Cobain described the sound of Nirvana when it first started as “a Gang of Four and Scratch Acid ripoff”. Later when Nirvana recorded Bleach, Cobain felt he had to fit the expectations of the Sub Pop grunge sound to build a fanbase, and hence suppressed his arty and pop songwriting traits while crafting the record in favor of a more rocking sound.
Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad argued, “Ironically, it was the restrictions of the Sub Pop sound that helped the band find its musical identity”. Azerrad stated that by acknowledging that its members had grown up listening to Black Sabbath and Aerosmith, the band was able to move on from its derivative early sound.
Nirvana used dynamic shifts that went from quiet to loud. Cobain had sought to mix heavy and pop musical sounds; he commented, “I wanted to be totally Led Zeppelin in a way and then be totally extreme punk rock and then do real wimpy pop songs”.
When Cobain heard the Pixies’ 1988 album Surfer Rosa after recording Bleach, he felt it had the sound he wanted to achieve but until then was too intimidated to try. The Pixies’ subsequent popularity encouraged Cobain to follow his instincts as a songwriter.
Like the Pixies, Nirvana moved between “spare bass-and-drum grooves and shrill bursts of screaming guitar and vocals”. Near the end of his life, Cobain noted the band had become bored by the formula, finding it limited, but he expressed doubts that the band was skilled enough to try other dynamics.
Cobain’s rhythm guitar style, which relied on power chords, low-note riffs, and a loose left-handed technique, featured the key components to the band’s songs. Cobain would often initially play a song’s verse riff in a clean tone, then double it with distorted guitars when he repeated the part.
In some songs the guitar would be absent from the verses entirely to allow the drums and bass guitar to support the vocals, or it would only play sparse melodies like the two-note pattern used in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Cobain rarely played standard guitar solos, opting to play slight variations of the song’s melody as single note lines.
Cobain’s solos were mostly blues-based and out of tune, which music writer Jon Chappell described as “almost an iconoclastic parody of the traditional instrumental break”, a quality typified by the note-for-note replication of the lead melody in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the atonal solo for “Breed”.
When asked about their musical education, the band states that they had no formal musical training. In fact, Cobain says: “I have no concept of knowing how to be a musician at all what-so-ever…I couldn’t even pass Guitar 101.”
Grohl’s drumming “took Nirvana’s sound to a new level of intensity”. Azerrad stated that Grohl’s “powerful drumming propelled the band to a whole new plane, visually as well as musically”, noting, “Although Dave is a merciless basher, his parts are also distinctly musical—it wouldn’t be difficult to figure out what song he was playing even without the rest of the music.”
From 1992, Cobain and Novoselic would tune their guitars to E flat for studio and live performances (up until then, their live tunings were to concert pitch).Cobain noted, “We play so hard we can’t tune our guitars fast enough.”
The band made a habit of destroying its equipment after shows. Novoselic said he and Cobain created the “shtick” in order to get off of the stage sooner. Cobain stated it began as an expression of his frustration with Chad Channing making mistakes and dropping out entirely during performances.
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