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Kurt Cobain and the Martin D-18E

Kurt Cobain and his 1959 Martin D-18E at the MTV Unplugged in New York concert.

Kurt Cobain and his 1959 Martin D-18E at the MTV Unplugged in New York concert.

The Late Great Kurt Cobain

I'll never forget the emergence of this new metal music called grunge. I'd only just graduated from high school. Drinking adult beverages was a completely new thing for me, and after a few, this new, loud music was playing on the radio. The band was called Nirvana, and it was so intense it made a lasting impression.

More often than not, grunge music was full of screaming—screaming guitars and screaming vocals. The riffs were slower, and the attitude was always the exact opposite of what we'd been fed the previous decade when glam rock was king.

Nirvana's music was just so. Lots of loud screaming. Lots of anti-social feelings. Lots of drugs and depression. The music seemed anti-social, and I had felt that way for years. Well, one thing is for sure, Kurt Cobain was authentic with his songwriting.

Everyone knows, and all too well, that Kurt thought popularity was a terrible thing to have, and being successful in music was probably something that meant he had become everything he hated. He married a woman at least as troubled as he was, and in the end, that didn't go so wonderfully either.

Kurt Cobain absolutely hated the United States mass media. Kurt felt like the media misrepresented him at every single turn. He'd spend a lot of time explaining just how and where they did these things. This revulsion to US mass media was something I identified with so much then and still do today.

They called him the spokesman of a generation, and then Nirvana, the flagship band of Generation X. He famously couldn't deal with such pressures, and along with chronic health problems, and heroin addiction, he pointedly chose to opt-out of this world.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain

MTV Unplugged in New York

In 1994 I was living in my hometown, delivering pizzas in the evening, and going to a community college during the day. I spent a huge amount of time in my extremely used automobile listening to music. I carried around two hundred compact discs in my ride and one of the single most played was Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York.

Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York was my very favorite album by them. It's still my favorite by the band today, as it is a mellow listen. At the time of the album's release, Cobain had been dead around five months. While I was personally saddened by his death, I was not even a little bit shocked. It was almost an expected thing, although I don't think I'd ever had the thought consciously.

I'd seen and read so many Kurt Cobain interviews and listened to so much Nirvana already that I really felt like I knew the guy. His music was always around. It was like he was always around, and we hung out. I could relate very well to many of his sentiments and lyrics. Maybe Cobain really was the voice of my generation.

The album broke dramatically from what MTV had wanted. They wanted acoustic versions of Nirvana's hits, and Kurt and the boys completely rejected that idea. Only one of their radio staples was performed. As Nirvana gained in popularity, they increasingly played cover songs of lesser-known bands they admired. They did this in hopes of promoting their friends.

Guest stars were another issue. MTV wanted Nirvana to have persons who were equally famous appear as guests. Kurt was having none of that, and I thank him for it. I wonder if I'd have ever heard of The Meat Puppets were it not for this album.

My favorite tracks by far are "Plateau", and "Lake Of Fire". Brothers Cris and Kurt Kirkwood were the guest stars for the performance, and three of their Meat Puppet songs were performed.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain

Exactly Like a Funeral

The album has a pervasive mournfulness to it. I mentioned the tracks "Lake of Fire" and "Plateau" because they are the chipper and upbeat counterpoints to the rest of the material.

Kurt Cobain was nervous about the whole project. Everyone seemed sure he was suffering through heroin withdrawals, and he'd never done an all-acoustic show before, and then there was the newness of the material they'd chosen, and the rushed preparations. There were no jokes or smiles from Kurt during the rehearsals.

Decorations, chosen by Cobain, were to be Stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. When the show's producer was told about these requests, the producer asked Cobain, 'you mean like a funeral?' Cobain was said to have replied, 'Yes. Exactly like a funeral.'

Typically an unplugged concert is played with acoustic instruments which are being amplified through microphones. This was not the case for Kurt Cobain, as he used an extremely rare 1959 Martin D-18E, and he played it plugged in.

The guitar was not just plugged straight into an amplifier, but he also had his effects pedal-board in the circuit. Take a listen to Nirvana's rendition of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World", and you can hear a bit of distortion in the signal.

The 1959 Martin D-18E

In the spring of 2018, Kurt's old D-18E was in the news because his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, inherited the guitar. She was getting divorced, and she lost the guitar to the ex-husband.

This makes me feel terribly ancient because I remember when this young lady was born. No, of course, I wasn't anywhere around. The Cobain and Love story was something that just seemed like it was happening with friends of mine.

The guitar is worth millions of dollars because of the legendary owner and the terrific performance. I don't want anyone to be too worried about Frances though, she's listed, pre-divorce, as worth more than ten million dollars. She should be fine.

