Nirvana Gear Guide: Kurt Cobain's Bleach-era Sound

'Nevermind' made their name. 'In Utero' was their masterpiece. But it was 'Bleach' that defined Grunge, so here's our guide to Kurt Cobain's guitar gear during that period.

Nirvana live

Picture: Kurt Cobain live with Nirvana in 1990, playing his Mosrite Mark IV "Gospel" now a new Eastwood Custom Shop project!

Alongside Mudhoney's 'Superfuzz & Big Muff', it was Nirvana's debut 'Bleach' (famously recorded by Jack Endino for just $600) which helped to define the "Grunge" sound. More than 27 (!!!) years later, it's still an inspiration for many guitarists who like their rock music dirty & simple!

Kurt Cobain used a Randall solid-state head and 4x12 cab at the time, but for the album, Kurt used Endino's Fender Twin Reverb, and the only pedal he used was a Boss DS-1 Distortion. As simple as it was effective - and anyone can pretty easily replicate this setup, since Kurt's distortion sound had more to do with the cheap Boss than anything else. 

Boss DS-1

In 1990, after the recording of 'Bleach', Kurt Cobain got the pedal that supplied some of the most memorable moments in his career - the Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus. So, Kurt was using it pre-'Nevermind' but only with this album it became really inseparable from his sound - hard to imagine songs such as Come As You Are without it!

Kurt Cobain & the Univox Hi-Flier 

Kurt Cobain and a white Univox Hi-Flier

Picture: Kurt Cobain and a white Univox Hi-Flier

The most crucial thing back then (1989-1990) was Kurt's taste for cheap Univox Hi-Flier guitars. According to Rick King, owner of Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma, Washington, Cobain "bought a whole bunch of Univox Hi-Flyers—both the P-90 version and ones with humbuckers. Those pickups have huge output and are completely over the top. He broke a lot of those guitars. We sold him several of them for an average of $100 each over the course of five years." 

Even though Kurt used several other guitars onstage (Telecaster, Epiphone ET-270 etc) according to Endino he only used Univox guitars on 'Bleach'... and played quite a few different models, live.

Kurt's Smashed Univox

Picture: Kurt's Smashed Univox in Sunburst

Kurt Cobain and a sunburst Univox which has inspired many mods since

Picture: Kurt Cobain and a sunburst Univox which has inspired many mods since

One of his most interesting Univox guitars of the period is his 68 Hi-Flier Custom, in sunburst finish with tortoiseshell pickguard - which made it look quite different than the usual Univox models.

The P90s were replaced with a Seymour Duncan 59 and JB humbucker set, and it was apparently Kurt’s favorite Univox guitar - one of the few he didn't smash, and he might've used it for 'In Utero'! ( subsequently, Kurt would use the same set of humbuckers with most of his guitars.)

This model has spawned a popular mod, such as this one:

Vintage Univox modded to look like Kurt's

Picture: Vintage Univox modded to look like Kurt's

In short - these Univox models were some of Kurt Cobain's favourite guitars, and he kept playing Hi-Fliers well into the 'In Utero' phase and last tour.  Kurt chose a white one with humbuckers for the 'Heart-Shaped Box' video and subsequent tour.

Kurt Cobain and a hardtail Hi-Flier on the Heart-Shaped Box video
Kurt Cobain and a hardtail Hi-Flier on the Heart-Shaped Box video

For this reason, it's no coincidence that our own Custom Shop Hi-Flyer models are so popular - no doubt because of many Kurt Cobain fans out there:

Custom Shop Hi-Flyer Phase 4

Eastwood Hi-Flyer Phase 4

The Custom Shop Hi-Flyer Phase 4 is our tribute to the Univox model as used by Kurt Cobain in 'Heart Shaped Box'. Read more...

Custom Shop Hi-Flyer Phase 4 DLX

Custom Shop Hi-Flyer Phase 4 DLX

The Custom Shop Hi-Flyer Phase 4 DLX comes equipped with hot P90s and tremolo, and also looks like a Univox Kurt would've played! Read more...

Custom Shop Univox Hi-Flyer

Custom Shop Univox Hi-Flyer

The Custom Shop Univox Hi-Flyer is the one that closely resembles Kurt's famous "smashed Univox" which has been exhibited in Seattle and other parts of the world.

The Kurt Cobain Mosrite Mark IV "Gospel"

Kurt Cobain and his Mosrite Mark IV "Gospel"

Picture: Kurt Cobain and his Mosrite Mark IV "Gospel"

Kurt wasn't just about the Univox Hi-Flier, either. These models were cheap Japanese copies of Mosrite guitars, and Kurt indeed used at least one Mosrite model: the Mosrite Mark IV "Gospel". Kurt used this guitar on several occasions and, as far as we know, never smashed it! It's the guitar that he played at Dave Grohl's first ever Nirvana gig in 1990, at Olympia's Nortyh Shore Surf Club.

WATCH: RARE NIRVANA FOOTAGE FROM 1990

This model is the inspiration for our new Custom Shop Mark IV tribute, which is coming out in March 2018 and, once again, seems to be a popular choice with Nirvana fans!

Custom Shop Mark IV Tribute

The new Custom Shop Mark IV Tribute. Find out more...

Our Sidejack Series is also another great choice for players who love the shape of Univox / Mosrite but want more choice of colors and other specs, such as 12-string, baritone etc. 

FIND OUT MORE:

Kurt Cobain Guitar & Gear

Guitar World Kurt Cobain article & guide 

 


10 comments

  • It takes more skill to make a masterpiece from three powerchords than a whole arsenal of chords and western classical music theory or jazz and every inversion. Aloy of musicians and people in general have this horrible habit of over complicating things that don’t need to be over complicated. Song writing and performing is one of those things. I myself am a jazz piano player and appreciate improvised expressions and all the notes and chord inversions. This is all just my opinion definitely not trying to start a debate or argument. Being able to write a good song or play an instrument well has nothing to do with how many chords or notes you cram into your expression, the execution of the idea is the product you hear. Now I’m gonna stop typing before it starts falling out my butt.

    Anonymous
  • Cobain had exceptional rhythm and timing and was a great riff writer. You just sound like the typical bitter angry right wing nutjob Irwin. What does a Nazi lover like you consider a great guitarist? I’m guessing some cringeworthy 80s “shred” that the average person considers unlistenable after 5 seconds.

    Irwin Sucks Trump
  • Got one Eastwood Sidejack Baritone, also I owe one Univox Gimme, as far as i remember Kurdt like hi fliers cuz if you flipped them they were almost like lefty strats.

    Tomasz
  • Watch out for trolls kids. You sound bitter. Life didn’t treat you well? It’s been 23 years since this guy passed away, and people are still talking about how his music has relevance. Will anyone remember your contributions to art and culture after you’re gone? Just as you’ve made valuable contributions to the descussion. But what do I know? These guitars look great! I think everybody should buy one even if you’re not a fan of the Nervanna.

    Matt C
  • Irwin Rommel is a certified child molester.

    GOD

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