The 15 Most Expensive Guitars Sold At Auction
The recent Mark Knopfler guitar auction saw some iconic guitars fetch massive sums, but did any of them earn a place among the most expensive auction guitars ever?
Bob Dylan’s ‘Newport’ Strat. Image: Eleanor Jane
What price for a piece of bona fide rock ‘n’ roll history? Well, if that piece happens to be an iconic guitar used by an equally iconic guitar player, then the last few decades have demonstrated that price is ‘an awful lot indeed’ – especially if that guitar has been sold at auction.
In the decades since Eric Clapton’s iconic Blackie Strat was purchased by Guitar Center for just shy of a million dollars, more and more legendary guitar players have put their collections under the hammer, and it’s led to increasingly outlandish sums being paid for some of the most iconic guitars in rock.
The recent auction of Mark Knopfler’s guitars at Christie’s saw some practically every lot smash its estimate, but despite that the most iconic item of the day – a 1983 Gibson Les Paul Standard that the Dire Straits legend used to write and record Money For Nothing and Brothers In Arms – smashing its $19,000 estimate and selling for a whopping $753,231 (£592,200), it wasn’t enough to make it onto our list (in fact it wasn’t even the biggest seller of the day, with a Burst Knopfler bought in 1999 selling for a massive $880,186).
Also not making it into the list are some of the most iconic guitars of all time that never made it to auction. It’s almost impossible to confirm private sale figures, so the rumours that Kirk Hammett paid $2 million for Greeny – the 1959 Les Paul previously owned by Peter Green and Gary Moore – or that the late Microsoft founder Paul Allen paid $1.3m back in 1993 for Hendrix’s Woodstock Strat will have to remain just that – rumours.
No instead we’re dealing in hard facts and confirmed numbers – and these 15 guitars are the most expensive instruments ever to go under the hammer.
15 Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” Fender Stratocaster $959,000
For so long this was the benchmark of auction-sold guitars, setting a record when it was sold in 2002 and bought by Guitar Center (where it was put on display at various GC stores, most recently at a popup at the Crossroads Festival. Eric got Blackie in 1970, which he bought every Strat in Nashville’s Sho-Bud store, gave three to his friends George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Steve Winwood, then assembled his perfect Strat from three others. Blackie became Clapton’s number one from 1974 to 1985, and wears every bit of that hard wear on its neck and body.
14 Bob Dylan’s ‘Newport Folk Festival’ Stratocaster $965,000
When the folk messiah turned Judas and performed Maggie’s Farm, Like A Rolling Stone and Phantom Engineer with an electric band on 25 July 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, this short but controversial set would later be hailed as a watershed moment in pop history. Yet the 1964 Stratocaster Bob Dylan played that day was soon left behind on a private aeroplane and he never looked back. It was sold at auction in 2013, and was purchased by Indianapolis Colts owner and guitar collector Jim Irsay – it now forms part of the ‘Jim Irsay Collection’ a travelling museum of pop culture memorabilia that tours the US.
13 David Gilmour’s Martin D-35 $1,095,000
The first guitar to crack the million dollar mark in our run-down ended up flying rather under the radar – when it was sold as part of David Gilmour’s massive guitar auction in 2019, it wasn’t even the highest-selling guitar in the auction that day. The purchaser of this Martin D-35, which was heard on Wish You Were Here and many other iconic Floyd songs was that man Jim Irsay – and it’s not the last time we ’ll here his name today…
12 Duane Allman’s 1957 Gibson Les Paul $1,250,000
Even when he’s not directly selling the guitar, there’s something about Eric Clapton that auction buyers simply cannot get enough of. Allman used this guitar on the first two Allman Brothers albums, and then most notably to record Derek & the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Allman traded the guitar for a Burst soon after, but wanted to keep the 57’s pickups, so this guitar has the curious quirk of having 59 PAFs installed. It was also badly refinished after it left Allman, but has now been restored to its original glory.
11 Eric Clapton’s ‘Fool’ 1964 Gibson SG $1,270,000
Perhaps Eric Clapton’s most distinctive instrument also has the distinction of being the most expensive sold at auction when the Fool went under the hammer in 2023. Hailing from Clapton’s Cream era, the Fool is celebrated as an enduring symbol of the psychedelic era in music, the 1964 Gibson SG earned its name from the Dutch art collective that gave it its striking finish. Sunshine of Your Love, White Room, I Feel Free… Clapton’s iconic Woman tone is all this guitar. It was bought by another familiar face – Jim Irsay.
10 Elvis Presley’s ‘Sun Sessions’ 1942 Martin D-18 $1,300,000
The King played many guitars over his illustrious career, but perhaps none is more important or iconic than the Martin D-18 he used between 1954 and 1956 when recording at Memphis’ iconic Sun Studios – That’s All Right (Mama), Blue Moon of Kentucky and Good Rockin’ Tonight were all recorded using this guitar, though it’s a rare one on this list in that it actually sold for less than its estimate. It was touted to go for as much as $3 million, but in the end sold for ‘just’ $1.3 million.