Any 1959 Martin D-18E is a very valuable guitar and would be without Cobain having ever played one, as there were only three hundred such instruments produced. C.F. Martin & Company were never into making acoustic-electric guitars back in the day. Their strengths were always in pure acoustic heavenliness.

What else can I tell you about these guitars? The specifications are going to be exactly like any other D-18's from that time except for the electronics. There are not one, but two DeArmond pickups on the thing, and there are three knobs, one for volume, and one for the tone of each pickup, and then there is the pickup selector switch which is a three-way switch.

The top of the guitar is Adirondack spruce, and that is a higher grade of spruce than one will get in most new D-18s in the modern-day. You typically pay several hundred to a thousand dollars for an upgrade from Sitka to Adirondack. I'm seeing one of the three hundred 1959 Martin D-18Es for sale on Reverb for $19,522.

The 1959 Martin D-18E

The 1959 Martin D-18E

Some Particulars

I want to be clear about some things here. Having pickups, switching, volume, and tone controls connected to the soundboard, or top of a guitar is a horrible idea. The sound of an acoustic guitar mostly comes from the top's vibrations, and having pickups, wires, switches, and knobs attached can only prevent the thing from sounding as fine as it should sound. It was 1959 then. This whole acoustic-electric guitar thing was a new idea.

So why would Kurt Cobain have a guitar like this? Well, just look at him. Look at how he dressed. I imagine Kurt thought the guitar was super cool for being such an odd duck. He probably felt like the thing spoke to him for that reason.

I'm not saying these are bad guitars. I'm the type of person who doesn't believe a Martin D-18 could be anything but terrific. What I'm trying to get over here is that these guitars are more museum pieces or collector's pieces than players. Oh, they'll play, and Kurt's guitar sounds awesome, but in the here and now a body can get a much much better acoustic-electric D-18.

I hope the gear lover reader will excuse me here for stating something like this, but I feel I need to say it: an acoustic guitar doesn't care if you are left or right-handed. What matters or what needs to be known for a person who wants to play a right-handed acoustic left-handed, as Kurt Cobain did, is the nut would have to be replaced with one cut for playing a right-handed guitar left-handed.

Martin D18E Retro Acoustic/Electric Guitar

Martin D18E Retro Acoustic/Electric Guitar

C.F. Martin & Company Produces a Superior D-18E Today

So you really love the sound of Kurt's rhythm and smart lead playing on the MTV Unplugged album. I agree it sounds wonderful, and a D-18 provides a lot more tonal range than what you heard in that album, as Kurt's playing style was very laid back and mellow in that effort.

I hope I've convinced you of three things concerning the 1959 D-18E:

  1. You probably can not afford one.
  2. Even if you can afford to buy one, you are not likely to find one for sale because there were only three hundred produced. Who even knows how many still exist?
  3. Because of issues having to do with the design, the sound quality of the 1959 Martin D-18E is nowhere nearly so good as a current model.

The Martin D-18E Retro Series

I promise you that there is something very special about the sound of a mahogany dreadnought. One of the special things is the velocity of sound mahogany produces. Friends, mahogany supplies are drying up. Not too many years into the future I'm nearly positive there will be severe restrictions on the importation of this fine wood.

Right here and right now in your local Martin guitar dealer's store, however, you can play a Martin D-18E Retro series guitar. I certainly did. Martin is extremely proud of its new retro guitars, and if you check one out, you'll quickly understand why. I guess I've got a caveat with the name, as these guitars are not really so 'retro.' They are entirely new in some ways, but they combine a lot of the classic elements of old-school Martin.

Years ago I owned a Martin D-18GE. The 'great recession' came along, and I sold the thing. It has proven to be one of the worst decisions I've made in my life, and folks, I'm not known for wisdom. The Martin D-18E Retro Series is a vastly superior guitar to the 1959 D-18E Kurt Cobain played.

What makes it so much better? Primarily, for an audiophile and tonewoods enthusiast like myself, the fact that there aren't pickups and controls mounted to the soundboard. The soundboard of an acoustic guitar is the most critical element of the guitar's tone and volume. You want an unencumbered soundboard, and with this brand spanking new model of D-18, you get one.

Our neck profile is a brand spanking new. So there's nothing retro about the neck. Both of the Martin dreadnoughts I've owned have V profile necks. This new neck is an oval profile. I got comfortable with it very quickly. I feel very confident that if you are comfortable with the Martin V profile necks, then the new necks on these Retro Series guitars will feel great to you in short order.

The fingerboard on this guitar is, of course, a slab of ebony. For years before I got my first real pro-level acoustic guitar, I had a good guitar with a rosewood fingerboard. When I got my first great, rather than good guitar, one with an ebony fingerboard? I felt like I'd traded in my Chevy for a Cadillac.

The Fishman F1 Aura Plus

Another thing that makes this new D-18E so wonderful, and superior is its electronics. I shouldn't have to make any sort of case here for how electronics are better now than they were in 1959. The step-up in quality is not minor, but extremely substantial. This is the Fishman F1 Aura Plus system.

