What Distortion Pedal Did Kurt Cobain Use: A Deep Dive Into Kurt Cobain’s Setup

what distortion pedal did kurt cobain use

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Are you a guitarist who looks up to the legendary Kurt Cobain and wants to play music like him? Then you will definitely want to know about his setup and the distortion kit he used.

The distortion kit that Kurt Cobain used featured a variety of distortion pedals including Boss DS-1, Boss DS-2, and ProCo RAT among others. He had a very vast music setup

In this article, you will get to know all about Kurt Cobain’s setup, what distortion kit did Kurt Cobain use, what distortion pedal did Kurt Cobain use, what chorus pedal did Kurt Cobain use, and a lot more. Stick around to get all the answers to help you emulate the legendary Kurt Cobain’s music!

How Kurt Cobain paved the way for a distortion sound-based grunge era

Kurt Cobain was among the most popular and influential musicians of the early 1990s. He paved the way for an entire generation of musicians while also birthing a new genre of music. This genre was based largely on the distortion sounds used by many musicians, including Kurt Cobain during this time. It ended up becoming known as the grunge era, an era that had major societal changes.

Although Kurt Cobain wasn’t primarily known for his guitar playing ability, although he was a great guitarist, he was an even more skillful singer. Kurt Cobain still ended up becoming an iconic name in rock music history. His short yet amazing career with Nirvana didn’t just create a huge splash in the mainstream, he also created a massive milestone in the music industry.

He was able to combine diverse elements like the aggressiveness and power of punk, with heavily distorted guitar tones, catchy riffs, and pop choruses. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana helped usher in the grunge era and dominated most of the 90s.

Cobain’s iconic guitar sound played a significant role in achieving that. He also made use of distorted tones for the chords and riffs, alongside whole clean tones in intros and verses. Kurt Cobain made use of many guitars, pedals, amps, and other gear throughout his music career. He wasn’t picky about his gear, although he had the primary gear that he relied on to get distinctive tones.

What distortion kit did Kurt Cobain use?

While Kurt Cobain made use of different pedals over his music career, there were a few primary weapons of choice. He commonly used Distortion and Chorus pedals like the Boss DS-2, the EHX Small Clone, a Tech 21 Sansamp, and an EHX Poly Chorus. These four pedals covered most of the tones that fans hear in Nirvana’s tracks. If you’re looking to sound like Kurt Cobain, you will require distortion pedals and chorus pedals.

What distortion pedal did Kurt Cobain use?

Boss DS-1 and Boss DS-2

ds 1 distortion pedal

Kurt Cobain started off his rig with the Boss DS-1 distortion pedal. It is widely believed to be one of the most popular distortion pedals of all time. In albums like “Nevermind” and “Bleach”, most of the distortion that you hear comes from the Boss DS-1. At some point, he switched from the Boss DS-1 to the Boss DS-2. In albums like “Utero” and his appearance on “MTV Unplugged” in New York, he used the Boss DS-2.

There are some differences between Boss DS-1 and Boss DS-2. The Boss DS-1 is essentially a simple pedal with three knobs for controlling the distortion. Meanwhile, the Boss DS-2 features four knobs and an extra input jack. The fourth knob will allow you to easily switch between the two “Turbo” modes. The Turbo I mode has been designed to sound similar to the DS-1 while the Turbo II mode will give a more aggressive distortion with a mid-range boost.

The distortion pedal features a remote input jack. It’ll allow you to connect an external footswitch for changing back and forth between different modes. If you’re looking to decide between using a Boss DS-1 and a DS-2, you should choose the latter. You’ll be able to select between the Turbo modes and find the right sound that suits your musical style.

ProCo RAT

Kurt Cobain also used a ProCo RAT distortion pedal for the track “Territorial Pissings” on “Nevermind”. This is yet another popular distortion pedal that has a distinctive sound. It was popular in the grunge days for having a hairy distortion. It was also interesting that Krist Novoselic made use of ProCo RAT as the main distortion pedal. If you’re going to play bass, you should grab one to achieve amazing distorted bass tones.

Although Kurt Cobain primarily preferred the Boss DS-1 and Boss DS-2 over the ProCo RAT, you should experiment and see which one suits your style better. Distortion is a personal effect, so what works for one might not work for the other.

