While ‘tone is in the fingers’, guitar pedals can play a big part in shaping your tone and setting the vibe of a song. Kurt Cobain used guitar pedals to help create the raw and grungy sound in many Nirvana songs. If you’re looking at replicating some of the tones you hear in Nirvana songs, you might be surprised with how simple it can be.
While Kurt Cobain used a few different pedals over the years, there were four main pedals: a BOSS DS-2, an EHX Small Clone, an EHX Poly Chorus, and a Tech 21 Sansamp. While these four pedals cover most of the tones you hear in Nirvana songs, if you want to sound like Kurt Cobain, you’ll only need a distortion pedal and a chorus pedal.
Let’s have a look at these pedals and see when he used them and popular alternatives for pedals that are no longer available.
Distortion: BOSS DS-1 and DS-2
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. In the albums In Utero and MTV Unplugged in New York, you’ll hear the DS-2.
There are a couple of differences between the DS-1 and the DS-2 as shown below:
The DS-1 is a very simple pedal with only three knobs to control the distortion. The DS-2 has four knobs as well as an extra input jack. The fourth knob of the DS-2 allows you to switch between two ‘Turbo’ modes. The Turbo I mode was designed to sound like the DS-1 and the Turbo II gives a more aggressive distortion with a mid-range boost. The Remote input jack allows you to connect an external footswitch to change back and forth between the two modes.
If you’re trying to decide between getting the DS-1 and the DS-2, I recommend the DS-2. You’ll be able to choose between the two Turbo modes to find the sounds that suit your style.
Kurt used a Proco Rat distortion pedal for the song Territorial Pissings on Nevermind. This is another very popular distortion pedal with a very distinctive sound. It was quite popular in the grunge days for its hairy distortion. It’s also interesting that Krist Novoselic used the Proco Rat as his main distortion pedal. So if you also play bass, you might want to grab one for some nice distorted bass tones.
While Kurt preferred the BOSS DS-1 and DS-2 over the Proco Rat, you may find it suits your style better. Distortion is a very personal effect, so what works for one person may not work for another. You may even find that on some songs you prefer the DS-2 and other songs sound better with the Proco Rat.
EHX Big Muff
Another incredibly popular distortion pedal Kurt sometimes used is the EHX Big Muff (link to price and details). This pedal was huge during the grunge era and is still a go-to distortion pedal today. For example, the distorted guitar tones you hear in the Smashing Pumpkins album Siamese Dream is all thanks to the Big Muff. You can hear the Big Muff used on the song Lithium on Nevermind.
Even if you’re set on getting a BOSS DS-1 or DS-2 as your main distortion pedal, I recommend considering the Big Muff to add to your rig. Having a Big Muff opens up a lot of tonal options. If you also like other grunge bands from that era, it’s an essential pedal to have available.
If you’re interested in getting a Big Muff pedal, I recommend the EHX Nano Big Muff Pi. It gives you the classic sound of the Big Muff in a compact pedal. Check out my full review of the EHX Nano Big Muff Pi here.
Amp Modeler: Tech 21 SansAmp Classic
This is an odd pedal and I was surprised to find Kurt used it during the In Utero tour. The Tech 21 SansAmp Classic is an amp modeler pedal, which simulates the sound of different amps. This pedal was used as a distortion pedal and can be seen on Kurt’s pedalboard during the In Utero tour. Some people say it replaced his DS-2, which others say it was a secondary pedal.
In the photo to the right, you can see that Kurt has a DS-2 and a SansAmp Classic connected together. He may have preferred one over the other or used both in combination at times. Stacking distortion pedals together can be a great way to create drive sounds and is something I cover in my Guitar Effects Course.
The SansAmp Classic isn’t available anymore, so I would recommend one of the distortion pedals mentioned above instead. While there are other SansAmp pedals from Tech 21, unless you manage to get your hands on the Classic model, don’t expect to get the same sound as what Kurt used.
