Nirvana | Kurt Cobain Stage-Played “Skystang I” Fender

A 1993 Fender MG-69 Mustang, Made in Japan, serial number O 016988 in Sonic Blue finish, with original guitar strap and strings, owned and played by legendary Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain. Known as “Skystang I,” it is the most well-documented and recognizable of Kurt’s stage instruments, and certainly his most-used during the 1993-1994 In Utero touring cycle. Now, on the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s third and final studio album, In Utero, it is fitting that the first single released from that album, “Heart-Shaped Box,” also happens to be the last song that Kurt Cobain ever publicly performed on this guitar, Skystang I. This famous guitar is for sale now at Julien’s Auctions.

Nirvana played their final show on March 1, 1994 in Munich, Germany and all available concert footage confirms that Cobain played this guitar that night. Although MTV Unplugged is often thought of as the band’s last performance, Nirvana was still in the midst of a full tour schedule promoting the In Utero album. The band played an additional 26 dates in the United States and Canada after the November 18, 1993 taping of MTV Unplugged. In fact, Cobain also played Skystang I during his final U.S. performance, of all places in Seattle on January 8, 1994 at the Seattle Center Arena. On February 4, 1994 Nirvana kicked off the European leg of their tour in Paris. They played an additional 17 shows in Europe including their last at Terminal 1, Flughafen, Munich, Germany.

Thanks to a local camera crew, many of the songs were captured on film that night all showing Cobain playing Skystang I, including the band kicking off the show with their take on “My Best Friend’s Girl,” by the Cars. The night was fraught with sound issues and a power outage that interrupted “Come as You Are,” which had to be re-started when power was restored. The show was not only a struggle technically, but Cobain had been diagnosed with bronchitis and laryngitis and his vocal struggles were apparent as the show progressed. Although the camera footage did not capture the now poignant “last song” ever publicly performed by Cobain, the audio of his final encore is available and a 2018 Esquire magazine article titled “The Last Song of Kurt Cobain’s Final Show Is a Tortured Version of ‘Heart- Shaped Box,’” stated that, “The show ended with an encore of “Heart Shaped Box,” and you can hear the song tearing apart his voice. You can hear the pain he’s in – not only emotionally, but physically, as it sounds like his voice is about to snap in half.”

In an interview with Guitar World in 1991, Cobain called the Fender Mustang his “favorite” guitar model. Clearly that love affair persisted, because in 1993 Cobain placed an order with Fender for ten left-handed Mustangs in preparation for the upcoming In Utero tour. As the Fender USA Custom Shop was then in its infancy, it wasn’t yet equipped to build left-handed versions of the model, and thus the task fell to Fender Japan’s Scott Zimmerman, custom builder at the Fujigen factory.

Skystang I was delivered to Cobain in July of 1993 along with another Mustang in Fiesta Red, nicknamed “Oranj-Stang”– the guitar used during Nirvana’s performance later that month at Roseland Ballroom. The two additional blue guitars that would become known as Skystangs II and III were delivered in October of that year, and two more red ones in February of 1994, yet neither of these red guitars appear to have made it to the stage. Of the ten Mustangs ordered, only six arrived prior to Cobain’s death in April of 1994.

It is possible to differentiate Skystang I from Cobain’s other guitars in part because of its red tortoise shell pickguard with a distinctive V-shaped anomaly beneath the three wound strings. This, combined with the white Seymour Duncan JB humbucker mounted in the bridge position, makes this Mustang easily distinguishable from Skystangs II and III in footage and photographs of the era, both of which had black humbucker pickups.

Used for the majority of Nirvana’s 1993-1994 tour dates, former Nirvana Guitar Technician Earnie Bailey refers to this blue Mustang as Kurt’s “workhorse.” From its In Utero stage debut on October 18th, 1993 at the Arizona State Fair Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, to the band’s final performance at Terminal 1 in Munich, this blue Mustang earned the title of “workhorse,” because it can be documented that it was used during 53 of the 63 In Utero tour performances that would turn out to be the band’s final chapter.

Notably, Kurt played Skystang I on nearly every song during MTV’s Live and Loud, filmed on December 13, 1993, in Seattle at Pier 48. An abridged version of this concert was broadcast by MTV at the time, but the entire show was released on DVD in September 23, 2013 in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the In Utero album. That telltale yellow V and white humbucker pickup make it easy to identify Skystang I throughout the show.

In addition to the aforementioned white Seymour Duncan JB and V-shaped birthmark, Skystang I can also be picked out in concert footage thanks to its lack of the“ Offset Contour Body” decal which is normally found on the headstock––present on Skystangs II and III. As is well documented, Cobain hated corporate sponsorships and intentionally scratched out the Seymour Duncan name on his pickups and used black tape to cover the logo on his guitar strap, which remains with the guitar.

Numerous modifications were made to the guitar by Earnie Bailey to satisfy Kurt’s needs as a player: he routed the body and pickguard for the full-sized humbucker pickup, replaced the floating Mustang bridge with a Nashville-style Tune-O-Matic, converted the Dynamic Vibrato to hard-tail operation, and mounted the string anchor tube backward in order to hide the ball ends of the strings in the recesses, which are normally oriented toward the bridge.

Jim Vincent, who was Nirvana’s tech from December 1993 onward, is believed to have shaved down the tops of the two selector switches located above the pickups at Kurt’s request during the European leg of the 1994 tour. This was done to prevent Kurt from accidentally hitting them, causing an unintentional change in the tone of the guitar.

The guitar is owned by Kurt’s brother Chad Cobain and has been on loan to Seattle’s MoPOP (then known as The Experience Music Project) since 2007, where it went on display in 2009. It was also part of the Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses exhibit which opened in 2011, and traveled with that exhibit to Brazil for six months in 2017, then returned to MoPOP where it has been on display until September 2023.


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