The World Plays : Smells Like Teen Spirit
Smells Like Teen Spirit is one of the most iconic and easily recognisable songs in the world. It transcended from the status of being just a ‘really good song’ to ‘song that defined a generation’ not many years after it was released.
Slightly different from other huge and influential songs such as ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Imagine’, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came bundled with an angst that would attract a disaffected and (at the time) misunderstood generation of future guitarists, drummers and bass players.
Many people learned smells like teen spirit as their first song on guitar, many still do, and 30 years later, it is still likely responsible for starting more bands than anyone can reasonably estimate.
Nevermind’s impact on myself as an individual was immense. In the early 90’s as a teenager, I was having a hard time fitting in, and home wasn’t doing the best, and so I just stayed in my room playing along with the album, every day, for almost a year. I started with Nevermind, and then worked my back through Bleach and every bootleg I could find.
By the time I was done, I’d started a covers band with 2 older friends, who seemed surprised that they’re younger bud had learned so many songs. That offered me a much needed outlet for a lot of teenage angst. I would meet my wife at one of those shows. She would encourage me to play more music, but maybe buy less guitars. I got a job, and have stepped in and out of amateur music projects in the years since, but that's where it all started.
There are probably tons of stories like this out there.
Nevermind just had an impact that I think is incredibly rare in music, and it connected with young people in a way that hasn’t often been repeated.
I forgot about it for a long time, but recently came across some stuff that brought it all back, and reminded me why I was so obsessed with playing so much music in the first place, and so, I started this project.
Becoming involved in TWP-SLTS will take some effort on your part, especially if you’ve never played the song(s) before, or if you’re still learning guitar, but I hope that it’s worth it and that you are inspired to play more, and even create your own music as a result.
Let’s get started,
Notice : You must record to the particular version below to keep in time. Not the Official Video, or any other version.
I’ve been playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, and other Nirvana songs, for over 25 years. That doesn’t necessarily mean I can play it perfectly, but I can get it pretty close 7 times out of 10. It’s deceivingly complicated to play as it was performed on record, and by learning to play it properly, you will attain a much higher level of strumming dexterity. If there’s one thing I can say about playing a lot of Nirvana, it’s that it will get your rhythm guitar on point.
Nirvana didn’t use a click track when Nevermind was recorded (except for Lithium), which gives ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ a loose feel, and (imho) just makes it incredibly re-listenable. It hovers ‘roughly’ around 109 bpm for the intro, but by the time you get to the drums entering, it has moved way beyond that.
In fact as you look below, you can see how the intro moves from 109 to more like 116 by the time the drums kick in! In fact, just look how they played it, getting slightly faster over time. This is how you perform a rock song in studio IMO, and I think this is part of SMTS lasting appeal. It’s just a constantly interesting song, with tempo’s shifting all over the place.
(SLTS Tempo over time - credit : Echonest)
The pick is very important to be able to get the ‘flicky, flicky’ bits right. Hard picks make it sound guh.
As far as I am concerned, my generation’s stairway, is this riff. Since 1991, the chords have been continually soaked into the walls of every guitar store in the world. Here’s how you play it, broken down into different sections.
Because this riff is so iconic, and the opening barrage for the entire album, we’re going to break it down into extreme detail. This is a pretty good approximation of how to play the intro.
The intro is 4 bars (or 16 beats). We’re only going to cover the first two, which are the most important, as the second round of the riff is very similar, but is obscured by the incoming drums and distortion.
Look up SLTS online, and you’ll find lots of variations of which chords to play. The truth is that the actual chords vs what sounds good to play are two completely different things.
Kurt Cobain ‘nudged’ certain parts of the finger board while he was playing the song, causing notes that were part of a larger power chord to come through. Because these notes were touched even once, many online services and books include them as part of the chords to play, but this is probably not a good idea. What you will find is that by including these notes in every chord you play, it just won’t sound like the record.
The real story is that many of the nudged or barely touched notes, DO add some color to the performance, but they are hard to hear in the finished record unless you are really paying attention, and whenever I've played SLTS using these variations, people just tell me it sounds wrong.
The opposite problem is when videos, books or services leave out too many notes, leading to anemic sounding two note power chord versions of the riff.
Great question. In my opinion, the best way to play it, is with a balanced approach to the power chord fingering.
You can use regular old Power Chord Fingering or Kurt’s own style, and it will still sound great.
These are the chords including the ‘darker’ coloured ghost notes most commonly heard when listening to the record. These notes are an order of magnitude lower in the mix that the light grey ones due to the EQ on the track, so most people when they hear SLTS, especially at a distance, can’t discern them.
The person who ends up as the lead riff intro for the actual song, may actually be able to pull this off consistently. It’s just really hard to do it without interfering with what people are expecting to hear.
For the reasons above, use of the following chords is recommended.
The reason the ghost notes exist is due to Kurt’s bar chording style.
This video explains the Cobain Chord - it’s a real thing, this guy actually explains it really well. ‘Sometimes it’s there just a little bit, sometimes it’s not there at all’.
The thing is being able to control it. He’s a really good player, and he can likely bring it in and out as he sees fit.
He mentions ‘something is missing’ and he’s right, the problem is that if you overdo it - in my opinion - it goes the other way, where now it just doesn’t sound right. So for the purposes of TWP, we’ll probably want to focus on method 1 and let the ‘winner’ of best intro riff figure out how to get the ghost notes perfect.
Believe it or not, vocalizing the way this song is played, is a great way to mentally practice, even when you are not with your guitar. Take a look at the chart below, listen to the song, and then come back to it. Can you vocalize the way the song flows?
Fig 1. TWP’s patent pending ‘JangGehJang’ training method. In a document. Yesterday.
Looking below, with strumming annotations, you can see how these can help you figure out the rhythm.
Fig 2. Learning style lined up with the first 2 bars of SLTS audio.
There are so many ‘How To Play Teen Spirit’ videos on Youtube. Some of them are really great, with proper tight playing, correct strumming etc. However, I do plan to find (or make) some ideal videos which accompany his document and might make it easier and less distracting.
I find it hard, it’s hard to find…. a Youtube video of it being played really really well.
MORE TO FOLLOW in the coming weeks!
UPDATE : 4/4 Recorded a Video to Help with the Intro - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksT5phDkPcE&t=35s
If you are looking to figure out how I practice myself, here is an example of some tests on several different guitars
For SLTS, You must play along with this version to submit your track
Here is the isolated bass track for reference.
Focusrite // Recording Bass Guitar with the Clarett 2Pre https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn4DNZp9n2A&t=198s
For SLTS, You must play along with this version to submit your track
Here is the isolated vocal track for reference
Mod : Karan.94
Drums Only Track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8NZOlNbZKM
For SLTS, You must play along with ONE of these versions to submit your track
Here is the isolated drum track for reference