EHX Big Muff

Another popular distortion pedal that Kurt Cobain used was the EHX Big Muff. This pedal was extremely popular during the grunge era and is still considered the go-to distortion pedal. For instance, the distorted guitar tones that you hear in “Siamese Dream” by The Smashing Pumpkins come from the EHX Big Muff. You can also hear the Big Muff being used on the track “Lithium” on Nirvana’s album “Nevermind”.

Even if you’ve decided on using the Boss DS-1 or Boss DS-2 as your primary distortion pedals, it is recommended that you should consider adding the Big Muff to your rig. Adding Big Huff will open up many tonal options to your catalog. If you like other grunge bands from the 90s, it’ll be a great addition to have available.

What chorus pedal did Kurt Cobain use?

EHX Small Clone Chorus

Having a high-quality chorus pedal is important to achieving the Nirvana tone. While any decent chorus pedal would work fine, the EHX Small Clone Chorus is highly recommended. This was the pedal that gave the opening notes and the distinctive sound of “Come As You Are”. It’s a simple pedal having one big Rate Knob and a relatively small Depth switch. While there are many alternative options, if you want to emulate Kurt Cobain’s sound, this is the one to go for.

EHX PolyChorus and EchoFlanger

The exciting EHX PolyChorus is a hybrid chorus and flanger pedal. It was heavily used throughout the In Utero tour as a backup for the EHX EchoFlanger pedal. The EHX PolyChorus and EchoFlanger produced a similarly basic sound. You can hear this in the song “Friendly Unit Radio Shelter” and the live performance of “Heart-Shaped Box”. Although the chorus pedal isn’t available anymore, EXH manufactures a different version of the pedal – the modern PolyChorus. The design and layout have been changed, but most of the other features are largely the same. There will be a few tonal differences between the two, but most of them will be minor.

For instance, it is possible to replicate the chorus sound heard in the solo of Heart-Shaped Box. The four knobs will match up to the four knobs on the PolyChorus pedal. The main setting that you should pay attention to would be the Rate knob. This control will have the biggest impact on tone. In the note, the Rate knob needs to be cranked to the max. Moreover, the feedback should also be cranked to full, which means you’ll be expecting a rapid chorus pulse with a lot of feedback.

Not every chorus pedal features this much control over the effect. For instance, the EHX Small Clone will only have a rate knob and a depth switch. While you may be able to get close to the sound you’re hearing in the song, the TC Electronic Corona Chorus will get you closer as it’ll give you more control over the effect.

How to set up a Kurt Cobain pedalboard?

While there are many options that you can choose from, the two primary pedals that Kurt Cobain used were a distortion pedal and a chorus pedal. The pedals you’ll be choosing will depend on how close you’re looking to get to the pedals used by Cobain. Moreover, you’ll also need to factor in how much control you wish to have over your sound.

If you’re looking to build a rig that gives a lot of flexibility, you’ll want to try out different options.  You’ll want to find different distortion pedals that suit your needs. Kurt Cobain primarily used the Boss DS-1 or Boss DS-2. Even if you are picking a pedal that he didn’t use, you will still be able to find something that you can dial in a similar tone. While the EHX Small Clone is an amazing pedal, you might prefer something that offers far more flexibility. This is why Kurt Cobain used a PolyChorus as it gave him more control over his chorus effect.

How to emulate and sound like Kurt Cobain?

Guitar

The guitar choice and settings are the most obvious places to start. You’ll need a guitar with at least a humbucker present on the bridge position. Kurt Cobain’s signature guitars throughout his musical years were Fender Mustang and Fender Jaguar. The former featured a humbucker on the bridge position, while the latter featured another humbucker in the neck. He often used high-output humbuckers to get a crunchy grunge distortion tone and a vintage-style humbucker to get clean sounds with a lot of warmth and brightness.

You can achieve any tone with a humbucker on the bridge position. Then, replace the pickup with a Seymour Duncan Hold Rails pickup to get the guitar part of the tone. As for the guitar part, there will be enough to replicate the iconic grunge tone of Nirvana. The tone and volume knobs must stay cranked up. Meanwhile, the rest of the tonal adjustments will be made in the pedal and amp parts.

