Peter Frampton sold millions of records with the help of a customized Gibson guitar. Three decades ago, that guitar was destroyed in a plane crash ... or so he thought.
The story begins in 1970, when Frampton and his old band Humble Pie scored a gig playing two sets a night at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Frampton says the first night was a rough go: The guitar he was using fed back at loud volumes and made soloing a chore. After the show, an audience member approached him and offered to help.
"He said, 'Well, look, I have a Les Paul that I've sort of modified myself a little. Would you like to try it tomorrow?'" Frampton tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "I said, 'Well, I've never really had much luck with Les Pauls, but you know what? At this point, I'll try anything.'"
The arrangement turned out to be love at first strum. "I used it that night, and for both sets, I don't think my feet touched the ground the whole time," Frampton says. "I mean, I levitated."
That guitar — a shiny black number with an added pickup — became Frampton's signature instrument. He continued to use it with Humble Pie, and in his solo material, played it almost exclusively for years. It even made the cover of his classic 1976 live album, Frampton Comes Alive!
In 1980, while Frampton was on tour in South America, the guitar was put on a cargo plane in Venezuela, en route to Panama. The plane crashed right after takeoff.
"Basically I'm thinking, 'It's gone,'" Frampton recalls. "But the thing is, I'm also sitting in a restaurant where I can see the pilot's wife. She's waiting in the hotel for her husband, who, unfortunately, didn't make it. So we were all overcome, because people lost their lives as well as our complete stage of gear."
What Frampton didn't know is that the guitar had survived, albeit with some bumps and bruises. It fell into the hands of a musician on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, who owned it for many years before a local guitar collector spotted it and contacted Frampton. After some negotiation, the guitar was returned to Frampton last month.
"It's sort of a matte black now — it's not shiny so much anymore. The binding needs a little bit of work on the neck; the electronics need replacing," Frampton says. He adds, though, that he'll limit repairs on the instrument to "whatever needs to be replaced on it to make it just playable. But it must retain its battle scars."
Frampton says he knows his diehard fans will be clamoring to see him play the unique guitar again, and he's more than happy to comply.
"Oh, it's got to go on the road," he says. "For it to be given back to me ... It's not something I'm going to hide in the closet."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Here's another story about detective work, though this one doesn't include dogs or whales, but rather, Peter Frampton's guitar. Actually, the guitar he played on his mega-selling record, "Frampton Comes Alive."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: In 1980, the guitar was lost in a plane crash in Venezuela, or so Peter Frampton thought. But before we get to that part of the story, a little background on the guitar in question. It was 1970. Frampton was playing with a band called Humble Pie at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. He wasn't playing well, so another musician lent Frampton his spare 1954 customized Gibson Les Paul.
PETER FRAMPTON: I said, well, I've never really had much luck with Les Pauls, but you know what? At this point, I'll try anything. I used it that night for both sets. I don't think my feet touched the ground the whole night.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY, I LOVE YOUR WAY")
FRAMPTON: (Singing) Ooh, baby, I love your way every day...
RAZ: This becomes your guitar.
RAZ: This is the guitar on the famous cover of "Frampton Comes Alive." This is the guitar that you used to play all these great songs, including one of my personal favorites, Peter, "Show Me the Way."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOW ME THE WAY")
FRAMPTON: (Singing) Oh, won't you show me the way, every day...
RAZ: Peter, could you have played this song the way you did with any other guitar?
FRAMPTON: Well, unfortunately, that's the only song - and I have to be truthful - that's the only song that is another guitar that was lost. It was a '55 Stratocaster on that. That's the only number I played it for. You couldn't have picked the one other?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Well, still a great song, Peter.
FRAMPTON: Yeah. Hey, I'm not complaining.
RAZ: So 1980, you're on tour, you're about to - you're in South America. The guitar is put on a cargo plane in Venezuela en route to Panama, but it crashes just right after it takes off. You just assume that it was gone, as one would. It was a fiery plane crash.
FRAMPTON: Yes. For 30 years, I believed that because we sent my guitar technician down a week after the crash. Basically, there were a couple of speaker cabinets and a melted Fender Rhodes piano and that was about it.
RAZ: It turned out the guitar ended up on the island of Curacao, which is off the Venezuelan coast. Somebody basically picked it up from the wreckage, and it made its way there to a local musician. How did somebody else on that island figure out or make the connection that that could have been Peter Frampton's guitar?
FRAMPTON: Apparently, it was played around Caracas, and whoever had it got a little hot for them because people knew it was mine.
RAZ: And eventually, a local customs agent on the island named Donald comes across the guitar, recognizes it as the Peter Frampton guitar, right?
FRAMPTON: Yes. Because the owner of the guitar had taken it to him because Donald is known on the island for if you want a guitar to be fixed, take it to Donald. And a year and a half, two years ago, I got an email to my website containing pictures of the guitar.
RAZ: And you are sure that this is your guitar after having seen it?
FRAMPTON: Oh, yes. I knew that guitar inside and out. There is not a Les Paul that I have played that is as light. It's a very dry Honduras mahogany like no other guitar. So it had a lot of unique parts to it.
RAZ: What kind of condition is it in?
FRAMPTON: It's sort of a matte black now.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FRAMPTON: It's not shiny too much anymore. I am not refurbishing it at all. Whatever needs to be replaced on it to make it just playable, but it must retain its battle scars.
RAZ: But, Peter, you know your fans are going to demand that you take that guitar and perform "Frampton Comes Alive" with that guitar.
RAZ: And what do you think?
FRAMPTON: Rumor has it that it'll be ready to play the show in New York City on February 18th, so I'm going to unveil it for "Do You Feel," I think, that night.
RAZ: Oh, wow. That is going to be an amazing, amazing night. That's the musician Peter Frampton. After 30 years, his long-lost guitar was recovered on the island of Curacao. Peter Frampton, thanks so much for that story, amazing story.
FRAMPTON: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU FEEL LIKE WE DO")
FRAMPTON: (Singing) Do you, do you feel like I do? How'd ya feel? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.