The Kurt Cobain Jaguar

The Kurt Cobain Jaguar
A look at the guitar and a look back at the musician, the band and the times …

The Kurt Cobain Jaguar.

There’s a lot of music history packed into Fender’s new Kurt Cobain Jaguar® guitar.

For starters it evokes the original era of the model’s design. Probably more than any other instrument, the Jaguar (1962) embodies the look of Fender in the 1960s. Even more sleek curves. A lot of chrome. A lot of controls. A slightly shorter scale designed to make it go head-to-head with some competing contemporaries. A Jaguar contains the very essence of the Fender of the 1960s.

That’s all here in this guitar.

Now skip ahead 30 years, and the same guitar also evokes a whole other era. It resurrects the subversive atmosphere of the early 1990s, when a dynamic trio from tiny Aberdeen, Wash., went head-to-head with its competing contemporaries, annihilated them and embarked on a meteoric and oft-controversial career during which it  ruled rock with airtight hits and stunning performances. Its three members did this even as they rejected the labels heaped on them by what New York Times music critic Jon Pareles called “the mall-walking millions”—world’s biggest band, leaders of a movement, slacker idols, voice of their generation and so on (“They were really just goofy guys,” said their own guitar tech, Earnie Bailey, in 2011, a description that they would perhaps appreciate and agree with the most. “It was odd to think that there was a big, serious world out there wanting them to show up and do these performances and that everybody’s lives depended on seeing this band”). Whatever they were or weren’t, Nirvana drained you. Completely.

That’s all here in this guitar, too.

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Seattle, Sept. 16, 1991: Cobain playing his 1965 Jaguar at a Beehive Music & Video in-store release event for Nevermind.
Photo by Charles Peterson

It’s worth pausing to remember just what a truly monumental musical and cultural phenomenon Nirvana really was at the time; to remember that when the band detonated in the early 1990s, they obliterated everything in their path, including hair metal (thankfully, to many), but also more than a few of the mid-level alt and indie bands that Nirvana themselves were quick to credit as seminal influences.

Before Nirvana, alt-indie rock was what the suits would call a niche market; a form that, in the words of music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “was consigned to specialty sections of record stores, and major labels considered it to be, at the very most, a tax write-off.” But after the fall 1991 release of monster major label debut Nevermind, Erlewine noted, “nothing was ever quite the same, for better and for worse.”

It was an album that seemed to singlehandedly establish, as MSNBC observed in 2004 on the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s passing, “the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock in general.”

Cobain got the Jaguar right around that time, in late summer 1991, when he saw an ad for it in the L.A. Recycler. Most likely, it appealed to him for several reasons. First, it was a left-handed model, and it’s not like lefty Jaguars have ever been in abundant supply. For that reason alone, he probably jumped at the chance to get it. Second, Jaguars have a slightly shorter scale than most other Fender guitar models, and Cobain was known to like another short-scale Fender model, the Mustang. Third, Jaguars had long been considered somewhat offbeat models, and relatively inexpensive ones at that—two other qualities know to hold particular appeal for him.

There may well have been yet another reason the guitar appealed to Cobain. His guitar tech, Earnie Bailey, surmised that:

I think he just liked the lines of the Jaguar, and I think he just liked the whole California surf thing and the history that went along with Fender guitars … With that, he never really told me exactly why, but I just sort of looked at it and thought that he either appreciates the surf era or the surf style that came about on the second wave with the early-’80s punk and new wave bands.

It was clearly an older instrument with some wear and tear. Did Cobain realize when he got it that it was a vintage 1960s Fender, and did that matter to him? Hard to say, but the combination of a left-handed short-scale guitar that was an offbeat model and easily affordable was very likely just too good to pass up.

In full: The Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar.

It was not, however, an ordinary Jaguar from 1965 or any year. Most notably it had an odd control configuration. Jaguar guitars, introduced in 1962, typically had two control knobs (master volume, master tone) and three slider switches mounted on a chrome plate on the lower horn (really just barely a horn)—two on/off pickup switches and a “lead circuit” switch (the more pronounced upper horn housed controls for a separate “rhythm circuit”).

Cobain’s 1965 Jaguar, on the other hand, had three control knobs, and the chrome plate on the lower horn only had cutouts for two slider switches, one of which was empty (covered with tape) and one of which housed a pickup selector toggle switch. What’s truly unusual is that it appeared to come that way originally; as if it were a one-off version from the Fender factory or perhaps a custom model commissioned by an unknown original owner (“It had all these interesting, almost Tom Verlaine-style mods going on with it,” Bailey noted).

Other modifications were present—the guitar had dual humbucking pickups instead of the standard single-coil pickups (a DiMarzio® Super Distortion at the bridge and a DiMarzio® PAF at the neck), a smaller Stratocaster-size headstock, and a “spaghetti” Fender logo of the kind found on 1950s-era guitars; further, the headstock logo on Cobain’s Jaguar had been applied under the lacquer finish, whereas original 1950s Fender guitars had logo decals applied over the finish. The guitar also came in a flight case, so at some point in its then-quarter-century history, someone had presumably used it as a touring instrument. Who? Nobody knows.

