Kurt Cobain Guitar Method

Kurt Cobain was a brilliant mind and this is a guide to some of the things he did.

15
Nirvana was well-known for using heavy distortion and feedback in their songs and implemented a soft verse, hard chorus dynamic to add to their songs, something that Kurt Cobain acknowledges the Pixies for. Songs such as Smells Like Teen Spirit and Lithium are prime examples of this. The lyrics he used were often cathartic and filled with angst, and seemingly contradictory at times. There is also more depth musically to Kurt's songs than many people realize.

Rhythm



One thing that Kurt used a lot of in his music were rhythms establish by triplet figures.

From the intro of Floyd the Barber:

        |-3-|          |-3-|
Q Q E E E Q Q E E E
e|-------------|--------------|
B|-------------|--------------|
G|-------------|--------------|
D|--3-3--2-2-2-|--3-3--2-2-2--|
A|--3-3--2-2-2-|--3-3--2-2-2--|
E|--1-1--0-0-0-|--1-1--0-0-0--|

As you can see here he establishes rhythm by using two quarter notes and then a eighth note triplet.

And from About a Girl:

             |-3-|
Q Q H E E E
e|--0-0-3----3-3-3----|
B|--0-0-0----0-0-3----|
G|--0-0-0----0-0-0----|
D|--2-2-0----0-0-0----|
A|--2-2-2----2-2-2----|
E|--0-0-3----3-3-3----|

Once again he uses two quarter notes then a half note before an eight note triplet.

One more example, Pennyroyal Tea:

            |--3--|         |--3--|
H Q Q. E E E Q Q. E E E E
e:0------0-----0----|-------0-----0-------|
B:1------1-----1----|-------1-----1-------|
G:2------2-----2----|-------2-----2-------|
D:2---------2-----2-|----2-----2-----2----|
A:0----0------------|-0-------------------|
E:------------------|---------------------|

(I stole this tab from the archive so thank you Unregistered User, whoever you may be.) Again you can see the triplet figure following a quarter note and then a dotted quarter note.

Riffs



Many of Nirvana's riffs are not too complicated, just picking through chords. A great example of this is Heart-Shaped Box.

Heart-Shaped Box: (*Note Drop D)

    A5      F5        D5              A5      F5    
E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E E Q
e|-------------------|--------------------|-------------------|-------------|
B|-------------------|--------------------|-------------------|-------------|
G|------2------------|--------------------|-2-----------------|-------------|
D|----2---2-----3----|------0---0-------2-|---2-----3------2/4|-4-4-4-------|
A|--0---------3---3--|---0----0---0---0---|-------3-----------|-------3-3-3-|
D|----------3--------|-0------------------|-----3-----3--0----|-------------|

Another example (a very basic one) is Something in the Way: (Some people play this in Drop D, but I don't so just go along with it because the point is being made regardless.)

   G#5                 E5             G#5              E5
Q. Q E E E Q. Q E E E Q. Q E E E Q. Q E E E
e|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|------------------|
B|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|------------------|
G|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|------------------|
D|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|------------------|
A|-----6-----6-----|-----2-----2-----|-----6-----6-----|-----2-----2------|
E|--4-----4-----4--|--0-----0-----0--|--4-----4-----4--|--0-----0-----0---|

Kurt also had a unique, avant-garde method to some of the things he played, like the intro to Milk It.

Milk It:

e|-13--------------12----------6--x-x-x-|-8-----6--------------------------|
B|----12-13----11-----------6-----------|-----5----------8--7--6--5--4-----|
G|-----------10-------------------------|---6--------7------------------5/-|
D|--------------------10----------------|----------8-----------------------|
A|--------------------------------------|----------------------------------|
E|-----------------------6--------------|----------------------------------|

Soloing



Kurt's style of playing uses a lot of feedback for some solos (You Know You're Right, for example has a to of feedback) while others are a little bit more of what one would think your typical guitar solo should sound like (Smells Like Teen Spirit). Often times he'd play what seems to be the the vocal part to add a different dynamic to his songs. In the more musical solos he utilized minor pentatonic scales.

Smells Like Teen Spirit: Key of Fm

e|---------------|---------------|-----------------|-------------|
B|---------------|---------------|-----------------|-------------|
G|-----8--10-----|--8--8b--6--5--|--6--5-----------|-------------|
D|-10---------6--|---------------|--------8--6--8--|--8b--6--5---|
A|---------------|---------------|-----------------|-------------|
E|---------------|---------------|-----------------|-------------|

e|---------------|---------------|-----------------|-------------|
B|---------------|---------------|-----------------|-------------|
G|-----8--10-----|--8--8b--6--5--|--6--5-----------|-------------|
D|-10---------6--|---------------|--------8--6--8--|--8b--6--5---|
A|---------------|---------------|-----------------|-------------|
E|---------------|---------------|-----------------|-------------|

e|-------------|-----------------|--------------|----------------|
B|-------------|-----------------|--------------|----------------|
G|-------------|-----------------|--------------|----------------|
D|-6--5--6--5--|--6--5--6--5-----|--6--5--6--5--|--6--5--6--5----|
A|-------------|--------------8--|--------------|-------------8--|
E|-------------|-----------------|--------------|----------------|
Kurt Cobain has a legacy that will live on for as long as music lives. RIP Kurt. Please rate this highly and comment so I know where and how to improve on any future articles. Thanks!

