When it comes to guitar auctions, artist connections rule. The world’s most expensive electric guitars and acoustic guitars have been refinished, refretted, and beaten up, but thanks to their rock star provenance they’re worth more than any mint condition 1959 Gibson Les Paul.
The list that follows, containing the top 11 most expensive guitars ever sold at auction, is all the evidence you need to prove such a theory. Their combined sale price is $27,619,000, for which you could buy more than 122,000 Squier Bullet Stratocasters, or the entire output of Suhr guitars for a year with change to spare.
Just three mainstream manufacturers make up the top 11 – Fender, Gibson, and Martin, to no-one’s surprise – though there is room for an independently made boutique six-string once owned by Jerry Garcia. Five of the top 11 are Strats, which must say something in the enduring ‘most iconic guitar of all time’ debate. In fact, there’s not much diversity: classic designs like the Telecaster, SG, and Flying V don’t get a look in.
Private sale prices are notoriously hard to confirm. As a result, we’ve left out Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock Stratocaster (reportedly sold for $1.3m in 1993 to Microsoft’s Paul Allen) and the infamous Peter Green/Gary Moore Les Paul, for which Kirk Hammett allegedly paid $2 million in 2014.
Everything else goes, though, so read on to find out which instruments make it into the list of the 11 most expensive guitars to go under the hammer.
11. Eric Clapton's "Blackie" Fender Stratocaster
Sold: New York, 2004
"Blackie" set a world record auction price at the time of sale, but now barely scrapes into the top 11.
When Clapton fancied a Fender Stratocaster in 1970, he bought the entire stock from Nashville’s Sho-Bud. He gave three to his friends George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Steve Winwood, and assembled his ideal Strat from the rest: a ’56 body, ’57 neck, and a third guitar’s pickups (two '50s models and one 1970 grey bottom).
Clapton played it almost exclusively from 1974 to 1985. By the end, the neck was so worn that the low E string hung off the edge, which must be why it didn’t quite reach the one-million mark.
10. Bob Dylan's 1964 Fender Stratocaster
Sold: New York, 2013
At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan went electric, toting this 1964 Stratocaster, which he subsequently left on a private plane. Pilot Vic Quinto picked it up, and it stayed with his family for nearly 50 years.
Auction catalog photos show it in excellent condition for a gigged guitar, with the Three-Tone Sunburst largely free of dings or fading. As an example of a pre-CBS Stratocaster, this was a fine specimen even before you consider the history.
With original strap and case included, it was expected to fetch up to $500k. In the event, it stole "Blackie"’s crown.
9. David Gilmour's Martin D-35
Sold: New York, 2019
In 2003, David Gilmour told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs his Martin D-35 was the one luxury item he’d want if he were stranded at sea. “It’s the best guitar I own,” he said. “It’s the guitar that’s always by my side. I’ve written just about every piece of music using that guitar. My ideas come through that guitar.”
Most prominently heard on Wish You Were Here, it was used on every Pink Floyd album from Dark Side of the Moon (1973) to The Final Cut (1983). The 1969 D-35 proved not to be entirely indispensable, however, as Gilmour auctioned it to benefit the charity ClimateEarth.
8. Duane Allman's 1957 Gibson Les Paul
Sold: Dallas, 2019
Guitar nerds may be surprised that the most expensive Les Paul is not in fact a Burst, but this 1957 Goldtop. It was used on first two Allman Brothers albums, as well as Derek & the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, before Duane traded it for a sunburst model. Allman insisted on keeping the pickups, so this guitar now has the humbuckers from the Burst.
A subsequent owner refinished it badly, before Tom Murphy restored it to glory. Former owner Scot Lamar frequently loaned it out, so you’ve seen it on stage with the likes of Billy Gibbons, Kirk Hammett, and Derek Trucks.
7. David Gilmour's 1954 Fender Stratocaster
Sold: New York, 2019
Here’s a guitar that would have been collectible even without the Pink Floyd provenance. Its serial number, #0001, makes it confusingly not the very first Strat (that was #0100) but nevertheless among the first pre-production Strats given to Fender endorsees.
