Besides my pursuit of ideal Kurt Cobain amp settings, I’m a bigger fan of Kurt’s writing than his music.
His published hand-written journal is fascinating in my humble opinion.
I’d rather read that than listen to Nevermind.
Then again, Cobain is one of rock’s most iconic guitar players and a major piece of the Seattle Grunge puzzle. Thus, it's hard to ignore the fact that his music was widely appealing and influential.
To get after his tone, let's start with a look at his pedalboard and setup, as of 1994, right before he died.
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Kurt Cobain's 1994 Pedalboard Diagram
Browse more rigs: Old Guitar Geek diagrams
Kurt Cobain's Pedals
- Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion
- Tech 21 Sans Amp Distortion (the older version)
- EHX Small Clone Chorus
The uniqueness of his guitar playing has long been a subject of discussion and intrigue.
We’ll build on that discussion by cataloging some of the most optimal Kurt Cobain amp settings, in which I'll use the Slash Marshall signature amp model from Amplitube to dial in some examples.
Per the above graphic, Cobain’s chorus and distortion pedal dials will be addressed as well.
Kurt Cobain Amp Settings Infographic
Before getting into the article, feel free to download and share our infographic (image below) that sums up this material.
It’s a handy tool if you’d prefer to just cut to the chase and get to the amp settings.
[click the image to download]
Kurt Cobain’s Gear Preferences
Cobain’s guitar playing was known primarily for his distorted tone.
Luckily, the grungy distortion he used is easy to emulate. Cobain was generally laissez fair about his gear and never really developed a taste for expensive rigs. Thus his distorted tone isn’t tough to nail down.
“I sold Kurt a bunch of guitars and effects for the Nevermind album,” says Rick King. “When they got signed to Geffen and started getting money, Kurt was still very frugal.”
Cobain’s tonal trademark also came from his frequent use of the chorus effect, both in live settings and on recordings.
We’ll look at the gear he preferred to use and then come up with some amp/pedal configurations that will get you that distorted, Seattle tone.
In 1990, he purchased an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus that would become a permanent staple of his pedalboard and an iconic aspect of Nirvana’s sound.
EHX Poly Chorus
Kurt would later employ an Electro-Harmonix Poly Chorus, particularly for recording In Utero.
EHX.com has a Nirvana tone tips page that details more of Cobain’s use of their Poly Chorus pedal. Here’s a shot of the actual EHX Poly Chorus that he used:
They’ve even got a shot of his settings notes for “Heart-Shaped Box” (solo), “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, and “Scentless Apprentice.”
There’s also a great shot of Cobain’s pedalboard (image below), which you can see is broken up into two different sections with two pedals on each board.
If you look at the photo closely, you can see that the following effects are being used:
Adam Cooper’s illustration of Cobain’s 1993 rig (via Guitar Geek), corroborates this, along with a depiction of Cobain’s Fender Mustangs, Mesa Boogie amplifiers and Marshall speaker cabs.
This is as complex as Cobain’s rig ever got.
So, in terms of gear that you might use, most anything would do. And besides, it’s not like you’re going to buy new stuff just so you can play some Nirvana songs.
But if you want specifics, here’s what I would consider as the most optimal gear list for the task at hand:
- Some kind of a vintage tube amp (Vox, Fender, etc.)
- A Fender guitar (Mustang, Strat)
- A Boss distortion pedal
- Some kind of boutique or analog chorus
If you’ve got that list checked off, your Nirvana tribute band is all set.
Now, let’s jump into some settings.
Basic Amp and Pedal Settings
Back in February of 2014, I published a post of Cobain’s amp settings in which I referred to a website called the Kurt Cobain Equipment FAQ. Their sources list impressed me and the website claims to be in cahoots with Earnie Bailey, who was Nirvana’s guitar tech.
I’ll cite those settings (from my February 2014 post) here once more then list settings that are my own interpretation of Bailey’s information.
Let’s start with Cobain’s pedals.
Boss DS-1 and Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion Pedal Settings
Cobain used the Boss DS-1 as his primary distortion pedal for several years before he replaced it with the Boss DS-2 Turbo, though he utilized them both in a fairly similar manner.
Sources from KurtsEquipment.com tell us he used the following settings on the Turbo:
- Level: Maxed
- Tone: 4-6
- Dist: Maxed
- Turbo: I (non-turbo setting)
Similar settings can be dialed in using the Boss DS-1, as it simply omits the “Turbo” knob option.
Here’s a shot of those settings on both pedals (note the knobs have been properly adjusted):
Now, let’s move on to the chorus pedals.
EHX Small Clone and Poly Chorus Pedal Settings
We can deal with the Small Clone pretty easily, as just one switch and knob.
The switch is said to have always been in the “up” position, to the point that Bailey eventually hard-wired it that way.
The rate knob is a preference issue, which can change to keep up with tempo or to add more fluctuations.
For the EHX Poly Chorus, the best record we have of how Cobain configured this pedal comes from the piece of notebook paper that I pictured earlier from the EHX.com blog.
