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Nirvana, pioneers of the grunge movement, shook the music world with Kurt Cobain’s unrefined yet powerful guitar style, epitomized in iconic tracks like “In Bloom” and “Blew.” From the raw energy of “Bleach” to the polished brilliance of “Nevermind” and the introspective depths of “In Utero,” their discography reflects a journey through the essence of grunge.

Crafting unforgettable, infectious guitar parts, Kurt Cobain’s music resonated deeply, inspiring a whole generation of musicians to embrace the simplicity and magic of stringing together a few chords. Though his time was brief, Kurt Cobain’s impact was monumental, and his guitar skills remain criminally underrated.

While not the most technical player, Kurt Cobain’s unique attack on the guitar set him apart. Today, in tribute to his legacy, we’re celebrating some of Kurt Cobain’s greatest guitar riffs.

Check out our list below and crank up the volume!

Our Top 10 Kurt Cobain’s Best Guitar Riffs (Ranked)!

 


 

10. “Breed” (Nevermind, 1991)

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Originally titled “Imodium” and featuring a slower tempo, “Breed” was one of two Nevermind songs, along with “Polly,” dating back to 1989 when the band was still supporting their debut album, Bleach. The track is renowned for Kurt Cobain’s energetic and aggressive guitar riff. The song’s fast-paced, punk-influenced sound captures the essence of Nirvana’s signature grunge style, blending raw emotion with distorted guitars.

 


9. “Sappy” (In Utero, 1993)

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“Sappy,” also known as “Verse Chorus Verse,” was initially recorded in 1990 during the sessions for the album Nevermind, and later released as a B-side on the “Lithium” single in 1992 and included in the band’s rarities compilation, Incesticide.

Kurt Cobain’s guitar riff work in “Sappy” according to Rolling Stone writer Grayson Haver Currin is “crisp and cutting, with a guitar solo that dips and climbs and vocals that suggest irritation morphing into emancipation.”

 


8. “Dive” (Incesticide, 1992)

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“Dive” was featured as a B-side on the “Sliver” single in 1990. Kurt Cobain’s guitar style shines through, marked by vigorous power chords, dynamic transitions, and raw energy. The relentless power chord progression in the main riff intensifies the song’s visceral atmosphere, showcasing Kurt Cobain’s distinctive musical approach.

Michael Azerrad, in his Nirvana biography, hailed “Dive” for embodying the essence of Bleach, with its grinding guitar, intense vocals, and laden riff. He described it as heavy pop music, blending catchy elements with a profound heaviness.

 


7. “Blew” (Bleach, 1989)

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Included on their debut album, “Bleach,” released in 1989, “Blew” is characterized by its heavy guitar riff work, which is central to the song’s abrasive and aggressive sound. Throughout “Blew,” Kurt Cobain’s guitar work alternates between frenetic, fast-paced passages and more subdued sections, showcasing his ability to create dynamic contrasts within the song.

As a curiosity, Kurt Cobain tunes his guitar differently depending on whether he’s playing the song in the studio or during Nirvana’s live shows. In the studio, the song is often played in Drop C tuning, while during Nirvana’s live performances, especially from ’89 to early ’92, it’s typically in Drop D tuning.

 


6. “In Bloom” (Nevermind, 1991)

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“In Bloom” is one of Nirvana’s most iconic songs, known for its unique blend of catchy melodies and profound lyrics. Found on the album “Nevermind,” the track captures the band’s signature style, alternating between softer verses and explosive choruses.

Kurt Cobain, the lead vocalist, and guitarist, crafted solos that served the song rather than pursuing pure virtuosity. In this regard, the solo in “In Bloom” stands out for seamlessly integrating into the song’s sonic narrative, alternating between the use of Mesa Boogie and Fender Bassman amplifiers to create distinct textures.

 


5. “Aero Zeppelin” (Incesticide, 1992)

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Aero Zeppelin” is a raw and energetic track from Nirvana’s early years. It’s a prime example of Nirvana’s ability to blend punk rock attitude with grunge aesthetics, creating a sound that was both abrasive and compelling. Overall, “Aero Zeppelin” is a standout track that captures the raw energy and intensity of Nirvana’s early days. Great sound for the clean tone in the intro, and also an amazing abstract riff. One of their best. Lots of energy!

 


4. “Serve The Servants” (In Utero, 1993)

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Serve the Servants” is the opening track of Nirvana’s third and final studio album, “In Utero,” released in 1993. It’s notable for its biting lyrics, which many interpret as a reflection on Kurt Cobain’s complex relationship with fame, family, and the media.

