about the National Music Centre’s new temporary exhibition, which opened May 5 at Studio Bell in Calgary. Randy Bachman: Every Guitar Tells a Story shows off 80-plus guitars from the rock hero’s collection — the hit-making instruments from his storied career — and Bachman is thrilled to see them all on display.
“They’ve been in my garage or something, all in their cases,” says Bachman. “It’s like owning a library or book store and never reading the books.”
Bachman has been gathering guitars almost as long as he’s been playing them, and the exhibition gives us a glimpse into his vast collection.
“It’s only about half, there’s about 80 they aren’t even showing, they don’t have room for them,” he says.
The most notable instruments are included though — the ones he learned on, wrote the hits on, and played on the records.
“The guitars that you see there, the two white Strats, they played on number one albums and singles, ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,’ ‘Let It Ride,’ ‘Takin’ Care Of Business.'” he says. “My orange Gretsch played on ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ ‘These Eyes,’ played the rhythm on ‘American Woman,’ and then my ’59 Les Paul played the lead on ‘American Woman.'”
“I look at these guitars and go, ‘These are priceless, these guitars made me millions of dollars, they sold millions of records, the sounds of them are famous all over the world,’ and it’s wonderful to have them all there.”
Although his first instrument was the violin, Bachman switched to guitar after seeing Elvis Presley on TV. Then, he was lucky enough to have a future jazz guitar legend, Lenny Breau, move to Winnipeg where Bachman grew up. Just two years older than 14-year-old Bachman, Breau was already a pro, playing in his family group with his father, country singer Hal Lone Pine.
“I would go to their house and hang out for lunch and after school,” says Bachman. “I learned every Chet Atkins and Merle Travis album. Then when I asked him, ‘How do you play Chuck Berry?’ Well, it was a piece of cake for him.”
“So I had about two years from him where I just hung out every afternoon. And when my report card came at the end of the year, my mother said, ‘Something’s wrong here. It says you’ve missed 82 afternoons.’ I flunked Grades 10 and 11, but in those years with Lenny Breau, I learned a language, a guitar vocabulary of jazz, country, rock licks, and banjo tricks, all the stuff that has stayed with me my whole life.”
He started his guitar collection out of necessity, wanting to play like each of his ’50s heroes.
“Say you want to sound like Duane Eddy, you get an orange Gretsch,” he explains. “Then you want to sound like Buddy Holly, you see him on Ed Sullivan playing a Fender Stratocaster. When I started out playing, there was no such thing as a foot pedal, you had a guitar and a wire that plugged into an amp, and that was your sound. If you wanted to sound like Buck Owens, you got a Telecaster. You got a Les Paul to sound like Eric Clapton. So you ended up with four guitars.”
He ended up collecting huge numbers of guitars after he lost his pride and joy, his 1957 Gretsch 6120. It was stolen from a Toronto hotel room in 1976, and Bachman started searching and purchasing every Gretsch he could, in vain.
“I ended up having a mid-life crisis over it and bought over 300 Gretsch guitars over 30 years. People heard about it, and they would bring them to the gigs. They’d say, we got a Gretsch we don’t want, my son doesn’t want it, so we’ll sell you it for a hundred bucks or something. So I bought them very cheaply. Many years later, Fred Gretsch came to me and said he wanted to buy them. Now they are in the Gretsch Museum in Savanna, Georgia.”
Of course, there was a happy ending, and that ’57 Gretsch is one of the guitars featured in the Every Guitar Tells a Story exhibition. During the pandemic, an internet sleuth from B.C. used facial recognition software to track down that original stolen guitar, which had ended up halfway across the world, in the hands of a Japanese musician. A trade was made, and Bachman was finally reunited with his beloved Gretsch in 2022.
He may have sold the 350-odd Gretsch guitars he’d amassed, but Bachman soon discovered another joy. He began purchasing mid-20th century hand-crafted German archtop guitars. Dating from the 1940s and ’50s, these weren’t factory-made, mass-produced models, but rather individually built by skilled artisans, from the instrument-making traditions of Europe. But these luthiers were living in Communist-controlled East Germany where they weren’t supposed to be making and selling guitars.
“It’s stunning because each one is a work of art,” Bachman says. “These are all hand-made by a grandfather, their son, and their grandsons, with wood from the Black Forest. They are all made from black market materials, people sold them to get money to feed their families, it’s amazing.”
Many of his favourites are on display in the new exhibition.
“There have been some wealthy patrons looking at them, saying, ‘We collect art, but this is an art that we’ve never seen before.’ Every one of these is like a little Van Gogh or Rembrandt, no two of them are alike. It’s wonderful to show off my passion.”
At 79, he’s still passionate about playing those guitars too.
“Every day. I already played guitar today for an hour,” he says. “I play all the songs I learned way, way back with Lenny Breau. I keep my fingers moving, keep my brain working. I’m still doing a lot of gigs. I remember when I was young, I’d fall asleep playing it, and you wake up in the middle of the night, and the guitar is on your chest. Then you’d keep playing it more.”
The Randy Bachman: Every Guitar Tells a Story exhibition will be on display at Studio Bell until October 1, 2023.