The 5 Nirvana basslines you need to hear

Krist Novoselic of Nirvana during MTV Live and Loud: Nirvana Performs Live - December 1993 at Pier 28 in Seattle, Washington, United States.
(Image credit: Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

As a founding member of Nirvana, bassist Krist Novoselic helped create some of the most beloved and endearing guitar music of all time. While Kurt Cobain was the band’s primary songwriter and drummer Dave Grohl added huge drive and dynamics to the sound, Novoselic made the most of the melodic opportunities presented to him by virtue of being in a power trio, always a bassist’s dream.

However, he never hogged the limelight or indeed the full frequency range; his basslines were definitely an important part of each song’s melodic content and often an actual hook, but the songwriting remained the trio’s main focus rather than each members playing skills. Or as Krist once told BP, “I’ve approached bass playing as a bridge between the rhythm section and the guitar/vocal melody.”

Today, we’re looking back at the five basslines that made Krist Novoselic so essential to Nirvana. 

1. About A Girl (Bleach, 1989)

Novoselic delivers a warm, almost metallic bassline on this early classic, when Kurt Cobain was still referring to himself as ‘Kurdt Kobain’ and which was released at a time when people thought that Extreme and Warrant were like, totally cool dude. For 1989's Bleach, Novoselic deployed a variety of basses, including a Fender Jazz, an Ibanez Black Eagle and even a borrowed Hohner.

2. Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nevermind, 1991)

An anthem for a generation of slackers it may be, but Smells Like Teen Spirit is usually underestimated as a performed piece of music. It devolves during its verses to Novoselic’s simple four-note bassline. It’s the simplest pattern of eighths possible, and Novoselic performs it with total skill, playing microscopically behind the beat to lend it extra weight. The solidity of this classic bass guitar part is still gobsmacking to this day.

3. Lithium (Nevermind, 1991)

“I’m so happy,” lied Kurt Cobain over Novoselic’s snappy, almost cheeky bass part – one of those little licks that you tend to hum to yourself without ever really realising that it actually exists. His choice of notes is generally economical; you won't hear any extended runs despite Kurt dropping out before the song’s final verse, at which point Novoselic carries the entire arrangement.

4. On a Plain (Nevermind, 1991)

Perhaps more than any other song recorded by Nirvana, On a Plain sounds like big-hair arena rock, from it’s full-fat opening chords to the fists-aloft chorus. Novoselic's tone here is crunchy and warm, with sufficient top to give it definition, but a world away from the traditional, scooped metal bass sound that stood for everything that Nirvana were against. Keep an ear out for that nifty three-second bass solo after each chorus.

5. Serve The Servants (In Utero, 1993)

After the happy-clappy stadium sounds of Nevermind, Nirvana sought a darker place from which to operate, and found one with In Utero, one of the most lyrically miserable albums ever recorded. Sonically, it was a heavier, subtler experience than its predecessor, with Novoselic laying down a bass part that coupled perfectly with Cobain’s riffage on this opening cut.


(Image credit: Michel Linssen/Redferns)

Nirvana - The Bass Guitar Collection is available on amazon.

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.