When grunge arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s, most people shrugged it off. Most experts agree that 1986 was the first year this subgenre became a “thing,” which is the same year that the song “That’s What Friends Are For” was the top hit of the year – sung by Elton John, Dionne Warwick, and Gladys Knight.
Even Eddie Murphy was in the top 10 list for the year’s best singles, coming in at No. 7 with “Party All the Time.”
When you look at the top rock song of 1986, “Invisible Touch” from Genesis had the best run. Peter Gabriel had a massive year, with “Sledgehammer,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Red Rain” all having good runs.
That’s why grunge didn’t take off until the 1990s. It needed to get gritty, in your face, and controversial to be noticed.
Essential Grunge Guitar Gear
Grunge, or the Seattle Sound, is a subgenre of alternative rock formed in the mid-1980s in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Although Seattle and Portland were the spotlight cities, nearby towns saw numerous bands incorporate heavy metal and punk rock elements to create a unique, sludgy sound.
When people think of grunge, the first band that comes to mind is often Nirvana. Their pinnacle album “Nevermind” serves as a how-to guide for what it took to be successful in this subgenre.
Who knows how big the band could have become if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain’s tragic death at the age of 27.
The band’s song “Sliver” is an underrated masterpiece that you’ve got to hear if you want to know what it’s like to play grunge. The bass line that starts the composition will get stuck in your head all day.
When getting to know grunge, other bands to consider adding to your playlists include Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Hole, Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees, and L7.
Mother Love Bone is an interesting and somewhat tragic story. They had a debut album on the way called “Apple” in 1990 that Seattle was highly anticipating.
Just a few days before its release, Andrew Wood, who served as the frontman for the group, passed away because of a heroin dose.
Chris Cornell, who tragically died in 2017 himself, would recruit Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard to be part of his band called Temple of Dog.
Cornell would then make significant contributions to the grunge subgenre through Soundgarden and Audioslave.
How to Play Grunge-Style Music on the Guitar
Grunge delivers a unique playing style that features punk and heavy metal elements while creating different R&B-inspired rhythms. That’s why you can sometimes hear this subgenre when listening to bands like The Ramones or Iron Maiden.
The grunge bands from the ‘80s and ‘90s took their inspiration from the driving rhythms and articulated melodies to create a sound that belonged to them alone.
If you want to learn how to play grunge-style music on your guitar, here are the methods you’ll want to practice.
1. Power Chords
Power chords are the spine of almost every grunge song ever created. You’ll even find them in the various ballads out there from the 1990s.
Without power chords, you lose the foundation’s cornerstone for this subgenre. The various sections and riffs you hear from the guitar want the listener to envision a dirty attitude, like almost every Nick Nolte cop movie ever made.
To achieve the correct grunge-style power chord, you’ll need a strumming hand that stays strong and tight. Your decisiveness must come through with the music.
It helps to practice finger movement on the neck to ensure you get fluid sounds for the upbeat tempos found in most compositions.
2. Playing Octaves
You’ll hear the Drop D alternative guitar tuning in grunge a lot because double tacking adds a more dynamic element to your playing style.
This methodology wasn’t common in the 1990s during grunge’s surge, although the layering technique is now common in most genres.
When you play octaves with power chords, you’ll produce a wall of sound that forces the listener to pay attention. From there, you can add rhythm, depth, and control over how the rest of the song plays.
3. Palm Muting
This guitar-playing technique adds a bit of flair to your style while adding another element of rhythm and noise.
The process is relatively simple to learn, but it can take a lifetime for some musicians to master.
A palm mute occurs when you place your hand over the strings to quiet them immediately after striking the note or chord.
This movement creates dampening effects that vary based on how much weight you place on the instrument.
4. Arpeggiated Picking
This element of grunge music is arguably the toughest to master. Arpeggiated picking typically occurs in a minor key to create a downbeat vibe that contributes more darkness to the final sound.
