Following on the smash success of both Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991), and hot-on-the heels of In Utero (1993), Nirvana descended on Sony Music Studios in New York on November 18, 1993 for a live performance. The following year, and just months after Kurt Cobain’s untimely death (April 8, 1994), the pioneers of grunge released the recording as Unplugged in New York (1994). Perhaps fitting of the non-conformist approach of Cobain, Grohl, and Novoselic, the live album included a near split of acoustic takes on Nirvana’s own heritage of hits and covers like “The Man Who Sold the World” by David Bowie. In short order, Unplugged collected serious accolades—multiple Platinum certifications and a Grammy—but the sounds of the album also included some noteworthy and non-traditional gear.
Cobain was known for guitars that were Frankensteins in the best sort of way. Watch many performances and you’ll see that nearly all of his lefty-electrics exhibit a swapped out bridge pickup for something hotter and heavier. In most cases, these mods were made on gear already a little off-the-beaten path, like Cobain’s army of then unpopular Fender Mustangs or his collection of Univox Hi-Flyers. However, none of these axes are as visually symbolic of Curt’s songwriting as the acoustic at the heart of Unplugged.
Unplugged was cut using a 1959 Martin D18E. From its inception the guitar was apparently already ahead of its time and broke the mold of traditional. After a run of around 320 builds, Martin pulled it from the catalogue by 1960. The D18E is a dreadnought with as great of specs as any acoustic. Yet it is also one of the earliest attempts to MacGyver an electric sound from such a hollow body acoustic instrument. The guitar came stock with a set DeArmond Dynasonic pickups in the bridge and neck position, leaving the sound whole nearly unobstructed. With three cream-colored nobs on board controlling tone for each single-coil and a master volume, as well as a three-way pickup selection switch, the guitar sure acts and behaves like and electric.
To ensure it was playable for Kurt, a few other mods were made to this already unusual design. Most notably, the bridge and nut were swapped and flipped so the righty guitar from the 50s became a lefty axe of the 90s. Kurt also had one of the pickups switched out for a Bartolini 3AV. With a little grunge-era engineering, the guitar went on to become perhaps the most iconic items of Nirvana’s gear library. Simply put, its image became synonymous with both the celebrated sound of the band and embossed in memories of one of the 90s most influential songwriters.
As always, enjoy kicking back with your gear and guitar this #RiffCitySunday.