How to Get a Classic 90s Grunge Tone (Epic Gear Guide)


When Grunge music arrived, it stayed and conquered the 90s. The sound of rebellion, aggression, dark vibes, and blaring distortion. 

Fighting against the excess political movement and the musical culture of the 80s.

Thanks to the internet, Grunge music has had a recent resurgence in the guitar world. And because of this, players want to know how to nail a dark and blaring ‘Grunge tone.’

That’s why in this informative post, I will walk you through the cosmos of grunge guitar.

Everything from tone, history, playing style, guitars, amps, pedals, and more. Does this sound great or what?

There’s a lot to get through this post so let’s get going…  

How to Get a Grunge Sound

  1. ‘Stack’ sources of distortion to create a heavily saturated tone
  2. Add a fuzz pedal (optional)
  3. Tune down the guitar
  4. Play power chord structures and other grunge elements
  5. Play simple melodies
  6. Play in a minor key
  7. Play clean arpeggiated picking patterns
  8. Create feedback with your amp  
  9. Use effects: Chorus, Flanger, Reverb, and Wah  

The History

The origins of grunge music date back to the mid-80s. A fusion of heavy metal and punk rock emerged on the west coast of the United States, particularly in Seattle.

It was during the early and mid-90s that grunge music achieved commercial success and popularity.

Iconic brands leading the Grunge movement were powerhouses: Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots.

With its sudden surge of popularity, Grunge became the new wave and dominant genre of the 90s. 

Ultimately, stealing the crown from the ‘flashy’ and ‘excessive,’ ‘hair metal’ movement dominating the 80s.

The ‘Grunge sound’ brought raw emotion through ‘a wall’ of heavily distorted guitars. Combined with aggressive drumming forming the base for powerful vocals to be the central melodic standout. 

As guitar solos are not abundant in Grunge music, the vocals usually provide the melody and vibe.   

These ingredients give this genre its raw, deep, and downbeat vibe.

This new sound was a breath of fresh air and became the new mainstay during this time. A massive contrast to the upbeat anthemic ‘party vibe’ of 80s hair metal.

The Staple Guitar Tone

The ‘Grunge tone’ is known for its loud, aggressive, thick, and muddy distortion. This staple sound is the engine that fuels the blazing power chords and rhythm driving most grunge songs.

Whereas distortion in rock and metal is designed to ‘cut through the mix’ to ‘catch your ear’ with riffs and technical playing.

In contrast, Grunge distortion is a dense ‘wall of sound’ designed to slap you in the face. This is combined with tons of heavy and loose distortion coupled with simple power chord structures for maximum effect.

In musical terms, Grunge is based on simple rhythm playing. This provides the vocals with the platform to be the main standout element. The Guitar methodology is simple melodies and catchy riffs but rarely indulgences in a technical solo when it comes to lead playing.  

Other Grunge elements include combining heavy distortion with the chorus to offer a spacey and down-tuned effect. This creates a vibe for the distortion and can create a spacey but heavy tone at the same time.  

Lastly, Grunge is also known for its clean and arpeggiated pricking patterns. Usually combined with the chorus for atmospheric effect and offer a downbeat ambiance to most songs.

Ultimately, the Grunge revolution was a rebellion against the flashy and technical wizardry of 80s ‘cheese metal,’ portraying a darker, dirtier, and rebellious sound being much simpler but just as aggressive and assertive.   

Typical Grunge Tunings

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, an important factor that sets everything in place is tunings.

Famous Grunge songs have been in several tuning ranging from E standard (smells like teen Spirit) all the way down to Drop C.

Keep in mind, although lower tunings do naturally sound heavier and more menacing than, say E standard. It’s about the skill and ability to create a dark and downbeat vibe. Not so much the tuning.      

With that said, some recommended tunings for Grunge are…..

E Standard – (E A D G B E)   

Keep in mind, standard tuning can offer a dark and heavy tone; however, you will need to know the ‘heavy chords.’ Secondly, know how to play darker soundscapes to create a darkened sound when paired with fuzzy distortion.

Drop D – (D E A G B E)

Drop D is very similar to standard tuning. The difference being the low E is tuned down to D. The open D sounds naturally heavy for creating a darker and aggressive when paired with tons of distortion.

Eb – (Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb)

Eb is very similar to E standard, except when all of the strings are tuned half a step (or semitone) down from E standard.

Drop C – (C G C F A D)

Like Drop D, however, the strings are tuned down another semitone (1 fret down.) Keep in mind, if you are looking to use this tuning, you will need heavier gauged strings (11/12) to increase the tension to avoid loose and floppy strings.

