Guitar tones are the essential elements that give The Smashing Pumpkins their signature sound. Overloading with fuzz and gain, Billy Corgan created a bed of noise that combined the likes of shoegaze and grunge into an entirely unique sonic trademark. It wasn’t uncommon for one song to have nearly 50 guitar overdubs, and Corgan was meticulous in his arrangements. None of that would have been possible without the right guitar.
For the band’s debut album, 1991’s Gish, that was a 1974 Fender Stratocaster. Originally owned by drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, Corgan acquired the guitar before recording sessions began. Initially, he wasn’t keen on using it. “Although I loved the guitar right away, I was disappointed because the last thing I ever wanted was a yellow guitar.” To better fit with the Pumpkins’ aesthetic, Corgan gave the Strat a unique DIY paint job that turned it into a psychedelic six-string.
Corgan used the guitar as his main instrument through the recording of Gish and the subsequent tour, but while the band were on the road in Detroit, a thief took off with the guitar. “We didn’t have a normal roadcrew so we took our buddy who would roadie for us,” Corgan recalls. “Played the show, walked offstage. I was down in the dressing room and here comes the friend/roadie: ‘Somebody just walked out the back door with your guitar.'”
Corgan initially offered a $10,000 reward for the instruments return, and later bumped up the offer to $20,000 without the involvement of the police. But for 27 years, the guitar remained elusive. Corgan continued to use other guitars and felt that the Gish guitar would return at the right time. “I always felt the guitar would come back to me,” Corgan explained. “I can’t say why I felt that way, so I never really stressed about it too hard. It was always the feeling that it was in somebody’s house, in somebody’s closet, and if I could just go to the right house and the right closet I would get it back.”
Eventually, that house wound up being near the Sunset Marquee in Los Angeles, California. The guitar was part of an estate sale and had been hanging in a family’s basement for about a decade when they caught wind of Corgan’s search. When they set up a meeting, Corgan had already been through a number of fakes and dead ends. But when he opened the case, he knew right away that he had been reunited with the Gish guitar.
“There it was, just as I remembered it. The paint job I put on it, the weird markings that only I would know about, and 27 years later, it’s back,” Cargan proclaimed. But Corgan needed complete confirmation, so he plugged it in and busted out the riff for the Gish-era single ‘Siva’. It was at that point that Corgan knew he had been given his prized and elusive number one guitar yet again.
“I was never able to find a guitar that had this exact sound,” Corgan said. “When I strung it up the other day and plugged in, it was like, ‘There it is. There’s that sound that I’ve been looking for all these years.’ It’s hard to put into words, other than it’s the sound of my youth and a few other people’s.”
Check out Corgan’s full round-up of the Gish guitar’s history down below.