The rocking vibe develops when a bit of distortion is added with the clean tones from the amp-guitar combo.
You’ll need to play a picking pattern with multiple strings in a tight section where the notes naturally group together.
The easiest way to practice this pattern if you’ve never tried it before is to use the Cadd9 chord shape in 4/4 time.
- Pick the third fret on the fifth string, followed by the second fret on the fourth string, for the first beat.
- You’ll pick the third fret on the second string, followed by the third fret on the second string, on the second beat.
- With the third beat, you’ll pick the third fret on the first string, and then you’ll pick the third fret on the second string.
- On the final beat, the third string is picked open, then you’ll pick the third fret on the second string.
Once you start picking up the pattern, you’ll find that other chords follow a similar process when using this playing style.
5. Apathetic Attitude
We all know that grunge musicians cared about the sound that they produced. If they didn’t have a care in the world, the odds of securing a recording contract were slim-to-none.
Maybe things would have been different for grunge if the self-release market today was available in the 1990s. We’ll never know.
What we do understand about grunge as a subgenre is that it uses the apathetic attitude from punk in a unique way. The goal for the guitarist is to create a polished performance without intending to sound professional.
When you watch the older concert videos or music videos back when MTV actually played them, you’ll see that the top grunge bands all used a carefree attitude with how they put on a show.
Instead of keeping things tight and precise, you should think about being looser – even sloppy.
To put it another way: if you think the guitar sounds terrible and you’ve never played grunge before, you’ve probably hit the mark.
How to Achieve the Classic Grunge Tone from the 80s and 90s
What makes grunge such a unique subgenre is that it incorporates elements of two styles that seem to clash with each other.
When you listen to a traditional punk rock band, you’ll hear syncopated rhythms, clean tones, and modified distortion that adds depth and creativity to the music.
In heavy metal, you’ve got power chords everywhere, blazing bridges, and solos that make a guitar scream with delight.
You need gear that can achieve both extremes to embrace grunge while having the versatility to find somewhere in the middle for your creative energy.
Here are the best items in each category for you to consider if you want to put your music in the same conversation as names like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden.
■ Best Guitar for Grunge: Fender Jazzmaster
Although Kurt Cobain liked playing the Fender Mustang, most grunge artists used the Jazzmaster to create the iconic gritty sounds that define this subgenre.
This instrument was originally designed for jazz musicians in the late 1950s, but the out-of-phase sounds that it can produce are what drew artists to its sound.
It also delivers a unique offset look that creates more personality on the stage.
Vintage Jazzmasters sound great when playing grunge songs. For me, I’m a big fan of Squier’s J Mascis Signature Series Jazzmaster.
It has a classic white visual aesthetic with a rosewood fingerboard that lets you quickly switch between power chords.
The body is made from basswood, while the neck is the traditional maple. Two single-coil pickups with the classic dual-circuit design ensure that you create an iconic sound all your own.
■ Best Pickups for Grunge: Fender V-Mod
Almost everyone out there will tell you that grunge sounds aren’t possible unless you have humbuckers equipped to your guitar.
The reality of that advice is that no one has actually played the guitar or attempted to create something in this musical subgenre.
Sure – humbuckers have a darker output that reacts well to distortion, but you can’t have the sludge outweigh the note clarity.
Remember that grunge combines punk and heavy metal, so you need a bit of thinness and crispness with your transition.
That’s why the Fender V-Mod single-coil pickups are a great find when you want to produce an authentic sound.
They cut through the mix, especially the bass, while adding a touch of feedback that you can control for added depth.
Humbuckers don’t work great with phasing, rotary effects, or chorus needs, which you’ll find throughout the entire subgenre.
If you’re not playing a Jazzmaster, a P-90 pickup works as a suitable alternative.
■ Best Guitar Strings for Grunge: Stringjoy HVY137
It’s not unusual for musicians to use a drop D or another lower alternative tuning to add more darkness and personality to their playing style.