32 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    eatfresh1736
    the thing about cobain is that he was more vocally and lyrically centric and that he mainly used his instrument for rhythmic purposes. not that that's a bad thing, that's the thing with most punk-rock/alternative/grunge. the purpose behind the music isn't virtuostic, but it's still amazing
    I completely agree. I listen to metallica and yngwie, but I believe that there's nothing wrong with playing a simple riff. This is for CrosingTheSpasm - Eventually, everyone will use a technique used by someone else. What's so great about Opeth? Mozart used arpeggios. Opeth doesn't have talent cuz Mozart already used their technique before.(sarcasm)
    cyborg_monkey
    CrossingTheSpasm is evidently retarded. Just because someone else uses a technique, does not invalidate any other use. The solo from Stairway To Heaven is based on a pretty simple A minor pentatonic, which plenty of other people have, but this doesnt make Page's work a failure. This lesson is celebrating Cobains greatness, so dont come on and start saying its all unoriginal or a failure, you complete dickhead.
    wasssup
    CrosingTheSpasm wrote: Kurt Kobain created every you see above. None of this existed before, so lets continue praising a man who does not deserve to be praised. This is an epic failure. Listen to Cannibal Corpse, they use triplets. Listen to Opeth, they do arpeggio's also. Good lesson, don't get me wrong, it was presented very nicely, but Cobain was nothing breakthrough, and there is nothing avant-garde about that solo in Milk it. Saying that would mean that Slayer is avant-garde, when we all know they aren't.
    its not his technical brilliance that made his music good. jesus, any guitarist these daus can play 64th notes at 600bpm or whatever, but the fact is, kurt wasnt a guitarist, he was a song writer. he didnt write guitar pieces, he wrote songs. it was his style that made him unique. a bluesman can make the guitar cry, and if it came between that and playing boring chromatic licks and 600bpm or whatever, i know what i'd choose.
    MalBence
    You're all missing the point. Let's be honest here. Kurt knew shit about the type of music theory we're taught in school. But we can't judge a musician on their knowledge; do you give a shit what went into making a building? Fuck no, you just care about how that building looks. Same applies to music. Stop judging musicians on knowledge and judge them on the actual music. Kurt was an emotionally ****ed up dude who could write political grunge and played with emotion, and even though no, his guitar melodies and riffs were not anything complex or fast, but they hit home and his simple riffs are better than the shit they're producing nowadays.
    IRISH_PUNK13
    @ CrosingTheSpasm. ok being a great guitarist doesnt mean you have to know all the scales or play 16 notes per second. kurt took his very basic knowlage of the guitar and he made unique music. also i read somewhere that historians are saying that in 100 or so yrs people will look at kurt as being in the same league as mosart even though he didnt know as much theory he did the same thing mozart did by expressing himself in a unique way that sounded amazing RIP
    UseMyIllusion
    I'm sorry but Kurt was a great guitar player, maybe not technically, but melodically and rhythmically he was brilliant and it accompanied his vocals perfectly. Great songwriter too.
    slarbiter
    kurt wasnt a good guitar player? look up black and white blues on youtube or grooveshark completely different shiz
    mindlessdrone
    People who tells me that kurt cobain was not a good guitar player - sure he used simplicity. But finding the right order of chords to get people hooked on melodies is what kurt did. In fact it exists videos of kurt cobain where you can see that the man had a control on power chords that I have seen no guitar player have. How come kurt got a whole generation hooked on his melodies? Cos the man could write music - It does not matter that Henrix played more advanced than kurt. Finding melodies that sticks to your mind is the hard part. His music is what made him bigger than for example slash. why is it that a whole generation relates to kurt before slash? songwriting skills is the answer. If anyone disagrees here , then how come kurt in your eyes was a worse guitar player than yourself and you are not known? think ..
    estron7
    Who cares if its easy if it fucking rocks - all about the feels! ♫♫♫♫♫
    Fungus_Amongus9
    Three songs; Love Buzz, In Bloom, Serve The Servants. Those 3 show everything you need to see to prove how good of a guitarist he was. If that's not enough, look up these two videos "Kurt Cobain guitar solos" and "Kurt Cobain strangest guitar solos." Personally I like the second video better. Also, you can't define how good a guitar player is by what scales they know, or how fast they play, it's by what they bring to the table and unique they are. For his time Kurt was one of the most unique Guitarists. As far as the whole " he was average." Or " he didn't care about how good he was" his friends use to say that he spent all day playing guitar, working on new techniques and learning everything he could, just because he doesn't put a solo in every song or run through scales as fast as say Jacky Vincent, doesn't mean he wasn't good.and you've gotta admit, he had a tenacious sound
    rockfrehley
    I think he may have been a better guitar player.I think he held back.It was his art to play simply and sloppy(at times)
    rockfrehley
