Take a deep dive into the Nirvana guitar tone with our complete Kurt Cobain gear guide, including the guitars, amps, and pedals used by the 90s grunge icon
Kurt Cobain and Nirvana revitalised guitar music for the masses in the 1990s. Everyone is familiar with the distorted power chords from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ - but how did Kurt Cobain get his guitar tone? And what guitar gear did he use?
In this blog we’ll explore the guitars, amps, and effects pedals that helped to propel Kurt Cobain to superstar status - from the early days of Univox guitars and pawn shop gear all the way through to the sold-out arenas of the 'In Utero' tour.
What was so iconic about Nirvana?
Nirvana are iconic because they were the voice of a generation. Despite coming from an underground scene with roots in punk rock and hardcore, Nirvana quickly became the face of alternative music in the 1990s.
As a figurehead of Generation X, they defined grunge and are often credited with ending the dominance of ‘hair metal’ in popular culture.
What Guitar Did Kurt Cobain Use?
As a left-handed guitarist, Kurt Cobain was often limited by what guitars he could use.
Taking influence from many guitar playing southpaws before him - including a certain Jimi Hendrix - Kurt would often have to flip right-handed instruments in order to play them, re-stringing them upside down and modifying the nut as best as possible.
After some time though, he was able to settle on some more reliable lefty guitars that offered him the tones he needed for Nirvana’s huge sound.
Keep reading to find out everything about Kurt Cobain guitars - including his favourite axe of all time and more!
Kurt was a huge fan of Fender Mustang guitars, and he often referred to them as his favourite guitars of all time.
Known for their playability, the Mustang is the ultimate choice for high-octane rock music and live performance thanks to the short scale and slim neck design.
Kurt often replaced the pickups with Seymour Duncan models in order to help with his hi-gain and distorted tones.
You might have heard about Kurt also using a ‘Competition Mustang’ when playing. This refers to a certain series of Mustang guitars that come with a competition stripe on the body, as seen in some of Nirvana’s most iconic videos and live sets.
Another of Kurt’s most iconic instruments is the Fender Jaguar.
His dual-humbucking Signature Model is fitted with a DiMarzio PAF 36th Anniversary DP103 at the neck, and a Super Distortion DP100 at the bridge.
Kurt’s guitar playing is well-suited to these short-scale Fenders - shop all Jaguars at PMT below:
When you combine two of Kurt’s favourite instruments - the Mustang and the Jaguar - you’re left with the Fender Jag-Stang.
Designed by Kurt, Fender built prototypes of the guitar to his specifications. The guitars were also modified by Earnie Bailey, who was the guitar tech for Nirvana at the time.
Despite not using the guitars too often before his untimely death in 1994, Fender now produces awesome Jag-Stang models for the world to play with Kurt’s creation.
If you’re looking for something a little left-field and want to follow in Kurt’s footsteps by playing a second-hand instrument, you can find a stunning array of Pre-Owned guitars below.
Buying pre-owned might be your only option if you have a habit of smashing up guitars on stage just like Kurt did!
What Amps and Amp Settings did Kurt Cobain use?
When dialling in your Kurt Cobain amp settings, you can look to advice from Earnie Bailey once again.
Bailey has noted the smooth low-end with a boost on the mids and treble. Kurt wasn’t fond of amp gain that sounded too ‘metal-like’, so he used the clean channels with low gain and relied on his pedals for distortion.
A good general place to start is with your settings around 4-5-6 - that’s 4 on the Bass, 5 on the Mids, and 6 on the Highs/Treble. Depending on your amp, you’ll probably end up somewhere between 5-5-4 and 6-8-8 to get the Kurt tone.
Kurt often used Fender amps - specifically a Bassman head, and also a Quad Reverb for some tracking of 'In Utero'. He also made use of a Twin Reverb ‘Blackface’ model that you can see on the Nirvana ‘MTV Unplugged’ session.
There are a whole host of Fender amps that will allow you to get the Cobain guitar tone - check them out here:
There is also a wide selection of Marshall amps that Kurt used when playing with Nirvana.
A Plexi 100 was chosen for the ‘In Utero’ sessions, and a JMP50 combo was used for Nirvana’s last recording session in January 1994 whilst tracking ‘You Know You’re Right’.
Usually though, Kurt used Marshall cabs with a selection of different preamps - such as a Mesa/Boogie .22 and a Crown Power Base 2.
Shop Marshall here:
During the sessions for ‘Nevermind’, Nirvana had access to a Vox AC30 that Butch Vig (who produced the album) has confirmed was used for certain songs.
Unlike Kurt, Vig prefers to get the amps distorted instead of using too many stompboxes - it’s likely however that the AC30 was used for clean sections, adding to the dynamic power that Nirvana became renowned for.
Pre-Owned Guitar Amps
At PMT we have some great Pre-Owned Guitar Amplifiers - so if you’re searching for something on a budget or looking to get your hands on an older model, this is the place to find it:
Which Pedals did Nirvana Use?
Nirvana have become synonymous with the ‘loud-quiet-loud’ sound that is present in many of their songs.
This sound is typified by contrasting dynamics and the combination of clean guitars with heavily distorted sections - usually in the chorus.
So - what pedals did Kurt Cobain use to get this iconic Nirvana sound? Find out below..
Perhaps Kurt’s most noteworthy distortion pedal, the BOSS DS-1 is responsible for the sound of some guitar riffs that are now considered classics.
Used both live and in the studio, one particular DS-1 that Kurt used has since sold for $8,960 USD!
Electro-Harmonix Small Clone
It gives a shimmering, warbly effect that is perfect for the ‘quiet’ dynamic sections and for adding texture to lead parts.
Kurt used a Polychorus by EHX on some songs such as ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, but this unit is now discontinued, and so the Small Clone is the best way to find the right tone.
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
Butch Vig has confirmed on numerous occasions that the classic Big Muff pedal was used to get the heavier tones on songs such as ‘Lithium’.
Nowadays, there are a huge range of Big Muff fuzzes you can try out to find which one works best for you.
ProCo RAT Distortion
Also used during the ‘Nevermind’ recording process was the famous ‘RAT’ distortion pedal by ProCo.
Renowned for the legendary filter, RAT stompboxes can be used for mild overdrives all the way through to full-blown nasty fuzz tones.
It’s also virtually indestructible, so perfect for rowdy live shows!
How to Sound Like Nirvana
With this gear above you can get a little closer to sounding like Nirvana and replicating Kurt Cobain’s guitar tone.
Check out this video for an in-depth look at some of the gear we mentioned: