No one has ever said that Fender’s stock pickups are crap, but Kurt Cobain clearly wasn’t a fan. Here’s why Kurt ALWAYS swapped out his Fender’s pickups for something a little nastier…
Kurt Cobain is well known for using Fender guitars. During his painfully short career, he used Strats, Jaguars, Mustangs, and even a self-built Gibson SG which was used during the band’s Bleach era.
The SG was the outlier. Most people think of Fender when they think of Kurt and/or Nirvana. The most famous of all of Kurt’s guitars, however, was the Fender Mustang. He used this guitar A LOT, just not for the reasons you’d imagine.
In fact, Kurt’s love of the Fender Mustang, of which he had several models in different colors, was born from the fact that it sounded like crap, was small, and was incredibly inefficient to play. The Mustang was the guitar he used in the band’s Smells Like Teen Spirit video, a video that has now been seen by every single person on earth, at least 10 or 12 times.
But while Kurt liked to play Fender guitars, he was never happy with the way Fender’s pickups sounded. Rather than going with a more aggressive-sounding guitar from ESP, Ibanez, or even Gibson, Kurt did what he was famous for – he modded the crap out of his Fender guitars, adding in new pickups and new locking tuners.
What Pickups Did Kurt Cobain Use?
Kurt had very definitive ideas about how his guitar should sound. He needed clarity for quieter parts of the band’s songs and plenty of BARK for when things got inevitably heavy. For the vast majority of his career, Kurt Cobain used Seymour Duncan pickups – specifically its Hot Rails and JB pickups.
Cobain added Seymour Duncan’s Hot Rails or JB pickups to his array of Fender guitars. He had them installed in all of the guitars he used lived and the ones he used to record albums with – including Nevermind and Heart Shaped Box. These pickups, of course, are humbucking pickups, not the single-coil pickups that come with most Fender guitars, and they helped Cobain develop his heavier guitar tone.
All his guitars were modified with humbucking pickups rather than the single-coil units that are standard on those models. Humbuckers generally have a thicker, more powerful sound than single coil pickups with more volume and more emphasis on midrange frequencies. They’re twice the size of single coil pickups though (as you can see in the pictures- compare the black humbucker pickup in the Stratocaster to the two white single coil pickups), so fitting one to a guitar designed to house single coils often involves cutting through the scratchplate of the guitar, and sometimes through the body wood too.
This is what was done to Kurt’s Jaguar, although apparently by a previous owner, not by Kurt himself. It seems that Kurt sometimes used Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickups, which are humbuckers, but reduced to the size of a single coil pickup, meaning they could be fitted to his Fenders with little or no irreversible damage. In guitars that could fit them, he often used Seymour Duncan JB pickups.Matt Russell
Kurt Cobain’s Pedals, Amps & Overall Tone Explained
As for pedals, Cobain ran a pretty spartan setup, as you’d imagine. If you check out any pictures of Nirvana playing live, or videos, you’ll see that Cobain used a BOSS DS-1 and DS-2 distortion pedals and a 1970s Electro Harmonix Small Clone chorus pedal. This latter pedal is what creates the wobbly sound in the intro to Come As You Are.
With amps, Cobain used a Mesa Boogie preamp and separate power amps which, according to the band’s road crew, were about as reliable as a chocolate radiator. It caused an untold amount of headaches for the band while touring, but Kurt was pretty happy with his setup – the guy was definitely not a gearhead.
So, to recap, Kurt Cobain used “crappy” Fender guitars that he could afford to buy, scant pedals and effects, and a completely unreliable guitar rig when playing live. His sound, largely speaking, was created by his actual playing which was incredibly aggressive. He was not a fan of finesse when it came to the guitar, he didn’t indulge in technical playing, and his focus – always – was on simple rhythms and catchy melodies.
What’s the moral of the story here? Simple: you DO NOT need masses of expensive gear, or even an expensive guitar, to write and record iconic, genre-defining music. Kurt loved cheap gear, and cheap guitars, and never bothered learning to play anything technical. He was punk rock to the core. And his legacy proves that this approach, much like punk rock, will never really die – it has just gotten a bit lost in the modern idea that you need certain things to make good-sounding music.
RichardRichard has been playing guitar for over a decade and is a huge fan of metal, doom, sludge, and rock music in general – though mostly metal. Having played in bands and worked in studios since the early 2000s, Richard is a massive music production geek, a fan of minimalist recording techniques, and he really likes old-school guitars.
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