6 Famous Guitarists Who Lost Their Instruments (And Sometimes Got Them Back)

Some guitars were stolen outright, while others were simply lost in transit.
These two shared even more in common than you might have thought.
These two shared even more in common than you might have thought. / Dave Hogan, Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Clothes may make the man, but when it comes to rock music, it’s all about the guitar. Many famous guitarists—including Eddie Van Halen, Brian May of Queen, Trey Anastasio of Phish, and Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent)—use one in particular to play most of their music.

But what happens when they lose their trusty ax? Here are six notable instances of musicians losing their instruments—some went missing for as little as a day, while other guitars were gone for as long as half a century. There are a couple that even remain missing to this day.

Paul McCartney’s Höfner 500/1 Violin Bass

In February 2024, a woman named Cathy Guest returned Paul McCartney’s famous Höfner 500/1 violin-shaped electric bass guitar, which made headlines because the instrument had been missing for decades.

Sir Paul bought the legendary bass in 1961, using it on early Beatles hits like “She Loves You,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Love Me Do.” (Incidentally, John Lennon’s J-160E Gibson acoustic guitar from the “Love Me Do” sessions also disappeared, resurfacing in San Diego in 2015.) McCartney even had the Höfner 500/1 during the Beatles’ explosive U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. “It’s an iconic instrument,” said Nick Wass, a semi-retired consultant for Höfner who has worked with Mr. McCartney. “It started Beatlemania.”

Macca continued to use the Höfner bass regularly through the writing and recording of Let it Be—until it was stolen in 1969. Three years later, the thief allegedly sold it to the landlord of a London pub for some quick cash and a few pints of beer, after which its new owner gifted the bass to his brother, Guest’s late husband. It collected dust in the loft of her East Sussex, England, home for years, mere hours from where the ex-Beatle had last used it in London.

Guest discovered the instrument’s true identity through The Lost Bass Project, launched in 2018 by a pair of journalists and a Höfner bass expert to track it down. She returned it to McCartney, who reportedly gave her a six-figure reward for her troubles.

George Harrison’s “Lucy” and the “Ransom” Les Paul Guitar

John Lennon and Paul McCartney weren’t the only Beatles to lose instruments. In 1968, Eric Clapton gifted George Harrison a red 1957 Gibson Les Paul, which Harrison named “Lucy” after Lucille Ball.

Five short years later, Harrison lost Lucy after a robbery at his Beverly Hills home. Soon after, it was sold to a music shop in Los Angeles. Musician Mighel Ochoa bought it and took it to his home in Mexico. Harrison later contacted him, and Ochoa agreed to return Lucy in exchange for a Fender Precision Bass and a sunburst 1958 Gibson Les Paul. About a decade later, Ochoa sold the so-called “ransom” Les Paul, which was later bought at auction for $312,500 in 2022. Harrison’s estate still has possession of Lucy.

Eric Clapton’s Gibson Les Paul Standard “Beano ‘Burst” Guitar

What is it about Eric Clapton and stolen guitars? Years before gifting Lucy to George Harrison, Clapton lost his own iconic Gibson Les Paul guitar, which remains missing to this day.

It all goes back to 1966, when Clapton was featured on the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. While he’s been known for playing Fender Stratocasters since 1970, he generated a new and distinctive sound on the Bluesbreakers album thanks to his Les Paul (believed to have been from either 1959 or 1960, although there is some dispute among fans). The guitar was nicknamed the “Beano ’Burst” because of its sunburst-colored paint finish and the Beano children’s comic that Clapton is reading on the album’s cover. 

Unfortunately, the Beano ’Burst was stolen within days of the album’s release. At the time, Clapton was forming his next band, Cream, which would further propel Slowhand to legendary status and influence legions of electric guitarists. Before fans could hear that Les Paul on any Cream tracks, the Beano ’Burst was gone; according to Clapton, it was stolen right out of Cream’s rehearsal room, never to be seen again. There is a rumor that it currently resides in a private collection in the U.S.

Lee Ranaldo’s Fender “Jazzblaster” Jazzmaster Guitar

Noise-rock pioneers Sonic Youth have used guitars in novel and highly experimental ways for decades. Lee Ranaldo, one of the band’s founding guitarists, is known for playing a wide variety of guitars, but began to favor a heavily modified 1965 sunburst Fender “Jazzblaster” Jazzmaster around 1996. 

He used this guitar, both live and in the studio, through the summer of 1999, when the band’s moving truck was stolen in Orange County, California, with all their one-of-a-kind, custom gear still inside. The truck turned up in Los Angeles a few days later, but the instruments did not. Guitarist Thurston Moore, another co-founder of the band, recovered his missing white Fender Jazzmaster in 2005, but Ranaldo’s sunburst Jazzblaster, regarded as the original Jazzblaster among fans, remains at large.

Jerry Cantrell’s G&L Rampage “Blue Dress” Guitar

Jerry Cantrell, the revered guitarist and songwriter for Alice in Chains, recently reported that his beloved 1984 G&L Rampage, purchased secondhand in 1985, had been stolen from his car in southern California. Cantrell has used the uniquely adorned “Blue Dress” guitar, named after the prominent pinup decal near the bridge, on nearly everything he’s recorded.

The music community rallied to support Cantrell once he revealed the loss. The day after his post, he released a follow-up video announcing that the guitar wasn’t actually gone after all: It had been misplaced between a photo shoot and a studio session. Cantrell also shared that he’s working on a new record featuring that famous Blue Dress guitar. 

Steve Vai’s “Swiss Cheese” Guitar

In 1986, musician Steve Vai lost a custom-built guitar by renowned luthier Joe “Jem” Despagni. (Between its wild paint job and holes in the body, they nicknamed it the “Swiss Cheese” guitar.) The Swiss Cheese guitar was the first JEM guitar to have a handle-like grip carved into its body, which would become a key feature of future models. 

Vai, who began his career with Frank Zappa, used the Swiss Cheese guitar on David Lee Roth’s debut solo album, Eat ‘Em and Smile, and the 1986 music video for the single “Yankee Rose.” Soon after, it was stolen during a recording session in Pasadena and remained missing until 2023, when Iván Gonzáles Acosta found the guitar in his grandparents’ attic in Tijuana, Mexico, and posted a picture of it on social media.

One of Vai’s associates saw the pictures online and arranged to have it returned to the guitarist. “Receiving this guitar feels like an old friend has returned home after so many years to jam with me,” Vai said. “I believe that we will make a wonderful Ham and Swiss sandwich.”

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