How To Play Guitar And Sound Like Kurt Cobain
The Kurt Cobain school of six-string was quite possibly the most anti-guitar hero in the history of the instrument. “Junk is always best… I use whatever I can find at junk shops,” the Nirvana man famously told Guitar World in 1992, of his preference towards second-hand, wallet-friendly equipment that, much like the man himself, avoided pretences in favour of a more simple and direct honesty.
While his greatest gift was inevitably his knack for penning underdog anthems that cut to the bone – razor sharp and raw at their core, then decorated with surrealist lyrics and Beatles-esque melodies – there are certain aspects of Kurt’s guitar work that would end up serving as his musical signature. Here’s a look at a few of the key elements behind one of rock’s most revolutionary self-taught minds…
1. Master The Power Chord
If you can hold a basic two-note power chord, utilising the first and fifth intervals – as well the basic beginner shapes for A, C, D, E and G – you will be able to play 90 per cent of the Nirvana catalogue with relative ease. It may take a little time learning how to shift around the fretboard while maintaining a rhythm with the strumming hand, but once hands are synchronised – all that’s required is simply learning what chords are played and in what order. It was memorising the position changes around the neck that allowed Kurt to focus on his vocals and performance as a whole. Songs liked Something In The Way, Heart-Shaped Box and All Apologies utilised a drop D‑style tuning where the lowest string is detuned one whole step, making power chords even easier – requiring just one single finger.
2. Use Open Strings
If there was one particular guitar technique Kurt Cobain was the master of it was his usage of open strings – using the notes to either embellish the chord being fretted or, more often than not, clashing against it to intensify their punk rock discord. It was this delivery that gave his Fender Mustangs and Jaguars their gritty and cacophonous edge, bordering on sloppy at times, but all the more powerful for being lost in the moment. The more experimental heaviness of the group’s early recordings, such as Bleach head-twister Paper Cuts and Incesticide doom-pop hymns Aero Zeppelin and Big Long Now, featured a lot of this – as did Nevermind’s spine-tingling hidden track Endless, Nameless.
3. Experiment With Chromatic Notes
Though it would be a bit of a stretch to call Kurt Cobain any kind of jazz guitarist, some of his riffs incorporated chromatic notes that fell outside of the key of the song. While some would argue you need to know the rules in order to break them, Kurt simply did not care. He simply went with his own instincts – an approach which, in all fairness, is as pure as art can get. The main riff to early track Mr. Moustache, for example, was built off four consecutive notes in a row climbing both up and down, alternating between a major or minor third on the next string, thus creating a sense of chaotic dissonance and tension. Similar tactics were employed on Incesticide track Stain and Nevermind hit Come As You Are, as well as in Kurt’s lead work for Hairspray Queen, Aneurysm and Scentless Apprentice.
4. Write Leads That Play On The Song’s Main Theme
The solos on tracks like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Heart-Shaped Box were minimalist, perhaps even a bit basic, but they were incredibly tasteful – capturing the mood of each song and adding to the burning intensity. It’s the little variations on the theme, whether intentional or accidental, that gave these parts so much character and soul. Anything more technically advanced or guitar hero‑y would have sounded crass and at odds with Nirvana’s emotional purity and visceral ethos. “We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded,” he told Guitar World in the same 1992 interview, downplaying his genius while jokingly praising his band for being able to “vomit onstage better than anyone!”
5. Buy A Chorus Pedal
That washy sound you hear on the guitars during the verses of Smells Like Teen Spirit and pretty much the entire way through Come As You Are came from Kurt’s prized Electro-Harmonix Small Clone pedal. The chorus effect gives the impression of doubling – where more than one instrument is playing – where ever-so-slight discrepancies in pitch and tone produce a shimmering quality. Later on 1993’s In Utero, he was using the Polychorus made by the same company – which can be heard on the Heart-Shaped Box solo and virtually the whole way through Scentless Apprentice.
6. Invest In Different Overdrives / Distortions
Though he was most vocal about his beloved Boss DS1 and DS2 distortion pedals, Kurt also used a ProCo Rat for the searing heaviness of Territorial Pissings and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff to beef up Lithium’s singalong choruses. Later during the In Utero years, he also favoured the Tech 21 SansAmp Classic. Stacking these different gain stages also gave him access to endless distortion and feedback, which combined with more overdrive from his amplifiers and some chorus on top, could summon the nauseating siren that opens Radio Friendly Unit Shifter and the hellish noise Nirvana’s live performances were renowned for.
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