Kurt Cobain Jaguar review by Fender

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  • Features: 9
  • Sound: 8
  • Action, Fit & Finish: 9
  • Reliability & Durability: 9
  • Overall Impression: 9
  • Reviewer's score: 8.8 Superb
  • Users' score: 8.2 (97 votes)
Fender: Kurt Cobain Jaguar

Price paid: £ 600

Purchased from: eBay

Features — 9
This was a bit of a conflicting purchase for me. I was about 7 or 8 when Kurt Cobain killed himself and so while I was aware of Nirvana and just really starting to get into the music, I wasn't really right there with the whole grunge movement. It was sort of later as I went through my musical awakenings that I got into Nirvana long after they'd passed into history. Strictly speaking Nirvana aren't anywhere near my favourite sound/style/guitar playing - but I respected them for being honest and conflicted and being better song writers than I'll ever be.

The Kurt Cobain Jaguar was the one guitar of his that I really got into from it's looks/style. As a kid I noticed strats and Les Pauls and the Jaguar seemed so weird and esoteric but I thought it looked perfect on Kurt. I know he ended up playing Mustangs a lot more but the Jaguar is what I think of as the "Nevermind" tour guitar and, as it turns out, quite a lot of the "In Utero" sessions as well. 

I generally dislike "relic" or "roadworn" guitars - it seems pretty stupid to purposely mess something up. I look after my new guitars pretty well and the couple of genuine older guitars that I have with battle scars are due to actual age with another player/my own abuse as a teenager who could barely play and liked to stage dive. 

The difference with this is it's not a "fake" history - it's not designed to have the finish worn where a blues players arm might have rested for 40 years of gigs or anything - it's a replica of a particular one off instrument - which is why I give the whole "artificial beating" a pass personally. YMMV. Reading the history of the guitar, it was bought prior to "Nevermind" south American tour as a backup and ended up replacing Kurt's VANDALISM sticker strat when he destroyed that guitar. It's in quite a lot of famous shots of him. The Jag was already heavily and quite mysteriously modified by it's previous owner when Kurt bought it (no-one still seems to know who this previous owner was or quite how they came to make such a unique instrument but that sort of adds to the charm). The marks on the back of the guitar occurred when Kurt threw it onto a camera track and it was nearly crushed to pieces. Apparently after that he kept it relatively safe (this seems to mean he didn't smash the hell out of it - which counts as "babied" in Nirvana terms). 

This is a Mexican made replica. It's a standard '65 Jag at heart but has a large number of mods. Ignoring for a minute the general wear and tear and chips and dents - the previous owner cut the Jaguar head into a strat shape (it's not actually a strat neck at all, just a jigsawed head - of which this replica accurately captures the slightly uneven sawed shape). The standard Jag lower plates are modified - where Jags normally have a three switch bout plate (bridge/neck pickup on/off and the "strangle" bass bleed switch) the pre-Kurt mods included a change to an up/down Gibson style pickup selector and a blanked out strangle switch. The usual one tone/one volume plate was replaced with two independent pickup volumes and a master tone in chrome.

The upper bout controls are standard Jaguar - which confuses a lot of people - it's basically a rhythm/lead circuit - originally Jags had 1 meg pots on the volume and tone and so were very shrill and brittle, but for their original Jazz purpose they also had a very dark neck only circuit for rhythm sounds. This has a separate volume and tone selector (roller switches rather than standard pots) which basically gives you two completely different sounds at the flick of a switch. Some people seem to be upset that this is included as Kurt, in the "Nevermind" tour days, put masking tape over this to stop it being used and apparently even went so far as to disconnect the electronics. Though if you read his tech's story, he points out that Kurt requested it was all hooked up again for "In Utero" recording as he had learnt to love the extra switching options on Mustangs and wanted to use more on "In Utero" (apparently this circuit was used to record various parts of songs including the verse parts on "Heart-Shaped Box"). So it's nice to still have it. 