When you tune down a guitar, the string tension naturally decreases. That means you’ll experience looser and softer responses when picking. The best way to compensate for this result is to increase your gauge preference.
I’ve found that having a heavier bottom works better because you’ll create some natural distortion. By keeping the top thinner, you’ll add an extra touch of clarity and crispness that adds more definition to the music.
That’s why I exclusively use Stringjoy’s heavy bottom, extra heavy guitar strings. They’re a nickel-wound product with a range of .013 to .074.
Since you get seven strings in the pack to use, you have different options to consider when using an alternative tuning.
You’ll find that sweet spot quickly, stay there longer, and get more work out of your guitar.
■ Best Amplifier for Grunge: Fishman PRO LBT-600
When selecting an amplifier for playing grunge, you’ll need something that includes an effects loop to ensure an authentic result occurs.
It’s helpful to have a footswitch and enough wattage that you can play on almost any stage. I prefer having a channel sound that delivers a defined sound with extra clarity while having some onboard effects to play with if I’m switching between guitars.
Here is where I break away from being a traditionalist. I prefer the Fishman PRO LBT-600 amp because it brings vintage sounds to the stage while providing modern benefits.
With its Bluetooth® feature, you can add backing tracks or accompaniment to your guitar so that you can practice at home how you play on the road.
The Fishman offers a foot switch for remote muting while including slap echo, flanger, and chorus effects.
Some of the most memorable performances from grunge bands in the 90s included acoustic guitars.
This amp does an excellent job of maximizing that sound with 120 watts of bi-amped power without compromising the tonal qualities you need.
You’ll still get balanced XLR outputs for each input channel and the main mix, with a headphone output to use for times of quiet practice.
Here are the specs for you to consider.
|Power:||120 watts of bi-amped power|
|Drivers:||8-inch woofer (100W); 1-inch soft dome tweeter (20W)|
|SPL:||113 decibels at 1 meter|
|Speaker Baffle||10º with built-in tilt.|
|Dimensions:||13.5 (H) x 15.5 (W) x 11.5 (D) inches|
Pearl Jam liked to use Marshall JCM amps, while Soundgarden was infamous for relying on Peavey VTM 120s. Even Nirvana went with the Twin Reverb from Fender when recording some songs or playing live. With “Nevermind,” they switched to Mesa-Boogie studios.
Should I Choose Tube or Solid-State Amps for Grunge Music?
When you shop for guitar amps, you’ll find that tube-based and solid-state designs provide a similar result. It depends on the actual sound that you hope to achieve with the product that dictates which option you need to use.
If you compare tube vs. solid-state amps for grunge music, you’ll find that several pros and cons require an examination.
Each key point could impact your playing style positively or negatively, which is why a brief review of each one is worthwhile before investing in this essential grunge guitar gear.
|Benefits of Tube-Based Amplifiers||Benefits of Solid-State Amplifiers|
|You receive a simple and elegant circuit to use for virtually any sound. Linearity is an advantage that should never be overlooked.||The lower frequencies tend to be more dynamic with this technology, delivering more attack and excitement to bass guitars and lower notes for electrics or acoustic.|
|Repairs are relatively straightforward, especially if you have some spare tubes to use when the original ones stop functioning correctly.||Solid-state amplifiers tend to be more durable since they use circuitry-based tech instead of glass tubes that face the constant risk of breakage.|
|Analog-style distortion is smoother and silkier when played, delivering a more authentic sound to the listener. It feels like the music is broadcast in the way it was meant to be played.||More sound options are available with this technology, with built-in effects becoming the standard when looking at the modeling amplifiers in this category. It eliminates the need for pedals in some circumstances.|
|You’ll notice a consistent mid-range in almost every tube amps, especially when you want some extra PS noise in the mix for your grunge compositions.||Since only circuits are part of the design element, the boxes tend to be smaller and more compact without requiring power reductions for grunge music.|
|Subtle sound differences are available based on the musician’s playing style, which means the technology is naturally intuitive to the player.||The amps receive, transmit, and amplify sounds with precision, creating a predictable outcome that ensures you know what you’re getting as a musician.|
Once you’ve reviewed the benefits of each choice, you’ll want to take a closer look at the potential disadvantages that you might need to manage.
