The Stafford SF-S1: A Rare Japanese Replica of the Iconic Nirvana Unplugged Guitar?

As a child of the 90s, Nirvana was my high school soundtrack. I wore out the MTV Unplugged album, the one where Kurt Cobain played a rare Martin D18-e, the now iconic guitar that went on to be the most expensive guitar ever sold at six million dollars. So when I recently took up guitar as a new pandemic hobby, the songs from the Unplugged album made for great beginner practice for me. A friend had lent me a Morris guitar to try 1, which played wonderfully, but it had a sunburst finish that I just didn't like.

So when I started seeking out a new instrument, I was somehow paradoxically looking for a guitar that was not too pricy, and at the same time resembled the most expensive guitar in history, the D18-e.

The Martin D18-e was a famously weird guitar for the normally traditional Martin Guitar Company to make, as it was an electrified version of the their regular acoustic D18. The D18-e stands out for having two external electric pickups on the top and bottom of the soundhole, as well as three gaudy white knobs on the spruce top body.

For many Nirvana fans, a more common route to owning a D18-e replica would be to simply mod a D18-ish guitar (because D18s are pretty 'spensive) by adding pickups, knobs, and a switch. The NirvanaGuitar Youtube channel has a great video overview of a mod they did to a Sigma DM3, but as much as I like the Unplugged D18-e, I don't really want to hack up any guitars too much 2.

As it turns out, there was a rather affordable alternative to a D18-e right here in Japan that most people don't know about. In the early 2000s, Japanese instrument company Kurasawa Gakki made a guitar that is often referred to as a D18-e replica:

The Stafford SF-S1.

stafford sf-s1

There's really not much information on these guitars online (in either English or Japanese), so I thought perhaps to ensure that this corner of cheap knock-off guitar history is not lost to posterity, maybe I should write something about it 3.

The Stafford SF-S1 Guitar: The Unofficial Documentation

Japan-based Kurasawa Gakki has actually been a distributor of Martin guitars since 1989 4, and while their Stafford line is still going strong here, the SF-S1 has been out of production for years. Although it is often referred to as a "Cobain D18-e replica," I assert here that it is not. Here's why:

Like the D18-e, this SF-S1 guitar has dual pickups above and below the soundhole. I've seen these referred to as humbuckers in multiple places online, and in a couple of places as mini-humbuckers, so that's probably the case. The pickup selector is a three-way switch (neck only / both / bridge only) 5.

Also like the D18-e, the SF-S1 has a spruce top and mahogany body. But that's about where the similarities end, because unlike the three-knobbed D18-e, the Stafford guitar has four knobs: two for the volume and two for tone of each pickup. And not only that, these four knobs are not giant white appliance-like knobs, but small brown Gibson-style knobs.

I have a detailed comparison below, but I would argue that the three white knobs are such a definining visual characteristic of the Unplugged D18-e, that without them any imitation would fall short. In truth, a feature-by-feature comparison shows that the SF-S1 is actually a sort of hybrid between a D18-e and its less famous but also rare cousin D28-e. And certainly at a glance, it looks far more like a D28-e, with its four Gibson style knobs:

Comparison of d18e d28e and sf-s1

Let's nerd this out even more with a detailed list of selected features for both the D18-e and D28-e, to compare with the Stafford SF-S1 specs:

Back & SidesMahoganyRosewoodMahogany
Knobs3, white4, Gibson style4, Gibson style
PickguardTortoise shellTortoise shellBlack
PickupsDearmondDearmondMini Humbuckers
Pickup ColorBlack, Silver mountBlack, Silver mountSilver, Black mount
PinsBlackBlack White

Ok. So replica or not, this SF-S1 guitar exists. The folks at my local Kurasawa Gakki told me that the SF-S1 guitar can indeed be found online, but not very easily. And even if you can find one, he said, it won't be cheap and might run around 100,000 yen.

As someone who spends way too much time online shopping on my PC, let me just say Challenge Accepted!

