In the early 90s’ Grunge took over the world. Every guitarist from Seattle to Sydney was chasing the guitar tones of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
However, without the resources of the internet to help them out people had to rely on word of mouth or the occasional mention of a guitar pedal in an interview to try and work out just how these bands were creating such gritty tones.
Luckily for you, that is no longer the case and we’re here to walk you through exactly how to capture the raw and explosive tones of Grunge.
Today we will run through what types of guitars and amps are best suited for serious grunge tones, as well as pedals and settings to help you to sound like the dirty-haired rockstars of the early 90s’.
Which Guitars Are Best for That Grunge Tone?
To start us off you can’t go past the Fender Jaguar if you’re serious about chasing that grunge tone. This guitar was iconic within the scene seeing plenty of stage time with grunge guitarists including Kurt Cobain, all three members of Sonic Youth, and PJ Harvey.
What makes the Jaguar such a mainstay in the grunge canon is its versatility and natural harmonic overtones.
The switching system onboard this thing is pretty unique. Unlike let’s say a Fender Stratocaster, that can switch between bridge, middle, and neck pickups. The Jaguar offers 2 different pickup circuits; Lead and Rhythm. These two circuits use the pickups differently to bring out different tones from the guitar.
This is great for grunge because being able to soar between heavy and thick rhythm sections to piercing lead riffs is something you’ll find yourself doing a lot of.
I was tempted to include the Fender Mustang in this list but it going to have to be relegated to the honorable mentions list. Instead, I present the Fender Jag-Stang. The Jag-Stang was designed by Kurt Cobain with the idea of combining his two favorite guitars into one!
The guitar is a hybrid of the two and not just in the way it looks. Its body is closer to that of a mustang but its pickup settings are closer to that of a jaguar with a bit of added grit. The neck is thin and thrashable making it perfect for playing it loose and wild, the way its designer would have likely approved.
What Type of Pedals Works Best for Grunge?
Grunge is all about the noise! When building a grunge pedalboard you want to focus on pedals that affect the gain of your guitar, we’re talking overdrives, distortions, and fuzz boxes. Basically, anything that will make your guitar scream (in a good way).
While they all achieve a similar goal these 3 types of pedals are actually quite different. Let’s break it down.
Overdrive pedals are modeled after an old guitar amp technique and is the most ‘authentic’ type of distortion.
Before guitar pedals were even a thing guitarists started to experiment with grittier tones. They did this by ‘overdriving’ their tube amps by cranking the volume all the way up. This would cause the tubes in the amps to do haywire, sending an unnatural amount of power through the speakers and creating what we now call overdrive.
Overdrive pedals replicate this technique by increasing your guitar signal to the point it boosts your guitar signal and makes it distort. Overdrive is typically the cleanest sounding of the distortions retaining a lot of the dynamics of your playing.
Distortion pedals were created out of the necessity for MORE POWER. Unsurprisingly as music continued to evolve bands wanted to be able to add more dirt to their tone. Unlike an overdrive pedal that can be tamed by how hard you play, distortion pedals compress your signal causing it to distort no matter how you play.
If you’re chasing thick and steady distorted tones then distortion pedals are designed for just that! They are the most common of the gain boosting stompboxes used to this day due to how steady of a tone they produce.
The most famous distortion pedal is the Boss DS-1. This pedal is almost entirely responsible for the Nirvana sound. Kurt Cobain used it extensively throughout all 3 of their albums and it never came off his touring pedalboard.
Fuzz boxes. I could almost end my explanation there. These pedals are the most chaotic of the distortion pedals and playing with one can often feel like it has a mind of its own. Overall they have more of a focus on the high-end overtones of your guitar’s sound.
They make a song that is thick with sustain. Play one note and it will ring out for days if you leave your guitar anywhere near your amp.
Try playing anything other than lead or power chords and it will become difficult to tell what you’re even playing. That’s exactly what it’s designed to do though, it wraps your tone in a fuzzy cloud that consumes everything in its path.
The Smashing Pumpkin’s sophomore album Siamese Dream is perhaps the most famous use of a fuzz pedal with it seeing action on almost every track. Throw on Cherub Rock or Today and that dreamy unfocused melt of grunge tone is the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pumping in all its glory.
How To Get More Grunge From Your Guitar
When playing grunge you want to go for heavier gauge strings. Grunge can require you to get a bit rough with your strings and to avoid having to replace them every time you get a bit carried away with powering through some chords try to get strings that are 10 gauge and up. They will also add more volume and attack to your playing which is ideal for grunge.
