Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (2023)

Besidesmy 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.

Gear Kurt Cobain Most Often Used with Nirvana





Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (1)

Fender Kurt Cobain Signature Jaguar


Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (2)

Boss DS-1 Distortion


Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (3)

EHX Small Clone Chorus Pedal


  • Gear Kurt Cobain Most Often Used with Nirvana

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings Infographic

    Kurt Cobain’s Gear Preferences

    Basic Amp and Pedal Settings

    Cobain’s Amp Settings per KurtsEquipment.com

    Cobain’s View of Gear

    Your Thoughts or Questions

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (4)

    What was Kurt Cobain's gear situation? What kind of pedals did he use?Flickr Commons Image Courtesy ofKeneth Cruz

    (Video) I found the SECRET to Kurt Cobain's guitar tone

    Kurt Cobain's 1994 Pedalboard Diagram

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (5)

    Kurt Cobain's pedalboard diagram from 1994. Image via Guitar.com

    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 Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (6)

    Amp Images Courtesy of Positive Grid

    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:

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (7)

    Kurt Cobain’s EHX Poly Chorus

    They’ve even got a shot of his settings notes for “Heart-Shaped Box” (solo), “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, and “Scentless Apprentice.”

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (8)

    A few notes Cobain made for his chorus pedals.

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (9)

    Cobain fidgeting with his pedalboard.

    (Video) How To Sound Like Nirvana (Kurt Cobain Guitar Gear Guide)

    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.

    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:

    (Video) I Got Kurt Cobain's Distortion Pedal #shorts

    Typical Grunge

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (10)

    The typical Seattle Grunge guitar amp setting.

    As Reported by Earnie Bailey

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (11)

    Cobain's amp settings as reported by guitar tech 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.


    1. Midrange and Treble should be somewhat higher.
    2. The high-pitched “metal-like” gain of Marshall amps is probably too much considering Cobain avoided them. Thus, highs should be reasonably tempered.
    3. 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:

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk (12)

    Putting it all together.

    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.

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    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.

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  • FAQs

    Kurt Cobain Amp Settings: Chorus & Distortion Edition - Guitar Chalk? ›

    Kurt Cobain used a range of tones depending on the songs he was playing, but generally, he set his amp settings at 7-8 for the treble and mids and the bass around 5. He generally set his distortion high for choruses (8-10) unless a pedal was used.

    What settings did Kurt Cobain use on his distortion pedal? ›

    Kurt Cobain used a range of tones depending on the songs he was playing, but generally, he set his amp settings at 7-8 for the treble and mids and the bass around 5. He generally set his distortion high for choruses (8-10) unless a pedal was used.

    What should my amp be set at when using a distortion pedal? ›

    The Quick Answer. For a distorted tone, set your amplifier settings to 7-9 for gain, 4-5 for bass, 5-7 for mids and 5-7 for treble. For metal, consider decreasing the mids and increasing the treble and bass. For heavy rock distortion, lower the gain slightly, and increase the mids.

    How do I get Nirvana tone on my amp? ›

    To get Nirvana's tone with your amplifier, have the treble and mids fairly high (around 7-8) and the bass on around 5 to begin with. The distortion should be quite high for the chorus (usually between 8-10), unless you're using a pedal.

    What amp settings are best for grunge sound? ›

    Grunge Amp Settings. A general amp setting would be to treble about noon, mid-range around 8-9, and bass around 5. To get a good crunch, you'd need a relatively large gain.

    What distortion was best for Nirvana? ›

    During the Nirvana years, Cobain almost always used the Boss DS-1 distortion pedal.

    What distortion did Kurt use? ›

    Kurt started off with the BOSS DS-1 (link to Amazon for price and details), which is one of the most popular distortion pedals of all time. In the albums Bleach and Nevermind, most of the distortion you hear is from a DS-1. At some point, Kurt switched from the DS-1 to the BOSS DS-2.

    Should distortion pedal be in front of the amp or effects loop? ›

    Should I use overdrive or distortion in the effects loop? I don't suggest using any boost, overdrive or distortion pedals in the effects loop as these will boost the gain and the signal and could cause damage to your guitar amp by overloading the power amp.

    What happens if you use too much distortion? ›

    Using too much gain

    Many rock and metal guitarists think that more distortion equals better and heavier tone. Not the case! Of course you want your tone to rage, but keep in mind that the more you distort your tone, the more it gets “squared off”—you lose attack and punch, and the transients aren't as sharp.

    How do I get the best tone out of my distortion pedal? ›

    Setting both to a mid level should give a good clean or crunchy sound, while running the first up high and the second low will give you the most distortion. Overdrive, Distortion, Gain and Drive Pedals can also give a similar sound.

    How did Kurt Cobain get his tone? ›

    Kurt Cobain mainly used A Mesa Boogie Studio . 22 Preamp with a Crest 4801 Power Amp into a Marshall Cabinet. However, he used the clean channels without affecting the tone of the amp. Instead, he relied on his pedals for any kind of effects like distortion, delay, reverb, and chorus.

    What amplifier did Kurt Cobain use? ›

    Kurt often used Fender amps - specifically a Bassman head, and also a Quad Reverb for some tracking of 'In Utero'. He also made use of a Twin Reverb 'Blackface' model that you can see on the Nirvana 'MTV Unplugged' session.

    How do I get grunge sound on my amp? ›

    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.

    What was Kurt Cobain's favorite pedal? ›

    Boss DS-1. The DS-1 was considered the main factor in Kurt's tone in this era. It was his main distortion tone. The DS-1 is a harsher style clipping than a standard amp overdrive or other overdrive style pedal.

    What reverb did Kurt Cobain use? ›

    Amplifiers. Apparently Cobain's preferred amp was a 1960s Fender Twin Reverb, which he used to record In Utero, as well as MTV Unplugged. He also used a similar amp during the recording of Bleach, though it is unknown if it was the exact same one. He also favoured a Mesa/Boogie Studio .

    What Nirvana songs use chorus pedal? ›

    What is this? For more Nirvana songs using a chorus pedal, check out: Smells Like Teen Spirit (during verse and pre-chorus), In Bloom (verse), Aneurysm, Drain You. In live versions, you can clearly hear the chorus pedal in action.

    Did Kurt Cobain use a chorus pedal? ›

    In 1990, after the recording of 'Bleach', Kurt Cobain got the pedal that supplied some of the most memorable moments in his career - the Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus.

    What technique did Kurt Cobain use? ›

    Even when singing considerably relaxed and lower notes, he still manages to give his vocal a creaky nature that makes it sound kind of broken. You can hear various versions of his scratchy tones in songs like “You Know You're Right” and “Heart-Shaped Box”. Most vocal trainers refer to this technique as vocal frying.

    What straps did Kurt Cobain use? ›

    Kurt would use Ernie Ball Straps for all his guitars after the release of Nevermind. Kurt Used The Black Ernie Ball Strap From 1993 Till 1994.

    What tuning did Kurt Cobain use for something in the way? ›

    Kurt Cobain used dropped "C" tuning for this one in order to get that really full sound out of just one acoustic guitar. As for the lesson itself, we will first start with a look at the verse.

    Did Kurt Cobain use gain? ›

    Kurt wasn't fond of amp gain that sounded too 'metal-like', so he used the clean channels with low gain and relied on his pedals for distortion.


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