From Sonic Youth's Guitars to LA Tubas: 4 Famous Stolen Instruments

1. Sonic Youth’s Guitars

Fans of the rock band Sonic Youth were shocked to see an online letter from guitarist Lee Ranaldo in July 1999 complaining that a thief had broken into the band’s truck and stolen its equipment before a gig (warning: some NSFW language). The stolen goods included everything from guitars to amps to drums, although Ranaldo warned that some of it was “mostly older and either very modified and/or f***ed up/beat up.” Still, the band was forced to purchase all new equipment for the rest of their shows and recording sessions.

Slowly, some of the equipment has been coming back. In 2005, two guitars were returned to the band by a man claiming to be the nephew of one of the original thieves. And in 2009, a Sonic Youth fan in the Netherlands saw a red and orange guitar on eBay that looked like one of the stolen instruments. He outbid the competition and posted the news on a message board with the title “The OH MY GOD! I BOUGHT ONE OF SONIC YOUTH'S STOLEN GUITARS thread.” He contacted the band and returned the guitar, which was confirmed to be Ranaldo’s. There’s still plenty of equipment missing, so fans should be advised to keep an eye out on eBay.

2. The Tubas of Los Angeles

Band teachers and school officials are baffled by a string of thefts in the Los Angeles area. The loot? Not computers or money, but tubas. In the past year, there have been 23 tubas reported stolen from L.A. schools. Security footage has even shown thieves breaking in and specifically targeting tubas and sousaphones, bypassing anything more valuable or easier to carry.

Police haven’t been able to figure out what’s behind the crime spree. Some think the instruments are being sold for scrap metal. But others say there’s a booming black market for the instruments due to the growing craze of banda music. Banda, a dance music similar to polka, uses the tuba as its strong bass, putting the instrument in high demand. According to the Los Angeles Times a high-end tuba sells for $5,000, but a beat-up one stolen from a school could bring in as much as $2,000.

3. Stradivarius Violins

With just some 450 Stradivarius violins still around today, it’s incredible to note how many have been stolen. For example, one violin, worth about $2 million, was nabbed in 2010 from a London sandwich shop right under the nose of violinist Min-Jin Kym. The thieves were nabbed less than a month later after trying to sell the instrument to a stranger for around $150 (they were seen in an Internet café looking up “Stradivarius”). But the violin has not been found and investigators fear it is no longer in Britain.

Another missing Strad remained MIA for nearly 50 years after being stolen from the Carnegie Hall dressing room of Bronislaw Huberman in 1936. It was only recovered in 1985, when violinist Julian Altman made a death bed confession to his wife that the violin he had been playing for years was the same one that had been snatched. Whether Altman actually took it is still unclear (he claimed he bought it on the night of the theft). It actually marked the second time that violin had been stolen – the first time, the instrument was recovered a few days later. That violin now belongs to classical superstar Joshua Bell.

One of the more famous stolen violins may actually have never been stolen, but the $800,000 Duke of Alcantara violin did fall into a sensational ownership struggle. The instrument was being watched by UCLA musician David Margetts in 1967 when it went missing while he was running errands. He says it may have been stolen or he may have left it on the roof of his car and driven away, but either way the violin somehow ended up on the side of the highway. The instrument was found and later passed down to a number of unsuspecting owners until it ended up in the hands of musician Teresa Salvato. When a music repair shop realized what she had, she and the university got in a lengthy court battle over the instrument before it was finally returned. For more details, the Los Angeles Times tracked the instrument’s fascinating path, although the story came before the final settlement.

4. Rosanne Cash’s Guitar

To anyone, a guitar signed by Johnny Cash would be valuable. But to Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne, the guitar given to her with a note from her father was priceless. So she was heartbroken when she got off a plane in 1979 and found out the guitar had not arrived with her. The guitar has not yet turned up, but Cash hasn't given up hope that it will be returned, especially since it's inscribed to her and can't be mistaken for another.

Tuba image by flickr user the justified sinner.

Samir Hussein, Getty Images
One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
Getty Images
Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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