Kurt Cobain was the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Nirvana, one of the most influential and popular rock bands of the 1990s. His guitar playing was not flashy or virtuosic, but it was powerful, expressive, and original.
Kurt Cobain created memorable riffs that defined the sound of grunge and alternative rock, and influenced generations of musicians. In this article, we will explore some of his best riffs, how he created them, and why they are so effective.
What is a riff?
A short musical phrase that is repeated or varied throughout a song is a riff. Any instrument can play it, but the electric guitar is the most common one.
A riff can serve different functions in a song, such as providing a hook, establishing a groove, creating contrast, or building tension. A good riff is catchy, memorable, and fits the mood and style of the song.
How did Kurt Cobain create his riffs?
Kurt Cobain was not a trained musician. He learned to play guitar by ear, and did not follow any rules or conventions. Cobain often used unconventional tunings, such as drop D or drop C#, to create heavier and darker sounds.
He also experimented with different effects pedals, such as distortion, chorus, flanger, and phaser, to add texture and depth to his tone. Kurt Cobain was influenced by various genres of music, such as punk rock, metal, pop, and folk, and incorporated elements from them into his own style.
Cobain’s riffs were usually based on simple chords or power chords (chords that consist of only the root and the fifth notes of a scale). He would often move these chords around the fretboard in different patterns or sequences, or add or remove notes to create variations.
He would also use single-note melodies or arpeggios (chords played one note at a time) to create contrast or harmony with the chords. Kurt Cobain would sometimes use chromatic notes (notes that are not in the key of the song) or dissonant intervals (notes that clash with each other) to create tension or surprise.
Cobain’s riffs were not meant to be complex or impressive. They were meant to be expressive and emotional. He used his riffs to convey his feelings and thoughts, whether they were angry, sad, happy, or sarcastic.
Kurt Cobain also used his riffs to communicate with his audience, whether they were fans, critics, or peers. He wanted his riffs to be accessible and relatable to anyone who listened to them.
What are some of Kurt Cobain’s best riffs?
Depending on one’s personal preference and criteria, many riffs could be Kurt Cobain’s best. However, some of his most iconic and influential riffs are:
Smells Like Teen Spirit
This is probably the most famous riff in Nirvana’s discography, and one of the most recognizable riffs in rock history. It was inspired by Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, but Kurt Cobain added his own twist to it by using power chords and distortion.
The riff consists of four power chords: F5-Bb5-Ab5-Db5. The riff plays the first chord for four beats, the second for two beats, the third for two beats, and the fourth for four beats. It repeats four times for each verse and chorus of the song.
The riff is simple but effective. It creates a catchy hook that draws the listener in. It also establishes a contrast between the quiet verses and the loud choruses of the song, which reflects Kurt Cobain’s dynamic vocal delivery. The riff also matches the lyrics of the song, which are about teenage rebellion and apathy.
Come As You Are
This is another well-known riff from Nirvana’s second album Nevermind. Killing Joke’s “Eighties” influenced it, but Kurt Cobain changed the key and added some effects to it. The riff plays on a single string (the low E string), with a shimmering sound from a chorus pedal.
The riff consists of four notes: E-F#-A-Bb. It plays the first note for two beats, the second for one beat, the third for one beat, and the fourth for two beats. It continues throughout the verses of the song.
The riff is simple but haunting. It creates a hypnotic groove that sets the mood for the song. It also complements Kurt Cobain’s vocals, which are soft and subdued in this song. The riff also matches the lyrics of the song, which are about acceptance and identity.
This is one of the most complex and creative riffs in Nirvana’s discography, and one of the highlights of their third and final album In Utero. It was inspired by a children’s toy that Kurt Cobain had, which played a melody when opened. The riff is played on two strings (the A and D strings), with a distortion pedal that creates a heavy sound.
The riff consists of six notes: A-G#-F#-E-D-C#. It plays the first note for two beats, the second for one beat, the third for one beat, the fourth for two beats, the fifth for one beat, and the sixth for one beat. It repeats twice for each verse and chorus of the song.
The riff is complex but catchy. It creates a melodic hook that contrasts with the abrasive sound of the guitar. It also showcases Kurt Cobain’s skill as a guitarist, as he plays the riff with precision and speed. The riff also matches the lyrics of the song, which are about love and obsession.
This is one of the most beautiful and poignant riffs in Nirvana’s discography, and one of the last songs they recorded. Kurt Cobain wrote it originally in 1990, but he reworked and recorded it for their MTV Unplugged performance in 1993.
The riff is played on an acoustic guitar, with a cello that adds a layer of harmony. The riff consists of four chords: C5-G5-D5-F5. It plays the first chord for four beats, the second for four beats, the third for four beats, and the fourth for eight beats. It continues throughout the song.
The riff is simple but moving. It creates a soothing and melancholic atmosphere that suits the acoustic setting of the song. It also highlights Kurt Cobain’s vocals, which are sincere and emotional in this song. The riff also matches the lyrics of the song, which are about regret and forgiveness.
This is one of the most energetic and catchy riffs in Nirvana’s discography, and one of their most popular songs. Kurt Cobain wrote it in 1990, drawing inspiration from his experience with religion and bipolar disorder. The riff features a crunchy sound from a distortion pedal on an electric guitar.
The riff consists of four power chords: D5-F#5-B5-G5. It plays the first chord for four beats, the second for two beats, the third for two beats, and the fourth for four beats. It repeats twice for each verse and chorus of the song.
The riff is simple but powerful. It creates a driving and upbeat rhythm that contrasts with the dark and sarcastic lyrics of the song. It also reflects Kurt Cobain’s vocal style, which switches from calm to aggressive in this song. The riff also matches the lyrics of the song, which are about happiness and madness.
The Bottom Line
Kurt Cobain was a master of creating riffs that were simple but effective. He used his guitar as an extension of his voice and his emotions, and he communicated with his audience through his music.
Kurt Cobain’s riffs were not only catchy and memorable, but also meaningful and influential. He left behind a legacy of riffs that are still admired and imitated by many musicians today.