Needle in a Haystack

So after just few weeks of searching, I managed to find a Stafford SF-S1 on Yahoo Auction for the astonishingly reasonable price of 31,000 yen. The seller was surprisingly honest about the guitar, emphasizing the resemblance to the D28-e rather than playing up the Nirvana angle as most sellers do. It looked very promising, and barring a couple of scratches in the back it was in good shape. I placed a bid of 32,000, and was ready to go as high as 50,000 if I had to. The auction was closing on a Friday night, so my hope was that maybe few people would be obsessing over weird guitars on their weekend, and maybe it would go unnoticed. I was actually on the train home from dinner with a friend when I looked down at my phone and saw -- holy shit, I got it!

I resisted the urge to explain to those quiet Japanese passengers sitting next to me why I was suddenly all smiles. I didn't even know if it was a decent guitar yet, but there's something about winning an online auction that's just really fun. Looking back now six months or so after the purchase, I've only seen one or two of these SF-S1 models for sale online since, each time for around 50,000 -- so I think I got really, REALLY lucky not only getting it at that price, but even finding it at all 6.

How does it play, you ask?

Well, it's okay.

It's probably about what you'd expect for a 32,000 yen guitar. The low E string was a bit buzzy, and I took it to my local shop to adjust the action. They recommended replacing the saddle as well, and that improved it a bunch. I also added some new Martin strings for good measure.

Variants of the SF-S1

Given the close relationship of Kurasawa Gakki to Martin at the time this guitar was made, perhaps the SF-S1 was more of a tribute thing. They actually produced it in two colors: The SF-S1-N ('N' is for natural; the same color body top as the MTV Unplugged guitar) and the SF-S1-BS ('BS' for burst, I guess?). The latter, which I'll borrow from a Mercari listing, is pictured below. If Kurosawa Gakki were just trying to copy the Unplugged guitar with the SF-S1, I don't know why they'd ever put out this Sunburst variant.


In my research, I've seen another case of Kurasawa Gakki doing quasi-replicas of a rare model guitar, and that's their apparent remake of a Gibson B-25, the Stafford SLG360.

I should also note that there are three headstock logo variants for the Stafford SF-S1. In the picture below from left to right: there's the boring one which my guitar has, there's a sort of cursive scripty one, and then there is the Martin-wannabe-logo.

Stafford SF-S1 headstocks

When I asked the folks at my local Kurosawa Gakki store, I was told that some of the SF-S1's were made in China, and some were made by the Terada factory, which is apparently the same factory where Japan-made Sigmas come from. I've seen mention online of these guitars being produced in Korea for the Japan market, but the shop person didn't know anything about that 7. He did note, however, that if you see a three-point truss-rod cover on the headstock, it probably means it was made in China. And while my guitar doesn't have any "made in China" text on it anywhere, I strongly suspect that it was made in China.

I can't be sure, but maybe there's a connection between certain headstock logos and the country of origin, but I couldn't quite nail this down, nor could the guy at Kurosawa Gakki confirm it for me

So what's next?

Now that I have my SF-S1, there are just a few not-so-intrusive adjustments I can do to make it more like the Unplugged guitar.

More on that in Part 2...

  1. For readers outside of Japan, Morris is a domestic guitar maker here in Japan. 

  2. The is a really great Youtube channel and a Sigma guitar is an obvious choice as they're Martin's more affordable sub-brand. 

  3. Other made-in-Japan models I found that are similar to the D18 include: S. Yairi YV-18 and YD-75,Cats Eye CE-400CF, and the Aria AD-28. 

  4. Kurosawa Gakki also operates the website, a site for Japanese fans of the Martin brand. 

  5. I've read somewhere Cobain just wanted to break rules of MTV Unplugged by showing up with this electrified acoustic. 

  6. The final price I paid was 35,470 yen, as there was a 3,470 yen shipping fee. 

  7. A person named jq over on YouTube has good video about his SF-S1, where he makes this point about them being made in Korea. My suspicion is that maybe some of them were made in Korea, but certainly not all of them. 

Posted on February 24, 2024 under categories: Music, Japan and tagged The Stafford SFS1, Guitar