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While glam and Michael Jackson ruled the charts. A grunge band from Seattle was about to change the music scene almost overnight.
Nirvana and the new iconic grunge sound were becoming highly popular. Kurt Cobain was leading the charge and a new breed of rockers began to emerge.
Even today, guitar players are intrigued by this sound. They scour the internet looking for Kurt Cobain amp settings.
Most amplifiers can pull off the Nirvana tone with a more mid-focused sound. Set your amp with the treble at 5, mid-range at around 7-8, and bass backed off to about 5. This is a good starting point. Then set your gain to around 8 with moderate volume.
In this Killer Rig article, we’ll be looking at Nirvana’s amp settings for some of their popular songs. We’ll also explore how you can get that same tone with your gear.
Not sure what amp settings actually do? Check out my guide to amp controls and settings to get up to speed!
What is the Nirvana Sound?
The Nirvana sound is defined by its heavy, distorted guitars and angst-filled lyrics. The band’s music was a reaction to the glam scene of the 80s. They brought back a more stripped-down sound that was reminiscent of punk.
Kurt Cobain’s guitar playing was heavily influenced by punk music. But his amp settings were distinctly his own. He favored amps that were high in gain and distortion. He would also often crank the volume up, which helped define his sound.
Below you will find a table with some general Nirvana amp settings. These are for both a clean tone and a distorted sound. They are a great place to get started, then tweak to taste.
|Control||Clean Settings||Distortion Settings|
Check out these Alice In Chains Amp Settings!
Nevermind Album Amp Settings
When the Nevermind album was recorded, Kurt Cobain used a Mesa Boogie .22 preamp. Plus a Crown power base amplifier, and 4×12 cabinets. For his distortion, he used a Boss DS-1 pedal.
With equipment like this and the following amp settings, you can get the Nirvana sound for yourself.
Smells Like Teen Spirit Amp Settings
Kurt Cobain used the DS-1 distortion pedal straight into his Mesa boogie preamp. This was done for the Smells Like Teen Spirit distorted sounds. A good rock amp can also get this tone.
To get the right sound for the clean parts, your amp should be set somewhat bright and twangy. You also want a good amount of mid-range. You don’t want it to be too piercing or harsh, and so set to taste depending on your amp.
Check out our Pearl Jam amp settings for more 90s grunge.
A good place to start would be:
- Treble: 6.
- Mids: 7-8.
- Bass: 4.
- Gain: 3-4.
If the tone is too bright, turn down the treble and up the mids a bit. You can also add a bit more bass to fill out the sound. This also depends on the guitar you are using and the gain setting. If possible, single-coil pickups are preferred.
The distorted sound is a bit different, however, as Kurt used a pedal for his tone. A good amp should replicate it quite easily.
If you are using an amplifier that is similar to a Mesa boogie, a good place to start would be:
- Gain: 7.
- Treble: 6.
- Mids: 7.
- Bass: 5.
Because Mesa Boogie amps are quite bass-heavy, this should be a good place to start. You may need to increase the mid-range a bit if it feels too scooped. When adjusting the bass, be careful not to add too much, or it might become muddy.
A Fender-style amplifier would be a bit different. They generally don’t have as much gain and are brighter. In this case, you will want to increase your gain control to 8 or 9. Just to see if it’s able to provide the distortion needed.
Keep the treble around 5 and increase the bass to 6. Set your midrange by ear until it sounds right with your guitar.
An overdrive used to boost a fender amp might be needed to get it to distort for a grunge tone. This also depends on the guitar you will be using for the sound.
Come as You Are Amp Settings
Come as you are is similar in sound to smells like teen spirit, but has a warmer, clean tone with effects. Kurt has used the EH Small Clone chorus pedal for this one, which gave it a warm, deep sound.
You may want to experiment with single-coil and humbucker pickups to get the best sound.
A good place to start for clean tone amp settings:
- Gain: 3.
- Treble 6.
- Mids: 5-6.
- Bass: 5.
The treble and mid-range might need to be adjusted to get the right shimmer on the clean parts. This depends on your amplifier and if effects are used.
For the distortion part of the song, if you are using a pedal, the same settings are fine. If you are using a 2 channel amplifier, you may need a different setting.
