Over the course of his prolific though short career, iconic grunge-rocker Kurt Cobain established a unique guitar sound and style. The leader of the groundbreaking '90s punk band Nirvana, he is probably most popular for his lyrics, voice, attitude, fashion sense, drug use and, of course, his untimely death. His own wish, in one of his last interviews, was to be remembered as a songwriter. But Cobain’s approach to guitar is a microcosm of his worldview and an excellent entry for deeper appreciation of his music and life.
Get a guitar. Fortunately, Kurt’s passion for old and inexpensive instruments makes a fair reproduction of his sound reasonable for the budget guitar player and novice. Kurt undoubtedly favoured Fender guitars, and vintage Mustang and Jaguar models were his favourite. Unfortunately, this has rendered these guitars fairly difficult to obtain, though new reissues have appeared on the market. A limited edition Cobain signature series “Jagstang” was also manufactured by Fender in the mid-'90s, but these guitars were never Cobain’s top choice and are not necessary to emulate his style. Kurt used other Fender models including the Stratocaster and Telecaster, frequently of foreign manufacture, and these are the most likely instruments of choice for the novice seeking an authentic “Cobain sound.” Kurt’s acoustic guitars were rare vintage instruments: the guitar used to record "Polly" and "Something in the Way" on Nevermind was a Stella Harmony 12-string he purchased for £20.30. The guitar he used in the Unplugged performance was a Martin D-18E retrofitted with a Bartolini AV3 pickup. For both electric and acoustic purposes, most any cheap instrument will do (see Resources below).
Get an amp. The choice of amplifier, if playing electrically, can have a profound effect on the output, sometimes even more than the guitar. Kurt was not a fan of Marshall amps, but was forced to use them as a reality of touring and his infamous destruction of onstage gear. His amp of choice was a Fender Twin Reverb, powered by Mesa/Boogie preamps (see Resources below).
Make effects. Despite the minimalistic sound that may come to mind when thinking of Nirvana, Kurt had a few effects that became signature sounds. While they are not for required generally, for certain songs they are essential. The most notable are the Small Clone chorus (Come As You Are) and Electro-Harmonix EchoFlanger (Radio-Friendly Unit-Shifter, Heart-Shaped Box). For distortion Kurt used either BOSS DS-2 Turbo Distortion pedal or Tech 21 Sans Amp Classic (see Resources below).
Learn basic power chord structure. If you’re not aware of power chords, they’re the basic unit of rock rhythm guitar and inescapable when playing like Kurt.
Learn to read guitar tablature for at least one Nirvana song. Tab is the simplest way to record in writing which strings and which frets are used to play a song in the correct key, and is much easier to read than traditional sheet music. Learn it, live it, love it (see Resources below).
Get picking and muting. Because Kurt was also a vocalist, most of his guitar playing consists of rhythm parts played as he sung and, as a result, the strumming pattern of the picking hand is crucial. Listen to the opening of “Lithium” for a prime example of how a little attention to rhythm makes a solid chord progression into the hook of a great song (see Resources below).
Play solos. Though grunge rock is generally considered anti-guitar-solo, Kurt played many lead parts, ranging from reiterations of the verse melody to wild and even reckless improvisations. It's always a good idea to some sort of accompaniment when practicing solos, whether it’s a drum machine, metronome, another live musician on bass or guitar, or just playing along to the song itself. In the later stages of his career, Kurt intentionally sought to break away from traditional structures, and his major answer for this was what sounds like a sloppy, almost haphazard approach. But rest assured it’s not easy to play something like the solos in “Milk It” or the intro to “Aneurysm” while staying in key and keeping it a coherent part of the song. With a little practice, especially with accompaniment, these parts though should become comfortable and fun.
Go acoustic. Nirvana’s outstanding Unplugged performance shocked many by revealing the subtle beauty of Cobain’s songs that may have previously been lost in the noise. Playing acoustic like Kurt is a matter of precise rhythm that lets the songs speak for themselves. Generally, the first part of a measure will emphasise the root note of a chord, played on the fifth or sixth string, while the second half will introduce the harmony notes, played on the higher strings. "About a Girl" is a good example. Don’t rush, let the song unfold with grace.
The best way to practice playing like Kurt is to learn his songs and play along to a recording. If it's too fast at first, practice on your own at a slower pace until you're able to get through the song at tempo. Online tablatures are a great way to learn to play a song easily for free, but they're not always accurate. Very precise tablatures are available for sale online and in better music stores. Kurt was all about attitude. Adopting a similar posture while you play and anything that can help to channel a similar feeling will make your emulation more authentic.
You may impress yourself and your friends by your new-found ability to play the music of one of rock's legends!