Grunge moved into the acoustic realm with the 1994 release Nirvana Unplugged in New York. MTV’s Unplugged is generally considered to be a songwriter’s forum, and Nirvana’s set was no exception – only many of the songs were covers of other songwriters near and dear to Cobain, and not the expected lineup of Nirvana hits-sans-juice. Taped on January 10, 1992, the repertoire contained no Nirvana standards (except “Come As You Are”) and included numbers from the Meat Puppets, the Vaselines, and David Bowie. Run-throughs earlier in the day were plagued with sound problems and mistakes. Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World was a particularly sticky situation. The band never got through the song in rehearsal (after a few abortive tries), and Cobain even announced it at the show by saying, “I guarantee I will screw this song up.”
Tune all six strings down one half step.
Iconoclastic as ever, Kurt Cobains’s sound on this track is hardly what you’d call “unplugged.” He used his 1958-1959 Martin D-18E – essentially a D-18 with two DeArmond pickups and the ideal low-budget/low-tech acoustic-electric equivalent to the trashed Mustangs and Jaguars he favored for electric. Additionally, a third pickup was attached – a Bartolini model 3AV – to the guitar to rectify the tone imbalance caused by using bronze-wound strings instead of nickel strings (what the pickups were designed for). Cobain insisted on playing the Martin through his Fender Twin Reverb (set as clean as possible) and his normal signal path of stomp box effects: Boss DS-2 Distortion-SansAmp-Chorus or ElectroHarmonix Echo Flanger and Small Clone chorus. The use of the distortion effect is especially obvious in Riff A and the solo of The Man Who Sold the World.
Riff A, the main riff, is heard throughout the song in the intro, between verses and during the outro solo. It is a simple but versatile three-note melody: G-A-Bb [Fig. 1], repeated ostinato style, which sits comfortably on the G string in the first position – making it ideal for beginning players. Notice that it is used against Dm, F, and A chords at different points in the tune. In the outro solo, it is played as a grounding thematic riff to contrast with the section’s upper-register lead melodies.
The guitars use simple open chords and basic barre chords in the parts. They make consistent use of a specific eighth-note strum pattern which is the song’s rhythmic motive. This pattern, one of the most pervasive in rock, pop and country styles, is based on straight eighths with a muted “choke” on the third strum of the figure and a syncopation on the “and-3″ beats of the measure [Fig. 2]. The “choke” effect is accomplished by lifting off lightly with the fret hand to muffle or “choke” the strings while maintaining a steady strumming tempo. Notice that this rhythm pattern (with the syncopation) is also found in the main riff.
The chorus is distinguished with a couple of tasty Beatle – inspired licks (remember Bowie was heavily influenced by the Beatles) that act as simple counterpoint in the section. These lines are one-octave major scales played in eighth-notes, and serve as a perfect introduction to modes. The lower-register line is in the “home base” tonal center of F major. It ascends up for one octave using notes from the F major scale (F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E) in the first position. The second, higher-register pattern is also an ascending one-octave scale but is in the C Mixolydian mode. This melody uses all the notes of F major but begins on the C, the fifth step of the F major scale: F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C. [Fig. 3]. Naturally, the F major scale is used against the F chord of the chorus and the C Mixolydian mode is used against the C chord. A perfect illustration of rudimentary modal usage in rock.
The guitar solo is a “melody solo” typical of Kurt Cobain’s minimal style. It is played over the verse chords and uses the G string exclusively. Throughout, slurs are employed purposefully to connect the phrases and to accentuate the portamento effect of the one-string melodies. The entire solo involves only six notes: D, E, F, G, A, and Bb, and two actual fingering boxes [Fig. 4] (one of which is the Riff A shape), but manages to make a dramatic and gutsy statement.
It’s a part of Nirvana The Man Who Sold the World guitar lesson.
Below you can download PDF guitar tabs and sheet music of
The Man Who Sold the World with backing track
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