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Kurt Cobain, the legendary frontman of Nirvana, remains an influential figure in rock history not just for his distinctive voice and powerful lyrics, but also for his unmistakable guitar sound. But which guitars did he loved most during his meteoric yet tragically short career?

From the early days of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain exhibited a predilection for Fender guitars, specifically the Jaguar and Mustang models. His choice was both practical and aesthetic. These instruments, often procured secondhand, were affordable and provided the raw, jagged tone that defined much of the grunge movement.

The Fender Jaguar, with its offset body and unique circuitry, was one of Kurt Cobain’s most iconic instruments. Though originally produced in the 1960s for surf rockers, Cobain redefined its use, pairing it with raucous distortion and feedback. His love for this model was so profound that he often had them customized to suit his playing style and aesthetic preferences, leading to the eventual posthumous release of the Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar.

Similarly, the Fender Mustang, another offset design, was a staple in Cobain’s arsenal. Compact and versatile, the Mustang became Cobain’s go-to for several live performances and studio recordings, notably during the “In Utero” sessions.

Yet Cobain wasn’t exclusively a Fender artist. He occasionally played a Univox Hi-Flyer, a Mosrite gospel, and even a Martin acoustic for softer tracks and MTV’s ‘Unplugged’ session. But no matter the brand or model, Cobain had an inherent ability to make any guitar sound distinctly his own.

It’s worth noting that Cobain’s approach to his instruments was somewhat unconventional. He didn’t baby his guitars; he lived and performed with fervor, often resulting in smashed guitars at the conclusion of live shows. To Kurt Cobain, guitars weren’t just tools but an extension of his raw emotional expression.


 

A glimpse into Kurt Cobain’s customized Fender Jaguar

 Close-up of a sunburst Fender Jaguar electric guitar, used by Nirvana's frontman Kurt Cobain, with a detailed view of its pickups, control knobs, and fretboard.
The iconic Fender Jaguar in sunburst finish, Kurt Cobain favotite one.
Credit: Fender

The world of guitar customization and personalization is as varied and diverse as the musicians who wield these instruments. To some, a guitar is more than just a musical tool—it’s an extension of their personality, their voice, and their artistic vision. It’s no surprise, then, that many legendary guitarists have sought to modify their instruments to better reflect their unique style and sound. One notable example is the iconic frontman of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, and his intimate relationship with the Fender Jaguar.

Kurt Cobain is often remembered for his profound lyrics, raspy voice, and the raw energy he brought to the grunge movement. But for guitar lovers, Cobain’s choice of instrument and his subsequent modifications are of particular interest. Among the various guitars he played, the Fender Jaguar stood out, not only for its distinctive sound but also for how Kurt Cobain tailored it to his needs.

 

The Original Fender Jaguar

Before diving into Kurt Cobain’s modifications, it’s essential to understand the Fender Jaguar’s foundational attributes. Originally released in the 1960s, the Jaguar was characterized by its offset body, unique circuitry, and a shorter scale length. Aimed at surf rockers, its bright and jangly tone was a far cry from the gritty sound of grunge that Kurt Cobain was known for.

 

How Kurt Cobain modified his Fender Jaguar

Kurt Cobain’s modifications to his Fender Jaguar were instrumental in shaping his distinctive sound and style. He wasn’t happy with the stock Jaguar and took steps to make it his own.

  • Pickup Swapping: Kurt Cobain swapped out the stock single-coil pickups in his Jaguar for more powerful and noisy humbuckers. He specifically used DiMarzio pickups, the Super Distortion and the PAF, to achieve a thicker and dirtier tone that suited the grunge aesthetic. This pickup change significantly altered the Jaguar’s sound, making it more aggressive and suitable for the heavy, distorted riffs that characterized Nirvana’s music.
  • Switching System: Kurt Cobain was known for his on-stage antics, including abrupt changes in guitar tones. To facilitate this, he installed a series of toggle switches on his Jaguar’s control plate. These switches allowed him to quickly toggle between pickup configurations, including selecting individual pickups or putting them in series, creating a unique tonal palette. This modification gave Kurt Cobain the ability to switch from clean to distorted tones seamlessly during live performances.
  • Guitar Straps: Nirvana’s live performances often involved wild stage antics, including Kur Cobain throwing his guitar around and swinging it. To prevent the guitar from falling off, he installed eyelet screws in the guitar’s body and used oversized guitar straps. This ensured that his Jaguar stayed firmly in place during his energetic performances.
  • Body Art and Aesthetics: Kurt Cobain was known for his artistic expression, and he used his guitars as canvases. He would often customize the appearance of his Jaguar with stickers, drawings, and even spray paint. His guitars became an extension of his visual artistry, further reinforcing his unique identity as an artist.
  • Neck Replacement: Cobain went through several neck replacements on his Jaguar. He preferred a rosewood fingerboard and had various necks installed over the years to suit his playing preferences.
  • Tuning Stability: Due to his aggressive playing style and frequent use of the guitar’s tremolo system, Cobain struggled with tuning stability. To address this, he added a Gotoh tune-o-matic bridge and a locking vibrato system, which helped keep the guitar in tune despite his intense playing.

These modifications transformed the Fender Jaguar into an instrument that was uniquely suited to Kurt Cobain’s style and needs. The combination of humbucker pickups, switching options, and the visual customization gave Cobain’s Jaguar an unmistakable identity that perfectly complemented the raw and emotional sound of Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain’s approach to guitar customization exemplifies the deep connection between musicians and their instruments. His willingness to experiment and personalize his Jaguar played a crucial role in shaping the sonic and visual identity of Nirvana, making his guitars as iconic as his music. Today, Kurt Cobain’s modified Fender Jaguar remains a symbol of artistic expression and a testament to the power of customization in the world of music.


