Nirvana Guitar Tech Earnie Bailey Talks Kurt Cobain's Go-To Gear

Earnie Bailey knows a thing or two about gear. As the main guitar tech for Nirvana through most of the band’s touring career, Earnie helped Kurt, Krist and Dave find the right gear and keep it running strong on stages the world over.

After Nirvana, Earnie worked with a number of other acts including the Foo Fighters, before launching his own line of custom guitars, Wire Instruments.

We recently talked to Earnie about his experiences with Nirvana, his influences as a luthier and more.

How did you first get involved with Nirvana?

Before moving to Seattle in the 1980s, I had been a fixture in the Spokane punk scene, and had a guitar repair shop there. A friend of mine named Rob Kader was a friend and roommate of one of the band members, and we would go see them play around town pretty early on. A few years later they were in a position to have someone onboard who could do mods and repairs to the guitars, amps and effect pedals.

From your experience touring the world with the band, were they the sort of players always on the prowl for new guitars and gear or was it more just play whatever was there?

Nirvana were more utility-minded. They knew what they liked, but there were only a few things I was asked to be on the lookout for. We took a fairly small group of instruments out on the road, and replenishment was steady with respect to guitars getting damaged or broken.

Most people associated Kurt with offset Fenders — Jaguars and Mustangs. What are some of the other guitars he played?

He played Stratocasters as much, if not more often than the Jags and Mustangs during the Nevermind tours. The Univox Hi Flier was common in the early days. A Mosrite Gospel, Epiphone ET-270, and an Aria Pro II Cardinal all saw extended use early on.

Near the end he began inquiring about metal neck guitars, after borrowing Steve Albini’s Veleno for several tracks on In Utero, and his being a fan of the Jesus Lizard and Duane Dennison’s extensive use of a Travis Bean.

How about pedals. Did he do a lot of experimentation with effects while recording or on tour, or was it more just stick to a few key pedals?

On tour it was typically two pedals taped to the stage, on the In Utero tour he was up to four. I had offered to build Kurt a proper pedalboard, but he preferred them taped to the stage running on battery power. I had several milk crates full of old pedals that I would bring to recording sessions, so there was some time spent experimenting there.

During one session I recall Kurt hooking up 8 or 9 pedals in a row, and having them all turned off. These were old pedals from the days before true bypass, so the overall effect on his guitar signal made it sound pretty starved. I suggested removing all the unused pedals to strengthen his signal, and he replied that he liked it that way, and wanted it to sound really bad. He was a blast to work with as his ideas were unconventional, and he was open-minded to ideas both linear and abstract.

There's a real shift between the sound of Nevermind and In Utero. A lot's been said about the collaboration with Steve Albini and the impact that had, but what else can you tell us about the gear they were using at the time?

For Nevermind I believe Kurt primarily used Japanese Stratocasters outfitted with full-size humbuckers in the bridge, along with his Fender Telecaster and possibly his Mosrite Gospel. He used a Fender Bassman, a Vox AC30 and several other amps for the layered guitars on Nevermind. Krist Novoselic used 1970s Gibson Ripper basses for both albums. He would utilize the Varitone switch that gave those basses such a unique sound.

For the In Utero recording, Kurt used his competition blue Mustang, his Fender Jaguar and Albini’s aluminum Veleno guitar. I know he used a Fender Quad Reverb and a Marshall Plexi 100 that Krist had also used for bass tracks.

What's something about Kurt and Nirvana's gear most people don't know?

How little it truly mattered. They were a rock band that used both good and bad equipment, but in the end, it was the songwriting that made them important.

For players looking to obtain the quintessential Nirvana tone, what are some essential pieces of gear?

A Fender guitar with a bridge humbucker, the Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal, an Electro Harmonix Small Clone, and a Fender Twin Reverb.

Tell us a bit about Wire Instruments. How did that get started?

After 30 years of doing repairs, restorations, building random one off guitars, and being history buff on the topic, I felt a challenge to make something tangible to show for this accumulated knowledge. And the thought that it was important for a critic of this instrument to bring something to the table that not only demonstrates your ideas, but opens them up for improvement.

So Wire Instruments began as a mission to build guitars and basses in the USA that were essentially stylized workhorses built for working and touring musicians.

I know you're something of a Travis Bean enthusiast. What is it that makes Travis Bean guitars and basses so special?

Travis Bean guitars appeared at a time in America when a small group of independent builders such as Hamer, BC Rich, and Dean were having success while companies like Fender and Gibson were struggling in quality primarily due to being bought out by large corporations that often complicate the process of innovation.

Travis Bean guitars were the shared vision of Travis and a Los Angeles guitar builder named Marc McElwee, who was responsible for a lot of the design elements that made these instruments appeal to artists like the Rolling Stones, Shellac, Aerosmith, PIL, KISS, The Jesus Lizard, Slash, Cheap Trick and so on.

I could explain all the structural merits and innovations, but at the end of the day, these instruments are simply badass and beautiful.

What are some other guitar brands or models that have inspired your work?

I’m inspired by modernistic and/or offset guitars built from 1957 to 1979 that typically have a cult following. The Gibson Korinas, Hayman, Shergold, John Lennon's Sardonyx guitar, Mosrite, EKO, the list goes for a while.

As someone who's been involved with music gear for awhile, how has the music gear world changed over the years?

It covers so much ground these days. Technology has given us possibilities that were unimaginable, and it has created a market for those who just want the primitive technology that made music raw and unpredictable. And the innovators have spanned both of those poles to deliver us guitars and basses that defy imagination.

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