Sound Like Nirvana: Kurt Cobain Amp Settings and Gear Guide

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 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.

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.

Cobain’s guitar playing was heavily influenced by punk. 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.

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.

Smells Like Teen Spirit Amp Settings

nirvana 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.

Learn more about amplifier brands here!

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: 3-4

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, with suggested settings at:

  • Gain: 9
  • Treble: 5
  • Mids: 6
  • Bass: 5

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: 3-4
  • Treble 5-6
  • 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: 6-7
  • Treble: 6
  • Mids: 5-6
  • Bass: 6

Likewise, if you are using a brighter amp like a Fender, you will need a different equalization:

  • Gain: 8-9
  • Treble: 5
  • Mids: 6
  • Bass: 7

We do suggest a chorus pedal be used for the closest Nirvana sound possible. Then adjust your amp slightly to accommodate the guitar type.

Need Alice In Chains Amp Settings?

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.

A good place to start for the clean sound:

  • Gain: 4
  • Treble: 5-6
  • Mids: 6
  • Bass: 5

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 is more crunchy and thick with a lower mid-range tone.

A great place to start with your amp settings for in bloom would be:

  • Gain: 6
  • Treble: 5
  • Mids: 5-6
  • 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.

Check out our Pearl Jam amp settings for more 90s grunge.

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.

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, these settings will get you close:

  • Gain: 5-6
  • Treble: 5
  • Mids: 7
  • Bass: 4

For the solo, the same settings can be used. Just incorporate a chorus effect, and you are pretty much there.

Nirvana Amp Inforgraphic

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.

Conclusion

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.

FAQs

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.

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Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!