The nineties are coming back. We see it around all the time, from fashion to the way bands borrow musical styles from old heroes. But what were the nineties like, and what is the source of inspiration like? In this post we’ll refresh our memory of one particular nineties genre, and learn to play like a grunge rock star.

Grunge is one of the biggest American guitar-driven styles in the history of rock. In its beginnings – the late eighties – the genre was only known by a handful of people, but it wouldn’t take long before it hit the mainstream. Its influence can still be heard in today’s pop music.

Grunge stars

When we think of grunge we think of stars like Kurt Cobain, from Nirvana, who at the time was seen as the voice of Generation X. Together with other Seattle-based bands like Pearl jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and the Stone Temple Pilots, they stood at the cradle of grunge.

Funny fact is that the scene was very interesting for record companies, because grunge bands didn’t sell their albums at high prices. Still a lot compared to our time, but a lot less than Michael Jackson for example.

Rise and fall

While the genre became very popular in the beginning of the nineties, it had a macabre turning point when Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. During that time other bands, like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, were also struggling with alcohol and health problems.

Eight years after Cobain’s death, Alice in Chains front man Layne Staley ended his life on exactly the same day as the Nirvana band leader had. Still, let’s remember them for their powerful musical legacy. Here is a top five with some of the biggest grunge hits of all time.

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen spirit

Without too much hesitation “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could be called the anthem of the grunge. The song has all the stylistic elements: a depressive, misunderstood teenager, raw guitar sound, and a straightforward and powerful chord progression reminiscent of punk.

Cobain’s guitar is tuned down a semitone, as we are used to from nineties rockers. His choice of chords is simple. Cobain plays a main riff with power chords that lie very close to each other on the fretboard: F and A# are followed by a G# and C#. Play along here with Nirvana’s “Smells Like teen Spirit.”

Pearl Jam – Even Flow

The typical melancholy of the grunge scene highlights the darker and more sensitive sides of the soul, in contradiction to hard rock or metal for instance. Doubt, anxiety, a little bit of hope; if there is one man that can combine all these stirrings of the soul with an awesome stage performance it’s Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s frontman.     

Grunge’s chord progressions mostly thrive on simplicity. It’s more about the overall vibe that a band puts down, not about showcasing musical and technical virtuosity. For instance, “Even Flow,” consists of the chords D, Dm, A#, C, and F. Pay attention to the way Vedder influences the simple composition with his singing. Try playing along with “Even Flow” here.   

Soundgarden – Black Hole Sun

Soundgarden is the first grunge band to sign with a major record label. But these trailblazers really start to gather fame when there musical counterparts, Nirvana and Pearl jam, also hit the mainstream.  

With tracks like “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” they conquer their place on the Olympus for guitar heroes. These two tracks are from the album Superunknown and both singles are good for a Grammy. The guitars are tuned down to Eb again. We advise you to do the same, if you jam along to “Black Hole Sun.”  

Alice In Chains – Would?

Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam are all bands that have reached the mainstream at one point. Alice In Chains on the other hand mostly moves around in the underground of the nineties. Nonetheless, this Seattle-based band also put a few gems out there, like “Would?.”

More than other acts, Alice In Chains is influenced by heavy rock and metal. This is noticeable in the chord progression of “Would?,” which consists of some difficult bar chords. But, they can be made easier by using Chordify’s capo feature; put it on the first fret. The chords become a little more recognizable: Am, E, Em, F, D, Dm, C, G. Play along with “Would?” to try it out.   

Stone Temple pilots – Plush

It’s clear by now that the world of grunge is full of booze and drugs. The Stone Temple Pilots are no exception. Front man Scott Weiland is struggling with addiction his whole career, until passing away as a consequence of it. The band’s breakthrough comes with the song “Plush” from the album Core from 1994.    

This is also a typical grunge song: a deep overarching voice supported throughout the song by heavy guitar that drench it in major and minor chords. The song is written in C and contains a nice dose of basic chords that are interchanged with some more difficult ones, like A# and D#. A nice challenge for the beginning grunge star. Play along to “Plush” here.

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Teo creates content, which means he writes, a lot, about music, and all things interesting. When it comes to jamming, his weapon of choice is the bass guitar.