The Wall Street Journal MUSIC NOVEMBER 30, 2011
The Sounds Of Silence
By JIM FUSILLI
Last week, the tour manager for Trevor Hall and his band started the long trek to Los Angeles from a gig in Madison, Wis., lugging the band's equipment across the country. As he stopped for a meal in Wichita, Kan., someone broke into the tour van and stole Mr. Hall's Taylor acoustic guitar, his bandmate's custom-made electric guitar, two laptops and about $2,000 in cash and checks.
Two weeks earlier, after Jason Isbell exited a hotel near Love Field in Dallas, he discovered an empty space where his van had been parked. His band's gear—including a drum set, keyboards, an upright bass, a vintage electric bass and Mr. Isbell's custom-built guitar—were gone.
Theft and loss of instruments is one cost of doing business for touring musicians; it seems most have suffered some equipment loss at some point. The website stolenguitarregistry.com currently lists 1,119 missing guitars on its database. "If you travel, you know your gear can be stolen," Mr. Isbell said.
A guitar can be replaced easily enough, but to most musicians, that's not the issue. "Once you play a guitar," Mr. Hall said, "you have a spiritual connection to it. It's like they're taking a part of you."
Shortly after a scorching set this summer at Chicago's Lollapalooza, John Gourley of Portugal. The Man discovered his band's van, with all its gear inside, had been stolen. Among the items lost were Mr. Gourley's Gretsch White Falcon guitar, which he had customized, and Zach Carothers's 1981 Fender Precision bass, a workhorse prized by musicians for its tone and versatility.
It wasn't the first time Mr. Gourley lost his gear. While leaving for a 1997 European tour, his first White Falcon, a gift from his father, was taken after it was checked on a British Airways flight. (He said the airline eventually reimbursed him for the guitar, which retails for more than $3,000 before customization.) Later on that same tour, Portugal. The Man's equipment, laptop and cash went missing in Madrid.
Some musicians continue to long for their missing instruments, even when they know they've been destroyed. Peter Frampton's 1957 Gibson Les Paul, a gift from a fan, was incinerated in a cargo-plane crash 31 years ago. It was the guitar he used in his former band Humble Pie and throughout his early solo career, including the landmark album "Frampton Comes Alive."
"I found my style with that guitar," Mr. Frampton said by phone from Berlin. He recalled how when he played it for the first time, at a live show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, its tone and attack were so right that he felt as if he was levitating. "I've been trying from memory to get that sound, but I can't quite. Maybe what I do now is better, who knows? But it's not that guitar."
Rosanne Cash still yearns for her Martin D-28 guitar, stolen in 1979. It was a gift from her father, Johnny Cash, who posted a handwritten note inside its sound hole. The guitar was taken somewhere between Los Angeles International Airport's curbside check-in and Hawaii, where she was headed on her honeymoon with then-husband Rodney Crowell.
She said she still dreams about that guitar. "It breaks my heart. It had a sign that said: 'To my daughter.' Whoever has it knows it's mine. The bastard.
"It was such an amazing-sounding guitar," she said. "It's still painful to me."
Stolen instruments can turn up on eBay, at flea markets or be sold privately. It's unlikely a modified guitar like Mr. Gourley's easily recognizable White Falcon can be played in public. Within hours after its theft, Mr. Gourley posted a note on Twitter and created a site to enlist the watchful eyes of fans. Pawn-shop owners and dealers through the Chicagoland area were notified. But neither Mr. Gourley's guitar nor Mr. Carothers's bass have been located.
Once in a while, though, there's a story with a happy ending. In July, a trumpet belonging to the jazz musician and composer Thara Memory was stolen from his car in his hometown of Portland, Ore. It had limited value, even to the average trumpeter, as it was built for a left-handed player; most trumpeters play right-handed. A $500 reward was posted and local media covered the story.
Then, said Mr. Memory, "One of the thieves actually brought it back. He realized the reward was better for him than the horn—you couldn't take it to a pawn shop or find a musician who wouldn't recognize it. He gave it to me wrapped in a towel. It was a blessing the horn wasn't torn up."
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock—