How much would you pay for a piece of rock ‘n’ roll history? The answer seems to be ‘a lot’ – as these recently sold star instruments evidence.
Celebrity memorabilia has always attracted deep-pocketed buyers, but nothing seems to set the auction house paddles flapping like a rock star guitar. In the last few years we’ve seen numerous iconic instruments come up for sale and smash records left, right and centre – and when you consider that most of these guitars are already rare vintage instruments that would sell for huge sums even without their famous former owners, perhaps that’s to be expected.
But what are the most expensive guitars ever sold and what made them so special? Read on and find out.
If you ever visit Seattle, a trip to the city’s Museum of Pop Culture is well worth your time – as here you’ll find the iconic white Stratocaster Jimi Hendrix used during his performance at Woodstock. The guitar in question was purchased by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who purchased it for a cool $2 million. Allen, who died in 2018, was a keen guitarist and collector – no less than Quincy Jones said that Allen could play “just like” Jimi, who had inspired him, like so many others, to play guitar in the first place.
While Allen understandably wanted to have a go on the guitar used for perhaps the most iconic moment in rock guitar history, his reason for buying it was seemingly more altruistic – the guitar held a special significance to him, as it had inspired his lifelong love affair with guitar, and as such he purchased it so that it could be displayed at MoPOP so that everyone could see it, and hopefully be inspired as he had been. Far more than a hunk of wood and metal, Allen was buying a physical representation of Jimi’s legacy and laying it out for the world to see and experience.
There were a couple other guitars that sold for close to the 2-Million-dollar mark – Peter Green’s 1959 Les Paul Standard, which is now owned by Kirk Hammett, and Jerry Garcia’s Wolf guitar, which was built by famed luthier, Doug Irwin.
On 10 September 1962, Beatles manager Brian Epstein went to Rushworth’s Music House in Liverpool and purchased a pair of nearly identical brand new Gibson J-160E acoustic guitars for John Lennon and George Harrison to use in the band, for the tidy sum of £161.05 (around £3,600/$5,000 in today’s money).
The two guitars would go on to be used by their new owners to great effect, being used to pen iconic hits such as She Loves You, I Saw Her Standing There and I Want To Hold Your Hand. But then in 1963, Lennon’s guitar vanished, and would not been seen or heard from again until 2014 when it was found to be in the possession of John McCaw, who had bought the guitar for just $175 in 1969 from a guy named Tommy Pressley, who had bought it from a music store in San Diego two years prior. The guitar’s abduction was covered by the The Beatles Monthly.
“By the time of the Finsbury Park show, the total collection of Beatle guitars had grown, but John and Paul were still using their Gibson jumbos in the dressing room. They were there as stand-by replacements if strings snapped during a performance. John recalls, ‘George and I often took a jumbo home with us,’ so nobody noticed until the end of the season that one was missing. A week or two afterwards I asked Mal [Evans, guitar tech] where he’d put my jumbo. It was only then that we realized the guitar had been pinched, at Finsbury Park. No, I never got it back.”
The guitar came to auction in 2015, and smashed its $800,000 estimate, being sold to an anonymous buyer for a whopping $2.1 million. Per the auction, half of the proceeds went to the Spirit Foundation, which is a charitable organization that John and Yoko Ono set up prior to his passing.
This guitar remains something of an outlier among the guitars in this list in that it’s not a guitar that was owned by a famous musician, or one that was used on any classic recordings – it’s simply a stock, then brand new Fender Stratocaster guitar. The kicker, of course is that the guitar was signed by a veritable who’s who of musicians – David Gilmour, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, and lots more besides.
The guitar was one of the lots created to be auctioned off in 2005 by the charity Reach Out To Asia – an organisation founded to provide aid and support to the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which killed over 200,000 people and displaced 1.7 million primarily in coastal regions of Indonesia, Thailand and India.
The guitar was purchased at the auction in Qatar by Sheikha Al-Mayassa, a member of the Qatari royal family, who also happened to be the founder of the Reach Out To Asia Foundation. The $2.7 million sum paid for the guitar smashed the record held by Clapton’s Blackie Strat, which had sold for just shy of $1 million, and would remain the most expensive guitar ever sold for over a decade.
It’s peculiar that such an ‘unremarkable’ guitar would go for such a large sum, but it’s certainly a unique item, and Sheikha Al-Mayassa is no stranger for dropping large sums at auction. She serves as the chairperson of Qatar Museums, and in that role she is believed to two have purchased two of the most expensive paintings ever – Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? and Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players – which sold for $229,000,000 and $288,000,000 respectively. Those were purchased by the State Of Qatar, which is rumoured to give the Sheikha an annual $1 billion acquisition budget, but it is believed she purchased the Reach Out To Asia Strat with her own money, which of course went to a very good cause.
David Gilmour’s famous mongrel Black Strat is not just one of the most expensive guitars to ever come to auction, it’s also one of the most surprising. More than just an instrument owned and played by Gilmour, the Black Strat was an instrument that became an integral part of his sonic identity since the guitarist first used it on stage at the 1970 Bath Festival.
Purchased in New York from the famous Manny’s Music earlier that year, this 1969 Sunburst model was refinished in black before it came into Gilmour’s care, but in the following decades was heavily modded, evolving as an instrument as Pink Floyd and Gilmour evolved musically. Over the years the guitar has had various necks, had its jack lead swapped for an XLR, sported a PAF in the middle position, had its bridge pickup swapped for DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan units, and even had a Kahler trem at one point.
The guitar was a constant companion between 1970 and 1986, being used by Gilmour on many of Pink Floyd’s most iconic moments, and was brought out of retirement to be used for Floyd’s one-off reunion gig at Live 8. All of which made it more shocking when the guitar, along with a huge swathe of his instrument collection, (including Gilmour’s other iconic Strat, #0001) went up for auction in 2019, with the proceeds from the sale going to ClientEarth, an organization that funds attorneys and other experts to fight climate change.
The auction netted $21.5 million in total, but it was no surprise that the Black Strat fetched the biggest sum – at just shy of $4 million, the guitar would smash the Reach Out To Asia Strat’s record. The guitar was bought by Jim Irsay, the billionaire owner of the Indianapolis Colts and passionate guitarist and music memorabilia collector. In addition to the Black Strat, Irsay owns instruments owned by Jerry Garcia, Les Paul, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Prince and all four Beatles. The Black Strat wasn’t even the only guitar Irsay bought that day – he also bought Gilmour’s ’69 Martin D-35 used on Welcome to the Machine and Wish You Were Here, for $1,095,000.
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance remains one of the most iconic and poignant moment in Nirvana’s short but unbelievably important career, and the guitar Kurt Cobain used for this special performance was in itself a rare and unusual instrument – a Martin 1959 D-18E. The guitar is believed to be number 7 of just 302 that were made that year, and it had been heavily modified.
“The D-18E’s spruce top was weighed down by a trio of volume and tone potentiometers, a toggle switch and a Bartolini soundhole pickup mounted between a pair of hefty [stock] 1950s DeArmond Dynasonic pickups – these ended up being bypassed in favor of the retrofit Bartolini,” Kurt’s tech, Ernie Bailey told Total Guitar.
Kurt had bought the guitar just a few months prior to the Unplugged gig, and by all accounts, it wasn’t a particularly good sounding acoustic, relative to the Epiphone Texan he had been using on tour prior to that performance. That 1960/61 guitar, which had a ‘Nixon Now’ sticker on it and can be seen at the Unplugged performance on a stand behind Kurt as a backup. So why didn’t he use the Texan? Bailey told this writer in an interview for Ultimate Guitar.
“He had wanted a Martin acoustic and was excited to have been able to afford one in 1993. I believe Kurt liked the D-18E because it was so strange and unique for a Martin acoustic. Whether or not he thought it would work easily with his live touring setup is unknown, but a third and more compatible magnetic soundhole pickup was added for it to be useful with the bronze wound acoustic strings he used. I’m guessing the visual statement behind playing a Martin with an absurd array of electronics mounted to the top, was his reasoning behind choosing it for Unplugged, considering the Epiphone Texas was a fantastic sounding guitar, while the D-18E was at the other end of the sonic spectrum.”
The guitar would come up for auction in June 2020, being sold by the ex-husband of Kurt’s daughter Frances. The guitar was expected to bring in around $1 million, but it smashed all expectations, selling to Australian businessman Peter Freedman, owner of Rode Microphones for over $6 million – smashing the record set by the Black Strat the year before. Rode has stated that he’ll be touring it around galleries and art spaces, with the proceeds from the tour going to supporting the performing arts.
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