The 1969 Competition Lake Placid Blue Mustang that Kurt Cobain used in Nirvana's iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit video has sold for $4.5 million at auction. Making it the most valuable electric guitar, and second most valuable guitar overall, ever sold at auction after Cobain's 1959 Martin D-18E used during Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance reached $6 million in 2020.
The Julien's Auctions Music Icons sale at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York had started with a bid of $150,000 and six bids later had hit the $2 million mark. A flurry of activity saw it reach $4.5 million (not including fees) with the winner none other than David Gilmour Black Strat owner Jim Irsay.
It’s OFFICIAL: The Kurt Cobain “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Fender Mustang guitar is now part of “The Collection” @IrsayCollection I am proud to be the steward. 👍🙏 pic.twitter.com/8zaPmKFkX2May 22, 2022
"I am proud to be the steward," said Irsay on social media. The owner and CEO of the Indianapolis Colts is a serious guitar collector and in addition to the Black Strat that he paid $3.9 million for in in 2019, he currently owns instruments previously owned by Elvis Presley, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Prince, Les Paul and Bob Dylan's Newport Festival Stratocaster.
The enviable collection of guitars that frequently tours (opens in new tab) the US for viewing. Julien's also confirmed that, “In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, the Cobain family is donating a portion of the proceeds of the legendary guitar and select Kurt Cobain items to Kicking The Stigma.”
Kicking The Stigma (opens in new tab) is an action grant initiative by the Irsay family to awareness about mental health disorders.
“In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, the Cobain family is donating a portion of the proceeds of the legendary guitar and select Kurt Cobain items to Kicking The Stigma” via @BroadwayWorldhttps://t.co/5S5DtaxsI1May 22, 2022
"I am thrilled to preserve and protect another piece of American culture that changed the way we looked at world," added Irsay in a statement. "The fact that a portion of the proceeds will go toward our effort to kick the stigma surrounding mental health makes this acquisition even more special to me."
"To have this legendary guitar, one of the most culturally significant and historically important guitars of Kurt Cobain and in all of rock music history return to my home state of Indiana to be part of Jim Irsay's renowned memorabilia collection is a great honor and personal highlight of my life," added Darren Julien, President/Chief Executive Officer of Julien's Auctions. "This once-in-a-lifetime auction has been one of the greatest privileges in my professional career and I'm duly pleased that the proceeds will also bring much needed attention to mental health awareness."
The guitar was one of Cobain's favourites in his career, and one of several key Mustangs that Cobain played in Nirvana (check out our in-depth feature for more on those). The guitar had previously been on display in Seattle's MoPOP Museum of Pop Culture for the past 12 years, alongside one of Cobain's three Sonic Blue 'Sky-Stang' Mustangs. But this guitar is notable as being the only Competition Stripe Mustang Cobain ever owned.
Cobain is confirmed by engineer Butch Vig in his notes as having the guitar when Nirvana arrived in Los Angels to track their second album Nevermind at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys California during May of 1991. Smells Like Teen Spirit would become its lead single.
Vig didn't make notes of what guitars were used on specific Nevermind songs so we'll never know its use on the album alongside a Jaguar with DiMarzio pickups, a Mosrite, new Strats and an old Stella acoustic guitar. But it would not be the last Nirvana album it would be present on.
In addition to the video shoot, the Mustang was used during a 45-minute set at the album's release party in Beehive Records in Seattle on September 16, footage from which can be seen above. Probably the last floor-level show the band would play before things went stratospheric for them.
The Competition Mustang would also be used by Cobain on 1991 dates of the Nevermind tour. It was during an infamous 19 October show at the Trees Club in Dallas, Texas that a frustrated and inebriated Cobain smashed the guitar into the monitor board, sustaining damage to the edge of the body that is still visible today. That was nothing compared to the neck; it ended up hanging off the body by the time Cobain was done and wouldn't reappear onstage until almost a year later.
The Mustang returned to the rig in 1992 and Cobain's guitar tech Earnie Bailey has also confirmed for Julien's Auctions that it was used for the 1992 In Utero demo sessions in Seattle. Producer Steve Albini has also confirmed it was also used for the album's tracking in Minnesota.
A portion of the proceeds from the guitar’s sale will now go to mental health charity Kicking The Stigma but despite the high price this time, it's still behind Cobain's 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar that currently holds the world record for the most-expensive guitar sold at auction.
Other Cobain-related lots included the striped sweater Cobain wore in the Smells Like Teen Spirit video ($10,240), Cobain’s 1965 Dodge Dart car, aka ‘Baby Blue’ ($375,000) and even a skateboard customised with Cobain's painting of Iron Maiden's Killers album art ($35,200).
Over 1,300 items were sold at Julien's Auctions' Music Icons event at New York's Hard Rock Cafe, bringing in a total of nearly $15,000,000. Among them were guitars owned by Alex Lifeson, and the most famous of these – the custom-built Gibson ES-355TD he used throughout his career in Rush – sold for $384,000.