 

The Original Fender Mustang

Blue Fender Mustang guitar with white racing stripes and pearloid pickguard, reminiscent of a design favored by Kurt Cobain.
The Fender Mustang in a striking blue, evoking memories of Kurt Cobain’s legendary guitar.
Credit: GAK

While Kurt Cobain is most commonly associated with his Fender Jaguar, he also had a strong affinity for the Fender Mustang. Just like with his Jaguar, Cobain made several modifications to his Fender Mustang to suit his playing style and tonal preferences.

The original Fender Mustang, like the Jaguar, was initially designed for a different musical era, featuring a shorter 24-inch scale length and two single-coil pickups. It was intended to be a student model guitar, but Cobain’s modifications turned it into a grunge powerhouse.

 

How Kurt Cobain modified his Fender Mustang

Here’s how Kurt Cobain modified his Fender Mustang:

  • Pickup Replacement: Kurt Cobain replaced the original single-coil pickups in his Mustang with Seymour Duncan JB humbucking pickups. This swap gave the Mustang a more aggressive and high-output tone, suitable for the heavy distortion and feedback that characterized Nirvana’s sound.
  • Toggle Switches: Similar to his Jaguar, Kurt Cobain added toggle switches to his Mustang’s control plate. These switches allowed him to engage and disengage pickups and experiment with different pickup combinations on the fly during live performances. This versatility gave him a broader range of tonal options.
  • Guitar Straps and Eyelet Screws: Kurt Cobain also employed oversized guitar straps and eyelet screws on his Mustang to ensure it stayed securely attached while he engaged in his frenetic live performances.
  • Neck Replacement: Cobain was known for changing necks on his guitars to suit his preferences. He often opted for a shorter 22-fret neck on his Mustangs, which offered a unique feel and sound.
  • Bridge Replacement: To improve tuning stability and reduce string breakage, Cobain replaced the stock bridge on his Mustang with a Gotoh Tune-O-Matic bridge. This modification helped the guitar stay in tune during aggressive playing.
  • Visual Customization: Like his Jaguar, Cobain customized the appearance of his Mustang with stickers, drawings, and spray paint. These artistic touches not only added to the guitar’s visual identity but also made it unmistakably Cobain’s instrument.

Kurt Cobain’s modifications to his Fender Mustang, much like his Jaguar, transformed it into an instrument that suited the aggressive, raw sound of Nirvana. The combination of humbucking pickups, switching options, and the visual aesthetics of the guitar contributed to the band’s iconic image and musical style.

The Fender Mustang, with Cobain’s modifications, became an integral part of his sonic arsenal, and it played a significant role in the creation of some of the best Nirvana songs, including classics like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come as You Are,” “Lithium,” “In Bloom,” and “Heart-Shaped Box.” The guitar’s ability to produce both clean and distorted tones, coupled with Cobain’s playing style, contributed to the band’s unique sound and cemented Kurt Cobain’s status as a legendary figure in rock history.


 

The role of Kurt Cobain’s guitars in defining the Grunge sound

The grunge movement, emerging in the late 1980s and reaching its zenith in the 1990s, was characterized by its raw sound, introspective lyrics, and a departure from the extravagance of 80s glam rock. At the forefront of this movement was Nirvana, led by the enigmatic Kurt Cobain. Beyond Cobain’s unique voice and compelling songwriting, the sound of his guitars played a pivotal role in defining what we recognize today as the grunge sound. But how exactly did his instruments shape this genre?

Raw Authenticity: Grunge was about authenticity. It was an antithesis to the over-produced and polished sounds dominating the airwaves. Cobain’s guitars, often second-hand and visually worn, embodied this. Their natural, unrefined tones, filled with feedback and distortion, became symbolic of the grunge ethos.

Feedback and Distortion: While feedback was often seen as a mistake or a technical flaw in other genres, in grunge, it was an instrument in itself. Cobain mastered the art of harnessing feedback, using it as a layer in his sound. His guitar choices, combined with specific amplifiers and effects, allowed for a controlled chaos that was central to many of Nirvana’s most memorable tracks.

Power Chords and Simplicity: While Cobain was capable of intricate guitar work, much of Nirvana’s discography relies on power chords. These simple chord structures, played with intensity on his Fender Mustang or Jaguar, gave the songs a directness and power. The grunge sound wasn’t about complex solos; it was about conveying emotion, and Cobain’s guitar work did just that.

The Acoustic Side: Though electric guitars dominate the grunge soundscape, it’s essential not to overlook the impact of acoustic guitars, especially in Cobain’s work. Tracks like “Polly” or the entire “MTV Unplugged in New York” performance showcased a different side of grunge, proving that intensity wasn’t just about volume. Cobain’s choice of Martin acoustic guitars for these sessions brought a warmth and depth, balancing out the more abrasive side of grunge.

A Sonic Identity: Cobain wasn’t just playing notes; he was crafting a sonic identity. Every choice, from the specific model of his guitar to the way he strummed, was a reflection of his artistic vision. It’s this commitment to authenticity that made his sound iconic. In a world of digital perfection, Cobain’s guitars reminded everyone of the beauty in imperfection.

While grunge as a genre was bigger than any one individual, there’s no denying the profound influence Kurt Cobain and his guitars had on its development. He showed that music was about emotion and authenticity, and his guitars were the perfect tools to convey that.


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