    I think he may have been a better guitar player.I think he held back.It was his art to play simply and sloppy(at times)
    mindlessdrone
    My my - hey hey. rockn roll is here to stay. There is more to the picture than meets the eye - my my hey hey (This was the song kurt cobain put on repeat as he ended his life). There is more to the picture than what meets the eye when it comes to kurt cobains songwriting. He had this image that he did not care on how he wrote music. He used most of his time finding out how to do it , so it is a distraction on what really happened.
    7leafvacation
    I think what made the difference in Cobain's playing was that he played with his ballz out and middle finger up
    12jfrey
    @ CrosingTheSpasm: lets c cannibal corpse move an entire decades music like nirvana did. i cood rite a freakin book about how wrong u reely r . decent colum btw cood b a little more detailed but still good
    Kear Bear
    the thing about cobain is that he was more vocally and lyrically centric and that he mainly used his instrument for rhythmic purposes. not that that's a bad thing, that's the thing with most punk-rock/alternative/grunge. the purpose behind the music isn't virtuostic, but it's still amazing
    rhoadrunner
    dude kurt was known for sounding different than alot of the other band with his stuff... he wasnt that good of a guitar player... you go on and on about his musical depth and awesomeness then you say " kurts rythms were established by triplet figures"(aka power chords just like every other band on the face of the earth). Kurt was an average guitarist.. i think the only genius in him was his song writing
    GQ9999
    Kurt wasn't very technicaly proficient on the guitar. To say that Kurt had "avant-garde method to some of the things he played, like the intro to Milk It." It seems more like Kurt didn't really know how to play the guitar very well so he wrote very simplistic leads and solos. Don't get me wrong, they sound good, but they're just dead easy.
    Shread_6009
    just a hint, 99% of the tabs i read like these ones always just say standard and drop d tuning, but all the official tablatures from magazines and tab books all say Eb, just for a bit of help on getting his sound. another thing to note is tha on his jaguar he'd play behind the bridge for cool sounds think you know yo're right
    GP_HV_16
    i liked it, i feel like i learned something. im gonna try some of these things. ive been studying a lot of different guitarists. ie done a bit of brian may, and some slash. then i thought id try kurt. so....thanks!!!
    tabershane
    CrosingTheSpasm wrote: Kurt Kobain created every you see above. None of this existed before, so lets continue praising a man who does not deserve to be praised. This is an epic failure. Listen to Cannibal Corpse, they use triplets. Listen to Opeth, they do arpeggio's also. Good lesson, don't get me wrong, it was presented very nicely, but Cobain was nothing breakthrough, and there is nothing avant-garde about that solo in Milk it. Saying that would mean that Slayer is avant-garde, when we all know they aren't.
    you have to be mental man,whether kurdt was breakthrough or not is not an issue,its like irish_punk13 said, kurdt and his basic knowlegde of the guitar did their thing.so he didnt have riffs and shit like slayer,or metallica,that doesent make his music any less worth listening to or appreciating.i personally think he deserves to be in the same league as mozart,i mean,kurdts stuff isnt complex,but i think he made simplicity into art,isnt that what its about...? it is for me. RIP kurdt C.
    fendercobain87
    this was pretty good even though kurt wasen't a very technical guitar player he still got his point across, kurt was an amazing guitarist. kurt was possibly one of the best muscians who could chain diffrent effects together and get a reall good sound . that is my opinion
    cyborg_monkey
    not massively descriptive on each mehod, but a good overview of kobains techniques, both playing and writing might wanna go into detail a bit more instead of fitting in a massive example still, good little lesson, nice work
    koalabacon
    CrosingTheSpasm wrote: Listen to Cannibal Corpse, they use triplets.
    whoa no way! triplets? holy shit that must be so hard dude. .... im still shitting myself!1
    Sixxstarr
    woah woah...man slow down...that's crazy talk...there's no such thing as triplets...it'll be ok i promise....or not
    metalcore16
    not bad, and i agree there is nothin' wrong with simple songs, i mean simple songs can be great, i mean KISS, Ramones, the Who, they all have some simple songs that kick ass.
    smudgertom
    there si nothing wrong with simple songs. look at blink 182. some of the simplest songs ever, and millions of people love them. AC/DC also do quite easy songs, and they are great. you dont have to make up hundreds of great sounding riffs to have good music. ok, the people who do make up hundreds of riffs are good, no complaint there, but simple songs are also great. screw your head on right.
    CrosingTheSpasm
    Kurt Kobain created every you see above. None of this existed before, so lets continue praising a man who does not deserve to be praised. This is an epic failure. Listen to Cannibal Corpse, they use triplets. Listen to Opeth, they do arpeggio's also. Good lesson, don't get me wrong, it was presented very nicely, but Cobain was nothing breakthrough, and there is nothing avant-garde about that solo in Milk it. Saying that would mean that Slayer is avant-garde, when we all know they aren't.