Still at Large: 6 Famous Stolen Guitars that have Yet to be Recovered

Jeff Beck (1967). Photo by: Michael Ochs / Getty Images.

"My guitar is gone" are four words that no guitarist should ever have to say. Outside of death or injury, there’s no bigger bummer for a musician than having your prized instrument stolen. As players around the world have regretfully and routinely discovered, you can always get a new guitar, but you can never truly replace a guitar that you’ve deeply connected with.

Historically, when your gear gets stolen, you need luck on your side to get it back. Doing basic, responsible things—like recording serial numbers and taking pictures of distinctive features—is good practice, but even still, there's no guarantee that these moves will always lead to getting your gear back.

While the advent of the internet and online marketplaces have made it easier for stolen instruments to be rediscovered and recovered, even some of the most historic stolen instruments in popular music folklore remain missing today.

Today, we’re taking a look at six of the rock world’s most famous stolen guitars and the stories behind them.

Eric Clapton's "Beano": ‘59/’60 Gibson Les Paul Standard (Burst)

First up is perhaps the most important guitar in all of British Blues—Eric Clapton’s "Beano" Les Paul.

Inspired by Freddie King’s regal use of a Goldtop LP, Clapton bought his own Les Paul second-hand in 1965 from the Lew Davis guitar shop in London. This guitar is generally understood to be a 1960 Standard Burst (though, as we’ll discuss below, there is some debate). It was Clapton’s most famous pre-Cream guitar, and for good reason—the tone. It is, in many ways, the guitar that defined the sound of the British blues explosion.

As is well known among fans, this guitar takes its name from the Beano children’s comic that Clapton is reading on the cover of the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album. Throughout this era and up until the album’s release in July ‘66, this was the guitar through which Clapton distinctively displayed his mastery of the blues, the guitar Clapton was playing when Londoners proclaimed on the walls, "Clapton is God."

Beano was set to be Clapton’s main axe in Cream too before its theft just days after the release of the Blues Breakers album. According to Clapton, the guitar was stolen out of the Cream rehearsal room and that, as a result of the theft, he was in the middle of borrowing guitars while considering his next move.

When a wanted ad was posted for the guitar by the Mirror, it was noted as having "a very scratched back" and numerous cigarette burns on the front. The ad also noted the guitarist’s thick leather strap with the names Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Big Maceo carved on the inside. Clapton theorized that whoever stole the guitar also stole the plush case that he loved as well a week later.

Since the time of its theft the guitar has gained a rightful reverence, with its cultural significance increasing its worth from the hundreds of thousands into the millions. The last word on the location of this instrument is actually from noted guitar addict/collector Joe Bonamassa, who told Guitarist magazine in 2016 that "... it is in a collection on the East Coast of America. That's all I can tell you—and that's all I will say."

Bonamassa also alleged that the guitar is a ‘59, as opposed to the popularly held belief that it is a ‘60, and openly wondered if Clapton would recognize it. "I don't know if Clapton would even want it back at this point," Bonamassa said.

At our best guess, yes, Eric would definitely want the iconic guitar back. Slowhand has even gone on record in Guitar Player magazine, noting that Beano was "just magnificent," and that he "... never really found one [Les Paul] as good as that." Last but not least, Clapton said, "I do miss that one."

Joe—if you are reading this—please call Eric if you have not already.

Jeff Beck's '59 Gibson Les Paul Standard (Burst)

For our next legendary stolen guitar, we move to another legendary Brit—as well as another Burst LP—with Jeff Beck and his Les Paul.

According to Beck, he purchased this guitar for "about $300" in 1968, before a gig from Rick Nielsen, the eventual guitarist of Cheap Trick. As amazing as this sounds, Rick was a teenaged vintage guitar dealer before he was handling the world-rocking guitar duties for Cheap Trick.

In a recent interview with MusicRadar Nielsen exclaimed about the sale, "I’m not kidding one f****ing bit! It was a ’59 that had a Bigsby on it. … If you look close, you can see where it used to be.

This guitar would become a main guitar for Jeff Beck during the beginning of the Jeff Beck Group feat. Rod Stewart. This was Beck’s only Burst at the time—until it was stolen after the Jeff Beck Group’s gig in Detroit on July 26, 1969.

From there, Beck replaced this guitar with another Burst that tragically went through several headstock breaks and ended up stripped to a natural finish.

In a 2010 Huffington Post article named "Jeff Beck Tries to Buy My Les Paul," Burst owner Binky Philips tells about a time when Jeff Beck played Binky’s own guitar. Beck, after about 60 seconds, darkly mentioned that one of his Les Pauls had been stolen a few years earlier. When Binky rebuked Beck, Jeff came around and eventually settled on attempting to buy his LP. Binky declined multiple times, and Jeff Beck left the encounter Burst-less.

