With today’s news of RØDE Microphones founder Peter Freedman making a new world record with his purchase of Kurt Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar, we thought we’d take the time to look back at some of the other biggest guitar purchases throughout history.
As you’d probably expect, there’s been some absolutely whopping amounts of dosh spent on some pretty important guitars over the years, so prepare yourself to read some eye-boggling digits over the course of this article - bon appetit.
11. Jerry Garcia Custom Doug Irwin ‘Tiger’ model
Price paid: US $957,500
A shining example of master luthier Doug Irwin’s handiwork, this custom-made ‘Tiger’ guitar was a favourite of Grateful Dead shredder Jerry Garcia, who favoured the guitar during the band’s heyday between 1979-89. The opulent instrument is decked out with oodles of Mother of Pearl around the fretboard and all over the body, and is modified to Garcia’s meticulous specs with plenty of dip switches and pickup options. The ‘Tiger’ is also considered a notable instrument within Deadhead lore, given that it was the guitar played by Garcia in his final public appearance, and as such, fetched a huge sum of US $957, 000 ($1.4m AUD) when it was auctioned off in 2002.
10. Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’ Fender Stratocaster
Price paid: US $959,000
Clapton’s favourite Fender Stratocaster, affectionately named ’Blackie’ for its dark finish, is one of the most famous instruments the guitar god has ever played, being his go-to axe from the early ‘70s until being retired in 1985. As most musicians will know, ‘Blackie’ is a bastardised version of three of six mid ‘50s Fender Stratocasters purchased by Clapton (the other three were given to George Harrison, Steve Winwood and Pete Townshend), with Clapton assembling ‘Blackie’ out of the best parts of each model. The guitar can be heard on many of Clapton’s most famous works, including ‘Wonderful Tonight’, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Lay Down Sally’, and as such, became one of the most expensive guitars ever when it sold at auction for US $959,000 ($1.4m AUD) in 2004 to raise funds for Clapton’s Crossroads Centre rehab clinic.
9. Bob Dylan’s 1964 ‘Newport’ Fender Stratocaster
Price paid: US $965,000
By far one of the most controversial guitars in the rock canon, this Sunburst Fender was used by folk troubadour Bob Dylan for the fateful Newport Folk Festival in 1965, sparking the ‘Electric Dylan’ controversy and probably acting as the moment that asserted Bob Dylan’s status within rock history. The ’64 Stratocaster, which remains in near-mint condition today, was sold at Christie’s for US $965,000 ($1.41m AUD) in 2013, where it was expected to fetch a measly $300,000 - $500,000. The guitar was returned to Newport Folk Festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ‘Electric Dylan’ controversy two years later, where the festival commemorated the occasion by inviting a number of artists to perform with the instrument, including Courtney Barnett, J Mascis and Blake Mills.
8. Keith Richards’ 1959 Les Paul Standard
Price paid: US $1,000,000
Given the relative scarcity and legendary status commanded by ’59 Les Pauls, it makes sense that Keith’s own Gibson from this sacred year of manufacturing would sell for over a million. The beast of an instrument was purportedly used by Richards on The Rolling Stones’ debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and also saw use in the hands of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Keith’s future bandmate Mick Taylor before being stolen in 1971. Although the guitar was recovered and went through the hands of various other owners, Richards’ ’59 Les Paul ended up where all great guitars do in auction land, fetching $1m ($1.46m AUD) under the hammer back in 2003.
7. 1958 Gibson Korina Explorer
Price paid: US $1,100,000
Any guitarist will know that a ’58 Korina Explorer is a pretty coveted instrument. Only 18 of these prototypes were ever made in 1958, with various models falling into the hands of big name players like Rick Neilson, Slash and Kirk Hammett over the years. This particular Korina, which sold for the mammoth sum of $1.1m ($1.6m AUD), was actually sold through a private dealer on London’s famous Denmark Street, and interestingly enough, was never actually played by anyone famous enough to make its value skyrocket further.