If you do manage to get your hands on one, don’t expect the modeling quality to be anywhere near modern modeling pedals. Modern digital amp modeling in units such as the Line 6 Helix are completely different to ‘modeling’ pedals like this one.
If you like the idea of using a pedal to simulate different types of amps, there are plenty of great options that can sound indistinguishable from their ‘real’ counterparts. Kurt didn’t really use this pedal like guitarists today use amp modelers. He used the SansAmp Classic as a distortion pedal.
Chorus: EHX Small Clone Chorus
A chorus pedal is crucial to getting that Nirvana tone. While any chorus pedal might work fine, I highly recommend the EHX Small Clone. This is the pedal that gives the opening notes of Come As You Are that distinctive sound. It’s a simple pedal with one big Rate knob and a small Depth switch. While there are plenty of alternatives for chorus pedals, this is the one to go for if you’re a Nirvana fan.
EHX PolyChorus and EchoFlanger
The EHX PolyChorus (link to modern version on Amazon) is a hybrid flanger and chorus pedal. It was used throughout the In Utero tour as a backup for his EHX EchoFlanger pedal. The PolyChorus and the EchoFlanger produced the same basic sound. You can hear it in action on the song Friendly Unit Radio Shelter on In Utero, and in the live version of Heart Shaped Box.
The above photo shows the vintage version that Kurt used. While the above pedal isn’t available anymore, EHX still produces a version of the above pedal. The below photo shows the modern PolyChorus:
As you can see, the design and layout have changed, but all the features are the same. There’s likely to be some tonal difference between the two, but from comparisons I’ve heard on YouTube, the differences are minor.
The below photo shows the settings Kurt used for both of the songs mentioned above. While the PolyChorus isn’t available anymore, you can take these settings as a starting point for any chorus pedal you use.
So for example, let’s look at how you might replicate the chorus sound you hear in the solo of Heart Shaped Box. The four knobs match up to the four knobs on the PolyChorus pedal (the mode knob is set to Chorus). The main setting to pay attention to is the Rate knob, which has the biggest impact on tone. In the note, you can see that the Rate knob is cranked to the max. The feedback knob is also cranked to full, so you can expect a rapid chorus pulse with a lot of feedback.
Not all chorus pedals give this much control over the effect. For example, the EHX Small Clone only has a rate knob and depth switch. While you might be able to get close to the sound you hear with this pedal, something like the TC Electronic Corona Chorus would get you much closer as it gives you far more control over the effect.
Check out different chorus pedals here if you want something flexible enough to dial in the exact chorus sound you want.
Setting Up A Kurt Cobain Pedalboard
While there are plenty of options to choose from above, the main two pedals you will need is a distortion pedal and a chorus pedal. The pedals you choose should depend on how close you want to get to the actual pedals Kurt used, and how much control you want over your sound.
If you want to stick to the actual pedals Kurt used, I recommend the BOSS DS-2 and the EHX Small Clone. Kurt used these two pedals heavily throughout his career, so they’re both excellent choices. The Small Clone gives you the exact sound used on Come As You Are and Smells Like Teen Spirit. Other chorus pedals may give you more control, but the Small Clone is the exact pedal to use for that Nirvana sound.
If you’re looking at building a rig that gives you more flexibility, you might want to look at different options. My guide to Distortion Pedals gives you plenty of options for good quality distortion pedals. You may find a different distortion pedal that suits your needs better than the BOSS DS-1 or DS-2. Even if you pick a pedal that Kurt didn’t use, you may still be able to dial in a similar tone.
While the EHX Small Clone is a great pedal, you may prefer something that offers more flexibility. That’s why Kurt used a PolyChorus – to have more control over his chorus effect. For alternatives to the chorus pedals mentioned above, check out my Guide on Chorus Pedals here.
If you want to learn more about different types of effects and how to dial in different tones on your rig, check out my Guitar Effects Course here. It will walk you through all types of effect pedals as well as how to combine them for different sounds. You’ll also learn how to dial in different sounds on your amp, which can help you get closer to Nirvana-like tones.