9 Kurt Cobain’s ‘Sky Stang 1’ 1993 Fender Mustang $1,587,500
Not the most iconic Kurt Cobain guitar, but this custom-ordered Mustang was Kurt’s primary instrument on their final In Utero tour, and was heavily used for Nirvana’s final show on 1 March 1994 in Munich. The guitar was created for Kurt by Fender Japan luthier Scott Zimmerman in 1993 (the US Custom Shop didn’t make lefty necks in those days), and was sold to Japanese businessman Mitsuru Sato in late 2023.
8 David Gilmour’s 1954 Fender Stratocaster $1,815,000
The Pink Floyd man’s second most iconic Strat is the one steeped in the most controversy – for years people assumed that the serial number #0001 meant it was the first Strat ever made. Instead, it turns out that #0100 was actually first, but this is still one of the first pre-production Strat prototypes ever made. The fact that this guitar is also laying down the rhythm parts on Another Brick In The Wall Pt 2 only further adds to this guitar’s legend.
7 Jerry Garcia’s Wolf Guitar $1,900,000
Another completely unique creation for the Grateful Dead man courtesy of Doug Irwin, the Wolf is perhaps even more eccentric than the Tiger, with a body made of ultra-strong purpleheart, capped back and front with bookmatched maple. The guitar also features an innovative plate system for mounting the pickups, which allowed Garcia to swap them from their original SSS configuration to the HHS it currently sports. The Wolf was auctioned in 2017 with proceeds benefiting the Southern Poverty Law Center.
6 John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson J-160E $2,410,000
With its electric-like volume and tone knobs and the pole pieces of a P-90 pickup rather artlessly sticking through the top between the neck and soundhole, the J-160E wasn’t Gibson’s most elegant design, but it was the perfect instrument for young songwriters craving amplification in the early 60s, including a couple of cats called John Lennon and George Harrison. This particular J-160E can be heard on Love Me Do and continued to be a favoured acoustic for Lennon throughout his career.
5 ‘Reach Out to Asia’ Fender Stratocaster $2,700,000
Something of a curio on this list, this guitar isn’t an iconic artist instrument at all, but rather a stock Mexican-made white Fender Stratocaster that just happens to have been signed by (deep breath) Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Mark Knopfler, Ray Davies, Liam Gallagher, Ronnie Wood, Tony Iommi, Angus and Malcolm Young, Paul McCartney, Sting, Ritchie Blackmore, Def Leppard and organiser Bryan Adams. The guitar was auctioned off to help the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and certainly did its job.
4 Eddie Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher Kramer $3,932,000
Eddie Van Halen’s guitar designs have become almost as iconic as the man himself, but with most of EVH’s most iconic gear still treasured by his family, it’s rare for a bona fide EVH guitar to make it onto the open market. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that interest in this guitar, used by Eddie in the Hot For Teacher video, was so high – and the price tag followed suit.
3 David Gilmour’s Black Fender Stratocaster $3,975,000
The Black Strat is David Gilmour’s most iconic guitar and is also one that’s been heavily modified over the years – bought from Manny’s Music in New York, this 1968 model was originally Sunburst but had been refinished in Black by the time Gilmour bought it in 1970. It originally had a maple neck with a late-60s big headstock, but throughout the 70s Gilmour frequently swapped between two 50s necks, one with rosewood and maple. That wasn’t the end – over the decades since the pickups, tuners, pots, trem and scratchplate have all been swapped, and in fact it’s now estimated that the only original parts of the guitar remaining are the body, selector switch and (maybe) the bridge plate. Despite this, the Black Strat remains Gilmour’s most iconic instrument – the sound of Money, Comfortably Numb and scores more. It’s now part of the Jim Irsay Collection.
2 Kurt Cobain’s Smells Like Teen Spirit Fender Mustang $4,550,000
What price for a piece of genuine rock ‘n’ roll history? About four and a half million dollars it turns out. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Smells Like Teen Spirit music video changed the world, and in it Kurt Cobain is playing a rather fetching but typically unconventional lefty Lake Placid Blue Mustang with a competition strip – 1.5 billion YouTube views and countless hours of MTV airtime later, its place in the pop culture firmament was assured. Ironically, the guitar wasn’t really one of Kurt’s favourites, only really getting a run-out live on a few other occasions but its place in the Teen Spirit video assured its place in rock history, and in the Jim Irsay collection in 2022.
1 Kurt Cobain’s Martin D-18E $6,010,000
If there’s one Kurt Cobain guitar moment that’s become even more iconic than the Teen Spirit video, it’s Nirvana’s incredible, bittersweet performance on MTV Unplugged. Kurt bought the D-18E in 1992 at Voltage Guitars in Los Angeles, and it’s a rare bird for Martin guitars in that it came out of the factory with the DeArmond pickups, but Kurt disliked their sound and had it modded with a Bartolini 3AV soundhole pickup. The guitar was left to Kurt’s daughter Francis Bean, and then ended up with her ex-husband Isaiah Silva as part of their divorce settlement. The guitar was purchased by RØDE Microphones founder, Peter Freedman in 2020 – and it’s not been topped since.