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Legends of Tone: Nirvana

Turn up the gain and bow down to the lords of grunge.

Fusing the heaviness of hard rock and metal with the ethos of punk rock, Nirvana changed the sound of rock 'n' roll in the early '90s. The band's big distorted electric guitar riffs -- sometimes washed in a sea of warbly chorus, pounding basslines, and hard-hitting drums -- provided the blueprint for the alternative rock movement that dominated the decade...and beyond. Powered by Fender guitars and some choice effects, Kurt Cobain's songwriting seemed to become more genuine when backed up by the band's sonically mangled sound.

Check out our take on the definitive sound of grunge in our Legends of Tone: Nirvana video:


Learn even more about what goes into the legendary band's tones on the zZounds Blog!

Fender Mustang

Always a fan of short-scale Fender guitars, Kurt Cobain seemed to prefer Mustangs most of all. A Lake Placid Blue Mustang prominently features in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video, and more modified Mustangs were used almost exclusively during the band's final tours.

To recreate the guitar's distinctive sound, we went straight to the source with a Fender Mustang from the brand's Offset Series. Modified slightly from the original design, these Mustangs feature a standard three-way toggle switch rather than the old-school on/off/reverse phase switch for each pickup. The Offset Series Mustangs also feature a hardtail bridge for increased resonance and enhanced tuning stability.

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Fender Classic Player Jaguar Special HH

Another famous guitar in his collection, Kurt's Fender Jaguar appeared on a number of TV appearances and was featured heavily at live performances. An additional example of Kurt's love for short-scale Fenders, this heavily-modified Jaguar featured a pair of humbuckers to produce the rich, thick distortion for which the band was known.

The Fender Classic Player Jaguar Special HH sports many of the modifications found on Kurt's original model, including a pair of Enforcer humbuckers and an Adjusto-Matic bridge. Independent lead and rhythm circuits enhance the guitar's versatility by offering tones ranging from sparkly clean to tastefully dark.

Fender '68 Custom Vibrolux Reverb

Kurt's main guitar amp during the recording of In Utero, the Fender Twin Reverb is a powerhouse that really needs no introduction. Since most of his distortion was produced by Boss DS-2 at that time, the Twin's heavy-duty power section provides a hefty beef to the overall tone, contributing to the overall aggressive grittiness of the album's tone.

To get a similar sound, we swapped in a lower-powered Fender '68 Custom Vibrolux Reverb. Featuring a pair of 10-inch Celestion speakers, this 35-watt little monster is more than capable of spitting out the aggressive cranked Fender sound. Slap a distortion pedal in front of the amp and you're well on your way to the sound of grunge heaven.

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Boss DS-1 40th Anniversary

Arguably one of the most well-known distortion pedals in the world, the affordable Boss DS-1 launched into its own form of superstardom once it was revealed Kurt Cobain used the humble orange pedal. And use it he did. The DS-1 is essentially the sound of Nirvana from Bleach up until right before the recording of In Utero, when Kurt switched to a DS-2.

Tapping into the heart of Nirvana's distorted tone, we used a 40th Anniversary version. Clad in black, this DS-1 features the same Tone, Level, and Distortion controls as the original. Engaging this iconic pedal instantly takes you back to the heyday of classic grunge.

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Electro-Harmonix Small Clone

Powering such legendary songs such as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Come As You Are," and so many more, the modest Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus pedal was one of Kurt's most used effects. Outfitted with just a single rate knob and a depth intensity switch, the Small Stone packed a considerable amount of lush, detuned modulation in its big purple enclosure.

Still looking the same as the ones used by Kurt nearly three decades ago, the Small Clone is currently in production in the familiar large box. Virtually identical to vintage models, these new-production versions feature all-analog circuitry to produce the familiar sea-sick warbles we all know and love.

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Way Huge Swollen Pickle

Sometimes, adding a little beef to your tone goes a long way. When Kurt and Butch Vig knew they had to add a little something to "Lithium," an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff yielded the results they needed to truly take the tone over the top.

When trying to recreate the tone of "Lithium," we loved the results we got with the Way Huge Swollen Pickle. This aggressive fuzz not only provides the gain needed to pull off the sound, but also adds a significant amount of heft to your tone that really gives it a heavyweight character.

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Epiphone Thunderbird Classic IV PRO

While laying down the pulsating basslines for Nirvana, Krist Novoselic preferred to use basses that were relatively out of the ordinary, particularly various Ibanez and Gibson models. During their performance at the Reading Festival in 1992, Krist played a Gibson Thunderbird bass that exploded with fat, grindy tone to really fill out the three-piece.

To get the bass sound found heard during that legendary performance, we got our hands on a budget-friendly Epiphone Thunderbird Classic IV PRO. Equipped with a pair of Gibson TB Plus Humbuckers, this 'Bird flies high on the winds of fat tone.

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