From the Factory, Players | June 12, 2024

“Grandpa”: The Martin D-18 with a Grunge Legacy

How a 1953 D-18 found its way into the hands of two of America’s most iconic songwriters – Kurt Cobain & Elliott Smith

Shot of an acoustic guitar in a display

Welcome to the first in a new series of blog posts where we take you on a journey through the Martin Museum, spotlighting some of the most iconic guitars played by legendary artists. Today, we're talking about a guitar that has not one but two music legends in its lineage: the 1953 Martin D-18 known affectionately as “Grandpa.” 

Closeup of a well-worn acoustic guitar

“Grandpa’s” Humble Beginnings 

Before Nirvana became a household name, Kurt Cobain was just a struggling musician from Aberdeen, Washington, trying to make ends meet. This was during the time Nirvana was on the brink of stardom, just before the release of their classic 1991 album Nevermind, featuring hit songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come as You Are,” and “Lithium.” 

As the story goes, Kurt befriended Mary Lou Lord, an indie-folk singer from Salem, Massachusetts. Mary Lou had a 1953 Martin D-18, a beat-up but beloved guitar that she called “Grandpa.” 

Martin Archives and Museum Manager Jason Ahner helped shed some light on how this guitar became part of the Nirvana story. “Mary Lou knew Kurt didn't have much money and needed an acoustic guitar for Nirvana's upcoming tour to support Nevermind. So, she gave it to him,” Jason explained. “He used it on that first tour. We don't know the extent to which he played it, but he definitely took it on the road.” 

Shot of the body of a well-worn D-18 acoustic guitar

Kurt Cobain’s Love for the Martin D-18 

Kurt's relationship with “Grandpa” didn't last long, but it left a mark on both him and the guitar. After using it for a while, he returned it to Mary Lou. Later, Kurt bought a 1959 D-18E, the guitar he famously played during Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance, a moment that's now etched in rock history. That modified acoustic-electric later went on to sell for a record-breaking $6 million at auction. 

Even though “Grandpa” wasn't featured in any Nirvana studio recordings or major live performances, the connection to Kurt Cobain makes it a special piece. As Jason noted, “Kurt is such an iconic musician. Just having something that he played, even for a brief period, is huge.” 

Close up of a well-worn acoustic guitar

The Elliott Smith Connection 

But the story doesn't end there. After Kurt returned “Grandpa” to Mary Lou, the guitar had another legendary owner: singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. Like Kurt, Elliott used the guitar for a while, adding to its mystique. However, after Kurt and Elliott’s tragic deaths, Mary Lou felt the guitar might be cursed and decided to sell it at an auction. That's when Martin purchased it, and it now resides in the Martin Museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. 

Closeup photo of the bridge of an acoustic guitar

“Grandpa’s” Legacy at the Martin Museum 

“Grandpa's” presence in our museum represents more than just a connection to Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. It's a testament to the wide reach of Martin guitars across different genres. As Jason pointed out, “Sometimes people think of Martin guitars as just for bluegrass or country. But there are so many musicians from different genres who turn to Martins when they need an acoustic.” 

Visitors to the Martin Museum often ask to see “Grandpa,” and it's no wonder why. For many fans, seeing the guitar that Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith once played is like getting up close and personal with a piece of music history. Jason mentioned that even younger visitors are drawn to it. “Nirvana is considered ‘classic rock’ now, so it resonates with people of all ages,” he said. 

Closeup of bridge and pickguard

What’s Next? 

As we continue this series, we'll be exploring more guitars with unique stories and connections to famous artists. But for now, we hope you've enjoyed this deep dive into “Grandpa's” journey from a well-worn D-18 to a museum piece with a grunge pedigree. 

To learn more about the amazing collection of instruments and artifacts on display in our museum, check out the Martin Guitar series Behind the Glass, which includes an episode on “Grandpa” that’s available to watch below. 

Also, make sure if you’re ever pulling into Nazareth to stop by and visit the Martin Museum, see “Grandpa” for yourself, and take a factory tour

Stay tuned for our future blog posts, where we'll explore another iconic guitar from the Martin Museum collection. Until then, keep strumming, and keep the music playing. 

Back of an acoustic guitar
Headstock of a Martin guitar