6. Bob Marley’s Washburn 22 Series Hawk
Price paid: US $1,200,000 - $2,000,000
As one of the most legendary figures in music history, it makes sense that a guitar played by Bob Marley would sell for a high price, but a Washburn 22 Series Hawk? Unbelievable. However, what makes this particular instrument interesting is that it was actually purchased by the government of Jamaica, who saw the guitar as a nationally significant artefact and snapped it up from Marley’s guitar tech Gary Karlsen. The actual price paid for this guitar was never been made public, but there’s a few safe guesses that would put it somewhere in the ballpark of $1.2 - 2 million ($1.75m - $2.92m AUD).
5. Jerry Garcia Custom Doug Irwin ‘Wolf’ model
Price paid: US $1,900,000
Another fine example of Irwin’s work and the cash cow that is anything affiliated with The Grateful Dead, Garcia’s ‘Wolf’ isn’t too dissimilar from the aforementioned ‘Tiger’ guitar in its design and specs, save for the obvious difference of the wolf sticker over the ornate Mother of Pearl bridge inlay. This guitar was actually sold at the same auction as the ‘Tiger’ for a lesser price, but sold again in 2017 at a fundraiser for Southern Poverty Law Centre for a whopping $1.9m ($2.77m AUD), also acting as proof to the age-old theory that the majority of Deadheads are just all cashed up Yuppies.
4. Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 ‘Woodstock’ Fender Stratocaster + Gary Moore and Peter Green’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul
Price paid: US $2,000,000
Two incredibly famous guitars, two eye-popping pricetags. As we all know, the Olympic White Fender Stratocaster used by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock 1969 helped to establish the festival’s iconic status, and tends to be the guitar most associated with Jimi lore. This instrument fetched a huge $2m ($2.92m AUD) when it was sold to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen back in 1998, which is probably a pretty safe and easily justifiable purchase given his net worth.
The second ’59 Les Paul on this list, however, might be just as interesting. First owned by Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green and later handed on to Gary Moore, the cherished North Irish bluesman who used the guitar on iconic tracks like ‘Still Got The Blues’ and ‘Parissiene Walkways’. When it was snapped up by Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett for $2m a few years back, few were surprised - great guitars have a tendency to gravitate towards great players, and we have a feeling that Hammett would almost certainly understand the significance of such a hallowed instrument.
3. Fender ‘Reach Out To Asia’ Stratocaster
Price paid: US $2,700,000
Organised by Bryan Adams in order to raise much-needed funds to help Asian countries recover from the impact of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, this Fender Stratocaster sold at auction for an enormous $2.7m ($3.94 AUD) in Qatar in 2005, making it the most expensive guitar of all time up until last year. While it’s not of the same vintage or prestige as some of the other guitars on this list, the ‘Reach Out To Asia’ Stratocaster was signed by just about every rockstar left alive in 2005, and featured the signatures of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mark Knopfler, Paul McCartney, Angus and Malcolm Young and many, many more.
2. David Gilmour’s Black Strat
Price paid: US $3,900,000
Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour made international headlines last year when he announced an auction of just about every significant guitar he’d ever owned, including his cherished Fender Stratocaster used as his main guitar for decades. Commonly known as ‘The Black Strat’, this guitar smashed the previous world records out of the water when it was sold at auction to the owner of the Indapolis Colts, Jim Irsay, for $3.9m ($5.69 AUD). Remarkably, the huge Gilmour guitar auction managed to net over $21.4 million in total, the entirety of which Gilmour chose to donate to climate change charity Client Earth. Good guitarist, great dude - what’s not to love?
1. Kurt Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E Acoustic
Price paid: US $6,100,000
Yeah, that number is real. RØDE Microphones founder Pete Freedman managed to secure this slice of history overnight in an auction that blasted away any other record that had come close, setting a wild new benchmark of $6m ($9.1m AUD) that we doubt will be surpassed for quite some time. If you’re unfamiliar with the said guitar, it’s a modified Martin acoustic that Cobain used for Nirvana’s era-defining MTV Unplugged performance in 1994, and is said to be one of the last instruments he ever played. Discover the story of the guitar in greater detail here, and keep your eyes peeled for when it’s expected to be exhibited around Australia sometime this August. We can’t wait!!
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