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 Cobain Amp Settings – Nirvana Guitar Tone

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 Nirvana amp settings should then look like this:

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

Here are some more specific amp settings for a few of Nirvana’s most iconic songs.

Note: I’m including gain settings for these in case you’re unable to use a discrete distortion pedal. If you do have a distortion pedal at your disposal, turn the gain down to zero and use the pedal instead (I’ve included his distortion pedal settings in a separate section below).

Smells Like Teen Spirit

  • Bass – 4
  • Mid – 7
  • Treble – 8
  • Gain – 1 (verse), 9 (chorus)

Come As You Are

  • Bass – 6
  • Mid – 7
  • Treble – 7
  • Gain – 3 (verse), 7 (chorus)

Heart Shaped Box

  • Bass – 4
  • Mid – 6
  • Treble – 5
  • Gain – 2 (verse), 8 (chorus)


  • Bass – 5
  • Mid – 8
  • Treble – 6
  • Gain – 1 (verse), 7 (chorus)

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 as him, or at least something that can get you a pretty close tone, if you’re on a budget.

A good Fender or Marshall amp should be perfect. Nonetheless, here goes the list of his gears, if you want to be precise.

Fender Twin Reverb

A 1960’s 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 slightly cheaper, I would suggest the Tone Master Twin Reverb.

If you’re on a very tight budget, however, spending big on these Fender amps won’t make sense if you’re just trying to emulate his tone. In that case, you can go for the Bugera V5 Infinium, which is a small, budget-friendly but still highly-capable tube amp.

For bedroom practice, you can even try a compact amp packed with loads of tone presets and digital effects, like the Positive Grid Spark or the Boss Katana (we’ve compared these two side-by-side here).

Marshall Cabinet

For something a bit louder than the Fenders, 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 often while playing live, depending on the size of the venue. However, the MX212AR and MX412AR are both more affordable and will work just as well.

Mesa/Boogie Amp Head

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

The Mark series from Mesa/Boogie is a great modern alternative. The Mesa/Boogie Mark Five:25 tube amp head 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 now makes a Kurt Cobain Signature that should be as close as you could get to his actual guitar.

Now, it’s understandable that most aspiring grunge guitarists won’t have a comfortable budget of 1.5 grand to spend on a guitar, so here are a few budget alternatives.

Realistically, any modern guitar with a decent enough bridge humbucker would probably be fine for playing Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain’s Pedalboard & Pedal Settings

His pedalboard had a very basic setup. He didn’t use several different delays, six types of distortion, and other crazy effects. Sometimes simpler is just better.

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.

Kurt’s DS-1 distortion pedal 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 for Kurt Cobain’s Poly Chorus pedal:

  • 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 famous Nirvana 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

Not Enough Low-end?

If you feel like your tone is a bit ‘thin’, you can add some weight with the distortion pedal. Cut back on the tone a bit on the pedal to add some more bass.

You can also add more bass with the amp, but I’ve found that the pedal will really do the best job here.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that Cobain’s sound wasn’t too heavy on the low-end. Adding too much bass will just get you further from his sound rather than closer.


Cobain’s guitar tone was a defining part of the Seattle grunge sound. This means that dialing in a basic grunge setting will get us pretty close to Cobain’s sound.

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.

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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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