Mastering The Playing Style

Keep in mind, Grunge music is not known for its virtuoso guitar technique. Nevertheless, it is a quite complex genre to understand, replicate, and even more so, create.

The most complex element will probably be creating a tone that is of the correct vibe.

However, understanding how to capture all of the grunge elements and tone is the key to mastering this playing style. Let’s take a look at the elements…

Power Chords

Power chords are the backbone of most Grunge rhythm songs. They are a technique you must confidently know to play grunge music.

Similar to punk rock, power chords are THE cornerstone element of grunge music. Most of their riffs and sections have an aggressive, power-chordy, dirty attitude that makes the style come alive.

You must also consider having a tight and solid strumming hand. This is to provide grove and decisiveness to your playing.

Another aspect is moving your power chord shapes across the neck fluidly for faster tempo songs.

Octave Chords

Octave chords are two-note chords comprised of two notes that are exactly the same, just on different strings.

These chords are excellent to add to your guitar vocabulary. They add more edginess and variation to standard power chords.  

During the 90s, double tacking was a relatively new technique in the studio. Grunge players used this to their advantage. 

The goal was layering and recording octave chords over the power chords tracks. This generated a massive wall of sound, adding power and depth to the rhythm section of songs.

Palm Muting

Although familiar with a ton of musical genres. Palm-muting is an essential technique that adds flair to your playing and added rhythm and spice. Notably, Grunge is very familiar with this technique.

To ‘palm mute,’ you essentially place your palm over the strings to mute them as you strike the strings. This adds a dampening effect depending on how hard you mute the strings.

This technique is used over a range of musical genres, which adds flair and rhythm to your playing.

Grunge players notably use many simple techniques, and palm muting is definitely one you need to master.  

Arpeggiated Picking Patterns

Another element to have down is Arpeggiated picking patterns. This component is incorporated in a ton of grunge songs typically played in a minor key for a dark and downbeat vibe. Usually combined with heavy distortion and lush, clean tones for a dark vibey sound.

Playing picking patterns involves plucking multiple strings in a tight section of notes grouped together to create a melancholy sound.

You will need to have good coordination and be able to ‘alternate pick,’ meaning to pluck in a loose up and down motion to pull off this technique.

This technique can be pretty technical for beginners. The reason is it requires good rhythm and coordination. But with lots of practice, you can get this technique down, not just for Grunge. But a wide range of musical genres.

Loose Playing

As playing is concerned, Grunge borrows heavily from Punk’s “I don’t care” attitude.

Meaning that performances were never intended to sound ‘polished’ or ‘professional. This is portrayed in the many Grunge guitarists playing styles.

Grunge playing is known for sounding ‘loose’ and ‘sloppy,’ which is the typical style of music, it does not mean that Grunge artists were bad guitarists or musicians.

It is just a piece of the ‘carefree’ attitude and the rebellion being portrayed in music as a whole.

Ultimately, it means that a ‘loose’ playing style is another element to add to your arsenal to sound more Grunge. Typically for Punk and Grunge, if it sounds bad, then it actually sounds good.

The Grunge Scale

Like most rock music and its variations, grunge harmony usually revolves around the pentatonic minor. Several songs also incorporate the b6 of the scale to give it that natural minor, sad sound.

However, it gets the most interesting with this genre when you use the pentatonic scale, but you make all chords major.

This most likely began as a way for non-experienced guitar players to make music only knowing one barre chord. However, this way of harmonizing became a staple in the grunge genre.

Typical Grunge Guitars

Moving on to guitars. In reality, there is no specific guitar or models that stood out in the grunge rock world. Some players used Fender, some people used Gibson, but no pattern really occurred.

However, this does not mean that the type of guitar you use will “inform” your tone and style of playing. Every guitar has its own set of quirks you can use to your advantage.

Here are some of the most common guitar models ideal for Grunge

Fender Mustang

Even though Fender released the first Mustang models in the mid-60s, it wasn’t a popular choice. It wasn’t until they released their 90s reissue that this guitar became effectively popular.

As a matter of fact, the Fender Mustang became a bit of a cult guitar within the alternative rock and grunge scene.

This is probably since this Fender model was made famous by Kurt Cobain.  Cementing its popularity in the grunge scene for many years to come.

Fender Jazzmaster

The Jazzmaster is a standard favorite with grunge players. Strangely enough, it was designed for jazz players when launched back in 1958. 

