Kurt Cobain’s guitar tone on Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit: The Secrets

Kurt Cobain's guitar tone on Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit: The Secrets

Nirvana’s sophomore album Nevermind had an enormous impact on popular music just a few months after its release on September 24, 1991. It dethroned “the king of pop” Michael Jackson from the top spot on the Billboard 200 album chart on January 11, 1992, while also putting the final nail in the coffin for hair metal’s reign as grunge took over hard rock in the early 1990s.

Kurt Cobain’s guitar tone on Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit: The Secrets

Nevermind, on the other hand, had a far wider impact than the developing Seattle grunge scene, ushering in public acceptance of alternative music and punk. Nirvana’s first single from Nevermind, Smells Like Teen Spirit, was a success in part because it combined disparate elements – punk’s raw power, thrash’s heavily distorted guitar sonics, and surprisingly sophisticated pop melodies – into a cohesive whole that resonated with a large audience of listeners. Cobain recorded the song on a Fender Stratocaster with a Seymour Duncan JB humbucker inserted at the bridge position, according to live performance footage made just before and after the Nevermind sessions.

Kurt Cobain claimed that the song’s arrangement was influenced by the Pixies’ contrasting “soft and quiet, then loud and aggressive” dynamics, and he achieved that effect with a palette of clean, chorused, and distorted guitar tones. Cobain assembled a modest but effective rig consisting of a Mesa/Boogie Studio preamp, Crown Power Base 2 power amp, and many Marshall 4×12 cabinets before entering Sound City to record the album, which produced the volume output he desired onstage. He opted to play through the rhythm channel on a clean setting and use a Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal as his dirty channel instead of using the Mesa preamp’s two channels. The song’s only effect was an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus, which he played clean on the verses and with the Boss distortion on the pre-choruses and solo. While the Studio preamp, Boss DS-1, and Small Clone give the essence of Cobain’s guitar tones on the song, the final recorded sound is influenced by various other production touches. The distorted rhythm guitar tracks were overdubbed, layered, and panned for a bigger sound, and mixing engineer Andy Wallace (who Cobain chose from a list of candidates because he worked with Slayer) sculpted the EQ on those guitar tracks with an upper midrange boost around 2.5-3kHz and a lower midrange cut from 1kHz-500Hz.

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