Twenty years since Kurt Cobain rejected this version of terra firma and bought into the big sleep on April 5, 1994. I like to think of him as an unhappy dybbuk, floating in purgatory, rejected by the snotty elite in heaven and way too incorruptible to be invited into Burgess’ Other Shoppe. Back here where he abandoned us – whether he floats into guitar centers from Kabul (as I saw on BBC News last week) to Milan to Alice Springs – the Nirvana front man has left behind a legacy of power chords and lyrical passion fit for tribute from the tender fingertips of anyone anywhere learning to play electric rock and roll guitar.
I’m not out to turn anyone off here. A jazz guitarist like Barney Kessel plays a thousand chords for three people while a rock guitarist plays three chords for a million. Life’s not fair. But even the most popular bebop jazz record owns some kind of killer riff like ’Take the A Train.’ Have you heard some of the crap Wes Montgomery recorded in order to sell records? Even if you’re going to turn your nose up and bitch about three chords, technique has to be there, along with tone and touch. There are idiot savants out there, but for most there’s a need to know about the octave to play solos. Cobain’s legacy owes much to the role of the band as a whole. The riff for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an absolute tour-de-force killer – pristine as an axe wielded by a lumberjack – you can remove the rhythm section and the song still stands there throbbing!
Cobain’s genius was in his song craft more than in his guitar playing, only because he was a fantastic lyricist. Any fool can be Alvin Lee or Eddie Van Halen: “Speed virtuosos are a dime a dozen!” old Granny Bagg used to say while I spent years forced to listen to her Ted Heath big band records. Indeed, George Harrison and John Lennon made sin a virtue in their early guitar-picking, building their new pop sounds out of the crumbs from the table of Chet Atkins, Chuck Berry and James Burton. A technique forged out of learning one’s limitations.
Although you can’t put Nirvana up there with Elvis, Brian Wilson or the Beatles in terms of mass impact beyond crass commercialism, Cobain’s playing helped to take music off the pedestal and make it more accessible in a manner that actually reminds me of Woody Guthrie. As he said himself: “I never learned to read music. I would watch the learners and just copy them.”
“Nirvana gave a whole new generation of musicians a place to begin, a place to get a foothold,” says Brad Tolinski, editor-in-chief of Guitar World, the magazine that, given Cobain’s official blessing, first began publishing notation to Nirvana songs in 1992, according to what he told the Washington Post. Indeed, for adolescents raised in the late 80s and early 90s, who didn’t have the money, or, more likely, the desire or discipline for guitar lessons, Guitar World did then what tutorials do on YouTube now. As for Cobain, he insisted, maybe a little too much, that during his adolescence, he reportedly took just a month of guitar lessons. The minimum necessary to learn the riff to AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” “Louie Louie” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.”
Cobain obviously wasn’t a fan of anything close to flash guitar histrionics. His minimalist style sometimes mews rather than roars on Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York” as he botches the guitar solo to David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” before shrugging it off.
“He couldn’t play – and had no interest in trying to learn – Eddie Van Halen speed scales or incredibly complicated jazz chords,” Butch Vig, the legendary producer behind ‘Nevermind,’ said. “But he was a great player with an instinct for writing really great, hooky, rhythmic, riffy chord patterns.”
Vig’s gig during the recording of “Nevermind” was to make Cobain’s scrappy riffs sound as gargantuan on tape as they did on stage. Manipulating Cobain into double-tracking his guitar parts, by whispering in Kurt’s ear that his most beloved band and fellow client, the Pixies, did it, was Vig’s masterstroke of reason. “He had a kind of primal instinct for playing the guitar. And a lot of that comes from [his] punk background… You were forced to become your own teacher.”
Last but not least is what lingers. Despite often being raw, Cobain’s guitar playing was always articulate and full of pure angst. That nuance pulls in so many pupils to Cobain’s guitar playing two decades after his death.