Nirvana (Kurt Cobain) Guitar Tone – Amp Settings, Pedals & Rig

Author: Dedrich Schafer | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Kurt Cobain’s guitar tone helped to make grunge music one of the biggest genres in the 90s. His sound was powerful and energetic, and inspired so many guitarists, myself included.

But how did he create such an iconic sound? Why don’t we take a look at the gear and settings he used to create one of the most recognizable guitar sounds?

Kurt’s Amp Settings

Unlike most other guitarists, Kurt’s guitar tech, Earnie Bailey, has spoken extensively about his gear and settings. This means that we have quite a bit of information to work with when we recreate Kurt’s sound.

Even though Kurt’s tone helped to define the sound of grunge, it wasn’t very complex. Setting all the settings on your amp to about halfway should get you close enough to his sound.

I normally start with the 4-5-6 method and then dial in from there. That means setting your EQ to 4, 5, and 6.

Or, in other words:

  • Bass – 4
  • Mid – 5
  • Treble – 6

Some amps might sound a bit thin, in which case you can go 5, 5, 4.

  • Bass – 5
  • Mid – 5
  • Treble – 4

Of course, this is just a basic sound and really more of a starting point. From here, we can use Bailey’s information to tune our settings further.

Kurt wasn’t too fond of the ‘metal-like’ gain on amps like Marshalls. He preferred a smoother low-end with boosted mids and highs.

That means you want to set your bass to just above halfway. Both the mids and treble will then be dialed almost all the way to max. And since Kurt used pedals to boost his sound, the amp should be on the clean channel with the gain and reverb turned down.

Your settings should then look like this:

  • Bass – 6
  • Mid – 8
  • Treble – 8
  • Gain – Off
  • Reverb – Off

Just remember that every amp is different and these settings might not be perfect for you. Just keep fine-tuning the settings until you get it sounding just right.

Kurt’s Amps

Setting your amp up the right way will of course only get you so far. If you truly want to replicate Kurt Cobain’s sound, you will have to use the same gear. A good Fender or Marshall amp should be enough. Nonetheless, here goes the list of his gears, if you want to be precise.

Fender Twin Reverb

A 1960s Fender Twin Reverb was the amp Cobain used for most of his career and his amp of choice. Either a ’65 Twin Reverb or ’68 Twin Reverb would be a perfect choice.

If you want something a bit more budget-friendly, I would suggest the Tone Master Twin Reverb.

Marshall Cabinet

For something a bit louder, you can use a Marshall cabinet, specifically, a 1960A or a 1960AC, although the 1960AC is no longer in production and you would need to find a second-hand one.

These are the ones that Kurt used. But the MX212AR and MX412AR are both more affordable and will work just as well.

Mesa/Boogie

Kurt then paired his Marshall with a Mesa/Boogie Studio .22 preamp, but they are, unfortunately, no longer in production.

The Mark series from Mesa/Boogie is a great modern alternative, however. The Mesa/Boogie Mark Five:25 would be the best one to go with.

Crown Power Amp

Alongside the Mesa/Boogie preamp, Kurt also used a Crown Power Base 2.

This is another vintage preamp that you will likely only find second-hand and for a hefty price. In that case, I would recommend the Crown XTI 2002 800 watt as a great substitute.

Kurt’s Guitars

Kurt was a Fender player through and through. He mainly played Strats, but the guitar he is perhaps most closely associated with is a Fender Jaguar. He played a ’65 Jaguar, but Fender makes a Kurt Cobain Signature that should be as close as you could get to his actual guitar.

Kurt’s Pedalboard

Even though Kurt’s pedalboard wasn’t very complex, doesn’t mean it was any less important. He used pedals to great effect to shape and enhance his sound.

Distortion Pedals

The most important part of his pedalboard was a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal. He later replaced the DS-1 with the DS-2 which has a few more features.

And just like his amp settings, we have some detailed notes to work with when setting up the pedalboard.

The DS-1 and DS-2 will be the same, except set the turbo to 1 on the DS-2. Otherwise, turn the tone just below half and crank the distortion and level.

Settings should look like this:

  • Tone – 4
  • Distortion – 10
  • Level – 10
  • Turbo – 1

Chorus Pedals

Kurt also used a few Electro-Harmonix chorus pedals in his setup. An Electro-Harmonix Small Clone, and an Electro-Harmonix Poly Chorus.

The Small Clone is straightforward. Set the depth switch to ‘up’ and the rate just below halfway.

  • Depth – up
  • Rate – 4

The Poly Chorus is a bit more complex with more features and different modes. In this case, set the mode to ‘chorus’.

Feedback and rate are set about halfway, with tune quite low and the width turned all the way up. For a smoother sound, you can set the filter to ‘on’.

The settings:

  • Mode – Chorus
  • Feedback – 4
  • Rate – 4
  • Width – 10
  • Tune – 2
  • Filter – on

There are also some more detailed notes on the Poly Chorus settings for the songs Heart-Shaped Box and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter. Kurt also kept specific notes for the solo and chorus parts in Heart-Shaped Box.

Those settings are:

Heart-Shaped Box Solo

  • Feedback – 4
  • Rate – 10
  • Width – 2
  • Tune – 10

 Heart-Shaped Box Chorus

  • Feedback – 4
  • Rate – 4
  • Width – 10
  • Tune – 2

Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

  • Feedback – 7
  • Rate – 6
  • Width – 8
  • Tune – 10

Conclusion

For such a simplistic sound and setup, Kurt Cobain helped to not only change grunge but music as a whole. He is a great example to show that you don’t need the fanciest gear to create a unique sound.

And with the right guitar, amp, and some creativity, you too can recreate one of the most iconic sounds in music history.

About Dedrich Schafer

Dedrich is a guitar player, songwriter and sound engineer with extensive music production and studio experience. He mostly listens to classic rock and punk bands, but sometimes also likes listening to rap and acoustic songs.

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