Due to the grittiness of grunge, you should also try to NOT replace your strings too often. Over time strings will become slinkier and duller as you play. While damage to your strings is usually the opposite of what you want, it actually helps make your guitar sound better for this style.
Tone & Volume Controls
When it comes to tone and volume settings you want to keep your guitar output at maximum. This will help create the sustain and thickness found in grunge music.
If you have a single tone knob it’s best to not crank the treble all the way as this creates a brighter sound more suited to indie rock. Keeping it somewhere in the middle and adjusting accordingly depending on your amp will get you the best results.
If you have a guitar with a bridge humbucker pickup then that pickup will be your best friend when playing grunge. These pickups are common for grunge guitars such as the previously mentioned Jaguar and Jag-Stang. Locking your tone into that bridge humbucker will deliver a bigger weightier tone.
Best Grunge Amps
The classic grunge amp is the Fender Silverface and was used by Mudhoney, Tad, Swallow, and Nirvana. Unfortunately, they don’t make them anymore but they do give you a good outline of what to look for in an amp. The Silverface was a tube amp which are capable of being overdriven, this helped those bands bring out the raw tones of their guitars and boost it into overdrive.
A modern alternative to the Silverface would be the Fender Deluxe Reverb. It’s a tube amp modeled after their amps for the 60s and delivers a warm powerful tone very similar to that of the classic Silverface.
Great Pedals & Settings for Grunge Tones
If your going to buy one pedal in your quest for the grunge tone make sure it’s the Boss DS-1.
This was the distortion of choice for nearly every grunge band of the 90s’ and the model that was sold back then hasn’t been changed since! It’s still the same classic distortion tone. In particular, this pedal is responsible for so many of the tones in the music of Nirvana and PJ Harvey.
The Boss DS-1 is easy to use with only 3 knobs on it controlling tone, distortion, and volume level. Despite this, it is a very versatile pedal that can be dialed from a sharp aggressive distortion to a muddy warm sludge.
The perfect setting for the DS-1 grunge sound is to turn the distortion knob all the way up while keeping the tone knob around the 11 o’clock mark. This is what that sounds like in action.
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff
For a more harmonically chaotic grunge tone, you will want to get yourself a Big Muff. This pedal delivers an explosive sound that can be a little hard to control at times but once you get used to setting it right it’s unstoppable.
For playing grunge you don’t want to overdo the sustain knob keep it set somewhere in the middle for playing power chords or else it might start sounding a bit too muddy to be musical. The volume knob on the other hand should stay turned up.
These sort of settings will get you a sound like that found on the Smashing Pumpkins album Siamese Dreams. The album’s distorted tones are all a result of the Electro Harmonix Big Muff and is still used by Billy Corgan to this day!
To capture that Smashing Pumpkins grunge tone, set the tone knob of the Big Muff all the way up and keep the sustain at about 2 o’clock. Hear it doing its thing:
Ibanez Tube Screamer
Despite its name suggesting otherwise the Ibanez Tube Screamer is perfect for a more reserved grunge tone. The Tube Screamer is an overdrive pedal so it won’t get your tone as dirty as the DS-1 or the Big Muff.
Bumping up the level and adding a bit of gain will give you a crunchy tone. It’s perfect for adding grunge personality to the more subdued parts of your tracks without your voice competing with unruly distortion for space in the mix.
A big drawcard for this pedal is its responsiveness to the way you play. The harder you play the more the pedal will overdrive your sound. This makes it great for adding dynamics to your songs as the track evolves.
Electro-Harmonix Small Clone Chorus
The only pedal on this list that isn’t a distortion that doesn’t mean it isn’t essential. The Electro Harmonix Small Clone is responsible for the sound you hear on grunge tracks like Nirvana’s Come as You Are and when paired with the Boss DS-1 it has created some classic grunge tones.
This chorus adds that thick and slightly overproduced tone that you hear a lot in midwest rock music but it’s just as popular in grunge.
The pedal is straightforward with only one knob that controls the rate and a switch to change the depth. It can be a little all or nothing at times but when paired up with distortion or overdrive the deep chorus effect smooths out the edges of an otherwise sharp tone.
Go Out and Get Dirty
Now you’re armed with all the grunge knowledge you need, it’s time to make some noise!