“The Guitar that Changed the Direction of our Lives” – Billy Corgan’s Stolen Guitar Returned after 27 years

Reposted from Patch

When Billy Corgan got his guitar back after 27 years, he called Chicago guitar miracle worker Geoff Benge to fix it up. (Mark Konkol)

CHICAGO — Maybe you’ve heard about Billy Corgan’s prized Fender Stratocaster, the one responsible for the dreamy tones that defined Smashing Pumpkin’s debut album, Gish. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin reportedly borrowed the guitar from a friend, or so the story goes, and sold it to Corgan, who refers to it as the “guitar that changed the direction of our lives.”

“The minute I started playing on the Strat, it was like it came to life. It was like everything I was doing suddenly was amplified,” Corgan told Rolling Stone senior writer Kory Grow. “On that Strat, it was like you suddenly could hear every little thing I was doing. … Suddenly the sound of the band got way more beautiful, psychedelic and wide.”

He immediately recognized unique details: The cigarette burn on the neck. The initials “KM” engraved in the bridge. The sloppy artwork Corgan added himself, the f-word scratched into the paint, and, of course, the way it felt in his hands.

Billy Corgan gave his Fender Stratocaster a custom paint job. Photo by Mark Konkol

You can see the joy in Corgan’s face in photos of the rocker’s reunion with his beloved “Bullet Strat” documented on YouTube, and celebrated online.

“I’m literally gonna take it somewhere, and get it fixed up,” Corgan told Rolling Stone.

That’s pretty much how the story ended, until now.

As things turn out, “somewhere” is a converted auto-repair garage at 1828 West Belmont in Roscoe Village, home to Chicago luthier Geoff Benge’s guitar shop. 

There’s a reason the “Gish” guitar ended up at Benge’s place. If you’re looking for a Chicago guy to fix your most precious guitar there’s probably nobody better, according to people who know about these things.

I first met Benge in 2008 at his fix-it shop’s former Lake View location. He told me about the one-armed guitar player who brought in a Regal guitar that had been carried across Europe during WWII, and now rested in pieces in its case. Benge fixed it up so good that when the owner first pressed his fingers against the neck, he cried. At home, the man said with joyful tears, his wife would do the strumming.

“If I can’t fix it, it’s not broke,” Benge says with a laugh. 

He’s worked on guitars since he scored his first job emptying ashtrays at Sound Post, a long-gone Evanston guitar shop, when he as 14. He helped open Guitar Works, and did a stint in the repair shop at Chicago Music Exchange before building his own repair business based on referrals from a long list of renowned Chicago guitarists. Nicholas Tremulis, Liz Phair, Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones, Steve Albini and, of course, Corgan all count Benge as their trusted guitar repairman, and sometimes miracle worker.

For 20 years, Tremulis, a Chicago music scene stable, has had Benge electrify 1920s acoustic guitars. 

In 1993, Albini, the famed recording engineer and owner of Electric Audio studios, had Benge convert a collection of right-handed guitars — including a rare aluminum Voleno guitar — so each one could be played lefty, in other words, upside-down and backwards.

On my recent visit, Benge and his pal and long-time collaborator, Kriss Bataille, ribbed each other about that.

“I remember asking Geoff if he knew why Albini wanted those guitars made left-handed,” luthier Kriss Bataille said.

“And I said, ‘No, I don’t give a f—,'” Benge said. 

“So, I told him, Albini’s taking them to record Nirvana,” Bataille says, laughing. “Pretty cool that we set up guitars used [by Kurt Cobain] on ‘In Utero.”

Benge, 54, doesn’t care much about that. It’s not like he played on Nirvana’s final record. 

“You know what I remember,” he said, while twisting the tuner on a recently restrung acoustic. “Months later, Albini brought the guitars back and said, ‘Make ’em righty again.’ So, I did.”

In February, Corgan told Rolling Stone he figured his newly returned guitar was built in 1974. 

After taking the guitar apart, taking into account it’s outfitted with one of Fender’s first die-cast bridge saddles and talking with a guitar electronics expert in California, Benge pegged the Strat as a ’75. But the serial number etched on the 3-bolt neck plate hints at a different story. 

The Stratocaster’s exact vintage, well, that’s complicated. Corgan’s Stratocaster was built during the heart of the “CBS era” — a low point in Fender’s corporate history when the quality of each guitar was a crap shoot.

Between 1973 and 1975 Fender’s factory was in flux, lacked inventory and quality controls and, Norvell says, factory workers “went off script.” Back then all Fender guitars were made by hand, and put together with mismatched parts from unmarked bins. Sometimes, even guitar necks and bodies didn’t match.

“Billy’s Strat is more of a guitar on the cusp,” Fender Executive Vice President of Products Justin Norvell said.

Benge found the Stratocaster’s “flat pole” pickups were stamped with the date, Dec. 30, 1975. The guitar’s ’76 serial number hints that a Fender craftsman didn’t put the finishing touches on before celebrating on New Year’s Eve.

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