How to Sound Like Nirvana: Amp Settings Guide


Nirvana spearheaded the grunge movement in the early 90’s, in part, due to Kurt Cobain’s iconic guitar tone. But getting the perfect sound with your guitar and amplifier can be a little complicated, especially if you’re not using Kurt’s rig.

So in this article, I’ll give you a good place to start with your amp settings and controls to dial in that classic Nirvana tone.

Once we’ve been through the basic clean and distorted tones, I’ll go through a few of their most popular songs in a little more detail. So let’s get started.

The Quick Answer

To get Nirvana’s tone with your amplifier, have the treble and mids fairly high (around 7-8) and the bass on around 5 to begin with. The distortion should be quite high for the chorus (usually between 8-10), unless you’re using a pedal.

The Two Tones

Nirvana had two distinct guitar tones: clean and distorted. Often, the verses would consist of simple riffs or individual notes played through a clean amplifier. Whilst the choruses would consist of heavily distorted power chords.

If you want to sound like Nirvana, then you’ll need to nail these two tones.

To be able to switch between them, you’ll either need an amp that has a foot switch that allows you to transition between clean and distorted channels, or you’ll need a distortion pedal that you can flick on and off.

Now let’s go through the basics of each tone.

Clean Tone

The clean tone provides the basis for most of the intros and verses of Nirvana’s songs. It’s quite twangy, but also fairly full. The twangy brightness tended to come from the single coil pickups in Kurt’s guitar, however, the amp settings were also important. The tone should be on the bright side, but not too harsh.

There was also a bit of delay and reverb usually going on to provide a bit more depth to the tone, so it doesn’t sound too thin and brittle. Here’s a good place to start with the settings.

  • Treble: 5
  • Bass: 5
  • Mids: 7

If the tone is a bit too harsh and bright, decrease the treble. If it sounds thin and brittle, then increase the mids.

Distorted Tone

The Nirvana distorted tone crunchy, but thick. To get this balance, you’ll need to get the treble, mids and bass right as well as the distortion. You need the tone to be full, but also clear.

If you’re using a distortion pedal, then you don’t need to have any gain on your amp, but if you’re not, then you’ll need it on full usually. This will create fuller tone.

The mids and treble will need to be high to provide enough depth, and also clarity to the tone.

Of course, the thick distorted tone won’t be crystal clear, but if the treble isn’t high enough then the tone will be too muddy and sound more like metal than grunge. The bass is usually moderate to thicken the tone, but not too high because the bass guitar provides this element.

Here’s a quick guide to start with.

  • Bass: 6
  • Treble: 8
  • Mids: 8
  • Distortion: 9-10

If the tone sounds too thin, then increase the mids. If it sounds too muddy, decrease the distortion or bass, and increase the treble.

Pedal Effects

Kurt Cobain’s pedal board was fairly modest, but there were a few pedals that produced a unique tone that the amplifier alone couldn’t create. The most notable pedal effects were:

  • Chorus
  • Flanger
  • Distortion

The chorus and flanger pedals are modulation effects, which give the tone a unique characteristic typical of the grunge era. Whilst the distortion pedal allowed Kurt to transition from clean tones in the verse, to distorted tones in the chorus, without having to touch the amplifier.

Now we’ve been through the basics, let’s talk about the some songs individually.

Amp Settings for Smells Like Teen Spirit

This is without a doubt, the most famous grunge song of all time. The distorted tone defined the grunge era and is instantly recognisable even today, even almost 30 years later.

You’ll either need to switch between the clean and distorted channels on your amp, or run a distortion pedal into a clean amp and flick it on for the chorus. If you’re not using a distortion pedal, then the gain should be on close to maximum.

Here’s a good starting point for the amp settings for Smells Like Teen Spirit.

  • Treble: 8
  • Mids: 8
  • Bass: 4
  • Gain: 9-10 for chorus, 1 for verse

Amp Settings for Come as You Are

Come As You Are was released in 1991 on the same album as Smells Like Teen Spirit, called Nevermind. It again has a clean verse and distorted chorus. However, the iconic clean riff that features for most of the song has a warmer tone than in Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Delay, reverb and chorus pedals would be useful to play this riff to give it some depth and warmth. However, it’s still possible to get a close sound using your amp. Here’s a good place to start with.

  • Treble: 6
  • Mids: 7
  • Bass: 6
  • Distortion: 7 for chorus, 1-2 for verse

Amp Settings for Lithium

Another one of Nirvana’s most iconic songs from the album Nevermind was Lithium. The tone is relatively similar to Come as You Are. The clean tone is fairly balanced, neither too warm or bright and the distorted tone is thick and smoother sounding than in Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Here’s a good starting point for the amp settings with this Nirvana classic.

  • Treble: 6
  • Mids: 8
  • Bass: 6
  • Distortion: 6 for chorus, 1 for verse

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and found it useful. Take a look around the website to learn more about achieving the perfect tone.

Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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