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The 5 Best Kurt Cobain Riffs

Kent Shores  /  Lessons / Dec 9

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Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain isn’t just one of the greatest songwriters in rock history. His guitar riffs literally defined the sound of the 90s Grunge Rock scene and he proved that not every amazing guitar riff needs to be challenging. Kurt knew how to combine simple melodies, power chords, and a couple of pedals to make some truly iconic riffs. In this lesson, Kent teaches five of his favorite Nirvana guitar riffs.

(Download the tabs.)

Want to sound more like Kurt Cobain? He famously made use of three pedals: the Boss DS-2, Boss DS-1, & the EHX Small Clone. We’ve included a few handy links to the pedals for you here:

Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion
Buy Now: Sweetwater

Boss DS-1 Distortion
Buy Now: Sweetwater

Electro-Harmonix Small Clone
Buy Now: Sweetwater

Smells Like Teen Spirit
Any list of Kurt Cobain guitar riffs would be incomplete without Nirvana’s most commercially popular song. The riff from this song starts off with simple power chords. Once you get the basic rhythm down with the chords, you can add some open strings. Finally, you can include the muted strums. These muted strums are mostly there to fill the gaps and aren’t meant to be played perfectly so don’t overthink it.

Polly
This riff is originally played on an acoustic guitar. But if you only have an electric that’s perfectly fine. It contains four basic open chords: E minor, G major, D major, and C major. The thing that makes this song unique is the strumming pattern. Once you get to the chorus, you’ll also add a Bb major bar chord to the mix. If you feel comfortable with playing chords on the guitar, this should be a pretty easy one for you to learn.

All Apologies
To play the riff from “All Apologies” you’ll need to change up your tuning. Kurt’s guitar was in drop D and down a half step – Db Ab Db Gb Bb Eb. This riff makes use of the E (now Db), A (now Ab), and G (now Gb) strings to form the melody. To really nail the feel of this riff you can throw in those low open Db notes to fill the space.

Come As You Are
standard – D G C F A D. To play this riff you’ll use some simple chromaticism (half-step intervals played in a row) on the two lowest strings. It’s a pretty easy riff to get under your fingers once you get the feel for it. To make it sound authentic, try turning on a chorus pedal! 

Lithium
This last riff also uses the D standard tuning (down a whole-step) and is the most challenging of the five riffs in this video. Getting the gist of the part down isn’t too tough, but adding the individual notes between the power chords can cause you to get a little jumbled. Take this one slow and speed it up as you get comfortable. Be sure to crank up the distortion for this one!

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