Kurt Cobain is one of the most noteworthy songwriters of all time. The grand champion of Generation X, his work was something akin to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s concept of the “green light” in The Great Gatsby. His lyrics about drugs, sex, divorce and Pennyroyal Tea were everything the era of disillusioned young people needed and wanted to hear.
Cobain provided people of the time with hope, and he illustrated that there was a way out of the mire through his music. The political, social and economic challenges they faced in everyday life could be alleviated by listening to his work, either by diving in headfirst and blocking out the outside world or through the encouraging pep talk some of his songs provide.
Almost overnight, following the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in September 1991, Cobain and his Nirvana bandmates, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, were thrust into the clutches of fame and, afterwards, nothing would ever be the same again. Notably, Cobain was forced to shoulder the weight of this burden as he was the frontman of the band, the songwriter, and, more importantly, the mouthpiece.
We all know how Cobain’s story ends, but it does him and his contributions a disservice that this point is usually the main focus of the conversation. Today, we’re moving away from that, and instead of rehashing the tale of his personal demons, we’re touching on one of the most luminous parts of his artistry: his guitar playing.
In what was a stroke of genius, Cobain fused the spirit of hardcore punk with the sugary melodies of ’60s pop and created a cultural behemoth in the process. He never showed off and saw the guitar for what it was, a piece of wood, that, when used properly, can be the most effective way of conveying thoughts and emotions. He took his cues from the likes of John Lennon and Neil Young and left fans with countless iconic guitar-playing moments over the years, no matter what the purists may tell you.
Kurt Cobain is one of the most iconic Fender guitar players of all time, and whether it be the Mustang, Jaguar, Jagstang or Stratocaster, he was a lifelong fan of the brand. Yes, he was known to use a plethora of obscure pawnshop guitars, but one thing is clear: when it came to electric six-strings, he wasn’t a fan of Gibson.
Given that he was Generation X’s guitar hero, in November 1991, the week that Nevermind was released, Guitar World conducted their final interview with Cobain and questioned him about his guitar playing. At one point, they asked him the question on the lips of many fans: why did he never use Gibson guitars? His response was short and needed no extra explanation. He told the interviewer: “We’ve been offered a Gibson endorsement, but I can’t find a Gibson I like.”
That must’ve been a stinger for Gibson, to have the world’s biggest star turning down their brand because he couldn’t find an instrument of theirs that suited him, even though they had many on the market. This only would have been exacerbated by the fact that not only was Cobain such an open supporter of their nemesis Fender that in the times where he didn’t use Fender, he instead opted to use smaller brands such as Mosrite or Hagstrom.
That’s not to say that Cobain never used a Gibson, however. For a few shows in early 1990, he played a ’70s Gibson SG, but on February 17th that year, he smashed it up to a state beyond repair in Tijuana, Mexico. The Gibson is said to have belonged to Sluggo Cawley, the guitarist of The Grannie, which the Nirvana frontman swapped in exchange for his 1973 Fender Mustang. Clearly, though, Cobain regretted his decision, and the poor Gibson relic wouldn’t even see the dawn of Spring. He eviscerated it.
One can’t help but think that Kurt Cobain’s attitude towards Gibson is what really kicked off the decline that the company has been in for what feels like an age. He made Gibson uncool and made Fender the go-to for pretty much every alternative guitarist moving forward, regardless of their artistic quality. Fender was now ubiquitous, and it has remained so for 30 years.
Watch an exclusive look at Kurt Cobain’s Fender guitars below.