The Gear and Story Behind Nirvana

FL: Grohl, Cobain and Novoselic; PC: Album cover for Nirvana box set

As any normal music fan, we sometimes aren’t satisfied with simply the songs when it comes to our favorite bands. Some of us want to know their back story, some of us want to know who they’re dating, and some of us even want to know their favorite food! While some fans are simply casual and other are downright fanatical, musicians are a different breed of fans, more like brothers in arms actually. Rather than wanting to know things that have little to do with music and more to do with the trivial personal matters in the artist’s life, musicians want the gear info! And why not? It’s a chance to look at the tools in their repertoire, compare it with themselves, or even just gain a deeper sense of what makes the band work. This week, we will be taking a look at one of the most revered bands of the last thirty years. While they might not have been the most technically proficient nor did they even last a full decade, their impact on popular music as well as the impression they left behind on their fans has yet to be duplicated by any modern band. They even have an album in the official United States National Recording Registry which is strictly reserved for recordings that "are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States." If the men in suits up in Washington think your music is a part of significant US history, you’re definitely onto something! So, for those of you interested in how a little band from Aberdeen, Washington, went on to change the entire landscape of commercial rock music, read on and check out the rise of Nirvana and the impact of Kurt Cobain.


The Foundation of Nirvana

The band that would eventually become Nirvana began when a young Kurt Cobain met Krist Novoselic while attending Aberdeen High School. Although the two were never significantly connected during this time, they eventually befriended each other while hanging out at the Seattle band the Melvin’s practice spot. During this time, Cobain was interested in starting a band with Novoselic, even giving him a copy of demo tape material he had been working on called ‘Fecal Matter.’ Novoselic would not listen to Cobain’s demo until three years after the two had first met, although once Novoselic did listen, he decided to rethink Cobain’s proposal and the two formed a band in 1987.  By winter of that year, Cobain and Novoselic had recruited Aaron Burckhard on drums and the trio began rehearsing material from Cobain’s Fecal Matter demo but soon after began writing new material. During this time, both Cobain and Novoselic brainstormed about a possible name for the band, some of which were Skid Row, Ted Ed Fred and Pen Cap Chew until they finally agreed on Nirvana. During a 1992 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Kurt later revealed that the name was chosen because "I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk rock name like the Angry Samoans."

FL: Channing, Novoselic and Cobain circa 1988; PC:

Soon after the trio had formed, both Cobain and Novoselic moved to Olympia, WA and as a result temporarily lost contact with Burckhard, leaving the pair to practice with Melvin’s drummer Dale Crover with whom the group would record their first demos in January of 1988. Soon after, Crover moved to San Francisco but not before recommending drummer Dave Foster as his replacement. Although Foster successfully became Nirvana’s drummer, his stint with the band did not last long as he was soon replaced by once again by Burckhard during a stint in jail. This also would not last long as he was fired from the band after telling Cobain that he was too hung over to practice one day, prompting Cobain and Novoselic to put an ad in a local Seattle newspaper The Rocket for a replacement. After a series of disappointing responses, Cobain and Novoselic were introduced by a mutual friend to Chad Channing. The three began jamming together for the next few months and although Cobain and Novoselic never formally agreed to Channing getting the job, the three continued to play together. Channing played his first show with Nirvana later that May.


 Early Releases and Bleach (1989)

In November of 1988, Nirvana released its first single, “Love Buzz,” through independent Seattle record label Sub Pop, leading to the band recording its debut album that following month. Between December 1988 and January 1989, Nirvana recorded Bleach at Reciprocal Recording in Seattle with local producer Jack Endino. According to the album sleeve, the recording cost for Bleach was $606.17 which was paid by Jason Everman who was at first brought in as a second guitarist but never did end up playing a single note on the record. He was still credited for guitars on the album. Much of the album can be seen as Cobain feeling pressure to conform to the Seattle grunge scene sound as well as to the taste of his record label which can be noted in the album’s bleak and dark overtones. Cobain himself claimed that most of the lyrics were written the night before first recording while he was feeling “pissed off.” Bleach was released in June of 1989 and although it failed to chart in the US upon its initial release, it became a favorite of college radio, garnering the band significant interest. Soon after its release, Nirvana embarked on their first US tour but cancelled the last few remaining dates due to their dissatisfaction with Everman, although they did not tell him he was fired at the time. Everman himself later claimed he quit.

Bleach became a steady seller for Sub Pop, selling over 40,000 units upon its initial release, but Cobain was dissatisfied with the label’s lack of promotion and distribution for the record. By late 1989, Nirvana went back to the studio to record their Blew EP with producer Steve Fisk. By this time, the sound of Nirvana had begun to change into a more inclusive, catchy sound. During an interview in late 1989, Cobain stated that “the early songs were really angry ... But as time goes on the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I get happier and happier. The songs are now about conflicts in relationships, emotional things with other human beings." By Aplril of 1990, Nirvana began working on their follow up to Bleach with Pixies producer Butch Vig on helm at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. It was during this time that both Cobain and Novoselic became unsatisfied with Channing’s drumming while Channing himself began showing frustration for not being more involved in the songwriting. Soon after, Channing left the band, leaving Nirvana to recruit Seattle band Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters as a temporary replacement for the recording of the single “Sliver” that July. By September of 1990, Buzz Osborne of the Melvins introduced Cobain and Novoselic to drummer Dave Grohl who had been looking for a new band after the breakup of his previous group, the DC area hardcore punk band Scream. Soon after arriving in Seattle, Grohl auditioned for Nirvana and successfully got the job. Novoselic himself said of the audition, “We knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer."