Here’s a transcription of those three settings:
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
The Poly Chorus pedal has changed a lot since then, but you can still use these settings to generally configure whatever chorus pedal you might own.
Remember, this is not an exact science. You can get close, but even Kurt himself didn’t have things standardized.
As you can tell from his interviews, he wasn’t the most “precise” musician.
Conventional Seattle Grunge Amp Settings
I don’t expect many of us are sitting around with Mesa Boogie rack-mounted amps and four Marshall cabs in our possession.
But you really don’t need all that stuff.
Cobain played all kinds of amps throughout his career, especially in the early years when he couldn’t afford to spend much on his gear. Besides, we’re going for generic Seattle grunge, because that’s essentially what Cobain’s tone was.
Now when I say “generic,” I’m not saying that he wasn’t original, but that his tone rather was emulated and made popular in the years that followed Cobain’s success.
To accommodate it, I’ve found the 4-5-6 EQ method to work pretty well. Here’s how it goes:
- Bass: 4
- Mid: 5
- Treble: 6
I find that the lower bass and higher treble gives you a little extra bite, especially if you have the tone of the DS-1 or DS-2 turned down lower. Here’s a shot from the Amplitube 4 app:
As Reported by Earnie Bailey
If you use your amp’s gain to get a distorted signal, that should be maxed. Otherwise, leave it off.
Reverb is a matter of preference, but I’d keep it below a three or keep it off.
What if I can’t get enough low-end in the sound?
If you’re finding that the tone just isn’t thick enough, I would advise that you inject some weight through your distortion pedal.
The best thing to do is cut back the tone knob in whatever direction favors bass.
You can cushion that sound by adding some bass through your amp. However, but in my experience I’ve learned that this battle is won and lost with your distortion source (whatever that may be).
Also, keep in mind that a lot of low-end was never really a trademark of Cobain’s guitar playing.
Cobain’s Amp Settings per KurtsEquipment.com
Again, KurtsEquipment.com is our source for what we’re accepting as “reasonably reliable” secondhand information.
If they claim to have contact with Bailey, that’s probably as close as you’re ever going to get to a first-hand account of Cobain’s amp settings and gear.
From this site, we get the following specs of Cobain’s amps:
- “Kurt said he turned all the midrange up…” Source: 1997 Guitar World Magazine article
- “Regarding the Marshalls, Kurt really disliked Marshall amps. Partly, due to the whole hair metal stigma happening in the 80’s, and he didn’t like the sound of them. I think it was too generic for him.” Source: Ernie Bailey
- “I brought an old plexi 100 to the Reciprocal session in 1993(?). It had 6550’s in it and had the gain lowered to sound like a Dual Showman.” Source: Ernie Bailey
While it doesn’t seem as though Bailey addressed Kurt’s EQ specifically, we can deduct a few things from these quotes.
- Midrange and Treble should be somewhat higher.
- The high-pitched “metal-like” gain of Marshall amps is probably too much considering Cobain avoided them. Thus, highs should be reasonably tempered.
- Mention of the Dual Showman and lower gain suggests Bailey tried to cut some of the “bite” out of Cobain’s tone and add some smooth low end.
Having said all this, actual settings are up for debate and interpretation. All I can do is give you my interpretation of this information.
My bet is that many would come to the same conclusion.
Based off of my understanding, I believe Cobain probably pushed midrange and treble higher, somewhere around 7.5 or eight, while bass hovered around five or six, depending on the tendencies of whatever amp he used.
Remember, this would all have to dovetail with the settings used for the DS-1 and DS-2, which we do have specifics on.
If the tone knob on those pedals stayed at 12 o’clock or less, it’s reasonable to assume that Cobain used his amp to add some extra thickness.
Thus, my best guess at Cobain’s typical Nirvana amp setting would be something like the following:
I would advise making adjustments based on how well your distortion and chorus pedals compliment the raw output of your amplifier.
After all, Cobain’s tone was most easily recognized underneath those two effects.
If it feels sloppy and unrefined, you’re probably pretty close.
Cobain’s View of Gear
If you read Cobain’s interviews, a couple of things are abundantly clear.
First, Kurt did not have a lot of money to spend on guitar rigs for large portions of his playing career.
Second, even when he did, he was not the conventional gear-head, if one at all.
Instead, and in keeping with his counter-cultural, anti-mainstream persona, Kurt preferred cheaper gear from pawn shops and junk stores. As a result, his gear was unrefined and not always standardized.
And while the gear page on Guitar Geek is probably the most accurate representation of a “typical Cobain setup,” he never really normalized his guitar rig.
So why do I say all this?
I say it because it means that this is part of understanding his tone. It’s unkempt and haphazard, which means interpretations of his sound could be as well.
It gives you some freedom and creativity when speculating about how to recreate his tone.
In other words, don’t think too hard.
Your Thoughts or Questions
If you have questions about the settings or recommendations in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments section below. That's the easiest way to communicate and also benefit future readers.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Keneth Cruz