In The Style of Kurt Cobain

By Miguel Ángel Ariza

And now to grunge. We usually dedicate this section to guitars of unquantifiable value to one or another artist, and then we add some of their most prized amplifiers also - usually - of astronomic price and very difficult to find… Well, fine, this is not exactly the case of the person who concerns us today, that of Kurt Cobain, perhaps the last great star of the rock firmament, a star from another time, of the period when great bands like Nirvana sold millions of albums and, more importantly, had a real impact on the society in which they lived; their music was not leisure, it was real culture.  

That said, it is quite refreshing to investigate a little the way in which Kurt Cobain managed his equipment for a particular gig or for his first sessions in the studio. In the guitaristic panorama that today is highly technical, with even the most amateur band in your neighbourhood spending thousands and thousands of euros in equipment, is inspiring to see what Kurt Cobain had, played, destroyed and sought again to find the cheapest equipment that sounded the most like ‘shit’. He was angry, and he wanted to make a lot of noise; the guitar and amplifier with which he did it was almost indifferent to him.  

On his 14th birthday his uncle told him to choose between an old bicycle and an even older guitar as a gift. It didn’t look like that that slim blonde boy had much of a chance of winning the Tour of France, so we can say that Kurt’s choice was correct and that the guitar, a Harmony or a Sears, became the first of many bad guitars that he would use over the years. Later he would start to pick up a 100 dollar a piece Univox Hi-Flyer that he used to destroy without compassion before looking for another one in pawn shops for the next performance.

Just before the recording of the album Bleach one could see him with an Epiphone ET270 plugged into the headboard of the Randall brand and a 4x12 speaker, and he started to use one of the pedals that would mark the sound of Nirvana forever; the Boss DS-1; perhaps his most characteristic pedal together with the Harmonix Small Clone.

During this period he also got one of his most loved guitars, an acoustic 12 string Stella, which according to him, he bought for some 30 dollars and “barely stayed in tune”. But did he use this guitar at home to compose and then go to the studio and grab a 60’s Martin D-45?; nothing could be further from the truth, as these are the guitars that we listen to on Nirvana’s songs - specifically he used the acoustic of 30 dollars to record Polly.

Later, when he started to see some money after the release of Nevermind, Fender would arrive in his life; but don’t you think for a moment that he threw the house out through the window and went and bought himself a dozen from Custom Shop. What he did was – at last - buy himself guitars for left-handers like himself and the most achievable he found was a Japanese Fender Stratocaster, Fender Jaguar with two Dimarzio pickups (installed already before he acquired it), and the legendary 69 Fender Competition Mustang that he made ‘his for life’ when he chose it to use on the video of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Cobain said this guitar was his favourite because of its small size, slim neck and “its inefficiency, its shit sound and its incapacity to stay tuned”, factors that, as you have seen, the most illustrious neighbour of Aberdeen always knew how to value in a guitar.