Billy Corgan had been off stage in Detroit for only five minutes when a friend who was acting as a roadie gave him a message every musician dreads: "Somebody just walked out the back door with your guitar."
Smashing Pumpkins was about a year removed from its seminal 1991 debut album, Gish. Corgan credited the album's unique fuzz-driven beauty to the yellow CBS-era Fender Stratocaster which he bought from drummer Jimmy Chamberlain just a few years earlier and repainted by hand.
"It instantly changed the way the band sounded and the way I played," Corgan told Rolling Stone of the guitar, which represented a major departure from the Gibsons he grew up playing. "When it was stolen, it wasn't like, 'Oh, gee, my guitar just got stolen.' It was the guitar that affected the way I played, and I was heavily identified with the guitar."
After the guitar was pilfered, Corgan called police and offered a $10,000 reward, no-questions-asked for the guitar's return.
Corgan later upped his offer to $20,000. But for 27 years, there were no takers.
Over the years he would occasionally hear rumors of the guitar's whereabouts — that a friend of a friend, knew who had it, but was protecting the identity of that person. He admits he'd been tricked a few times by some amazing replicas made by fans.
On Tuesday, the guitar found its way back to Corgan. The front man was immediately sure it was the real thing based on the initials 'KM' carved into it and the "unsightly" cigarette burns on the headstock that no copycat would have known about.
In the years since Corgan's Strat was stolen, it eventually made its was to a Detroit yard sale and was purchased for $200 — less than what Corgan paid his drummer for it in the late-'80s — by a Flushing, Michigan, mother of three who thought it would make a nice conversation piece for her basement, where it stayed for over a decade.
The woman, Beth James, doesn't play guitar and said the guitar hadn't been played since she bought it, though house guests always suggested the instrument looked like it was worth something.
About six months ago, a friend recognized the guitar from an article about Corgan's lost Strat. They set about getting in touch to see if it was the real thing. Eventually they got in touch with Corgan through a company called Sound Royalties.
He added that he "always felt the guitar would come back when it was time."
And no, he won't be paying James the $20,000 reward for returning his guitar.
"She didn't want anything," he said. "God bless her. It falls under the 'miracles can happen' category. Even for a cynic like me."
James said she was just relieved that the guitar was really Corgan's and that she hadn't wasted his time with a fake. She said he deserved to have it back.
Corgan gifted her a signed guitar as a thank you.
The timing is pretty good. Smashing Pumpkins just wrapped up a reunion celebration last fall, releasing its tenth studio album, Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun.
Corgan says he's going to have the guitar fixed up and will start using it again. He hopes it will be part of the band's next album, which he's writing now.
Smashing Pumpkins will be back on tour this spring. Get all the tour dates here.
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