Nearly 40 years later, the legendary studio guitarist and member of the Lawrence Welk Show received a replacement as Fender Custom Shop’s Mike Eldred recently stopped by LeVang’s Santa Clarita home to deliver a new Sunburst Strat.
“It broke my heart when my other Strat was stolen,” LeVang said when Eldred handed him the instrument. “This is unbelievable. It really looks like the old one.”
Complete with a reliced finish and gold pickguard, the guitar also sounded pristine when the 81-year-old LeVang plugged it into an amp and began to strum.
LeVang joined the Lawrence Welk Show in 1959, replacing Buddy Merrill when Merrill left to serve in the Army. Welk was so impressed with the multi-instrumentalist that he kept LeVang even after Merrill returned.
For most of LeVang’s time in front of the camera or in the studio with artists like Glen Campbell, Frank Zappa, Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond, he played Fender instruments. Many of those instruments were given to LeVang by Leo Fender himself, a relationship that was initiated by Ernie Ball.
“I was doing a radio show, and Ernie Ball happened to hear me,” LeVang recounted. “He was a friend of Leo’s, and he said, ‘Why not come out with me to meet Leo?’ I was going to do another show on Channel 5, and Ernie was going to be on that. He was playing steel on that show. Well, Leo said, ‘I think we can fix you up with a guitar,’ and that’s how it happened – before the Welk show. I was just really fortunate.”
Leo Fender was known for asking artists to test out his early innovations, and for LeVang, that including trying out everything from guitars to banjos to mandolins.
“Leo always made the attempt to make things better,” said LeVang, whose work can also be heard in nearly 100 films. “I thought that was great, but I told him, ‘Don’t feel bad if one of them don’t make it.’ We got along great. I’d always give my honest opinion.”
Which was part of the reason why Eldred wanted to replace LeVang’s stolen Strat.
The two met at a Fender Custom Shop Road Show at California Vintage Guitar and Amp, and LeVang told him about the heist of a Lawrence Welk Show touring truck so many years ago.
Pictures of the original guitar were hard to come by, so Eldred scoured YouTube for images. An avid musician himself, Eldred knows what it’s like to have a beloved guitar stolen.
“I’ve never had one returned, so it’s a good feeling on my end to be able to return one to an owner,” Eldred said. “With a guy like Neil, when you talk about how Leo would find artists to test gear for him, that was an R&D facility right there. I think that in the spirit of doing what Leo originally did, it’s great to say, ‘Here’s another tool for you to use.’”
Want to see the original Strat? Watch LeVang perform “Ghost Riders in the Sky” in the video below.