Dave Grohl Joins and Commercial Success

Cobain performing in 1993

Due to their disenchantment with their current label coupled with the plenty of buzz the band was receiving from leaks off their Smart Studio sessions, Nirvana began looking for a major record label deal. Part of the reason they searched for a major record label was because the group knew they would not be able to sign with an independent record label as they would not have enough resources to buy out their contract with Sub Pop. On a recommendation from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Nirvana ultimately signed with DCG Records in 1990. Soon after, they were once again ready to record the follow up to Bleach. Although the band now had the resources to select from a variety of producers, Nirvana decided to stick with Butch Vig who had began recording the new album while they band was still signed to Sub Pop. Instead of going to Madison as they initially had done earlier for the album, Nirvana and Vig decided to record at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California near Los Angeles. The album took two months to record and featured a mix of songs that had long been a part of the group’s live repertoire – such as “In Bloom” and “Breed” – as well as several that were not formally finished until half way through the recording session.

Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991 and was never expected to be a success. Nirvana’s record label was hoping that at best, the album would reach the territory set by Sonic Youth’s Goo album which sold about 250,000 records. However, the album’s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” became a surprise instant hit thanks in part to the significant play of the song’s music video on MTV and quickly caused the album to rise in sales. By Christmas of 1991, the album began selling 400,000 copies a week, all while Nirvana itself was touring Europe and first began noticing their rise in popularity when their concerts began being dangerously oversold. Soon after in January of 1992, Nevermind took the number one spot on the US Billboard chart, displacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album. During that month when  the album reached number one, Billboard proclaimed "Nirvana is that rare band that has everything: critical acclaim, industry respect, pop radio appeal, and a rock-solid college/alternative base." Nervermind would go on to be certified Diamond (with over 10 million albums shipped in the US) and has sold over 30 million worldwide.


The End of Nirvana

During the next three years, Nirvana would go on to release their third and final studio album, In Utero, along with live releases and B-side compilations. In Utero entered the charts at number one and solidified Nirvana’s forced role as “the voice of a generation,” all of which was too much for Cobain who had been publicly battling depression, drug addiction and health issues. In early 1994, Nirvana embarked on a European tour. While in Rome, Cobain’s wife Courtney Love found him unconscious in their hotel room and Cobain was soon rushed to the hospital. It had become apparent that this was a suicide attempt when a doctor who treated Cobain stated to the press that the singer had reacted to a combination of Rohypnol and alcohol, prompting the band to cancel the rest of their tour. Soon after, Cobain’s heroin addiction had become apparent and an intervention was held which successfully convinced Cobain to enter rehab, although this would be short lived. After less than a week in rehab, Cobain escaped from the facility and returned to Seattle, although no one knew for sure his exact whereabouts until much later. On Friday, April 8, 1994, Cobain was found by a hired electrician dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound in the garage of his Seattle home. Although it is not known exactly when Cobain committed suicide, autopsy reports suggest he had been dead a few days before being found, marking the date of his death closer to April 6th.



Kurt Cobain – Guitars/Vocals

Sign outside Cobain's hometown of Aberdeen


All of Cobain's guitars are left handed models



[Note: * Dimarzio pickup in neck position and Dimarzio super distortion in bridge position, Duncan JBs during later years. Fender released a replica of this model in 2011 as Kurt Cobain’s signature Jaguar.] 





  • Boss DS-1 and DS-2 Distortions
  • Electro-Harmonix Poly Chorus
  • Electro-Harmonix Small Clone Analog Chorus
  • Electro-Harmonix Big Muff
  • Electro-Harmonix Echo Flanger
  • Tech 21 SansAmp amp simulator
  • Pro Co Rat



  • Kurt was known to use Dean Markley strings, gauge .10-.52.
  • He used Dunlop Tortex Standard picks, orange color


Krist Novoselic – Bass

Krist Novoselic with Nirvana


  • Ampeg AEB-1
  • Dobren accordion
  • Gibson EB-2
  • Gibson RD Artist
  • Gibson RD Standard
  • Gibson Ripper
  • Gibson Thunderbird IV
  • Gibson Victory
  • Guild b30E Semi-Acoustic Bass (MTV Unplugged)
  • Ibanez Black Eagle 2609B
  • Ibanez Roadster
  • Japanese Zen-On ‘60s Bass (destroyed for Smells Like Teen Spirit video)



  • Ampeg SVT II head
  • Crest 4801 Power Amp
  • Fender BXR Bass amp
  • Fender Twin Reverb
  • Hiwatt Custom 100 Watt
  • Marshall 4x12 cabinets (x4)
  • Marshall Plexi with 6550s
  • Mesa Boogie Road Ready 2x15 (x2)
  • Mesa Boogie Road Ready 4x10 cabinets (x2)
  • Numerous Ampeg SVT enclosures
  • Peavey 2x15 cabinets



  • ProCo Rat Distortion
  • Boss DS-1



  • Rotosound RS66 Long Scale Bass Strings



DAVE GROHL – Drummer/Backup Vocals

Dave Grohl with Nirvana

Nirvana-era Equipment

Drum Kit:

Circa 1991-1992: Tama Granstar kit with Superstar Snare

US Nevermind Tour: Tama Granstar II kit with Artwood Snare

US In Utero Tour: Tama Artstar II kit with Superstar Snare

All kits used the following measurements:

  • 8" × 14" Birch Snare
  • 14" × 15" Rack Tom
  • 16" × 18" Floor Tom
  • 16" × 24" Bass Drum




Zildjian A Series Medium

  • 18" Crash
  • 20" Crash
  • 22" Ride
  • 15" Hi-Hats



  • Aquarian
  • Remo



  • Tama Titan Series
  • Sonor Custom



  • DW 5000 Turbo



  • Aquarian Power-Sleeve 2B




*All images courtesey of Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise stated.



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