Unlike every other guitar on this list, this guitar has almost assuredly been located. For years it has been rumored to be a Burst with the serial number 9_1864. Aside from the figured top being overwhelmingly similar to Beck’s, as Rick Nielsen noted about the guitar, it has a stoptail where a Bigsby tailpiece used to be installed. Oddly enough, the latest word on the web is that Jeff knows about this guitar and its whereabouts but has not expressed an interest in re-acquiring it.

Paul McCartney’s Hamburg Hofner 500/1 Violin Bass

Since we are talking Brits, we can’t talk famous stolen instruments without talking about the most famous MIA guitar of the entire British Invasion: Paul McCartney’s Hamburg/Cavern Hofner 500/1 Violin Bass.

This bass gets its nicknames from two places—first, and more popularly among Beatles fans, from where Paul bought the bass. McCartney purchased the bass in 1962 in Hamburg, Germany, at the Steinway Musichaus. As Paul later recalled of the day and the bass:

"There was this bass which was quite cheap...I couldn't afford a Fender; even then, they seemed to be about £100. All I could really afford was about £30, so for about £30 I found this Hofner violin bass. And to me it seemed like, because I was left-handed, it looked less daft because it was symmetrical. Didn't look as bad as a cutaway which was the wrong way. So I got into that."

This was Paul’s first "violin" bass, from the band’s pre-fame days, playing at venues like Liverpool’s Cavern Club, from which the bass gets its second nickname.

Paul would use this bass in rotation during the height of Beatlemania and it was the bass heard on The Beatles’ earliest hits. He eventually got another Hofner directly from the company, which he would prefer to use in the coming years.

Despite this new 500/1, the Hamburg Hofner, which had been extensively refinished, remained in use as a backup into 1969, when it was allegedly stolen out of a closet during the Let It Be sessions at Abbey Road studios, along with several other Beatles guitars.

While at one point McCartney publicly expressed interest in recovering the bass guitar, at last account, he seemed dismissive of those trying to help him achieve that.

The reported owner of the vaunted instrument resides in Ottawa and apparently refers to himself as "The Keeper," according to Philip Norman, the author of Paul McCartney: The Life. Knowing that, you can forgive Sir Paul for being skeptical of the development when Norman brought the alleged whereabouts of the lost bass and its Tolkien-esque Keeper to his attention in May 2015.

George Harrison's 1965 Rickenbacker 360/12

Harrison, throughout his time with The Beatles, was known for playing a number of Rickenbackers. In a way you could say that they mutually defined each other, much like the Hofner did with McCartney. To be clear, the Rickenbacker 360/12 that was stolen from George was not the first 360/12 that he came to own—it was the second.

Oddly enough, George’s first, which came into George’s life sometime in late ‘63, was the second ever made.

By ‘65 the Beatles were a global phenomenon. With this, of course, came the perks, including free guitars.

The Rick in question was given to Harrison at a Minneapolis pre-concert press conference in the Minnesota Room at the Old Met Stadium on August 21, 1965, by local radio station WDGY. Local music store B Sharp Music had previously custom-ordered the guitar and saved it in advance of the Beatles concert to gift it to George, on the advice from another touring band that he would like it.

The guitar was a ‘65 Fireglo-finished model with checkerboard binding on the back—essentially, an updated version of his first 360/12. While George didn’t immediately make use of the Rickenbacker, he is reported to have used it in the studio and on the sessions for Rubber Soul.

The fate of the guitar has been disputed over the years, but by best sourcing it is said that the guitar was stolen in September 1966, prior to Harrison's first non-band trip to India.

This is in contrast to the belief that it was possibly stolen alongside the Hamburg Hofner at Abbey Road in ‘69. Since that time, there hasn’t been a ton of progress in finding the guitar, in part because the record keeping of serial numbers on part of the store was allegedly not the most strict.

The last word on this instrument comes from CEO of Rickenbacker, John Hall:

"No one knows the exact serial number of the original guitar. However, through our records we're able to narrow the list down to only five possible numbers based upon shipments up to the date of the presentation. As it happens, once in the past we were once given a serial number of a guitar which had surfaced and it was one of the five (which may or may not be this particular one)."

Lee Ranaldo's 1965 Fender "Jazzblaster" Jazzmaster (Sunburst)

Moving overseas to the U.S., we land in the ’90s with one of the titans of alternative-rock guitar and his missing axe—Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and his ‘65 sunburst Fender "Jazzblaster" Jazzmaster.

As we profiled before in our piece on famous stolen instruments that were recovered, back on the morning of Independence Day 1999, Sonic Youth had its Ryder truck full of gear stolen in Orange County, California, prior to an upcoming show.

This all happened shortly before they were set to headline the This Ain't No Picnic Festival later that afternoon in Irvine. Having your gear stolen before you headline a festival is obviously crushing enough, but Sonic Youth’s stolen gear consisted of the group’s heavily modified, one-of-a-kind instruments, set up to be played in any number of alternate tunings.

Thus, they weren’t exactly easily replaceable instruments—the theft ultimately resulted in the band changing its sound—nor could the band members properly play their set as they normally would for that tour.

