Wally Welch's heart was pounding as he put his hand around the neck of his prized guitar for the first time in nearly two decades.
The experience at a Southern California police station last week was so overwhelming that he almost had to set down the 1966 Rickenbacker 360 guitar.
"I fought back to show no emotion ... I can't seem to keep my hands off of it," said the 65-year-old Hawaiian Gardens resident.
U.S. & World
Stories that affect your life across the U.S. and around the world.
That's because the guitar that was stolen from an Orange County storage locker turned up at an auction house in London in a remarkable tale of a precious possession that was lost, then found.
He bought his beloved ax in 1969, affectionately naming it “Ricky.” He played numerous gigs with it around Southern California before it disappeared, along with other music gear, in 1996.
It was, Welch said, “the day the music died.”
The retired rocker searched tirelessly for almost two decades, combing pawn shops and online for his baby.
Then in September, something unbelievable happened. He checked his email and saw a guitar listed on eBay that matched his Rickenbacker. A check of the serial number confirmed it: he had found his guitar.
“My heart rate skyrocketed,” Welch said. “I was coming unglued.”
Wally and his wife, Audrey, contacted a detective at the Orange County Sheriff's Department, who tracked the instrument down to an auction in London.
Police have not found the thief, but learned that the guitar had changed hands over time. At one point it was an exhibit at a vintage guitar museum in Paris, Welch said.
Auction house officials didn't give the guitar back for free, but allowed Welch to pay the opening bid of $4,600. After shipping fees, the total cost was nearly $5,300 for a guitar he bought for $300. He had to take out a loan to get the guitar back, but he said every penny was worth it.
His outlook changed. He stopped playing guitars when he lost his Rickenbacker.
But after reuniting with it, the only times that he and the guitar are separated are when he's in bed, the place his wife drew the line.
The first song he played when he got it back? A little diddy he wrote in tribute to "Ricky."
When asked how it feels to be reunited with his guitar, Welch gave Ricky a kiss and said, "that's how it feels."
More Southern California Stories: