Kurt Cobain's Greatest Riffs
Published on 19 February 2021
On the 20th of February, the late Kurt Cobain would have celebrated his 54th birthday. As tragic as it sounds, it’s almost impossible to imagine him at that age. It’s also tough to picture him in this era of music, using social media for promo and capitalising on endless merch sales. His music spoke to a generation, inspiring countless artists to pick up the guitar and discover the magic of stringing a few simple chords together. Kurt’s time on this earth may have been short but he certainly made an impact.
His tortured songwriting and furious vocals made him stand out even in the most epic era of grunge and it would’ve been a joy to watch his music develop over the last couple of decades.
As much as he’s hailed as one of the great voices of the ‘90s, we reckon his guitar playing is criminally underrated. Kurt may not have been the most technical but he attacked his instrument in a way that no one else did. From wild squealing solos like In Bloom, to raw, stripped back melodies on tracks like Dumb, he always seemed to come up with the perfect guitar parts for every song. However, it was his riffs that really stood out.
Today, in honour of his legacy, we want to shout out some of his greatest riffs. Check out our list below and get these turned up loud - it’s only right.
Let’s start off in the Bleach era, Nirvana’s most grungey sounding album and one which was ripe with huge guitar tones. Our first pick is in fact, the first track, Blew. Opening with a big chunky bassline before Kurt’s guitar brings it up a gear, it’s so heavy and fat sounding that it acts as the perfect introduction to the band’s sound.
When recording it, the guys didn’t realise they were already tuned to their trusty drop D and ended up laying down the album version instead in Drop C. They actually mistakenly recorded a fair few tracks from Bleach in that tuning and when they returned to the studio the next day, they had to re-record and touch up almost everything. Blew survived though. Something about that rumbly bass and that growling guitar was just so menacing that they knew they couldn’t change it.
From the very start of School, the fourth track on Nirvana’s debut album, you know you’re in for a treat. Simple but extremely effective, which is kind of the Cobain way, this riff is proper epic from the start… Then the drums kick in. Thick, aggressive and angry with a powerful chorus, this has to be up there with Nirvana’s best work. It's raw, heavy and slow - everything that their early music was about.
‘I’m a Negative Creep and I’m stoned’ may not be Kurt's Shakespearean lyric but don’t let that put you off an absolutely phenomenal track! This riff hammers home the chaos his playing brought to any track he touched. The second it starts you feel the intensity building with low, heavy slides that sound brutal in the best way possible. The thick fuzzy tone he uses sets his playing off perfectly with some mad sounding bends and slides to accent his vocal parts in the verses. True grunge right here folks.
Been a Son
This track is possibly best known from the band’s Incesticide compilation of live recordings and B-sides but it was actually first released as part of the Blew EP. In fact, it’s safe to say that Been a Son points to the direction the band were heading in with a catchy, distorted pop guitar hook that draws you in from the first note. The lyrics deal with sexism in society backed by a far more melodic sound than Nirvana’s first album.
For those who heard it early, this was a step away from the slow and heavy band they were used to. In hindsight, it was the dawn of a new style of writing for Kurt and became a classic of their early material.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Onto Nevermind and the track that catapulted the band from an unknown Seattle outfit to one of the most famous groups on the planet. Smells Like Teen Spirit is iconic for so many reasons - the quiet verse and loud chorus, the lyrics, the composition, the production... but that riff… No matter how many times you hear it you never get sick of it.
Simple but absolutely brilliant, this riff leads us into both the perfect pop song and the absolute antidote of that. As if the riff alone isn’t enough, Dave Grohl had taken his place in the band at this point and the pounding sound of his opening fill on Teen Spirit may just be one of the most iconic of all time.
After a far more polished, poppy sound than fans of Bleach were used to in the opening few tracks of Nevermind, Nirvana return to more familiar territory with the fuzz laced opening riff of Breed. This is among the greatest intros of all time with the chunky bass mirroring Kurt’s guitar and a rapid drum roll building up to the first verse.
Kurt had a knack for finding seemingly simple parts that could light a crowd on fire and there’s no better example than this. The tone alone is incredible but the simplicity and impact of that riff is something you’ll never forget.
Serve the Servants
Nirvana’s In Utero is often regarded as Kurt’s finest songwriting. It’s a complex and daring record that dives into his personal struggles but remains extremely powerful and musical. If there’s one thing to be taken from this list it’s that Mr Cobain knew a thing or two about opening an album because every first track on the band’s studio releases is an absolute banger.
Serve the Servants is no different with an awesome overdriven tone and some weird chord shapes that are almost Hendrix-esque. This is the perfect lead into the twisted indie sound of the album and its main riff gets stuck in your head for hours after you hear it.
The final song on Nirvana’s In Utero is one of their masterpieces. The brooding track starts with a haunting drop D riff that repeats throughout and is easily among Kurt’s most memorable guitar parts. While the majority of the album edged away from the polished production of Nevermind, its final breath offers a more melodic yet sombre feel that’s pretty different to most of their work.
The infectious guitar hook builds throughout the track, getting heavier as it reaches its crescendo and is backed by haunting backing vocals which fade out slowly as the music dies away. If you have to listen to one Nirvana track this just might be it. Kurt may be remembered for distorted fuzzy tones and smashing up the stage but these moments were every bit as important.
Is it time for us to dive into the drum kit now? Certainly feels like it... Look out Dave!
While we’d have loved to see how Kurt’s playing and writing would have evolved over time, the snapshot that he gave us was radical, raw, angry, sorrowful, happy, quirky, funny and everything in between. True legends will be remembered forever and we absolutely assure you, his music is going nowhere. Let us know your favourite riffs of his on Facebook or just pick up your guitar and bash a few out, either way works for us!