The first owner was country star Rex Gallion, and en route to Gilmour it was owned by Seymour Duncan. The fact that it was also used to record the Nile Rodgers-esque rhythm parts on Another Brick in the Wall was just a bonus. Auctioneer Christie’s guide price of $100-150k proved unnecessarily pessimistic.
6. Jerry Garcia's "Wolf"
Sold: New York, 2017
The only guitar here not built by a major manufacturer, the "Wolf" was luthier Doug Irwin’s bespoke creation for the Grateful Dead guitarist. Using laminated maple and purpleheart – an incredibly stiff South American wood – Irwin invented an instrument with a new shape, hardware, and controls.
An ingenious plate system allowed pickup systems to be dropped in and out, while two outputs let Garcia run his effects loop separately and switch it from the guitar. Iconic to Deadheads, the "Wolf" was the flagship of a Grateful Dead auction that raised $3.2 million for civil rights charity, the Southern Poverty Law Center.
5. John Lennon's Gibson J160E
Sold: Los Angeles, 2015
Whacking a pickup in a standard acoustic guitar was a Gibson masterstroke, giving rock ’n’ rollers exactly what they needed to be heard. John Lennon used this particular guitar to write hits like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and to record most acoustic moments on Beatles songs from 1962-1963.
The acoustic was even on the Beatles’ first US number one, Love Me Do, but was stolen at a Christmas concert in 1963. Lennon replaced it and carried on using J-160Es for the rest of the Beatles’ career. Given its significance to rock history, it’s hardly surprising that it fetched a record price when it re-emerged in 2015.
4. Reach Out to Asia Fender Stratocaster
Sold: Qatar, 2005
Unique here in that it was never owned by a superstar, the Reach Out to Asia Strat was auctioned for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
It was a humble Mexican Standard Stratocaster bearing the signatures of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Mark Knopfler, Ray Davies, Liam Gallagher, Ronnie Wood, Tony Iommi, Angus and Malcolm Young, Paul McCartney, Sting, Ritchie Blackmore, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams.
New made-in-Mexico Strats sold for around $350 in 2005, making this objectively the most overpriced axe of all time.
3. David Gilmour's Black Fender Stratocaster
Sold: New York, 2019
You could buy quite a few Strats for four million bucks, but perhaps none quite as special as this one. Your local vintage dealer might tell you modified guitars are worth less, but the Black Strat went for the price of a Beverly Hills mansion despite having been thoroughly messed about.
It came with a sales receipt for the three custom pickups wound by Seymour Duncan for Gilmour, and of course, the famous shortened whammy bar. This is the guitar from the Comfortably Numb solo, Gilmour’s number one from 1970-1986. Journalists gasped at the price, but guitarists knew we’d have bought it if we had the money.
2. Kurt Cobain’s Smells Like Teen Spirit Fender Mustang
Sold: New York, 2022
When it was announced that Kurt Cobain’s Smells Like Teen Spirit Fender Mustang would be hitting the block with an auction estimate of only $800,000, many looked on in disbelief. As expected, though, it absolutely shattered the conservative figure, and ended up fetching almost $5 million.
Known for its starring role in the Smells Like Teen Spirit music video – which in turn played a vital part in launching Nirvana’s popularity straight into the stratosphere – the Mustang’s near-mythical appearance has now been viewed on YouTube almost 1.5 billion times, after it made its debut on MTV’s 120 Minutes on September 29, 1991.
The Lake Placid Blue beauty also got the occasional live run out, and was on the receiving end of a nasty neck joint break after Cobain used it to smash up a mixing board at Nirvana’s Tree Club concert in Dallas that same year. The guitar was promptly patched up, and saw action again during the band's 1993 Hollywood Rock Festival set.
1. Kurt Cobain's Martin D-18E
Sold: Los Angeles, 2020
In summer 2020, there wasn’t much to do apart from play guitar and bid on online auctions, which might be why Kurt’s guitar so comprehensively smashed all records.
The D-18E was used for Nirvana’s immortal MTV Unplugged set, including the goosebump-raising cover of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. Because that gig was televised and universally lauded, this iconic instrument is indelibly associated with Kurt Cobain.
Rode Microphones owner Peter Freedman was the man with the dented wallet after the auction. He has promised to exhibit the guitar on a world tour, although Covid-19 has thus far scuppered that plan.