Mainly due to its wafer-thin sound and comfortable body. Unfortunately, it never caught on with Jazz players.

However, in the 90s, the guitar had a resurgence due to its versatility and ability to create ‘out of phase’ sounds. Not to mention its strange offset looks.

These features give the Jazzmaster an excellent platform to become a popular choice in the Grunge and Alternative rock scene.   

Stratocaster

It is no secret that the Fender Stratocaster is one of the most popular guitars in the world. It might even be considered Fender’s best guitar model.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that some heavyweight grunge guitarists used this guitar. The one who most notably used them was Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist Mike McCready.

These guitars are so versatile and have a distinct sound you can never go wrong with a Fender Stratocaster.

Telecaster

Similar to the Stratocaster, Fender’s Telecasters are versatile and one of the most popular guitars out there. Keep in mind, they are usually favored in other types of genres such as blues, rock, or county.

Nevertheless, Stone Temple Pilot’s very own Dan DeLeo owns a Telecaster-style guitar, which he uses all the time.

A Telecaster is similar in sound to a Stratocaster could be an excellent Grunge workhorse, especially if installed with humbuckers.

This proves that in reality, it doesn’t matter which guitar model you have as long as you know how to use it.

Gibson / Epiphone Les Paul

Most of the grunge guitarists from major bands have some form of a Les Paul. It makes sense since it is a popular choice when it comes to heavy genres.

A Les Paul has the credentials to provide a thick and beefy tone due to its bulky body and humbucker pickups.

Perfect for heavy and dark distortion to provide the ‘wall of sound’ all grunge players love. Not to mention they are versatile and one of the most iconic guitars to grace the world.

PRS Guitars

Lastly, we have PRS Guitars. These guitars were designed specifically for heavier rock genres and metal, which is why they are perfect for Grunge.

Again, no specific guitarist favored these guitars, other than Dean and Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots. Don’t let that fool you. If you are looking for a guitar that handles distortion extraordinarily, PRS might be what you are looking for.

Other recommendations include…

  • Gibson/Epiphone SG
  • Squire Paranormal series
  • Silvertone guitars
  • Gibson/Epiphone Studio
  • Danelectro Guitars

A Word on Guitar Pickups

As I mentioned, with different guitars, each pickup will give your tone specific characteristics and tonal flavors.

Keep in mind, there is no right answer when deciding on which pickups to rely on. Once again, it’s all a matter of taste and preference. Let’s take a look at different pickups and how they affect guitar tone.

Humbuckers – Overview

Humbuckers are slightly favored when searching for grunge-like tones. One of the main reasons is that, in contrast to single coils, humbuckers have a thicker, darker, and fatter tone.

Humbuckers react very well to distortion. Usually, distortion takes away some of the low-end in your sound (depending on the pedal, of course).

Humbuckers have a lot more low-end to compensate for this loss. Single coils will usually require a bass booster to give you more weight.

Another reason why guitarists favor humbuckers is they can contain feedback much better. This is not necessarily a plus for feedback, since you might like how easily a guitar feedbacks (especially for Grunge.)

However, when it comes to unwanted noise, humbuckers are much better at canceling noise than single coils. Secondly, they provide a thicker and meatier sound.

Single Coils – Overview

Single coils have a bright and thin sound compared to humbuckers. They have less low-mid and mid-range but have a good bass/treble relationship.

Furthermore, single-coils have more clarity and definition that can easily cut through the mix better than humbuckers.

As I mentioned before, humbuckers react very well to distortion. Single coils can also respond well, but most of the time, you’ll need some sort of noise cancellation, especially if you are using heavy distortion. Otherwise, feedback can be a problem with single-coil pickups.

Nevertheless, grunge music also has a lot of clean tones that are mixed with effects such as chorus, phaser, or rotary. 

Single coil pickups can provide you with excellent clean tones for clean sections of songs.

Furthermore, single-coil pickups offer a great contrast if your other guitarist on-stage has humbuckers installed in their guitar. 

This offers a good distinction of sound, meaning you will be able to hear both guitarists on stage as they both have contrasting sounds.  

P90s – Overview

P90s are sort of the in-between humbuckers and single coils. Like the humbucker, the P90s have a warm character with good bass and mid-range response.

On the other hand, the P90s are thin and have some clear-cut frequencies similar to a single coil.

Now the great thing about these pickups is that they allow you to have versatility. You can achieve some tremendous clean tones, as well as distorted tones.

However, similar to a single coil, the unwanted hum and crackle issue will appear when you crank up the distortion, making them really noisy. This can be addressed with a noise suppressor pedal or by shielding your P90s.