Instead of cancelling the show, which would have been understandable, Sonic Youth took the stage, explained what happened to the crowd, and played their set on borrowed gear—with hardly anyone besides the band noticing an issue. Whether this decision was contractually motivated or of "the show must go on" mentality, one can’t help but applaud the band for still playing the festival.

Lee Ranaldo's "Jazzblaster"

Among the stolen guitars that day included a number of Lee Ranaldo’s prized axes, specifically his heavily-modified sunburst ‘65 Fender Jazzmaster (Serial #100958), better known to him and SY fans as the original Jazzblaster.

As mentioned, a number of these guitars were recovered with the rise of online guitar communities and marketplaces, including Lee’s ‘69 Red Mustang (w/competition stripe). However, Lee’s first Jazzblaster is still missing.

What made this Jazzmaster (and others) a Jazzblaster came down to these modifications:

  • Replacing the Jazzmaster single-coil pickups with two Tele Deluxe humbuckers.

  • Replacing the Jazzmaster bridge with a Mustang bridge for increased stability.

  • Stripping the electronics down to the volume pot, pickup switch, and jack.

Lee was known to use this guitar live and in the studio from ‘96 until its theft. If one were to run into this guitar, it is instantly recognizable—and not just for Sonic Youth fans. In addition to all of the mods that were mentioned above, the tremolo cavity appears at one point to have been extended forward from its traditional placement, leaving an open hole on the front of the body.

With this in mind—aside from the personal value as a fan of owning Ranaldo’s (stolen) instrument—there’s barely a financial incentive for owning this guitar. While it is a vintage Jazzmaster, it has been modified so much that there’s no real financial motive behind owning or selling it.

It is so distinctive that people would likely ask questions if it ever was for sale, which might help explain why it has never surfaced.

With all of that said, Lee Ranaldo is on record stating that he does want this sunburst Jazzblaster back. If you are the person who grabbed this guitar, or if you accidentally own it, please consider trying to return it to Lee. He’s been without it for almost 20 years now—it’s simply the right thing to do.

Greg Ginn’s Ampeg Dan Armstrongs

Lastly in our lineup of famous theft victims is the right-hand man behind ‘80s hardcore punk pioneers Black Flag. We are, of course, talking about guitarist Greg Ginn and his stolen Ampeg Dan Armstrongs.

It’s hard to think of Black Flag as a band and not instantly have the image of Ginn’s Dan Armstrong Plexi rush to your mind. Saying that the sound of the band was defined by a single guitar may seem like an overstatement, but that’s only because the actual full truth was that Greg Ginn had two Dan Armstrong guitars at different points throughout Black Flag’s run, and they equally shaped the sound of the band.

His first Dan Armstrong was the one that first featured the taped, four-stripe Black Flag logo, and it was also the Dan Armstrong that he would spray paint black during the early ‘80s.

This guitar featured one custom pickup, and eventually was stripped down to feature no volume or tone pot. Through photographs, one can see that this guitar had been with him dating back into the ‘70s. In 1984, it was stolen.

When exactly Greg purchased the second Dan Armstrong, or whether it was spurred by the theft of the first, is not 100 percent clear, but for whatever reason, Greg acquired a second Plexi while he was in Black Flag.

This one, like its predecessor, would end up with no volume or tone pots, the lone pickup sealed to prevent rusting from Greg’s heavy sweating, and, eventually, would have its instrument cable "hardwired" into the input jack itself.

Instead of the black spray paint, which he used to dampen the guitar’s vibrations on the first Dan Armstrong, this guitar was physically notable for all of the duct-tape he used to keep the modifications secure and to achieve the same sonic effect. To say the least, we do not recommend trying this at home.

This Dan Armstrong would be the one that he would use live and in the studio throughout the Slip It In-era, until its own untimely theft in ‘86. According to Henry Rollins’ memoir Get in the Van, the guitar disappeared out of the Black Flag van on April, 16, 1986, in Poughkeepsie, New York, while road manager Mitch Bury watched it happen from inside the van.

Per Rollins in his book, "... the guitar was stolen within minutes of the van pulling up to the front of the store. The guitar was stolen through the open window on the passenger’s side."

While that blame falls hard on Bury, it falls even harder when you realize that he (their entrusted road manager) assumed the person grabbing the guitar out of the front window was a member of the crew. From there, Rollins noted that Ginn went off immediately to buy a replacement guitar, which turned out to be an all-black 1986 Ibanez Roadstar II (one of this author’s favorite unsung ‘80s guitars).

While the Roadstar II (with one humbucker and two single-coils) is an excellent guitar in its own right—and live recordings from the time show Ginn barely missed a step with the change—Black Flag would not endure past this tour.

Unfortunately, it appears that none of these guitars ever made it back to Greg Ginn, though it doesn’t seem that he’s been seeking them out at this point either.

Regardless if Ginn or any of the other aforementioned players are actively looking for these guitars, we want to see them back with their rightful owner. We know it's a longshot, but if you have any tips or if any of these guitars look like an instrument that you have come into contact with, feel free to leave us a comment below.

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