RangeOfSounds.com is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.
Grunge pioneer Kurt Cobain used his punk-influenced guitar playing and his emotionally resonant lyrics to bring a brand new sound to the mainstream.
When trying to capture his sound, one question some people want to know is:
What strings did Kurt Cobain use?
Kurt Cobain played Dean Markley 2504 Light Top/Heavy Bottom 10-52 strings, according to Ernie Bailey, who was his guitar technician, and while Cobain is most associated with the Fender Mustang and the Fender Jaguar, he played everything from a Univox Hi Flyer to Fender Stratocasters, as well.
Let’s look at the strings Cobain chose and why, as well as look at some of the rumors about his gear and see why they persist.
What Guitar Strings Did Kurt Cobain Use?
In past interviews, Earnie Bailey, who was the guitar tech for Nirvana from 1991 to 1994, spoke about the strings Cobain used on his guitars. He played with Dean Markley 2504 Light Top/Heavy Bottom strings, which run .010”, .013”, .017” plain, .030”, .042”, .052” from low E to high E.
Bailey’s report also confirms part of what Cobain said in an interview. In 1992, Cobain said he used Dean Markley strings for at least part of his string setup, saying it was because they were the cheapest.
While Dean Markley strings aren’t the most expensive, they definitely aren’t the cheapest, as they are made in the U.S.A.
More likely, it was actually Cobain’s sense of humor. He said of the Fender Mustang, which was one of his favorite guitars, that it was cheap, didn’t stay in tune, was hard to play, and sounded like crap.
Some of the most iconic songs of the 1990s — or of all time, in some cases — came directly from the sound that guitar produced, however.
While the Mustang certainly has its flaws, it’s probably better to read that comment, along with Cobain’s quip about why he chose Dean Markley strings, as tongue-in-cheek, with Cobain exaggerating the flaws as a way to joke about something he likes.
In reality, the light top/heavy bottom combination was probably a big part of his overall sound.
This video looks more at Cobain’s playing and his style.
One major part of Nirvana’s sound was Cobain’s use of power chords.
In music theory, chords are made up of three or more notes, but in many cases, rock guitarists simplify even further by playing power chords that are just two different notes instead of three or more.
Power chords give the listener a sense of what’s happening musically while also adding a driving, pulsing rhythm to a song.
In the case of Nirvana, Cobain used power chords to great effect, and using heavier gauge strings, especially on the lower strings, where power chords are played, makes them sound punchier.
In part, that’s because of the extra tension from the heavier, thicker strings. Combined with the shorter scale of the Mustang, the heavier low strings helped give a solid feel to the power chords he was playing.
Did Kurt Cobain Use Piano Strings?
But in the interview mentioned above, in Musician Magazine in the January 1992 edition, Cobain made another comment that has spread around the Internet ever since.
He said instead of using guitar strings, he used piano wire that came in bulk. The writer of the article made sure to show the reader that Cobain wasn’t being serious.
He said Cobain made the statement with a straight face, implying that the piano wire bit was a joke. And the rest of the story confirms it. Cobain said he cut the string to length for his guitar, but neglected to say how he could attach a piano string to a guitar.
Of course, piano strings and guitar strings are both just wires, and you can certainly buy bulk wire to make your own strings. There’s quite a bit more to it than just cutting the string to length and installing it on a guitar, though.
Instead, we should understand Cobain’s comment as another joke. He’s using the fact that piano wire is thick to exaggerate how he likes heavy lower strings.
What Guitars Did Kurt Cobain Play?
In many ways, Cobain used a much more limited range of instruments than other musicians of his time and his genre. Part of that was intentional, and I’ll explain that at the end of this piece, but another part was practical: he was a left hander.
That means he had fewer options to start with. While it’s definitely possible to install a new nut and string a right-handed guitar for a lefty — possibly the most famous left-handed guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix, did just that — the control layout is not ideal.
For the most part, Cobain sought out guitars that were both left-handed and cheap. Some of them he found in pawnshops, like a Univox Hi Flier guitar, a Mosrite Gospel, and a Stella Harmony 12-string acoustic.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, Cobain’s most iconic guitars were two Fender offset models, the short scale “student” model Mustang and the larger Jaguar.
His 1969 Mustang was blue with white racing stripes, while his 1965 Jaguar, in sunburst, was customized with two humbuckers, a standard DiMarzio humbucker in the neck and a DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucker in the bridge. The bridge pickup was later changed to a Seymour Duncan JB humbucker.
On tour, he apparently often played Japanese-made Fender Stratocasters with a humbucker in the bridge position.
As much as any instrument, though, Cobain’s sound came from his choice of effects, and he used pedals like the Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal, the Electro-Harmonix Small Clone Chorus pedal, the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Distortion pedal, the ProCo Rat Distortion pedal, and the MXR Phase 100 Phaser pedal, among others.
By the end of his career, he’d switched to a separate pre-amp/power amp setup that fed into speaker cabinets, partly because of the amount of touring the band was doing.
While understanding what Cobain used and how it influenced his sound is important for a few reasons, there are some caveats. Let’s look at why his gear matters and then why it doesn’t.
First, knowing what Cobain used allows new players to understand how to get a particular tone they like, and they can experiment from there. Second, it allows them to see how using inexpensive equipment is not always a bad thing.
But while it’s certainly fun to play a riff that sounds just like the opening of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” getting Cobain’s setup won’t get you his ideas.
In the interview I mentioned earlier with Earnie Bailey, who was Nirvana’s guitar tech, he was asked what people don’t know about the gear Nirvana used, and his answer was stark.
The thing people don’t know, he said, was that the gear didn’t matter.
The band used good and bad things, but what makes the band a classic isn’t what instruments, amplifiers, and effects that each band member used, it’s the songs they were able to create and the impact those songs continue to have, more than 30 years after the release of Nevermind.
That’s something that can’t be recreated with just equipment.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.