John Leventhal Gets a Surprise Birthday Present: Johnny Cash’s 1940 Martin D-18

Cash used this guitar in the series of critically acclaimed studio albums he made with producer Rick Rubin.
John Leventhal's Martin D-18 guitar once used by Johnny Cash
John Leventhal's Martin D-18 shade top, Photo: Josh Wool

Sometime around his 50th birthday, in December 2002, John Leventhal took delivery of a large and unexpected parcel from UPS—an old-school guitar flight case with a shipping label affixed to its lid. Leventhal opened the case to find the platonic ideal of a mahogany dreadnought, a golden era Martin D-18, one of only a small handful estimated to have been made in 1940 with a sunburst-finished soundboard out of 377 total. “I remember going, ‘Wow, what is this?’ I had to dig around in the case to find a little letter from the sender,” Leventhal says. 

As it happens, the giver of this generous gift was none other than the legendary country singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, Leventhal’s father-in-law. Cash had used the D-18 in the series of critically acclaimed studio albums he made with producer Rick Rubin, starting with 1994’s American Recordings and culminating in 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around


The guitar was in beautiful condition overall, and Leventhal only recently had the requisite work done to bring it up to optimum playability. With a fresh neck reset and new bridge plate and bridge (the original had been sanded down to lower the action, a rather primitive repair technique), Leventhal finds that this classic mahogany dreadnought is an even better guitar in its current state. “It feels really good,” he says. “You’ve got to lean in a bit to maximize the sound, but it yields great results.”

Leventhal has as of late been using the D-18 to write and record demos, and he plans to use it on whatever artist’s album he next produces. But most important, he sees it as a treasured family heirloom. “I’ll give it to my son, Jake, John’s grandson, and hopefully he’ll give it to his child,” he says. “The thought that this guitar could travel through our family for a while is a beautiful thing.”

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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