The tuners were also changed to sealed Gotoh tuners (the replica includes the drill holes for the vintage removed tuners). The bridge again was a retrofit that Kurt had done to all of his guitars which was a tune-o-matic. This cuts down on some of the "surf" sounds you can generate with Jaguars or Jazzmasters but it does make the tuning a lot more stable and intonation is a lot easier. It's authentic to Kurt's Jag anyway. 

Kurt's model didn't have standard Jaguar single coils but is a dual humbucker. The exact configuration is actually the "Nevermind" tour set up, not the post "In Utero" set up, but I guess Fender went with the most popular choices. This is an Anniversary PAF in the neck and a Super Distortion in the bridge. 

The guitar comes with a case which is half way between the tweed expensive cases from Fender USA but more exotic than the lower model cases or bags. It's not reliced or beaten up but has a sort of "working musician" feel to it that probably suits this guitar and it's signature artist. Inside you get the trem arm (note this is a Mexican style which seems to be the only non-official part to Kurt's - not that he used the trem arm until "In Utero" anyway). You also get a detailed book with interviews with Nirvana's photographer and more interestingly Kurt's guitar tech. 

Whether you like this or not is a tough call. As I said, I don't really like the "fake history" of Relics but this is supposed to be a tribute to a particular instrument and so I let it off. To be honest I was looking at a Sunburst reissue Jag and never got on with Jag single coils (other than the bare knuckle ones in the Johnny Marr Jag) so was hoping for humbuckers - in the end this guitar had these features and so seemed like a nice choice. I wouldn't have paid full price for it and luckily, like Kurt, I bought a second hand one for a lot less than list price.

Sound — 8
The guitar is very easy to play - it's a short scale Jaguar with a very nice neck, despite the grooves and scratches. They haven't really "aged" the frets so it plays more or less like it's just been refretted if you look at it like that. As it's short scale it does still have some of the low sustain/biting edge typical to Jags but the TOM bridge and dual HB pickups make it sound pretty different. The neck pickup (on either circuit) sounds VERY Gibson-esque - it's quite a traditional bluesy/moderate rock sound - very authentic and vibey - not what you expect coming out of a Jag but it is handy to have that available if you don't play many Gibsons like me. The bridge super distortion is more obviously "Nirvana" with a very high output mids-heavy roar when you play through a valve amp. 

Obviously the humbuckers get rid of most of the annoying shrill/brittle and squeals common to Jags - but they do lose some of the higher end and it doesn't really sound much like a Jag. The dual circuit gives you the option of a kill-switch (one circuit at zero volume) or two very different sounds - one dark and bluesy and one raucous and cutting. It's quite versatile - but then Jags and Jazzmasters are.

I'm playing this through a couple of different set ups - a live and a studio one. Both based around valve amps but I'm not trying to emulate a Kurt Cobain sound particularly. It's certainly very easy to do so but I'd suggest you want a very powerful solid state Peavey amp like him and a Boss DS-1 if you're trying to "cover" entirely Kurt sounds. But if you want to do your own thing, this has a lot of thick and heavy sounds with the quick cutting sound of a Jag - it's like playing a sort of lightweight Les Paul with a Fender punch if that makes any sense.

Action, Fit & Finish — 9
This is again a bit of a tough one to rate since the guitar is purposely beaten to hell (and this is the guitar that Kurt looked after!). The actual replication of his guitar is top-notch and it's very authentic looking - none of that cheap eBay looking relic where someone has obviously run over it with a sander and chisel. The dirt and ageing are very appropriate and I doubt most people who don't know it's a Kurt Cobain model (there is no signature like most artist models)would really spot it's been replicated. Internally the controls and wiring is very high quality - better than most Mexican models and easily on par with US standard models. The set up was pretty good (though obviously I bought it second hand so the previous owner may have reworked it). One thing that does confuse some people is that the TOM bridge is back to front - this is the same as Kurt's when Fender inspected it. In reality it allows you to get better intonation while keeping the bridge lower than usual for a TOM. 

