Trending: How Bands Like Nirvana Change Gear Trends


Nirvana is an important band for me.  They broke out when I was in middle school, right about the time I had become just dangerous enough on the guitar to pull together a few chords and a melody and build something resembling a song.  It was also around this time that I started connecting with other people my age that could play music and were interested in forming bands.  Nirvana was everywhere, and it was naturally that my friends and I took many of our musical cues from their material.  The imprint Nirvana left on my musical DNA can’t be denied.

Among the aftershocks that came from that significant shift in the musical environment was the gear favored by the larger guitar playing community.  While Cobain often used standard Strats hot rodded with Seymour Duncan humbuckers, the immortal Boss DS-1 (a pedal familiar to many hard rock and shred musicians) and a rack-based preamp/power amp set-up which all, in a sense, kept some of aspects of 1980s electric guitar culture alive, the glitz and glam of custom graphics, pointy headstocks, massive effects racks and dive bombs only capable with a Floyd Rose were shoved aside in the new cultural mosh pit.  Even guitars with a DIY soul, like Eddie Van Halen’s famous Frankenstein Strat, were generally shunned for their radical graphics and the music they were associated with.

In many ways, the attitudes towards gear that originated with grunge movement live on.  It revitalized the desire for Fender Jazzmasters, Jaguars and Mustangs, guitars not initially viewed as classics and relegated to the bargain bin as higher performance features came into favor.  An early 1960s Jazzmaster that might have fetched $200 or $300 in 1989 easily runs ten or fifteen times that today.  That’s not normal inflation, folks.  It’s hard for me to imagine any other musical phenomenon that could’ve given life to such a trend.

I also think that it further endeared the guitar community towards classic guitar design in general, whether the player was connected to grunge or not.  Paul Gilbert, another major influence of mine, went from boldly colored Ibanez RGs emblazoned with day-glow F-holes to the Fireman design, which still evokes the radical styles of the 1970s and 1980s but dresses it up with finishes that show off the natural wood and DiMarzio Air Classic pickups, which take their tonal cues from the humbucker designs of the 1950s and 1960s.  The Jackson Adrian Smith model and many offerings from the Chapman line of guitars have all the trappings of high performance 1980s guitars, but with an obvious classic influence.

Eventually, partly due to Cobain’s death, grunge itself would crowdsurf its way to the exit.  The odd thing is that as much as I still enjoy the music of Nirvana, I don’t think it has aged very well.  Of course,  Nirvana never had the chance to amass a large catalog from which we can trace their evolution, unlike many major bands and figures from the era that have developed sounds that arguably  bear little resemblance to grunge (Dave Grohl, we’re looking in your direction).  So who knows what they would’ve eventually given us.  But while the quality of the music is up for debate, something from that era that did last is the continuing  influence it has on the way we approach our gear.  And even though they had a tough go of it for a few years, the eye-catching looks of the shred machines of the 1980s proved their resilience.  The bright colors and razor-sharp angles of the 1980s have come back in force from makers like tried-and-true B.C. Rich, ESP and Dean as well as newcomers like Halo Custom Guitars.

You might even say that the radical designs of the 1980s have become just as classic as the Stratocaster, Telecaster or Les Paul.  Sometimes, it takes a trend to remind us what survives it.

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