Amp settings

Kurt Cobain often used A Mesa Boogie Studio.22 Preamp accompanied with a Crest 4801 Power Amp into the Marshall cabinet. However, he normally used clean channels without affecting the tone of the amp. Instead, he relied upon the pedals for any type of effects like delay, distortion, chorus, and reverb. The most important thing in the amp settings to achieve his tone is the equalizer settings. Even though he slightly changed the settings for different tracks in-studio settings, he primarily went with high mids and treble to offer enough depth alongside a moderate bass for thickness for his distorted tone.

You can try out different settings with your own setup. In case the tone is too thin, you can look to add more mid-frequencies. In case it is too muddy, you can decrease the distortion or bass while adding more treble. It is recommended that you should start with bass around 6 o’clock with treble and mids around 8 o’clock. Unlike Kurt Cobain, if you’re getting distortion from the amp, you can crank up the gain as much as possible. Try to do this without getting the tone muddy.

Kurt Cobain made use of a bright, clean tone with moderate bass and treble alongside high mids for clean parts. This way, the clean tone will be bright and warm while having enough twang. He even used reverb and delay for giving depth to his clean tones. It is recommended that you should go with the bass and treble at around 5 o’clock. Then, keep the mids at around 7 o’clock to get the same clean tones. In case it sounds too thin, you should try and increase the mids. If it sounds bright and harsh, you’ll need to decrease the treble. 

Pedal effects and settings

Kurt Cobain’s primary sound effects came from his pedals. He made use of a basic setup to achieve the effects like distortion, chorus, and flanger alongside delays and reverbs. Starting with the distortions effect, he made use of the DS-1 and DS-2 while keeping the level knob at max. Moreover, he also had the tone knob at 11-1 o’clock and distortion at max. This is how he was able to get the iconic distorted grunge tone.

Most of his iconic and legendary guitar riffs were played with these settings. They included the chorus riffs of Lithium, Heart-Shaped Box, and Smells Like Teen Spirit. An important worth noting is that the DS-1 that Kurt Cobain used to play with has been discontinued. He had to switch to using the DS-2, which is what you should do. The settings would be the same for both the pedals.

The net pedal that he used in his career and loved a lot was the Electro-Harmonix Small Clone Chorus pedal. This one is a must for grunge tones. You will need to turn the depth control up and the rate knob to 3-4 o’clock. As for live performances, he made use of an Electro-Harmonix PolyChorus instead of using the Small Clone. He switched the mode to the chorus with the rate knobs turned around 4 o’clock with around 10 and the filter switch on. The chorus cup can be easily heard in the verses of Heart-Shaped Box and Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Techniques

One of the most important elements of the unique tone of Kurt Cobain was his distinctive playing style. His playing style was less about precision and perfection but more about passion, emotions, and attitude. He loved playing aggressively with the power chords while letting the open strings ring out. He also took advantage of accidental harmonics for a better sound.

He loved to play solos, which sounded very close to the melody or vocal lines in the song. It can be heard in the solo of songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit. Instead of taking a technical approach, he took a melodic approach where he played more catchy licks. He even took advantage of percussive string mutes and open string transitions like Lithium and Smells Like Teen Spirit riffs. He was even a fan of chromatic riffs such as Come As You Are, which creates a sense of tension and chaotic dissonance.

His playing technique was not perfect, and he also had some carelessness. This is what gave his playing the characteristic style with short, simple but not overwhelming solos and riffs.

Conclusion

Thank you for reading. Hopefully, now you know a lot more about Kurt Cobain’s setup, what distortion kit did Kurt Cobain use, what distortion pedal did Kurt Cobain use, what chorus pedal did Kurt Cobain use, and a lot more. Kurt Cobain had a largely basic setup, but he still had his tried and tested effect pedals. He largely made use of distortion pedals like Boss DS-1, Boss DS-2, ProCo RAT, and others. Meanwhile, he was also a big fan of chorus pedals. His preferred chorus pedals were the EHX Small Clone Chorus and EHX PolyChorus.

Rick Pena

Rick Pena

Rick is the founder of All Stringed. He started playing with a classical guitar when he was 10, but changed soon to electric guitar and later also to an acoustic. You can find more about him here.