|Disadvantages of Tube-Based Amplifiers||Disadvantages of Solid-State Amplifiers|
|You’ll need more ventilation when using this option because of how quickly the equipment heats up.||The versatility that a solid-state amp offers is dependent on its effects. If there aren’t many available, the music becomes one-dimensional.|
|These amps tend to be heavier than other designs, making them more cumbersome to transport if you play live gigs frequently.||There isn’t as much warmth to the notes a guitar produces with this amp. That eliminates the benefits that the treble-focus on an electric guitar offers.|
|Tubes degrade more frequently than silicon diodes, which means you’ll end up performing more maintenance over the lifetime of the unit due to the technology’s design.||Some of the higher frequencies get mitigated because of the circuit design, creating discoloration in the other ranges through a pure, crystalline sound that doesn’t always come across as intended.|
|If you don’t go through the warmup time the amp recommends, you could end up blowing out the circuitry in your amp. At that point, it might be cheaper to buy a new one than to repair the issue.||When your grunge preference is to use heavy amp distortion effects, most solid-state designs are unable to cope with the audio needs when playing.|
|Entry-level brands are sometimes hit or miss when using replacement tubes, even when buying them from the same batch.||These amplifiers aren’t as easy to repair since you must have knowledge of electronic circuitry, soldering, and chip placement to have a successful experience.|
When playing in the grunge subgenre, it’s often easier to work with tube-based amps. If you want your music to stand out, playing around with different combinations in the solid-state world could be worth the investment.
If you plan to add a bass or keyboard to the mix, you’ll want a solid-state amp because you don’t need to worry about distortion or piercing treble tones.
A Final Thought on Playing Grunge Today
Grunge music wasn’t always about ‘sticking it to the man.” The lyrics are often emotional, contemplative, and from the soul. It’s a subgenre that requires the musician to be authentic above everything else. Anyone who tries to replicate sounds from Nirvana or Soundgarden without believing in them is already doomed to fail.
Way back in the day, my friends and I had a band that we called “Splintered Cross.” We weren’t trying to be religious with the name. It was literally something that came from a dream.
We never tried to go after a recording contract. Our goal was to create a sound that represented who we were as a group while having some fun playing music. We never wanted the idea of playing to turn into a job.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t do the occasional live gig. Our high school had a talent show at the end of the year that was a massive event.
It was held in the largest theater in town, you had to audition to be part of it, and the show went on for two weeks.
We were picked to be the grunge band my senior year.
Things went pretty well. Our song was in the middle of the show, and we were set up by a comedy act that always got the crowd laughing.
It was on the final night when, for whatever reason, the microphone leads were put too close together.
The circuits blew out at the console, leaving us with zero electronics beyond my guitar – since I always kept my amp independent and mic’d instead of plugged into the system.
We changed gears quickly, deciding to play a song we’d worked on a couple of weeks before the show. Even now, I feel the goosebumps on my neck as I think about the opening chords playing in that silent theater.
Our singer went on to study opera in Paris. He had a voice, and it carried all the way to the back of the room. Our drummer did his thing, and we just rolled with the moment.
When the song was over, the whole place was silent. “Well,” I thought, “we did what we could.”
My friends and I exchanged a look. We knew it was the final performance, and we were all thinking the same thing. Why did things have to end this way?
That’s when the clapping started. I’m pretty sure it originated from one of our parents, but it quickly escalated into a standing ovation.
It was the only one that anyone could remember happening at the talent show in its 50-year history.
When we get together for reunions, the only thing that people talk about is that song.
That’s why I recommend finding a great amp before picking out your guitar. If you know that you’ve got something that will make you sound good, you can take it anywhere to have some fun playing grunge – or whatever else you prefer.