A Marshall or Mesa Boogie amp should be set accordingly:
- Gain: 6.5.
- Treble: 6.
- Mids: 5.
- Bass: 6.
Likewise, if you are using a brighter amp like a Fender, you will need a different equalization. Amps like this require a higher gain control setting. As such, you will need to lower your bass knob to prevent it from getting too loose.
Set your gain to around 7 or 8. A higher setting is needed for lower gain amplifiers. Then adjust the bass setting to around 4 or 5 to compensate. When the gain control is turned up, bass frequencies also increase as they work in tandem to a degree.
We do suggest a chorus pedal be used for the closest Nirvana sound possible. Then adjust your amp slightly to accommodate the guitar type.
Learn more about amplifier brands here!
In Bloom Amp Settings
In bloom is similar to the rest of the songs on the Nevermind album. It has both some clean parts and a high gain tone that is a bit thicker but smooth sounding. You can use the same clean tone settings as Come As You Are above.
Again, the use of a chorus here will add depth and warmth to the clean tone that Kurt uses for In bloom. A Fender Bassman amp might serve you well for this tone.
The grunge distortion parts are a bit different from the others and are not quite as saturated. It’s more crunchy and thick, with a lower mid-range tone.
A great place to start with your distorted settings for in bloom would be:
- Gain: 6.
- Treble: 5.
- Mids: 5.
- Bass: 6.
The crunch channel on a Revv Generator MK3 would be a great amplifier to obtain this tone. Add a bit of chorus, and you should have it with little effort.
Lithium Amp Settings
Lithium is another very popular Nirvana song. This one is similar to Come As You Are in some ways. The clean parts can be set very similarly, but you want more emphasis on the bass than any brightness.
This is because the gain on the amp is set so low that you need to increase low-end. Then set the other controls for a balanced, more mid-range heavy sound. That will satisfy your clean tones for Lithium.
The distorted tone is unique to this song. It’s still very driving, but isn’t as aggressive as some of the others.
It has a smoother sound to it that allows the vocals to have more appeal. This smooth, grungy tone is warm like the clean parts, so try and keep your amp settings the same.
For the Lithium drive sound, start with these settings:
- Gain: 6.
- Treble: 5.
- Mids: 7.
- Bass: 7.
If you have high output pickups, you may also benefit from lower guitar settings. You can also try turning down the volume on your guitar slightly to see if you can capture the smooth tone.
Additionally, adjusting your tone control on the guitar can lower brightness if needed.
Nirvana In Utero Album Amp Settings
Kurt Cobain changed things up a bit when the In Utero album was being recorded. While he still preferred pedals for his distortion sound, he was now using the Tech 21 Sansamp.
But the songs on the album can easily be recreated using a good guitar amplifier. That and decently hot bridge humbuckers.
Heart-Shaped Box Amp Settings
Nirvana’s heart-shaped box is quite easy to dial in on most amplifiers. There are 2 different tones. A lower gain for the verses and a higher, somewhat distorted sound for the chorus.
When playing the verses, set your amplifier on the verge of distortion. Then dial in a more mid-range heavy sound. A good place to start would be:
- Gain: 3-4.
- Treble: 5.
- Mids: 6.
- Bass: 4.
If your amplifier has a crunch channel, this would be the best way to capture the sound used in the verses.
High Gain Settings
For the higher gain sounds, again your crunch channel would be a great place to start. The sound is more of an over-driven crunch that has a very present mid-range. On a crunch or mid-gain channel, start with settings like:
- Gain: 8.
- Treble: 5.
- Mids: 8.
- Bass: 4-5.
This way, you should end up with more of the grungy sound used in the song Heart Shaped Box. If you have a higher gain amp without a crunch channel, the settings will be slightly different. You want to lower your gain control to around 5.
If you have to go any lower than this, increase the bass control to compensate for any lost high-end response. This sound isn’t overly bright, so keep that in mind.
For the solo, the same settings can be used. Just incorporate a chorus effect, and you are pretty much there.
Amp Setting Tips
Have you tried some settings but are struggling for a Nirvana tone? Here are some tips to help you fix any problems.
- The right guitar is very important. Kurt was a big Fender player, but also used humbuckers. So while you can get close on a Telecaster, you do need the right pickups. Even a Stratocaster with a humbucker at the bridge.