P90s are a solid option for grunge music in general. I’d still probably favor a humbucker over the three, but it all depends on what type of tome you want to go for.

Choosing Strings for Grunge

When thinking about guitar strings for grunge music, you must consider the overall quality of the guitar tone and the fact that many songs are in lower alternate tunings.

When you tune down your guitar, the tension of the strings will naturally decrease, making them softer and looser, especially with lower tuning. Using heavier gauges will compensate for the string tension lost while tuning down.

Thicker gauge strings have more bass and mid-range information in them. As I mentioned at the beginning, grunge guitar has a dark, thick character without many clear-cut frequencies. Thicker gauges will certainly enable that.

Lastly, most grunge music rarely involves heavy string bending or other difficult techniques to perform in thicker gauges.

I’d recommend trying 10s first since that will not be a drastic tension change. You can try 11s and compare how these gauges fit.

Amplifiers For Grunge

Keep in mind, there’s no such thing as a ‘Grunge amplifier.’ As all types of amps can do the job.

There are no specific amp brands or models that work best for creating Grunge. Hence why I am not recommending any specific amps.

Most players focus heavily on distortion pedals and effect pedals to achieve a dirty and aggressive tone meaning that players mainly utilize the amp as a ‘platform pedal.’   

Therefore players would utilize the clean channel of their amp (which all amps have) and run their pedalboard as their catalog of various tones and effects.   

Having said this, you must take into consideration if you want to do the same. Or simply use the amps distortion or as the primary source of overdrive or by relying on pedals. Or even a mixture of both depending on your tastes.

Grunge Amp Checklist

  • Clean channel sounds crisp and defined  
  • Takes pedals well
  • You like the tone and characteristics of the distortion
  • Includes an effects loop
  • Includes a footswitch
  • The wattage is enough for gigging
  • Onboard effects (optional)

What else is important is knowing the differences in amp types. So you can decide which is best for your needs. Let’s take a look at different amp types…

Tube/Valve Amplifiers

As you may know, tube amps rely on valves (or tubes) to power up the sound and give it its character.

The main thing to know about these amps is that the more you crank them up, the more you get all of the perks from their tubes.

When cranking up a tube, it will increase its output until a breaking point. It is at this point that you will achieve a sweet, warm, analog distortion. This is the tone that so many guitar players search for when looking for the perfect tone.

From my research, it’s no surprise that all the top grunge bands preferred tube over solid-state amps. This is mainly to the demand for loudness and the overall quality of tube amps.

If we take the top 3 grunge bands we can see they all predominantly used tube amplifiers. Soundgarden heavily used the Peavey VTM 120's, while Pearl Jam used several A Marshall JCM models.

Even Nirvana, who I thought would use less “popular” amp brands, used the 1960s Fender Twin Reverb to record In Utero, as well as MTV Unplugged. As for their iconic album, never mind, they mostly used a Mesa/Boogie Studio.

Pros

  • Analog distortion sounds smoother and more authentic.

Cons

  • More expensive
  • Less Reliable
  • Heavy
  • No built-in effects
  • Cumbersome to transport

Solid-State Amplifiers

Solid-state amps are amplifiers that rely on transistors to power up and give you their characteristic sound.

These amps are usually cheaper than tube amplifiers. Also, they are much easier to maintain since they do not require tube changes and are far less fragile.

In terms of sound, they might be slightly less quality than tube amps, especially when it comes to warmth.

Nevertheless, that difference is so minimal it is not a dealbreaker. Solid-state amps can work wonders when creating a grunge sound.

The reason is that solid-state amp distortion is regarded as sounding ‘fizzy’ and ‘digital.’ However, for Grunge, this is positive as it sounds more aggressive and loose which is ideal for grunge music. 

It all depends if you prefer the distortion from a solid-state, tube, or solely rely on pedals as your main distortion sound.  

However, one thing that solid-state amps can have, especially those with amp modeling or multi-effects, is versatility.

If you are looking for an all-versatile workhorse without having to spend a fortune, solid-state amps and modeling amps might just do it for you.

These amps usually come with a ton of built-in effects. Meaning there is no need to splash out on a range of pedals to achieve the tones you desire.  

Pros

  • Cheaper
  • Versatile
  • More reliable
  • Weigh less
  • Easier to transport
  • Come with built-in effects

Cons

  • Distortion quality is not as good as tube amps
  • Clean tones are not as authentic as tube amps

Grunge Pedals & Effects

Distortion / Fuzz / Overdrive

 If you had to purchase one pedal and one pedal only, I strongly suggest you make that a distortion, fuzz, or even an overdrive pedal.

Distortion is the cornerstone in the creation of sculpting a heavy and aggressive grunge sound.

Some grunge artists would run their pedals through the clean channel of the amp. Utilizing pedals as their main source of distortion.

Some artists would also ‘stack’ the distortion section. Meaning they would use two together to achieve a supersaturated sound.

In fairness, you can use any distortion pedal and achieve a decent grunge tone. As long as it can provide a highly saturated sound.

Your choice ultimately hinges on the tone, characteristics, versatility, and quality of the distortion pedal you choose.  

With that said, let’s look at some of the most used distortion and overdrive pedals in Grunge.

BOSS DS-2 Turbo Distortion

One of the most influential distortion pedals in the grunge area (and to this day) is the BOSS DS-1 Distortion.

Most of the distorted guitars you hear in Nirvana’s Bleach and nevermind came from a DS-1.

Later on, BOSS released the DS-2 Turbo Distortion, which has all of the parameters and qualities a DS-1 has, plus an added Turbo mode.

This Turbo mode allows you to add more aggressiveness to your distortion plus a mid-range boost.

PROCO RAT Distortion Pedal

The PROCO Rat Distortion Pedal is a more aggressive distortion with tons of bite and snarl. It became very popular in the late 70s and later on became a staple in grunge music.

The interesting thing about this distortion pedal is that one of the most faithful players to use it was Nirvana’s bassist Krist Novoselic. Kurt Cobain used it as well from time to time.

This is your best bet if you are looking for a brighter, hairier distortion pedal than the DS-2.

Big Muff Pedal

The EHX Big Muff fuzz pedal was another popular choice in the grunge world. This fuzz pedal significantly opens up your tonal palette and gives you much more versatility.

A fuzz pedal sounds far looser and fuzzier than a standard distortion pedal. Hence why it was so popular in Grunge. There have been many reincarnations of the Big Muff pedal, but any variation will do the job.  

One of the main uses of this pedal is to pair it with another distortion pedal to attain a very dirty and aggressive sound. This makes it an ideal pedal to create grunge music. The Smashing Pumpkins are best known for using this pedal.

Chorus/Modulation

The chorus/modulation effect was another element found in many grunge songs.

It consists of taking the main signal, duplicating it, and detuning it to give you the sense of two or slightly different more signals.

Furthermore, when using this effect aggressively, you can create some gnarly sounds that match the overall dark, and unsettling vibe grunge music has.

Some of the most popular grunge songs that have the chorus effect include Nirvana’s Come As You Are, Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, and most of the Smashing Pumpkins studio album, Siamese Dream

Even though any chorus pedal can do the trick, this next pedal is recognized as the staple pedal for grunge music.

EHX Small Clone Pedal

When it comes to pedals, Electro-Harmonix is one of the best companies out there. The EHX Small Clone is one of the top analog choruses in the market. On top of this, Nirvana’s very own Kurt Cobain favored it.

The Small Clone is a straightforward analog chorus with only 3 parameters. The on and off switch with true bypass, the modulation rate knob, and a depth switch.

The rate knob dictates how fast will the detuning modulation will act and the depth button will determine how deep the wobble is. The deeper it is, the more extravagant the sound will be.

Phaser Effects

Another popular modulation effect is the phaser. Even though there are not many grunge songs that apply it, it is still another great way to make your sound unique.

Similar to a chorus pedal, a phaser pedal takes the signal and duplicates it.

While the original signal remains dry, the duplicated signal goes through a series of filters to change its character. It is at the end of this process that both signals are combined to create a phased signal.

Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins heavily experimented with the phaser pedal.

Wah Pedal

Even though Grunge’s main act Nirvana never used a wah pedal, several modern grunge players incorporated this pedal into their sound.

Having a wah pedal allows you to have much more expression, whether it is for soloing or creating eccentric riffs and grooves.

The main guitarist to take a look at when exploring the wah pedal is Pearl Jam’s very own Mike McCready. You can hear his wah pedal in full action on their iconic song, “Even Flow.”

The great thing about this effect is that there is no specific wah pedal that is better than others. Your wah pedal choice will depend on your taste. There’s no need to get specific; any wah pedal will take care of the job.

Adam

Adam is the founder and author of Tone Topics and dedicated to providing the best guitar content for like-minded gear nerds. Please enjoy all the content on the site and support us by sharing these posts with other people. It would really help us out!

Recent Content