Nirvana: Super Fuzz Big Muff
Cobain drew a picture of what he wanted and faxed it to Ferrington from Melbourne, Australia. Ferrington delivered the finished guitar, essentially a left-handed Mustang with a Tune-O-Matic bridge, heart-shaped fingerboard inlays, a Strat-style angled output jack and a humbucker and two single-coil Bartolini pickups, to Cobain in the summer of ’92. Perhaps the most expensive guitar that Cobain ever owned, the Ferrington didn’t see much action on the road and eventually was kept at home.
When money started coming in, Cobain bought more guitars but he retained his taste for low-budget gear. Perhaps Cobain’s most “extravagant” purchase during this time was a mid-Sixties Fender Electric XII, with which he wrote “Serve the Servants.” This guitar was subsequently damaged when some sewage backed up into the bathtub where Kurt had it stored. Cobain allegedly left the guitar in the tub to fool potential burglars. He also returned to Guitar Maniacs, where he bought an Electro-Harmonix Echo Flanger for $99. This pedal later played a significant role in the recording of In Utero.
NO APOLOGIES—COBAIN RECLAIMS HIS PUNK ROOTS ON IN UTERO
In late February 1993, Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl traveled to Pachyderm Studios, in Minnesota, to record In Utero with Steve Albini. This time, however, Cobain left his live rig behind at home.
“For In Utero, Kurt primarily used his Jaguar and a Twin Reverb,” Earnie Bailey said in the March 1995 issue of Guitar World. “Effects consisted of a Boss DS-2 distortion, a Small Clone and an Electro- Harmonix Poly Chorus.” Bailey loaned the Poly Chorus to Cobain because his Echo Flanger was acting up. (The Echo Flanger, Poly Chorus and Poly Flanger all have the same circuitry but slightly different cosmetics.) The Twin Reverb was a 1982 135- watt blackface model that Cobain picked up sometime before the sessions started. Originally, it had only two of its four 6L6 output tubes in place, so it was running at half power. Cobain really liked the sound that way and told Bailey to leave the amp alone. As a prank, Bailey placed four matched tubes in the amp prior to rehearsals for In Utero. Cobain noticed the difference immediately, remarking that the amp sounded better than ever.
Cobain also brought along his trusty Stella acoustic, which had been equipped with new tuners and strings, courtesy of Bailey. The Stella was used on three songs—“Dumb,” “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies.” Bailey also recalls sending a sunburst lefty Ibanez Les Paul Custom copy to the studio, but he’s not certain whether the guitar was used or not.
Some of the most impressive sounds on In Utero were created with the Echo Flanger. Cobain dialed in a variety of effects on the unit, including the abrasive flanging effect on “Scentless Apprentice,” the bizarre, wobbling vibrato sounds on “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and the deep chorus tones on “Heart Shaped Box.”
In typical indie rock fashion, the basic tracks for In Utero were completed in two weeks. The total cost of recording was $124,000: $24,000 for studio bills and $100,000 for Albini.
In February 1993, right before In Utero was recorded, Cobain collaborated with Fender on the design of what later became known as the Jag-Stang. According to Mark Wittenberg, who was director of artist relations for Fender until he died of a brain aneurysm on February 14, 1995, “We were contacted and told that Kurt had an idea for a guitar. His favorite guitar was a Mustang, but there were things about the lines of the Jaguar that he really liked, too.” Wittenberg and builder Larry Brooks met Cobain at his apartment in Hollywood, where they discussed his plans for a guitar that combined the aesthetics of a Jaguar and a Mustang, hence the name “Jag-Stang.”
The guitar Cobain envisioned featured a Mustang’s neck and upper bout and a Jaguar’s lower bout. He later sent Fender an illustration and specified a small, pre-CBS style headstock, double-coil Duncan Hot Rail bridge pickup, a Mustang single-coil neck pickup and several suggestions for the body shape. Cobain also sent Fender the neck of his favorite Mustang for them to copy. A couple of different versions of the body were sent to Cobain for his approval, and once Fender came up with a shape he liked, the prototype was completed.
The prototype had a large, CBS-style headstock, a DiMarzio H-3 bridge humbucker, a Fender Texas Special neck singlecoil and stock Mustang hardware. According to Jim Vincent, Cobain’s guitar tech on the In Utero tour, “Kurt wasn’t really all that happy when he got the first Jag-Stang. He liked his Mustangs much better, even the new ones. For the month he had it, he hated it and wouldn’t play it because there was no contour—it’s as thick as a Tele—and it was kind of misbalanced. It was really tough to set up. Earnie immediately swapped out the pickups. Right when we got it, he routed it out and put a Duncan JB humbucker in the bridge.” Bailey also installed a Tune-O-Matic bridge on the guitar. Eventually, Cobain grew comfortable enough with the Jag-Stang to use it on rare occasions for an entire show.
FROM THE CRADLE TO THE GRAVE—THE IN UTERO TOUR AND THE FINAL DAYS
In Utero was released September 21, 1993, almost exactly two years after Nevermind. Nirvana had performed only a handful of live shows during 1993, but in October of that year the band set out on its biggest tour ever. By now Nirvana was headlining arena shows and playing to increasingly larger audiences. However, Cobain’s stage rig remained almost the same as before, probably because it was so excruciatingly loud. The only changes were the addition of the Electro- Harmonix Echo Flanger (which alternated duty with Bailey’s Poly Chorus) and a Tech 21 SansAmp. (A good live photo showing all of Kurt’s pedals is on the cover of From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah). “His signal chain went as follows: guitar- Boss DS-2-SansAmp-Poly Chorus or Echo Flanger (whichever worked that day)- Small Clone-amp,” says Bailey.
According to Vincent, the SansAmp was the main source of Cobain’s distorted tone. “He also used the DS-2, but that was mainly used on the acoustic guitar for ‘The Man Who Sold the World,’ ” says Vincent. “Occasionally, he’d use both pedals at once. Kurt’s settings on the SansAmp’s DIP switches were, from left to right, three up, three down, two up, and all of the knobs were turned all of the way up, except for the high control, which was at about 12 o’clock.” Vincent does not remember where SansAmp’s three-position switch was set, but he thinks it was on the Normal (center) setting.
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