Guitar In the '90s

Guitar - June 1993.

Nirvana's music

By Jon Chappell.


By combining elements of metal, punk and grunge Nirvana have come up with a winning recipe that has fans devouring their music as fast as the band can serve it up. Bleach, Nirvana's debut EP, released on the now-legendary indie label Sup-Pop, was made for $600 and captured the quality that made this Aberdeen, Washington trio famous in the clubs of Seattle. It also captured the interest of a major label, DGC, and when that company released Nevermind in August of 1991 the album created a reaction that surprised record company execs, music critics, and even already-converted fans: alternative rock was commercially viable. In fact, it wasnít only viable, it was a smashing success. In five weeks Nevermind went gold; by November it was #1, bumping Michael Jacksonís Dangerous back to #5; and after only four months Nevermind was triple platinum ... and counting.

All this from a trio of self-described "skinny little creeps who are musically and rhythmically retarded"? Donít believe it. For what they may lack in traditional chops they more than make up for in canny pop sensibilities, melodic ingenuity, and raging metal-cum-punk attitude.

In trying to get a handle on just what it is that is Nirvana, people have made comparisons like "Metallica meets R.E.M." and "The Sex Pistols meet AC/DC." Even guitarist Kurt Cobain offers his own description: "The Knack and Bay City Rollers after an assault by Black Sabbath and Black Flag." But while critics and pundits compete to produce the most surrealistic pairing, one fact is clear: Nirvanaís special mix of hummable, accessible melodies and post-metal, power-punk thrashings is irresistible.

The crucible at the center of Nirvanaís song furnace is Kurt Cobainís rhythm guitar. Power chords, low-note riffs and a loose/funky right-hand approach are the key components of the bandís sound and their winning songs. Structurally, the songs are sectional, consisting of very few "cells," usually only two or four bars in length. These are repeated and spliced together in modular fashion, providing the framework for the song. Cobain will often play the verse riff clean first, then double it with distorted guitars when the figure is repeated. The "Big Guitar Solo" is rare for Cobain, who prefers to play slight variations and interpretations of the melody in his single line work. The occasional solo is almost always blues-based, out of tune, and bordering on anarchyóalmost an iconoclastic parody of the traditional instrumental break.

In their first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Cobain combines power chords and a syncopated 16th-note strum. The sus4 chords are more the result of playing the bottom four strings together for thickness rather than a conscious theoretical choice (Ex.1).

In "Territorial Pissings," a song with an anti-homophobic message, we get power chords with a markedly different effect. Here itís punk speed and distortion, in a clever rendering of that genreís ethos. Itís all downstrokes, full tilt, all the time. Their punk anger is just as genuine as their pop playfulness (Ex.2).

Cobain provides yet a third variety of chordal effect in "Son Of A Gun." The main riff also uses just chords, but this time itís to convey a lighter toneóa backdrop for the upbeat, melodic Vaselines cover song (Ex.3).

Midway between straight chords and single-note riffs is the arpeggio effect heard in "Lithium." Here, Cobain fingers standard chord forms but selectively plays different strings, combining single notes with double-stops, creating a loose, unstructured feel (Ex.4).

Single-note riffs that provide the underpinning for the verses often get the same treatment as chords: they are first played clean, then doubled by distorted guitars in unison. "Come As You Are," Nirvanaís second single, opens with a moody, processed, single-note riff that progresses to psychedelic-sounding chords in the pre-chorus (Ex.5).

The solo section is typical of Cobainís treatment in that itís essentially a melodic variation of the verse line. He maintains the intensity by applying constant vibrato and flanger (Ex.6).

Another example of single-note work is heard in "Teen Spirit." The guitar break is again a close rendition of the melody, using bends and reverse bends to emulate the slightly seasick quality of the vocal slurs. Notice Cobain never strays too far afield from the melody notes heard previously in the verses (Ex.7).

In Nirvanaís songs we see dynamics exploited to their fullest potential. The instrumental backup can go instantly from stark, hollow murmurs to full-out, wall-of-sound screaming. Often in the verses the guitar will lay out completely, letting the bass and drums support the vocals. This happens in "Lithium," "Stay Away," and "School," among others. Sometimes the guitar is sparse, providing only single, ringing notes in slow rhythm under the vocals. For example, in the verse to "Teen Spirit," only two notes are used, C and F, in a simple, hypnotic pattern (Ex.8).

The last example, from "Blew," has an actual, bona fide, improvised guitar solo. Itís rhythmically simple, consisting primarily of long notes and eighth notes. Cobainís playing is bluesy, out of tune and out of time but it conveys that same edge and sense of uncontainable fury found in his vocals (Ex.9).