Kurt Cobain is one of the most iconic figures in the history of rock. Through his dark lyricism and genius ability to pen a universal anthem, Cobain managed to galvanise an entire generation and cement himself as the spokesperson of Generation X.
However, this wasn’t a position Cobain was ever comfortable with, nor was he comfortable with the level of fame that the band gained after the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in September 1991. Together, both these things have been attributed to the Nirvana frontman’s suicide, confirming him as the most humble rockstar the world has ever seen. It was an immense tragedy, but owing to his genius musical ability, Cobain will live on long past the day when we are nothing but dust.
This modest, everyman nature is what really endeared Cobain to fans. Apart from his drug use, Cobain turned the stereotype of the rockstar upside down. He wasn’t concerned with promoting himself, and always stayed true to his convictions; he was an iconoclast in every sense of the word. Famously, the Nirvana leader refused to do an encore after 1993’s MTV Unplugged as he thought the band “sucked” which, of course, wasn’t true.
Added to the fact that Cobain was perhaps the most human rockstar the world has ever known, who penned endless amounts of classics, was that Cobain was a guitar hero. Much like with how he turned the trope of the rockstar on its head, he did the same with the concept of a guitar hero.
Utilising bar chords, distortion and chorus, his guitar sound has been copied so many times over the years owing to its power. Added to this, Cobain’s playing took its cues from Neil Young’s. His solos always had a purpose, and by blending the melodic with the dissonant, he recreated the guitarist for the modern era. Blending punk with pop, his playing shone a revealing light on the self-massaging virtuosos of the ’80s, and in doing so, inspired generations.
Given that Cobain was such a guitar hero, with an unmistakable sound, there’s no surprise that he took his cues from a host of other iconic players. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to list just six of Cobain’s favourite guitarists of all time.
Six of Kurt Cobain’s favourite guitarists:
Where better to start than with Cobain’s favourite performer of all time? Cobain’s affinity for Lead Belly was cemented in pop culture legend when Nirvana covered ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ as part of their iconic performance for MTV Unplugged in November 1993. He introduced the track by saying definitively: “This was written by my favourite performer”.
A folk and blues singer, Lead Belly’s influence on the development of modern rock has been significant. As a guitarist, he defied the norm and utilised the twelve-string guitar, ripping up the rulebook in the process. Aside from Cobain, he also had an impact on every songwriter worth their salt, from Bob Dylan to George Harrison.
Buzz Osborne (Melvins)
Kurt Cobain’s love for Washington brothers, Melvins is well-known, and he even acted as a producer for a portion of the band’s masterpiece, 1993’s Houdini, before being fired for his dalliance with drugs and alcohol. In fact, Nirvana and Melvins are inextricably linked, as it was through Buzz Osborne and Co. that Nirvana would be introduced to their future drummer, Dave Grohl.
On Nirvana’s sludgier takes, you can hear the influence of Buzz Osborne clearly. Be it ‘Love Buzz’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’ or even ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, the punishing riffs of Osbourne ring clear, particularly when you note Cobain’s use constant use of fuzz.
Greg Sage (The Wipers)
The Wipers are a cult band in every sense of the word, so there’s no surprise that Cobain was a huge fan. Lead by the irreverent Greg Sage, they were a band that deserved far bigger plaudits in their day, but like many who were ahead of the curve, they missed out on the success. An annoying notion that is only balanced with worship by those in the know — the musician’s musician. Sage had a melodic and fuzzy sound, and upon listening to any of the band’s material you immediately understand from where Nirvana, Hüsker Dü and others were inspired.
“The first two (albums) were totally classic and influenced the Melvins and all the other punk rock bands. They’re another band I tried to assimilate,” admitted Cobain in a feature for Melody Maker. Of Sage, he said: “(He) was pretty much the romantic, quiet, visionary kind of guy. What more can I say about them? They started Seattle grunge rock in Portland, 1977.”
Jimmy Flemion (The Frogs)
Another cult band that Cobain loved was The Frogs. A strange band comprised of brotherly duo Jimmy and Dennis Flemion, they’re a polarising act that fuse punk with with off-kilter pop, and turn it into something truly unique. Aside from the Cobain, the band’s disciples include Beck, Eddie Vedder and The Smashing Pumpkins, showing just how substantial their impact was on ’90s alt.
As for Jimmy Flemion’s guitar sound, he often utilised the acoustic guitar and sounds something like Ziggy Stardust-era Mick Ronson, just more unconventional. On tracks such as ‘About A Girl’ and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ Flemion’s influence is front and centre.
John Lennon (The Beatles)
If Kurt Cobain hadn’t been galvanised by The Beatles as a child, it is sure that he wouldn’t have gone on to be the icon we’re talking about today. Cobain’s knack for catchy melodies undoubtedly comes from listening to The Beatles, and in terms of the band, John Lennon was his favourite.
The way Lennon wrote simple guitar melodies and then thickened them with his voice is perhaps the defining feature of not only Cobain’s guitar work but his songwriting as a whole. For instance, the similarities in writing style between ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘All Apologies’ reflect this clearly.
In fact, the 1965 Beatles track ‘In My Life’, from Rubber Soul, held such a special place in Cobain’s heart that it was played as part of his funeral service in 1994. A year earlier, Cobain revealed to Rolling Stone that he found a kindred spirit in the life and music of Lennon. He said: “John Lennon was definitely my favourite Beatle, hands down. I don’t know who wrote what parts of what Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney embarrasses me. Lennon was obviously disturbed (laughs). So I could relate to that.”
James Williamson (The Stooges)
In terms of modern alternative rock guitarists, you’d be hard-pressed to find any legend who hasn’t been influenced by the visceral work of The Stooges’ second guitarist, James Williamson.
A dab hand on both the acoustic and electric, who often blended them on tracks, Williamson laid down the gauntlet for any guitarists who wanted to espouse a primal power with their playing. Punchy, fuzzy and unrelenting, Williamson’s work on 1973’s Raw Power, continues to dazzle to this day. Everything from ‘Aneurysm’ to ‘On a Plain’ contain the hues of Williamson.