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Kurt Cobain of Nirvana

By Rick Okie


Nirvana changed the rock and roll world.  The band from Seattle did everything differently.  As a free bonus to expand your guitar lessons, consider the rig Kurt Cobain used onstage.  It is a startling departure from the usual Fender-Marshall-Mesa arrangement used by 99% of rock headliners then and now.

Kurt Cobain's Guitars

Cobain had a thing for old Fenders.  His #1 axe was a '65 Fender Jaguar – never the most popular model in the Fender line, even in its heyday.  Anyone who's tried to play one knows the unusual array of switches topside to run the pickups – it never quite caught on.

But Kurt didn't leave his Jaguar stock.  First off, it was a lefty model – he was left-handed, most of us know.  He replaced the pickups with a mismatched set – a DiMarzio in the neck position and a Seymour Duncan Black JB in the bridge spot.  He also had a Schaller bridge installed – I'm betting he needed the most heavy-duty bridge he could find to stand up to his balls-to-the-wall strumming style.

He also played a '70's Fender Mustang – a much simpler model, and a '90's Standard Strat.

Cobain's Amp Rig

Here's where it gets downright weird.  Cobain didn't use guitar amplifier heads.  He used two Crest 4801 Power Amps (basically PA Heads) to drive Marshall cabinets – between two and eight boxes, depending on the size of the venue Nirvana was playing.  Word has it that he blew up the Crest heads quite frequently and had to replace them often.

Why this choice?  Was it just iconoclastic?  Did he want not to be a slave to convention? Was it a sound he learned to control early in his playing days that he didn't want to change? I wish he were around – we could ask him and he could blow us off with a cryptic answer.  Tell us to get a life and mind our own business.

Cobain's Effects

Kurt's pedal board was a complicated array of not-quite-standard items: a Boss DS2 Turbo Distortion; Tech 21 Sansamp Classic; Electro-Harmonix Poly-Chorus; Electro-Harmonix Small Clone; and a Mesa Boogie Studio 22 Pre-amp.  I think the poly-chorus might be the one piece most responsible for his swirling postmodern grunge sound.  Just remember the opening dirge of "Come As You Are..."

Where's The Guitar Lesson Here For The Rest of Us?

This is an inventive rig.  Kurt Cobain clearly discarded the conventional and standard in all things – including his guitar setup and especially in his amp choice.  What's the guitar lesson? Be creative! Tinker.  Open up your guitar and see how things work.  Try things.  Play through your parents' stereo –REAL loud.  (Just kidding).  Seriously – a lot of the great guitar sounds we enjoy today were discovered by accident, by innovation, by fooling around.  After blowing the world's ears with giant Marshall stacks, Eric Clapton would periodically return to playing through a tiny Fender Champ or Princeton amp, miking it as needed to fill the house with raunchy sound.

For another example of guitar creativity – check out Steve Lukather's guitar course – "Getting a Great Guitar Sound"-–and listen to how Jimi Hendrix added the Leslie sound to his inimitable style – by fooling around in the studio.

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