The Definitive Kurt Cobain Gear Guide
In 1989, Nirvana went on its first American tour. According to Earnie Bailey, a Seattle guitar repairman who was friends with Novoselic and who often worked as a technician for the band, Cobain's live rig during this period was a red Epiphone ET270, a solid-state Randall amp head, a BFI Bullfrog 4x12 cabinet and a Boss DS-1 distortion. When his guitar was destroyed beyond repair, Cobain would look for cheap replacements in pawn shops or have Sub Pop ship him guitars via Federal Express.
"I heard stories about Kurt's guitar destruction from the Sub Pop people early on," says Endino. "When he was out on the road he'd call them up and say, `I don't know what got into me, but I just smashed up my guitar.' I don't think he was planning on smashing guitars from day one. It was just something he did. The poor Sub Pop people would call all the pawn shops up and down the coast, looking for Univox guitars."
Between tours, Cobain often bought equipment from Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma, Washington, and Danny's Music in Everett, Washington. According to Rick King, owner of Guitar Maniacs, Cobain "bought a whole bunch of Univox Hi-Flyers—both the P-90 version and ones with humbuckers. Those pickups have huge output and are completely over the top. He broke a lot of those guitars. We sold him several of them for an average of $100 each over the course of five years."
Although humbucker-equipped Univox Hi-Flyers apparently were Cobain's favorite guitars in the pre-Nevermind days, he often appeared on stage with other models, including a blue Gibson SG and a sunburst left-handed Greco Mustang copy he bought from Guitar Maniacs.
Cobain purchased what probably was his first acoustic guitar, a Stella 12-string, for $31.21 on October 12, 1989. He brought the Stella to Smart Studios in Wisconsin to record some demos with Butch Vig in April 1990. The guitar wasn't exactly a studio musician's dream.
"It barely stays in tune," Cobain told Jeff Gilbert in a February 1992 Guitar World interview. "I have to use duct tape to hold the tuning keys in place." At some point in the Stella's history, the steel strings had been replaced with six nylon strings, only five of which were intact during the session. However, the guitar sounded good enough to Vig, who recorded Cobain playing a solo acoustic version of "Polly" on that guitar. That track can be heard on Nevermind.
Cobain didn't seem to be exceptionally particular about what equipment he was playing through, with the notable exception of his effects pedals. Sometime in 1990, he bought an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone from Guitar Maniacs, and it remained a favorite and essential part of his setup to the end of his life. On January 1, 1991, Cobain used the Small Clone to record "Aneurysm," which later was issued as the b-side to the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single.
BREEDING GROUND: THE RECORDING OF NEVERMIND
Prior to formally signing with Geffen Records on April 30, 1991, Nirvana received a $287,000 advance for the recording of Nevermind. The advance was somewhat meager, but it gave the band some freedom in choosing equipment. However, Cobain didn't exactly go wild with his spending.
"I sold Kurt a bunch of guitars and effects for the Nevermind album," says Rick King. "When they got signed to Geffen and started getting money, Kurt was still very frugal. He bought some Japanese left-handed Strats and had humbuckers installed in the Strats' lead position. He didn't spend very much money on guitars."
Apparently Cobain developed a taste for Fender guitars just prior to recording Nevermind. "I like guitars in the Fender style because they have skinny necks," said Cobain in a late 1991 interview. "I've resorted to Japanese-made Fender Stratocasters because they're the most available left-handed guitars." During this period, he also acquired a left-handed '65 Jaguar that had a DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucker in the bridge position and a DiMarzio PAF in the neck position in place of the guitar's stock single-coil pickups. These modifications were made before Cobain purchased the guitar. Cobain also bought a left-handed, Lake Placid Blue '69 Fender Competition Mustang around then.
"Out of all the guitars in the whole world, the Fender Mustang is my favorite," Cobain told GW. "They're cheap and totally inefficient, and they sound like crap and are very small. They also don't stay in tune, and when you want to raise the string action on the fretboard, you have to loosen all the strings and completely remove the bridge. You have to turn these little screws with your fingers and hope that you've estimated it right. If you screw up, you have to repeat the process over and over until you get it right. Whoever invented that guitar was a dork. I guess I'm calling Leo Fender, the dead guy, a dork." To overcome these tuning problems, Cobain had his '69 Mustang fitted with a Gotoh Tune-O-Matic bridge, a modification that was routinely performed on the Mustangs he subsequently acquired.
Some claim that Cobain's preference for low-end guitars was a punk statement, but he insisted that it was a matter of necessity. "I don't favor them," Cobain told Guitar World in 1992. "I can afford them. I'm left-handed and it's not very easy to find reasonably priced, high-quality left-handed guitars." Before entering the studio, Cobain purchased a rack rig consisting of a Mesa/Boogie Studio preamp, a Crown power amp and a variety of Marshall 4x12 cabinets. "I can never find an amp that's powerful enough," Cobain told GW. "And I don't want to deal with hauling 10 Marshall heads. I'm lazy-I like to have it all in one package. For a preamp I have a Mesa/Boogie, and I turn all the midrange up." Cobain brought this rig along with his Mustang, Jaguar, a Japanese Strat and his Boss DS-1 and Electro-Harmonix Small Clone pedals to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, where the band recorded Nevermind with Butch Vig.
"Kurt had a Mesa/Boogie, but we also used a Fender Bassman a lot and a Vox AC30 on Nevermind," Vig recalls. "I prefer getting the amp to sound distorted instead of using special effects or pedals, which lose body and the fullness of the bottom end."
Still, Vig allowed Cobain to use a few pedals on the album, especially since the guitarist felt that the DS-1 was the main factor in his tone. Cobain also used the Small Clone liberally. "That's making the watery guitar sound you hear on the pre-chorus build-up of `Smells Like Teen Spirit' and also `Come As You Are,'" says Vig. "We used an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff fuzz box through a Fender Bassman on `Lithium' to get that thumpier, darker sound."
Cobain's pawn shop Stella was used again for "Something in the Way." Vig recorded the performance while Cobain sat on a couch in the control room. Against Vig's wishes, Cobain plugged his guitar direct into the board for "Territorial Pissings." During the recording of "Lithium," Cobain instigated the noise jam that became the "hidden" track "Endless, Nameless." (This track does not appear on the first 50,000 copies of the CD.) Towards the end of the track, Cobain can be heard smashing his Japanese Stratocaster.