The True Story of the Time Traveling Gibson in Back to the Future

It took us a bit longer than them, but we’re finally at October 21st, 2015, the day Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown arrived to save Marty’s kid from prison in “Back to the Future II.”

While everyone at Reverb has their fingers crossed for the Cubs’ World Series victory prophesied by the film, we’re more than stymied by the guitar Marty used for his madcap rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” at the high school dance in the original film.

In that famous scene, Michael J. Fox plays a guitar that didn’t exist in 1955: a cherry red Gibson ES-345 TDC with Bigsby, a model only made available in 1959, according to the “Vintage Guitar Price Guide.” So how did the movie seemingly blunder such an important detail in such a pivotal scene?

Norman Harris, owner of the iconic shop Norm’s Rare Guitars and the man who rented the guitar to the production, gave us the lowdown on how the axe made its way back to the mid ‘50s.

In ‘84, Harris received a call from the Warner Bros.’ prop department about a film that would take place in 1955. “They wanted a guitar that looked slightly futuristic,” Harris says. “I suggested a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster with P-90s, which would have been era-correct and all that. That’s originally what they rented.”

The guitar, which had a price tag of $2,100 at the time, was in excellent condition and the propmaster was happy to rent it for $300 a week, he recalls. The plan was for a one or two week rental, but that stretched to nine weeks, and the studio had yet to open the case. Harris suggested they would be better off buying the guitar at that point, but the propmaster assured him that wouldn’t matter, and that the film had a large budget.

And then they changed their minds.

The art director [Todd Hallowell], wanted something different, something red with a whammy. “I told them nothing along those lines would be time correct for 1955. The art director didn’t mind taking artistic license and wanted to know what I had in stock.”

Harris presented a number of options, including a Gretsch 6120; a Gretsch Red Jet series and an early ‘60s Gibson ES-345 TDC with Bigsby, which didn’t exist in 1955, and wouldn’t for another three years. “Maybe because it was a time-travel sci-fi flick, they could get away with that kind of stuff,” Harris says. “In a movie like ‘Bound for Glory’ it would be more noticeable. As they say in Hollywood: the truth is no excuse for a bad story.”

Having made the decision, the 345 then sat unused for weeks, racking up more rental fees for Norm’s, which left the studio team completely unfazed. “They could have bought it several times over, but it never bothered them. One of the many positives renting to Hollywood? Money’s no object.” Weeks after they returned the guitar, Harris received another call from the studio requesting the 345, which they needed again for inserts and close-ups. They kept for another three weeks.

Years later, the studio called to request the guitar for the sequel. “By now they were married to the guitar,” Harris says, and even less so than previously, money didn’t matter. “I realized then how lucrative renting to the movies could be. That guitar’s an important piece of movie history because the film was a blockbuster and rightly viewed as a modern classic, even with the incorrect guitar.”

Despite the guitar’s importance to the film and pop culture, Harris says he doesn’t remember where or when he actually acquired it, offering only that as a traveling musician he frequently would reach out to musician’s unions, players and collectors. “I got a lot of instruments that way.”

Despite the time-travelling 345, Harris is responsible for prior efforts to use period-correct instruments in the movies, perhaps most notably in the the 1975 film “Bound for Glory,” the fictionalized biography of Woody Guthrie, which featured period-correct instruments selected by Harris.

“Even in ‘The Buddy Holly’ story, the Strat Gary Busey used had a big headstock, like ‘70s Strat!” Harris says. “Movie producers just figured nobody really knows guitars that well. But they wouldn’t put a car from 1979 in a movie set in 1955!”

"Johnny B. Goode" from Back to the Future, 1985

Thanks to Norman Harris for this story. Norman owns and operates Norm’s Rare Guitars based in Los Angeles. His new book, about the stories of rare guitars such as this one, will be published by Hal Leonard and released in early 2016.

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