The four presets built into this Fishman F1 Aura Plus are what I prefer for acoustic electronics. I prefer this system because I simply do not want to be playing with EQ and tone controls to find the best tones. With the F1 Aura Plus, I can trust that the people at C.F. Martin, and in concert with the people at Fishman, have absolutely selected the pre-sets for having put a ton of work and thought into it.

The first three pre-sets are blends, and then there is also a simpler setting for just the pickup. There is also a tuner built-in and used in concert with the LED display on the side of the guitar. It is all powered by a nine-volt battery which is easily accessible and stowed every so smartly.

This guitar doesn't care if you flip it over and play it left-handed, but you'll have to get a new nut cut to do that. Hey, why would you though? There are left-handed versions of this available at the same price. Thanks for reading.

The Martin D-18 Retro Series Guitar Specifications

  • Model: Martin D-18E Retro
  • Construction: Mahogany Blocks/Dovetail Neck Joint
  • Body Size: D-14 Fret
  • Top: Solid Sitka Spruce
  • Rosette: Style 18
  • Top Bracing Pattern: Standard ''X'' Scalloped, Forward Shifted
  • Top Braces: Solid Sitka Spruce 5/16''
  • Back Material: Solid Genuine Mahogany
  • Back Purfling: Old Style 18
  • Side Material: Solid Genuine Mahogany
  • Endpiece: Tortoise Color
  • Endpiece Inlay: None
  • Binding: Tortoise Color
  • Top Inlay Style: Multiple Black/White Boltaron
  • Side Inlay: None
  • Back Inlay: None
  • Neck Material: Select Hardwood
  • Neck Shape: Modified Low Oval Profile w/ Performing Artist Taper
  • Nut Material: Bone
  • Headstock: Solid/Square Taper
  • Headplate: Solid East Indian Rosewood
  • Heelcap: Tortoise Color
  • Fingerboard Material: Solid Black Ebony
  • Scale Length: 25.4''
  • Number of Frets Clear: 14
  • Number of Frets Total: 20
  • Fingerboard Width at Nut: 1-3/4''
  • Fingerboard Width at 12th Fret: 2-1/8''
  • Fingerboard Position Inlays: Old Style 18 (Green Abalone)
  • Fingerboard Binding: None
  • Finish Back and Sides: Polished Gloss
  • Finish Top: Polished Gloss w/ Aging Toner; Sunburst available at additional cost.
  • Finish Neck: Satin
  • Bridge Material: Solid Black Ebony
  • Bridge Style: 1930s Style Belly w/ Drop-In Saddle
  • Bridge String Spacing: 2-3/16''
  • Saddle: 16'' Radius/Compensated/White Tusq
  • Tuning Machines: Nickel Open-Geared w/ Butterbean Knobs
  • Bridge and End Pins: Black w/ White Dots
  • Pickguard: Delmar Tortoise Color
  • Case: 445 Hardshell
  • Interior Label: None
  • Electronics: Fishman F1 Aura Plus

© 2018 Wesman Todd Shaw


Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on May 02, 2020:

@Jim - good question. I haven't been able to find a definite answer to it, however, I do feel pretty confident that because he was primarily an electric guitarist - he would be using light gauge strings.

I know he favored Dean Markley brand.

jim on May 02, 2020:

what strings did he use for his d18 martin?

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 20, 2018:

Thanks Poppy! I think whenever someone is trying hard to be liked, it is noticeable, and is annoying. When someone is just trying to be honest and straightforward, that's also noticeable, but you don't let it bother you when someone doesn't like you. I guess that reflects confidence.

It definitely takes a lot of confidence to play music in front of large crowds. I've done it ...but my notion of a large crowd was about 500 people. LOL. I was terrified!

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 20, 2018:

lynyx77 - I do not have that information. I mean, I may have that information somewhere in my gigantic stack of guitar magazines, but it would take a lot of searching to come up with it.

If I do get it, I'll certainly update the article to include it.

Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on December 20, 2018:

I suppose it's true that the less you care, the more people like you. As well as their incredible music and lyrics, Kurt Cobain didn't have a desperate "please like me" attitude nor tried to win popularity from the media, which is part of what made him so likable. I'm afraid I don't know much about guitars, but I enjoyed reading about Mr. Cobain.

lynyx77 on December 05, 2018:

Great article, But have a question , during the MTV show I've seen another Micro in the Hole of the guitar D18, do you know it?

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on May 25, 2018:

Hey thanks a lot, Sir! I appreciate it.

Ralph Schwartz from Idaho Falls, Idaho on May 25, 2018:

This has to be one of the most in-depth articles I've read on any type of guitar. My little girl has an Ibanez big body acoustic that sounds like sweet honey when she play's it. I'm going to share this article with her.