- If you find the sound of your guitar to be thin, use thicker strings. If you currently have low gauge strings, try moving up a few gauges. This might help thicken up the sound.
- The right amplifier is important. The crunchy grunge tone can be found with Marshall or even some Mesa Boogie amps. If you don’t have a good crunch channel, try a distortion pedal.
- If your sound is too thin, make use of the tone controls on your guitar. Most players set these to the max and forget about them. But they are great tools to help shape your sound.
- If your tone is muddy or boomy, try turning down the gain. While distortion is part of the Nirvana sound, too much can get out of hand. Adjust your bass control as well. And remember that high gain settings also add bass.
Kurt Cobain’s Guitars
Not only were Kurt Cobain’s guitars a part of his look, they also served his sound. He was normally seen using Fender guitars, as they were huge on the scene at the time. Most punk or grunge players were using them at the time.
The Stratocaster was very popular with Kurt, but they normally had humbucker pickups. This made sense as the sound was warmer and more aggressive. Single-coil pickups we used as well, but didn’t fit his sound to the same degree.
Here are a few notable Fender guitars that Kurt Cobain was normally seen using:
|Guitar Model||Album Era|
|1965 Jaguar||Nevermind Tour|
|1969 Competition Mustang||Teen Spirit Music Video|
|Vandalism Stratocaster||Tours during the early 1990s|
|Mustang Sky-Stang III||In Utero Tour|
Kurt used many guitars, and so you will find that he went through lots of them! Many of them ended by smashing, but it didn’t mean he disliked them!
Kurt Cobain’s Amps
Knowing what Kurt used can help you understand his sound. This article wouldn’t be complete if we left that out! Here are some of his most used amplifiers that are easy to come by today.
Fender Twin Reverb
The Fender Twin Reverb was a popular amplifier with Kurt Cobain. It started when he recorded the album Bleach. He had to borrow one from Jack Endino and when he did, he enjoyed the sound. Eventually Kurt went on to get one of his own and used it quite extensively.
The one thing that is important to know about this amp is that it’s loud! Kurt used drive pedals to get his distortion sound, but he needed a way to amplify them. The Fender Twin Reverb was perfect for this as it didn’t color the sound but had lots of power.
Mesa Boogie Studio Preamp
As was mentioned earlier, Cobain used drive pedals like the DS-1 to get his sound. His biggest complaint was that he could never get enough clean power from amps. He preferred a clean amp that was loud.
During the Nevermind era, he used a Mesa Boogie preamp and Crown power amp. This was in an attempt to deliver lots of clean volume for his drive pedal sound. He would then crank the midrange knobs to maximum, as Mesa amps are a bit dark sounding.
These preamps can still be found on the used market, but they are not necessary for a bedroom player. Today, we have more options that can get a Nirvana sound much easier.
The Vox AC30 was used on the recording of Nevermind. It wasn’t a first choice amp for Kurt, who preferred distortion pedals. But Butch Vig preferred the sound of amp distortion. This is because they provide a fuller sound.
These amps are not amazing for grunge tones. But they can get some of the Nirvana sound you would find on the Nevermind album. The trouble with them is that they break up far too soon and are a bit bright for some of those smooth drive tones.
Kurt Cobain primarily used distortion and effect pedals to obtain his driven sound. But this doesn’t mean that you cannot get his grungy tone through an amplifier alone.
Do you seek a grungy Nirvana sound on a budget? Then a Fender Champion or a Boss Katana should get you into the territory you need.
How do you get Nirvana tone on an amp?
To get close to a Nirvana tone on your amplifier, you need to focus more on high mid-range settings. Kurt’s tone cut through a mix well and had smooth bass. It was only bright on cleaner parts, but otherwise was pretty well-balanced.
General amp settings for a Nirvana tone would be treble closer to noon. Then mid-range higher up to something like 8-9, and bass somewhere around 5. Your gain would need to be fairly high to get a good distorted crunch.
Did Kurt Cobain use a SansAmp?
Yes, Kurt Cobain used a Sansamp for the In Utero album as well as any tours afterward. He was also seen using the Boss DS-2 and may have blended them for certain sounds.