​​5 Facts About Kurt Cobain’s Martin D-18E – the “Unplugged” Guitar

When Kurt Cobain died, the band’s Unplugged session was the clip that every story ran, because the event was more like a funeral than a concert. It’s no wonder then that the guitar Cobain played that night went on to be the most expensive sold at auction, fetching over $6 million by the time the hammer fell.

But there’s so much more to the Nirvana front man’s iconic acoustic than a pricey auction listing. From the sublime to ridiculous, keep on reading as we discover 5 facts you may not know about Kurt Cobain’s Martin D18.

Kurt’s Acoustic Was an Extremely Rare Model

Cobain’s acoustic used during the Unplugged in New York special was by all accounts an incredibly low production model, although not necessarily very sought after.

The guitar is a 1959 Martin D-18E and was one of Martin’s first attempts at an acoustic-electric guitar. It featured 2 DeArmond pickups and 3 control knobs, mounted into a standard D-18 acoustic.

The heavy electronics in use did the guitar absolutely no favors. And because they were mounted directly in the Adirondack spruce top, they really killed the tone. Because of that, this model was extremely unpopular and only remained in production for 1 year, from 1958 to 1959. A total of 302 were made, with Kurt’s being number 7 of the series.

In fact, because of the tone loss, Cobain’s D-18E was equipped with a Bartolini 3AV sound hole pickup, something Kurt had previously used on his Epiphone Texan.

Even though this model was largely a flop for Martin, ’58/’59 D-18Es are enjoying a boom in valuation right now because of their association with Cobain and their scarcity. At the time of writing, one was available on reverb with no direct association to Cobain, listed for $62,298.

The D-18E Was Likely the Last Guitar Cobain Ever Played

Cobain played a lot of guitars throughout his career, with the Fender Jaguar being the most widely known due to his use of this model during the Nevermind era. However, the Jaguar wasn’t the last guitar he used during a gig – that honor goes to the Fender Sky Stang he played during the encore performance of Heart Shaped Box in Munich, Germany. The Sky Stang was a Sonic Blue custom model Mustang with a bridge humbucker fitted by Cobain’s guitar tech Earnie Bailey.

As for his acoustic guitars, the Martin D-18E holds historical significance for similar reasons. The Martin was the last guitar Kurt ever bought for himself. He picked it up from Voltage Guitars in Los Angeles just a few months prior to the recording of Nirvana: Unplugged in New York on November 18, 1993.

While Cobain didn’t play the Martin during that final performance, the guitar does hold the distinction of being the last acoustic he used during a performance, and perhaps even more poignant, it’s widely believed to be the last guitar he played prior to his death. The Martin is believed to have been his go-to guitar around the house, adding further provenance to the claim.

After His Death, Cobain’s Daughter Lost the Guitar in Her Divorce

After Kurt’s tragic passing on April 5, 1994, his possessions passed to his family, with many of them, including the D-18E, going directly to his daughter, Frances Bean.

Frances married her longtime boyfriend, Isaiah Silva in 2014. Then in 2016, the pair filed for divorce, which led to a long and frankly ugly court battle, with Cobain’s Martin right at the heart of it.

Silva claimed that Frances had gifted him the guitar, something Frances Cobain vehemently denied. After much back and forward during the divorce proceedings, Cobain was eventually compelled to concede and allow Silva to keep the guitar.

The auction listing didn’t name the seller, but it’s widely acknowledged that it was indeed Silva.

Courtney Love is Alleged to Have Tried to Steal Back the Guitar

Isaiah Silva, the ex-husband of Frances Cobain, alleged that Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love conspired with others to stage a break-in at his home in 2016, with a plan to kidnap or kill him in an effort to retrieve Kurt’s D-18E acoustic guitar.

Silva claimed that he was hooded and dragged out of his home by the former manager of Britney Spears, actor Ross Butler, and another accomplice, and thrown in the back of a black Cadillac Escalade.

He asserted that the three men had been put up to the whole thing by his former mother-in-law, Courtney Love, and was threatened before being told to agree to a settlement and return the guitar to Love, amongst other demands.

Isaiah Silva filed this claim in 2018 and after almost 4 years of legal battles, settled with Courtney Love in March of 2022.

The New Owner of the Cobain D-18E is a Big Name in Music

The winner of the $6.1 million auction was none other than the founder of Røde Microphones, Peter Freedman.

Freedman aggressively pursued the guitar at the auction and was determined to be the winner no matter the eventual cost. Why? Because he knew it would garner international headlines that would in turn draw attention to his drive to have the Australian government pledge more support to the arts.

As the Coronavirus pandemic took its toll on Australia’s arts community, Freedman knew he had to do something bold to get the attention he was looking for:

“Writing a letter, it’s not going to work. But I can make it work,” he said. “If you do this sort of move — I’ve got the attention of the entire world now, probably a few hundred million people.”

He was correct – after winning the auction, not only was he the notorious owner of one of the world’s most iconic acoustic guitars, but he received congratulatory calls for days and weeks after from a number of celebrities and was being hounded by other dealers with high-end Cobain memorabilia to sell.

Freedman eventually plans to take the Martin on a tour across the US, UK, and Europe to help them attract attention to their own underserved arts communities.

Final Thoughts on Kurt Cobain’s Martin D-18E – The Unplugged Guitar

This is a guitar that by all accounts shouldn’t even be noteworthy or interesting, but yet it’s one of the most identifiable and iconic guitars in history. Considering how little is known about Cobain’s relationship with this guitar, it’s amazing how much cultural significance it holds, not to mention the level of drama that seems to follow it.

It isn’t the best sounding, it’s far from the prettiest, and he only owned it for a couple of months. Yet, the association with Kurt Cobain and what many consider to be Nirvana’s finest ever live performance has added so much in terms of monetary value and the intangible, but no less important cool factor.

  • Simon Morgan

    Simon is an Orlando based musician, but originally hails from Newcastle, England. He started playing bass and guitar in 1998, and played the local scene throughout his teen years before running away to work on ships. These days his passion is budget guitars, amps and pedals - though he's not afraid of the finer things.