Nirvana: Super Fuzz Big Muff
The definitive guide to Kurt Cobain’s grungy assortment of pawn shop prizes, turbo- charged stomp boxes and blown woofers.
Kurt Cobain never intended to become a guitar hero. Although he certainly loved to play guitar, he viewed his playing as the lesser part of a greater musical equation. The irony is that Cobain became one of the most widely emulated guitarists of the Nineties. Before the release of Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Nevermind, aspiring rock guitarists spent hours daily studying music theory and practicing finger exercises. After Nevermind, they devoted their time to searching pawn shops for the perfect Seventies fuzz box. Suddenly it became fashionable to mock technique, and the phrase “I just play from the heart” was on the lips of every guitarist from Seattle to CBGB.
Cobain was much aware of the revolution he’d started. “I can’t play like Segovia,” he told Fender’s Frontline magazine. “The flip side of that is that Segovia could probably never have played like me.” While Cobain acknowledged that his playing technique was limited, he reminded guitarists that a few simple chords played with honest emotion can speak volumes—in Cobain’s case, volumes that could make ears bleed.
Cobain must have been amused when magazines like Guitar World and Guitar Player requested interviews and when Fender approached him to design a guitar. But here’s where another irony exists—although Cobain often said that he didn’t care very much about equipment, he certainly possessed more than a passing interest in the tools of his trade. Cobain may not have collected vintage Gibsons, Martins, D’Angelicos and whatnot, but he owned an eccentric cache of budget models, low-end imports and pawn shop prizes—most pursued with the same passion as a Gibson collector seeking a mint ’59 Les Paul. Even when he could afford the best, Cobain’s taste in instruments never changed. “Junk is always best,” Cobain stated matter-of- factly to Jeff Gilbert in a February 1992 Guitar World interview. “I use whatever I can find at junk shops.”
As increasing numbers of aspiring musicians made Cobain their mentor, they began to wonder how he created the wide array of sometimes angry, sometimes ethereal tones that poured from his battered guitars and over-powered amps. The uninitiated speculated that Cobain used special processors and studio trickery to obtain his sound. As Cobain’s influence spread across the world, so did the rumors about what he played.
Guitar World feels that the time has come for the truth about Cobain’s equipment to be revealed. To solve these mysteries and dispel the rumors, we contacted the most reliable sources available—the dealers who sold him his equipment, the engineers and producers who worked with him in the studio and the technicians who looked after his gear on the road. Cobain probably would have laughed at the idea of a magazine scrutinizing the minute details of his gear. “I’ve never considered musical equipment very sacred,” he once said. But for the thousands of guitarists who consider Cobain’s music sacred, it’s important to understand what he played and why he played it.
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