Nirvana: Super Fuzz Big Muff
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 ’92. “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, even though you can get nice distortion with some of them. If you get a good-sounding amp, that’s 90 percent of it.”
But even though Vig wasn’t the biggest fan of effect pedals, he allowed Cobain to use a few 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 pawnshop Stella, which he had played at the sessions held at Vig’s Smart Studios a year earlier, 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.) Toward the end of the track, Cobain can be heard smashing his Japanese Stratocaster.
LOUNGE ACT—THE NEVERMIND TOUR
After Nirvana finished basic tracking, they opened for Dinosaur Jr on brief tours in the U.S. and Europe. The Nevermind tour started in Toronto on September 20, 1991, a few days before the album was released. Nick Close, Cobain’s guitar tech from September 1991 until March 1992, recalls that Cobain’s rig was basically the same as the one used to record Nevermind—the Mesa/Boogie Studio preamp, a Crown power amp, a Boss DS-1 and the Small Clone. Initially, only a handful of guitars were taken along on tour—the ’65 Jaguar, the ’69 Mustang and a left-handed Japanese Strat. Later, Cobain picked up a sunburst Telecaster that he painted sky blue and scratched off some of the paint in the shape of a heart and the word “Courtney.”
“When I was working for them, the money hadn’t started coming in,” says Close. “There was a lot of equipment out there that would have made Kurt a lot happier onstage, but they didn’t get tried because of time and money. And Kurt wasn’t much of a gearhead. He didn’t want to sit down and talk about what could be done.”
Close says that the Crown power amp was a particular source of frustration. “It never worked very well for us,” he says. “The output on that Studio preamp was very hot. Because of that, the Crown would blow up a lot, and I was always having to get it repaired.” Frustrated with the Crown, Close eventually ordered two Crest 4801 power amps. Finally they had found an amp that could withstand the onslaught of abuse. Earnie Bailey referred to the Crest as “the amp that wouldn’t die,” and they remained in Cobain’s rig until the end.
Due to the constant thrashing endured by the equipment, Close was constantly looking for replacements. “Everybody had the exact number of things needed to make the show happen,” says Close. “If anything broke, we were screwed. I was trying to move them in the direction of having extra cords and pedals. Kurt started out with the Boss DS-1, and I was always looking for a backup. One time the Crown amp blew up and took the speakers with it. We were in a music store to buy some Marshall cabinets, and I saw a DS-2 there and bought it. Kurt didn’t seem to be too happy with it at first, but he put it in his rig after he broke his DS-1 in Hawaii. [A performance photo on the insert of In Utero clearly shows Cobain’s DS-2 and Small Clone.]”
Kurt’s guitars constantly needed repairs as well. Generally, the Strat received most of the abuse. “Lately I’ve been using a Strat live because I don’t want to ruin my Mustang yet,” Cobain told GW. “I like to use Japanese Strats because they’re a bit cheaper, and the frets are smaller than the American version’s.”
Close acquired a small stash of replacement necks from Fender, but soon he was replacing necks on the Strat every night. Frustrated, he visited luthier Danny Ferrington when the band arrived in Los Angeles in late December and asked him to build some replacement necks for Cobain’s guitars. Instead, Ferrington offered to build a guitar for Cobain. “Danny was in the middle of doing his book [Ferrington Guitars, Harper Collins], and he took the whole project and ran with it,” says Close. “I was in awe of Ferrington. I don’t know whether Kurt cared if someone was making him a guitar, but he seemed to read my enthusiasm.”
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