Hands-On Review:Cobainspotting - A guide to Kurt Cobain’s Nevermind gear.
The watery depths of open-string anguish, the toxic mixture of wattage plus aggression...Kurt Cobain’s guitar sound on Nirvana’s Nevermind set the tone for Nineties rock music. The basic elements of this potent formula were simple. Cobain’s axes for the Nevermind session were a late-Sixties Mustang, a Jaguar with DiMarzio pickups and several new Stratocasters with humbuckers in the bridge positions. His principal effects were a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal and an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone Chorus, and his main amp was a Mesa/Boogie Studio .22. Producer Butch Vig recalls, “We also had a Fender Bassman that he used on about four songs and a Vox AC30 that we did some clean tracks with. I basically recorded the band live, and then we went back and doubled some rhythm guitars and overdubbed some riffs and other things.”
Vig used four mikes on Cobain’s speaker cabinet: a Shure SM57, a Neumann U87, an AKG 414 and, occasionally, a Sennheiser 421. For any given song he’d select the best-sounding mic of the four and send its signal through the Neve console at Sound City. The aforementioned Small Clone, says Vig, was the key to “the watery guitar sound you hear on the pre-chorus build-up of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and also ‘Come As You Are.’ I believe we also used a ProCo Rat distortion pedal on some songs. We used an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff fuzz box through a Fender Bassman amp on ‘Lithium,’ to get that thumpier, darker sound. As I recall, we used a U87 mic on that. We wanted something that was not so bright—a heavier sound.”
Although it’s not credited on the album, the acoustic song “Polly” was recorded at Vig’s own Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, during demo sessions for Nevermind. Cobain recorded “Polly” using a very cheap no-name acoustic that had just five strings. “He’d never changed the guitar’s strings,” Vig recalls. “It was tuned about a step and a half down from E. I recorded it with an AKG 414. The same guitar is on ‘Something in the Way.’ ”