“Serve the Servants” doesn’t feature a prominent riff in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s driven by a series of power chords that create a dark and brooding atmosphere. Kurt Cobain used a Fender Jaguar and the sound throughout the song is characterized by its rawness and intensity, reflecting the album’s overall tone.

Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times described it as being “propelled by fat, hummable guitar riffs and memorable singalong choruses.

 


3. “All Apologies” (In Utero, 1993)

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The “All Apologies” riff stands as a masterpiece, epitomizing Nirvana’s emotional depth. Found on their final album, “In Utero,” it’s a creation of Kurt Cobain, echoing his struggles with alienation and industry pressure. This iconic track earned a place on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list, largely due to Kurt Cobain’s timeless guitar riff.

 


2. “Aneurysm” (Incesticide, 1992)

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Written in 1990, “Aneurysm” stands out as one of the few Nirvana songs credited to all three members. Its arrangement kicks off with an extended introduction featuring an echoed, descending guitar riff. The song’s verses follow a simplistic yet impactful two-chord sequence, characterized by a crunching rhythm.

Renowned music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine hailed “Aneurysm” as “perhaps the greatest single song the group ever recorded” in his review of “Incesticide.” Additionally, in a 2013 Rolling Stone reader’s poll, “Aneurysm” was voted the seventh best Nirvana song.

Notably, Nirvana often launched their concerts with high energy, frequently segueing from “Drain You” into the powerful “Aneurysm,” setting a dynamic tone for their performances.

 


1. “School(Bleach, 1989)

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This riff from Kurt Cobain in the song “School” is infectious; it demands to be played at maximum volume!

The lyrics reflect themes of alienation and frustration, typical in Nirvana’s early work, expressing disillusionment with institutional education and societal norms, capturing the angst of youth.

While “School” may not have been one of Nirvana’s biggest commercial hits, it remains a fan favorite and a staple of their early live performances. Its raw sound and rebellious spirit helped define the grunge movement of the early 1990s.

NO RECESS!

What Guitar Equipment Did Kurt Cobain Use to Create His Distinctive Sound?

Kurt Cobain’s Guitars

Kurt Cobain was often associated with Fender guitars, particularly the Fender Mustang and Jaguar models. Kurt Cobain also occasionally played a Fender Stratocaster. His guitars were typically modified with non-standard features, such as humbucker pickups, to achieve his desired tone.

Fender Mustang

  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – This iconic Nirvana song, from the album “Nevermind,” features Cobain’s raw and energetic guitar playing on a modified Fender Mustang.
  • “Lithium” – Another classic track from “Nevermind” where Cobain’s Fender Mustang contributes to the song’s dynamic shifts between soft and loud passages.
  • “Come as You Are” – Cobain’s Fender Mustang is heard prominently in the main riff of this popular song from “Nevermind.”

Fender Jaguar

  • “Heart-Shaped Box” – From the album “In Utero,” this song showcases Cobain’s use of a modified Fender Jaguar to create a haunting and atmospheric guitar sound.
  • “Rape Me” – Also from “In Utero,” Cobain’s Fender Jaguar adds to the intensity of this track with its aggressive yet melodic guitar riff.
  • “Serve the Servants” – The opening track of “In Utero” features Cobain’s Fender Jaguar contributing to the song’s gritty and raw sound.

Fender Stratocaster (occasionally played):

  • “About a Girl” – From Nirvana’s debut album “Bleach,” this song features Cobain’s Fender Stratocaster, demonstrating his ability to create catchy melodies even with a different guitar model.
  • “Polly” – Also from “Bleach,” Cobain’s Fender Stratocaster adds a softer touch to this acoustic-based song.

 

Kurt Cobain’s Amplifiers

Kurt Cobain used a variety of amplifiers throughout his career. Early on, he favored a Mesa Boogie Studio .22 combo amp. Later, he also used Fender Bassman amps, particularly for recording sessions. These amps contributed to his raw and distorted sound.

 

Kurt Cobain’s Effects Pedals

While Kurt Cobain’s setup was relatively simple compared to many guitarists, he did utilize effects pedals to shape his sound. Some of the pedals he used included the Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus pedal, the Pro Co Rat distortion pedal, and the Tech 21 SansAmp Classic pedal for additional distortion and tone shaping.

 

Kurt Cobain’s Strings and Tuning

Kurt Cobain typically used heavy-gauge strings on his guitars, which contributed to his gritty tone. He also experimented with different tunings, often tuning his guitar down a half-step or even lower to achieve a deeper, heavier sound.

Overall, Cobain’s equipment choices, combined with his aggressive playing style and knack for crafting memorable riffs, were key factors in shaping his distinctive and influential guitar sound.

 

 

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