The story of Kurt Cobain’s signature Fender Jag-stang

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The story of Kurt Cobain’s signature Fender Jag-stang

Kurt Cobain Jag Stang
Words by Mixdown Staff

When we picture the world's most beloved grunge-rock provocateur, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, it's seldom without his left-handed Fender Jag-Stang guitar swinging from his cardigan-clad frame.

The Fender Jag-Stang is an artful fusion of Fender’s iconic Jaguar and Mustang guitars, and it is in fact the ingenious monster of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain’s own making.

Although Fender frequently designs instruments for artists, and has done so for decades, rarely, if ever, do artists create models for them.

So let us transport you through time, back to the baggy-jeaned, greasy-haired mosh pits of Grunge’s mid-90s heyday, as we uncover how what is arguably rock history’s most iconic custom guitar model, first came to be.

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Having been described by Fender as a “collision of contemporary features fused together to create a radical new Fender guitar”, Kurt Cobain first conceived of the Jag-Stang out of a love for both Fender’s Mustang and Jaguar models.

After being presented with the avant-garde rocker’s idea to fuse the two designs, Larry Brooks and Mark Wittenberg of the Fender Custom Shop went to meet with Kurt Cobain immediately – being that it was 1993, the very peak of his hurtling comet of a career, this was not an opportunity that any guitar company with sense would want to pass up.

Kurt Cobain Jagstang

The legend goes that Kurt Cobain took pictures of both the Mustang and the Jaguar and collaged them together, creating a mod with an offset body that was more Jag on the top, and Stang on the bottom. The original (left-handed) prototypes that the Custom Shop put together of the Fender Jag-Stang, one in Sonic Blue, another in Fiesta Red, were then road tested by Kurt, who came back with some feedback before signing off on the design:

“He (Kurt) was really easy to work with. I had a chance to sit and talk with him, then we built a prototype. He played it a while and then wrote some suggestions on the guitar and sent it back to us. The second time around, we got it right,” Larry Brooks said of the collaboration.

“He took photographs of each, cut them in half, and put them together to see what they’d look like. It was his concept, and we detailed and contoured it to give him balance and feel.”

The prototype had a Fender Texas Special single coil in the neck position and a DiMarzio H-3 humbucker in the bridge position. In addition, it had a Mustang-style short-scale neck that was a copy of Kurt’s favourite neck, which he had sent directly to the Fender team for their technicians to copy.

“Ever since I started playing, I’ve always liked certain things about certain guitars but could never find the perfect mix of everything I was looking for,” Kurt said in a 1994 Fender Frontline article.

“The Jagstang is the closest thing I know. And I like the idea of having a quality instrument on the market with no preconceived notions attached. In a way, it’s perfect for me to attach my name to the Jag-Stang, in that I’m the anti-guitar hero – I can barely play the things myself.”

This creation story of the Fender Jag-Stang is luckily well documented, too, with Kurt’s preliminary sketches/collages of his dream guitar having appeared in the 2002 book, Kurt Cobain Journals.

Tragically, Kurt Cobain only ever received and began touring with the Sonic Blue Jag-Stang, with Brooks having told Guitar World in 1995: “We were (packing) the (Fiesta Red) guitar to ship it to him when we got the news (of his death).”

Following Kurt’s tragic death in 1994, Courtney Love gifted his Jag-Stang prototype to R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck. The guitar features in the band’s music video for their 1994 single ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’, wherein Buck is seen playing it right-handed. Another R.E.M. track from that year, ‘Let Me In,’ was written as a tribute to Kurt, and thus bassist Mike Mills was often seen playing the song in concert with the guitar during their 1995 tour. The fall 1994 edition of Fender’s Frontline magazine chronicled Cobain’s Jag-Stang prototype, with readers itching to know the ins and outs of the mysterious, never-before-seen Fender model Nirvana’s front-man had played most throughout the final months of his life.

After gaining approval from Cobain’s estate, Fender proceeded with plans to properly produce the Jag-Stang. Made in Japan, the first production models appeared in late 1995, and the guitar was formally introduced to the market in January 1996 as part of the Special/Deluxe series.

The original production Jag-Stang boasted the following features: a basswood body, the 24” scale length of its two predecessors, a maple neck with a 7.25”-radius rosewood fingerboard, 22 frets, a vintage-style single-coil neck pickup and special-design humbucking bridge pickup (the two prototypes had a Fender Texas Special™ single-coil neck pickup and a DiMarzio®H-3 humbucking bridge pickup), on/off in-phase/out-of-phase slider switch for each pickup, two control knobs (master volume, master tone) mounted on a chrome plate, white pearloid pickguard, floating tremolo bridge with “dynamic” tailpiece borrowed from the Mustang, and vintage-style tuners. It came in Sonic Blue and Fiesta Red, and it retailed for $619.99 without a case ($774.99 with a case). It was also produced as a right-handed guitar, with a left-handed model having retailed for $689.99 US.

These initial Jag-Stang models were in production for roughly four-years, yet were discontinued in early 1999.

Fender reissued the Jag-Stang in 2003 on the 10th anniversary of Kurt’s passing, this time around as part of their Artist series. The models were also built in Japan, and were essentially identical to their 90s predecessors. The guitars retailed for $756.99 US and enjoyed a near two-year run which ultimately ended in early 2005.

Kurt Cobain’s Franken-Axe is an undeniably iconic model in Fender’s historical canon. Though it’s an offering with a relatively niche appeal from the brand, it boasts a small yet devout group of devotees, and has remained one of the most well-respected models among Fender’s more non-traditional options. While they’re not often come across, they continue to spark intrigue, and you’d be hard pressed to think of another guitar model with such intricate, compelling lore.

Check out Fender’s 2021 reissue of the enigmatic Jag-Stang on their website.