Achieving Nirvana (How To Sound Like Kurt Cobain On Guitar)

Kent Shores  /  Lessons / Jan 14


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Nirvana was one of the bands that defined the 90s grunge scene and since then they’ve inspired legions of new musicians to pick up the guitar, crank up the distortion, and rock out. If this sounds like you, then you might be wondering how exactly Kurt Cobain got those raucous guitar tones. And what can you do to sound more like him? In this lesson, Kent will take you on a deep dive into the guitars, pedals, amps, and more that were responsible for the legendary tones on albums like Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning Nirvana riffs note by note, check out this lesson: The 5 Best Kurt Cobain Riffs

Before we get into the gear, it’s important to note that Kurt Cobain liked the more affordable gear. Nothing was too fancy or expensive (save for his modded Martin D-18), and even though some of the pieces of gear are no longer made, you can achieve Nirvana’s sound with some pretty accessible gear. Let’s get into what Kurt used.

Kurt Cobain’s Guitars
Kurt used plenty of guitars during his short career. He started out on a Univox Hi-Flier and then moved onto a few different Fender models and even a Gibson or two. He was mostly known for playing Mustangs, Jaguars, and Stratocasters so we have a few recommendations that will help you to achieve his sound.

Squier Classic Vibe ‘60s Mustang
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Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar NOS
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Kurt Cobain’s Pedals
A lot of the tones we remember Nirvana for come primarily from pedals. The main pedal you can use to get heavier tones is a Boss DS-1 Distortion. Kurt used a few other pedals as well and we’ll be sure to list the ones that are still available below.

Boss DS-1 Distortion
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Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion
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Electro-Harmonix Op-amp Big Muff Pi Fuzz
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Pro Co RAT 2 Distortion
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Electro-Harmonix Small Clone Analog Chorus
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Electro-Harmonix Stereo Polychorus Analog Flange/Chorus
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Kurt Cobain’s Amp
The guitar amplifier that Kurt primarily used was a Mesa Boogie Studio .22 Preamp with a Crest 4801 Power Amp into a Marshall Cabinet. Before that, he used an old Roland RG-120 Commander. Since neither of these setups are available anymore, the best way to get his sound is with a clean Fender-style amp. Ultimately, the amp won’t matter too much as long as it’s a pretty clean pedal platform since Kurt got his dirty sounds from a Boss DS-1 or similar distortion pedal. In the studio, he used Fender Twins a fair bit so that would be a good place to start.

Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Neo 2×12″ 85-watt Tube Combo Amp
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While it’s not really as important, we wanted to include a few of the accessories Kurt used with his guitars. They don’t make the exact strings he used, but Dean Markley Signature 10-52 strings will get you real close. As for picks, he always used Dunlop Tortex Standard .60mm.

Playing Style
This is the cornerstone of Nirvana’s sound. Kurt’s playing style wasn’t about perfection, it was about attitude and emotion. So let those open strings ring out, let the accidental harmonics come through, and let the guitar feedback a little bit. Another thing you can do is lower your guitar’s tuning by a whole step. Kurt didn’t do this in every Nirvana song but he did in a few and it adds a lot of heft and girth to your guitar tone.

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