“To me that’s the greatest mystery,” Bailey said. “It had a flight case. And you’re talking about a guitar that at the time was probably worth maybe $300. So someone had commissioned really extensive modifications on it and then paid for a flight case for it.”

Whatever mysteries lay behind the Jaguar’s history and anatomy, Cobain was seldom seen onstage without it after late August 1991. He started using it onstage nearly as soon as he got it, which, evidently, was sometime just after an especially good show at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood on Aug. 15, 1991, and just before the band left for an Aug. 20-Sept. 1 European tour. Looking back, he didn’t have it at the Roxy show, but he played it in Europe, a trip that included Nirvana’s first performance at the U.K.’s Reading Festival (Aug. 23).

On returning from Europe, Cobain played the Jaguar at the infamous Sept. 16, 1991, in-store appearance at Beehive Music & Video in Seattle that served as a release event for Nevermind. Lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had been released only days earlier on Sept. 10, and the album was scheduled for release on Sept. 24. Hopes were high for it—label Geffen Records was hoping to sell 250,000 copies of Nevermind, roughly equaling the success of Sonic Youth’s June 1990 Geffen debut, Goo.

Among numerous U.S. shows the next month, Cobain played the Jaguar at the even more infamous Trees club performance on Oct. 19 in Dallas. Even by the time of this show, less than a month after Nevermind’s release, it was becoming clear that the momentum behind the album was steadily snowballing into something beyond initial expectations.

England, Aug. 30, 1992: Cobain playing the Jaguar during Nirvana’s famous headlining performance at the Reading Festival.
Photo by Charles Peterson

As Nirvana returned to Europe in November 1991, Nevermind hit Billboard’s Top 40 at number 35 (it had debuted there at 144) and was selling so fast that none of Geffen’s marketing strategies could keep pace. As recounted in author Michael Azerrad’s 1993 book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt told the New York Times then that “We didn’t do anything—it was just one of those ‘Get out of the way and duck’ records.” It was certified U.S. gold and platinum that November.

The album was a genuine phenomenon. It hit number one on Jan. 11, 1992, ousting Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top spot. That was also the date of Nirvana’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live, when millions of viewers saw Cobain play the Jaguar on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nevermind was now selling 300,000 copies a week.

Nirvana found itself at the center of a maelstrom, in exhausting demand and left to cope with a level of stardom and scrutiny they would never have contemplated in a million years only months earlier. Many other memorable shows ensued, including the band’s momentous return to the Reading Festival, where they headlined the closing night on Aug. 30, 1992. There, the Jaguar was once again front-and-center in Cobain’s hands, and the show remains widely regarded as one of Nirvana’s most memorable performances.

Cobain played the unusual 1965 Jaguar everywhere. He played it on stages and in TV studios from one end of the Earth to the other, and the guitar survived all of it. It was in fact one of the few that he didn’t destroy, although it did take some memorably jarring knocks, most notably at the Trees show in Dallas; a Sept. 1, 1991, show in Rotterdam, Netherlands; and a massive show in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Jan. 16, 1993.

Cobain had Bailey do remarkably little to the guitar other than routine maintenance work. Bailey did profess to reluctantly replacing the red rubber Grolsch beer bottle washers with “proper strap locks,” and he might have replaced the nut and tuners. Cobain used the Jaguar for the early 1993 recording of third album In Utero, for which he had Bailey remove the tape covering the controls and “get all the switches wired back into play.” The only other significant mod Bailey performed was to swap out the bridge pickup with a JB for the 1993-1994 In Utero tour, although the guitar saw little use during that period.

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It’s hard to believe that Nevermind is 20 years old now; that Nirvana’s brief, intense career happened two decades ago even though the band’s music and legacy live on today as potently as ever. For many fans, Kurt’s memory lives on as potently as ever, too.

More easily reckoned is that the Fender Jaguar is about to turn 50. It was never intended to rule the mainstream like its ubiquitous older brothers, the Telecaster® and the Stratocaster®, but the Jaguar nonetheless carved out its own distinctive and enduring place in electric guitar history. It’s one of those Fender models long preferred by those who’d rather take the path less traveled, be it a reverb-drenched surf guitarist of the ’60s, a lip-curling punk of the ’70s, an alt-indie pioneer of the ’80s, or any label-leery slogan-eschewing guitarist of the ’90s (Nirvana certainly dismissed endless such instances) and right up to the present.

Kurt Cobain wielded his Jaguar with an instinctive and well-honed understanding of how to wring great songs out of it. It wasn’t complicated. He liked a lot of things about it. It suited him. He didn’t baby it; he wasn’t that kind of person. It was his number-one guitar for a while there. He sure as hell put it to good use.


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