Back in the Seventies, Randy Bachman was famous for crafting some of the era’s signature guitar riffs, first in the Guess Who and later with Bachman-Turner Overdrive. He played a few different guitars, including a 1954 Fender Stratocaster and a 1959 Les Paul Standard that he used to play the distinctive lead on the Guess Who hit "American Woman." Mostly, though, he was known then for playing Gretsches, in particular a late-Fifties orange-finished 6120 that was his prized guitar.
But in general, Bachman has been famous more for his hits than for his guitar collection. This is, after all, the man whose writing credits include not only "American Woman" but also Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.”
Yet his collection has several hits of its own. They include a Fifties-era Les Paul Custom once owned by Keith Richards and a Gretsch Super Axe gifted to him by Chet Atkins.
Following an absence, Randy Bachman is back in action with a new forthcoming album, Heavy Blues. The project finds the one-time Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Guess Who guitarist back in power-trio mode, backed up by bassist Anna Ruddick and drummer Dale Anne Brendan.
But you won’t see Bachman taking any of his Gretsches out on the road. Back in 2008, he sold his extensive collection to the Gretsch museum in Savannah, Georgia. Since then, he’s put some of that money back into building his guitar collection.
“I had hundreds of them—every Gretsch you could imagine,” Bachman says. “I even had prototypes that Gretsch didn’t know existed. I had the only White Falcon bass, ever. As you can imagine, when those were gone there was kind of a void, and to fill that void I began buying German guitars.”
The guitars Bachman’s referring to are German-made archtops from the Fifties. His collection includes numerous examples of handcrafted specimens from such storied builders as Hoyer, Lang, Todt, and Rossmeisl, many of which sport .
“After the war, a lot of guys who had previously made symphonic instruments were starving, and they started to make guitars, because Django Reinhardt was big,” Bachman explains. With materials difficult to obtain in postwar Germany, the builders were forced to improvise. As a result, the number of German archtops manufactured was small, and most have unique features. “The Hoyer and Hopf factories weren’t even factories, more like garages,” Bachman explains. “It was a father-and-son business. These guys just sat around and carved all this stuff, and it was just amazing. They would make maybe one or two or three a year. The tops would vary, too, because the builders couldn’t always get the same woods when it came time to make another guitar.”
For Bachman, the guitar collecting bug hit him after a misfortune. In 1976, his treasured orange-finish Gretsch 6120 was stolen from a Toronto hotel.
“I got that guitar as a teenager,” he says. “To get the $400 for it, I babysat, I had a paper route, I mowed lawns, I washed cars. I played it on my first hit record, ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ with the Guess Who, in 1965, and on ‘Takin’ Care of Business,’ almost a decade later, with Bachman-Turner Overdrive.”
One night after a BTO performance in his native Canada, a roadie left the guitar outside of Bachman’s hotel room while he went to pay the tab. When he came back, the Gretsch was gone.
“I threw up. I couldn’t sleep,” Bachman says. “It was like your dog being run over, or a losing-your-girlfriend kind of thing. Incredible.”
Bachman campaigned hard to recover the guitar, hitting pawnshops in Toronto and Ontario. Eventually, he went through the phone book and contacted every pawnshop in the U.S. in search of the guitar. He never got it back. But he did pick up more than a few nice instruments as his search progressed and pawnshop owners got to know him.
“They’d call me and say, ‘We didn’t find your orange Gretsch, but we did get another weird white one that you could have for $200,’” Bachman notes. “So I’d buy a guitar, buy a guitar, buy a guitar. Suddenly, I had six on the wall, and I had the bug.”
And if the prices on German archtops become as prohibitive as those of vintage Gretsches? It’s safe to say that Bachman will probably find another type of instrument to focus his attention on. “The greatest guitar you can get is the one that isn’t available,” he says half jokingly.
1970s Gretsch Super Axe
“This is one of the only Gretsches that Fred Gretsch didn’t get when he bought my collection,” Bachman says. “Chet Atkins had read in Rolling Stone magazine about my 6120 being stolen and decided to call me. The first two times he called, I was out in the backyard, building a tree house for my kids. My daughter came out and said what sounded like, ‘Chad is on the phone and wants to talk to you,’ I thought she was talking about Chad Allen from the Guess Who and told her to say I’d call back. The third time the phone rang, she came back and said, ‘He really, really, really wants to talk to you. He’s calling from Tennessee and he’s got a weird accent.’ So I went to the phone, and he said, ‘Howdy, this is Chet.’ I could barely speak, because this was my idol. He asked me, ‘Did you ever get back the 6120?’ I said, ‘No, I’m never gonna get it back.’ And he said, ‘Okay, what’s your address?’ Four days later, this Super Axe shows up. The string tree was a mod that Chet did himself, because the strings kept popping out of the nut.”
1970 “Hardtail” Fender Stratocaster
“I got it from Bob Heil, who developed the Heil Talk Box,” Bachman says. “This is the guitar I played on ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’ and ‘Lookin Out for #1.’ People ask me if I played a Les Paul on those tracks, but it’s this Strat on the neck position. It used to have a Canadian flag sticker on it, and if you look at the back of the neck, you’ll see that I took off the finish and sanded the neck like a violin, because violin was the first instrument I played. I’ve done this to several of my Strats, because I do a lot of sliding and find the stock finishes to be a bit too tacky sometimes.”
1950s Les Paul Custom
“Around 1974, I walked into a store in Westchester, Pennsylvania, and saw this and another Custom with P-90s hanging on the wall and asked if I could play them. Phenomenal! I asked if they were for sale, and the guy said, ‘Not really. Keith Richards’ roadie brought them in for fret jobs about two years ago and no one ever came to pick them up.’ I told the guy that since the work was not paid for, he could invoke a mechanic’s lien, where you send the owner a letter saying that you’re entitled to be paid for your work, and that if you’re not, you can sell the instruments. I asked the guy to send a registered letter to the Stones’ label, which he did, and then a few months later he sent another one, neither of which they responded to. So the guy was free to sell the instruments. I once had to take a pickup out to fix something, and out came a matchbook from the Bag O’ Nails in London, which is a club where the Stones used to play.”
1950s Roger Super Cutaway (top)
1968 Fender LTD (bottom)
“Roger guitars were made by the German luthier Wenzel Rossmeisl,” Bachman explains. “His son’s name was Roger. This was Wenzel’s top-of-the-line instrument, and it’s absolutely a work of art. The lamination of the woods on the neck is just stunning, as is the carving of the top. Roger moved to the United States in the mid Fifties and worked at Rickenbacker. He then went to Fender in the late Sixties and designed the LTD, which, as you can see, also features that distinctive German carve on the top. They made 12 of these before Fender decided that they were too expensive and stopped production. Mine, which I got from J. Geils, is the 12th. Roger then designed the less-expensive Fender Montego, which also failed, as well as the Coronado.”
“The first time I saw a Hoyer Bianka, I thought, Those sound holes look exactly like the lightning bolt painted on David Bowie’s face on the cover of Aladdin Sane!” Bachman recalls. “The back of this guitar is scalloped, just like the top, which like most of these guitars features a ‘German carve’ that goes in on the edges. This compresses the sound inside, and it makes for a really unique tone that cuts through on any track I’m recording. It’s like it’s got its own built-in EQ—tight but crisp, with a lot of upper midrange.”