The floating trem is a standard US set up - whether you like Jag floating units is a matter of taste. I happen to love them when they are set up properly (which usually means. 11 gauge strings and spring retensions). Yes, Kurt didn't use the trem live at all (and only occasionally whilst recording "In Utero" - but I'm glad it's there as I love to use it anyway). 

Anyway, I'm rating this on how well it's done as a replica - obviously if you are expecting pristine, don't buy this (although Fender have released a pristine NOS version if you want everything shiny and new). Personally I agree with the other reviews - as it's beaten up to hell anyway, I've banged it against walls and amps and monitors and don't really care. You get a bit of Kurt Cobain's attitude thrown in - you stop caring so much! Normally if I smashed up one of my Fender models I'd be a bit annoyed, with this, I probably wouldn't be able to tell.

Reliability & Durability — 9
Again, the finish is purposely abused, so it's not looking like a new guitar. In terms of reliability the guitar is rock solid and most people who dislike Jaguars might find the alternative bridge/controls/pickups make this a lot more user-friendly. I did swap out the strap buttons for Schaller locking ones (but I do that on every guitar).

I wouldn't use this at a gig without backup, but then I don't think I've ever played a gig with one guitar ever as I hate spending ages tuning and I'm not really good enough to play round blown strings. It seems very solid and well made and hasn't had any issues so far. It looks and feels like a very good workhorse.

Overall Impression — 9
It's tough buying a guitar that is a signature model from a guy who's dead. He doesn't get to have a say, and it's not like most Fender models that are made to the artists specs (the only Fender made that way was the Jag-Stang and it sounds as if Kurt wasn't really happy with how it turned out). It's also hard to justify spending big money on a guitar that Kurt bought from a second hand recycling store as a backup. Would Kurt have endorsed this? Probably not - it's hard to know. He seemed happy enough to endorse the Jag-Stang - he wasn't against making money, but he was clearly making a point against flashy '80s guitars and all the glitz and glamour by picking up beaten up, short scale, unfashionable guitars that did what he wanted rather than looked good. 

I guess in the end you can go on and on about whether buying this is correct to the artist, but I like to think I bought it for pure reasons (sorry that sounds really pretentious). I love Jaguars and Jazzmasters and I've done a few mods to mine to make them work how I prefer. I still love brand new shiny guitars and look after mine. I'm not a punk and I'm not anywhere near as alternative as Nirvana, but I do look back to how I was at 8 or 14 when I was into Nirvana long after they were gone and remember how much I respected Kurt playing these instruments and you do feel different playing this. Maybe guitars do have some sort of vibe - and this one does conjure up some of that DIY couldn't care less as long as it works attitude. 

I wouldn't make this my main guitar - I have plenty that I probably continue to play more but, here, 20 years after Kurt Cobain killed himself, I get a real kick out of having a close replica of "his" guitar. I like that it's a bit like it's original artist - complex, mysterious, tuneful but hard to get a grip on exactly. It's a contradiction in wood and metal. I'm now just about the age Kurt was when he committed suicide so I guess I'm running out youth - but yeah, playing this guitar is a different experience. It's less of a tool of the trade and more of a nostalgia trip that puts a smile on my face - and it sounds brutal and like something a real musician would play - while not being all glitter and surface.

In short - no I wouldn't get anything instead - it's a clone of Kurt's guitar. I wouldn't, for instance, buy a Kurt Cobain Mustang - I just don't have any attraction to Mustangs, so this is probably a weird mix of my love of Jaguars and remembering Nirvana - and the changes to the guitar are "sort of" like the ones I'd have done anyway (the Humbuckers/bridge changes for example). 

I'd say this isn't just for Kurt Cobain's fan boys. It can do a lot of stuff if you let it. Of course, like Kurt before he got rich, I wouldn't pay full price and would feel a bit weird buying into Kurt's legacy without going second hand. But you'll find Nirvana fans selling these on eBay or Craigslist after they realise they don't even like playing guitar. Then you can get a great and unusual Jaguar at closer to what it should cost without selling out your bit of punk spirit. Sorry for the rambling review was somewhat drunk.

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