Nirvana Guitar Tech Explains Kurt Cobain’s Love For Fender Guitars, The ‘Unplugged’ Guitar, Why He Didn’t Use A Les Paul

Earnie Bailey, guitar tech for Nirvana worked with Foo Fighters, explains why Kurt Cobain loved Fender, not Les Paul, his Unplugged guitar.

Getty Image / Jeff Kravitz / Contributor

Earnie Bailey has decades of experience as a guitar tech, including working with Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Brandi Carlile, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. In a recent interview with Ultimate Guitar, Ernie reveals what it was like to tour with Kurt Cobain right before his death.

Earnie Bailey first became interested in guitar when he was a teenager in the late 1970s. He lived in a quiet rural area, and he occupied his time by playing his electric guitar, and he also deconstructed his guitar to get a better grasp of how his musical instrument worked.

“I decided to completely dismantle and reassemble my Ibanez Destroyer,” he told Guitar magazine. “In the process, I learned much of how it worked and gained a basic understanding of what could be adjusted and how those details could make the instrument easier to play.”

That sparked a new fascination and career of being a guitar tech. He would go to his local public library to read Guitar Player magazine and learn about mods and repair work. A few years later, he was working with the legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn.

“He played at a club in Spokane Washington called Gatsby’s Boogie Ballroom in mid-1983, not long after David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album came out,” he told Ultimate Guitar. “I was working in a repair shop downtown on Howard St when he came in with a Stratocaster that was binding at the nut when he used the tremolo. He and the guitar were in the shop for under 20 minutes, and I remember not charging for the repair, and him purchasing an uncut Schecter brass nut blank before leaving.”

He was working with one of the greatest guitar players of all-time despite not being old enough to get into the ballroom that Stevie Ray Vaughn was performing at.

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By 1991, Bailey became a guitar tech for Nirvana and worked with Cobain until his final show on March 1, 1994, in Munich, Germany, during the In Utero world tour.

“After seeing them [Nirvana] live a few times, I wondered if there was a pattern in his unusual choices of equipment and was curious to hear his thoughts on all that,” Bailey said. “So I had questions, and our first lengthy conversation covered the topic of unconventional guitars and circuits.”

“I can recall thinking the cadence of his conversation was unusual,” he explained of his first interaction with Cobain. “He held strong, detailed opinions about music, art, and some of the guitar equipment was cynical in his overall nature, asked as many questions in return.”

It is well-known that Kurt’s favorite brand of guitars was Fender, most famously his Mustang. Fender didn’t make a left-handed Mustang guitar, so Cobain had Fender’s custom guitar shop make him one. Kurt Cobain’s custom Fender Mustang guitar that he used during Nirvana’s In Utero tour was sold at an auction last month for $340,000.

When asked why Kurt preferred Fender guitars, and Bailey had a speculation. “Fender guitars are easy to disassemble and modify, if you are curious,” he told Ultimate Guitar. “This kind of experimentation with your guitar creates a closer connection while advancing your knowledge of the instrument that you’ve chosen to carry with you through your career.”

“More practically, Fender guitars were the easiest guitars to acquire in a left-handed configuration, and it was easy to find used ones,” Earnie theorized. “Replacement parts, except for pickguards and tuning heads, were also pretty easy to come by. So his affinity could have also come from availability.”

Kurt Cobain himself confirmed this theory in his February 1992 interview with Guitar World.

“I’m left-handed, and it’s not very easy to find reasonably priced, high-quality left-handed guitars. But out of all the guitars in the whole world, the Fender Mustang is my favorite. I’ve only owned two of them,” Cobain said.

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Bailey revealed that Kurt Cobain didn’t always play on Fender guitars, and used a Les Paul, but for only one performance. “He preferred the imported copies and owned two of them. And with that, he stated that he looked like Jimmy Page when he played his, and he would not play a Les Paul out in public,” he stated.

There was a very Kurt Cobain-esque reason why he didn’t like using Les Paul guitars from Gibson: “He did not want to look even remotely like the iconic guitar players that he grew up listening to.”

“We’ve been offered a Gibson endorsement, but I can’t find a Gibson I like,” Kurt said in his final Guitar World interview.

Earnie, who started a company called Wire Instruments that makes his own line of guitars and effects pedals, also modified Cobain’s pedals or amps.

“His primary Mesa Boogie Studio .22 preamp took a few hard hits, resulting in damage to the reverb circuit,” Bailey said. “He didn’t utilize the reverb effect, so rather than repair it, we made the decision to either remove or bypass it.”

“Another amp I worked extensively on was his early 80’s Fender Twin, which had a pair of working 6L6s and a shattered fourth power tube, among its issues,” he stated. “As I recall, any mods to this amp would have been based on stability, as we were both on board with the ultra-linear design in the Rivera designed Twin II circuit.”

“The slider switch on the Small Clone, Echo Flanger, and Polychorus were easily damaged, so it was not uncommon to hardwire these to their utilized settings, and I remember wiring at least two Small Clones to the deep setting,” Bailey told Ultimate Guitar. “Some, but not all pedals were true bypassed, as we carried spares at times. There were also pedals and amps that I either heavily modded, or built from the ground up that got use in the studio.

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For Nirvana’s iconic MTV Unplugged performance in November of 1993, Kurt used a D-18E Martin acoustic guitar. Bailey believes that Cobain used the D-18E Martin “because it was so strange and unique for a Martin acoustic.”

“I’m guessing the visual statement behind playing a Martin with an absurd array of electronics mounted to the top, was his reasoning behind choosing it for Unplugged, considering the Epiphone Texas was a fantastic sounding guitar, while the D-18E was at the other end of the sonic spectrum,” Earnie speculated.

Earnie revealed that the rehearsals for Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged went “badly.” But the band turned it all around for a remarkable acoustic set.

One of the greatest moments from the Unplugged session was when Nirvana covered David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, but during the rehearsal, Bailey said: “it became the most difficult song for them to lock down.” They nailed it in the final performance, and even David Bowie took notice.

“I spoke with David Bowie backstage at Madison Square Garden in January of ‘97, and he stated that he liked Nirvana’s version [The Man Who Sold the World] better than his original. And, that it was the only time he enjoyed hearing a cover of one of his songs,” Bailey said.

Bailey said his favorite concerts that he has ever seen have including Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York, Nirvana’s shows in São Paulo, the Roseland Ballroom, and the 1992 MTV Music Awards.

Earnie also loved Brandi Carlile’s performance at the 2019 Grammy Awards, Radiohead performing Paranoid Android on the Jools Holland show, and David Bowie’s 50th birthday at Madison Square Garden.

Bailey was able to play alongside Dave Grohl on a song titled Dave with Echoplex. “Grohl and I jamming,” Earnie said. “He played drums, and I played a Maestro Theremin running through a Maestro Echoplex, and that was either the caught tail end of a longer jam, or an attempt to recreate a powerful accidental polyrhythm we had going a few minutes earlier.”

It is a very interesting interview and you can read the entire piece over at Ultimate Guitar.

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