How to Play Guitar Like Kurt Cobain

By Robert Russell ; Updated September 15, 2017
A museum employee holding up the smashed guitar neck of Kurt Cobain's guitar.

Nirvana was part of the Northwest “grunge rock” scene that eschewed the glamour rock of 1980s “hair bands” like Motley Crue and Poison. Grunge rock was a return to basic rock, and the guitar was front and center. In a 1992 interview with “Guitar World," Kurt Cobain said: “We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded. … We play so hard that we can’t tune our guitars fast enough.” Cobain’s guitar technique is about feeling and attitude rather than technical finesse and sophisticated guitar chops.

Power Chords Are the Foundation

Jazz guitarists rely on a wide array of chord formation, alterations and substitutions to create harmonic complexity and sophisticated sound. Rock guitarists tend to go to the opposite extreme and often use simple power chords that are easily moved up and down the guitar neck. The power chord is the foundation of Cobain’s guitar style. A power chord contains the root note, the fifth note of the scale, and another root note an octave higher than the first root note. Power chords derive their name from the fact that the minimal chord shape played on the lower strings combined with distortion creates an aggressive sound. E major and A major are the two basic types of power chords. The E and A shapes may be moved up and down the neck by using the first finger to play the root note on the sixth string (the E shape) or the fifth string (the A shape).

Rhythm Is the Key

The power chord is the first part of the equation in unlocking Cobain’s guitar style. The second part of the equation is the rhythm. Although power chords are the chords of choice for many rock guitarists, not all rock guitarists play the same. Cobain is an example of the less-is-more approach to guitar rhythm. His style was aggressive but simple and basic at the same time. Cobain used a loose strumming pattern combining down and up strokes on the strings. Punk rock guitarists, on the other hand, tend to play power chords using all down strokes. “Lithium” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” both demonstrate Cobain’s rhythmic approach to the guitar.

Guitar Soloing Tips

Cobain’s approach to guitar solos is basic rock 'n’ roll. Sometimes he would play the verse melody for the guitar solo, and other times he would improvise guitar solos using the minor pentatonic scale, the scale of choice for most rock guitarists. It also goes hand-in-glove with power chords. The E- and A-shape power chords set up an easy pattern for the pentatonic scale. Once you learn the basic patterns of the scale, it is easy to move up and down the fret board. It is not unusual for a rock guitarist to know the pentatonic patterns without actually knowing the names of the notes. Listen to “Milk It” and “Aneurysm” as examples of Cobain’s guitar soloing style.

Musical Influences on Cobain

Cobain’s guitar style was informed and shaped by his musical influences. The Pixies were a huge influence. Cobain acknowledged in a 1994 "Rolling Stone" interview that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was based on a Pixies’ guitar riff. AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Iggy and The Stooges, the Sex Pistols and Kiss all had major impact on Cobain’s guitar style.

About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.