All The Things You Did Not Know About Grunge Rock

Have you ever wondered what the best guitar gear is out there to jam out your favorite grunge songs or what to recreate the vibes that made it the flagship genre of the early 90s?

Ever since its humble beginnings as a genre bound to being only gigs in Washington State and the Northwest, Grunge transformed into becoming the most recognized music styles of the 1990s, essentially making one of the quickest 180s in music history.

However, there was much more than met the eye when it came to alternative music. It was not all about Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album and MTV’s Unplugged series. Essentially, grunge has an array of sounds that ultimately inspired many to recreate or invent their riffs in the years to come.

You may be surprised to hear that grunge is as popular as it was during its early 90s peak. However, this is no exaggeration as many rock bands still adopt that fuzzy effects to their performances. Unlike other music genres, grunge is somewhat nuanced when it comes to defining it. Of course, some characteristics set it apart from different styles, such as its “calm-to-noisy back to calm” musical pattern, especially when playing the electric guitar. Nevertheless, this genre provided a disparate bunch of bands. Furthermore, this allowed for a myriad of guitars to be utilized by musicians large and small.

Let’s be in clear that it is not a genre that requires one to master never-ending solos or to slide more than five frets to get from one note to the other. It is a subcategory of alternative music that focuses on the power chords, many of which are simplified while driving the song forward with fuzz effects. It is really about holding that sustain on the guitar.

Let the note vibrate out for some time and then go after the loud, fuzzy riffs that are almost essential in alternative rock choruses. A takeaway to have is that grunge is perfect for guitar novices to get started.

Simultaneously, many professionals and highly skilled guitarists enjoy playing songs from this genre to the point where it is sometimes the only music style they ever play.

Now that we got an overview, let’s delve into the topic of pure grunge, which is something not many in the music world have ever heard or nailed down to perfection. Authentic grunge is a feel and tone focused profession (the difficulty level is high to the extent that it feels like a “profession”).

We all know our Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains songs to the point of verbatim. Many people often describe the music style as a form of punk rock that fuses with its lyrics. However, these bands are just the superficial face of the genre that ended up only adding their spin to their music. That’s not to say that their contributions weren’t much appreciated. That is why they were a success. We just mean to say that these pop songs did not tell the whole story behind the grunge movement.

Even though this 90s movement is unique compared to other major rock subgenres, it has a lot of influence from different styles. One particular case is punk. The cultural drive, the expressive lyrics, and deep songwriting are some of the ways that grunge borrowed from punk rock. On top of that, grunge did not shy away from being a platform for political messages and outcries that were also present in punk rock songs like “Killing in The Name” and “Ignorance is Bliss” were. Just have a listen of “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog. However, it did not introduce crazy solos as punk rockers did.

You may be surprised to hear that grunge was influenced by heavy metal as well. During the heavy metal heydays, it was on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. It was new and gaining fame. However, since these genres overlapped in the late 80s, grunge bands took heavy metal power chord structures and repurposed it towards a darker, murkier interpretation. Rather than distort with amps like heavy metal bands such as Judas Priest, grunge artists wanted the distortions to come from their guitar distortion pedals. At most, they would boost their amp’s mid-level frequencies to have their treble (higher-frequency tones) roll off their riffs.

What does it Take to Learn to Play Grunge Music?

Layne Staley, from Alice in Chains, has a voice that propelled his band to success and largely contributed to the greater fame of grunge and even early 90s rock.

From a guitarist’s standpoint, mastery of rhythm structures and power chords would be a great start. Work on minimizing the harmonious aspect of music as grunge rock works more on a lyrical basis. Also, keep in mind that it has a groove to it. A guitarist would want to keep that consistent throughout the song, almost like a tempo. There are minimal alterations in most grunge songs. Another feature worth mentioning is the importance of the pentatonic scale in grunge.

It may seem that grunge artists are into easier music to play. That can’t be any further from the truth as it is more of a choice that is conveyed in a raw and straightforward manner. The riffs’ simplicity comes from chords being purposefully used as a method to allow the lyrics to stick out.

Two great examples, both by Nirvana, are “Something in the Way” with just two chords (Em & C/G) and “Come as You Are” with F#m, E, A, B, and D.

If you know artists like Chris Cornell (head of Soundgarden), they are among the best guitarists out there as they often include advanced distortions to give each riff and song its uniqueness. Plus, bands like Pearl Jam tend to deviate in some solo effects that are heard in hits such as “Even Flow” and “Yellow Ledbetter.”

Many songs just require a guitarist to master a few power chords to get the gist of the entire song as the verses, choruses, and bridge only come with a few three-note chords.

Just to clarify, power chords are different from regular chords. A power chord has two notes (root and fifth) to it that don’t come with a major or minor. They are used for the sheer reason that they pop out to the audience or during a recording instead of other chords. Thus, grunge is about making some noise while finding time between playing quietly or calmly. Additionally, since power chords lack a third major/minor note, they also introduce a melancholic sound. Grunge is almost like a pendulum between climatic and anti-climactic sounds. This is a complete contrast to the more complex chords found in jazz music.

That isn’t to say that there is an absence of other chords. Major & minor chords are added where there is an interval between the middle and root notes. In grunge, major chords tend to have periods that present four half steps or change in pitch between two notes on a scale. Minor chords only have three half conjuncts.

Many songs just require a guitarist to master a few power chords to get the gist of the entire song as the verses, choruses, and bridge only come with a few three-note chords.

Just to clarify, power chords are different from regular chords. A power chord has two notes (root and fifth) to it that don’t come with a major or minor. They are used for the sheer reason that they pop out to the audience or during a recording instead of other chords. Thus, grunge is about making some noise while finding time between playing quietly or calmly. Additionally, since power chords lack a third major/minor note, they also introduce a melancholic sound. Grunge is almost like a pendulum between climatic and anti-climactic sounds. This is a complete contrast to the more complex chords found in jazz music.

That isn’t to say that there is an absence of other chords. Major & minor chords are added where there is an interval between the middle and root notes. Grungy rock has major chords that tend to have periods that present four half steps or change in pitch between two notes on a scale. Minor chords only have three half conjuncts.

This is a diagram that illustrates all the power chords used in the genre’s most iconic type of guitar, the distorted guitar.

Many power chords used in grunge rock come to utilize the lowest three guitar strings (E, A, D). Grunge artists revel in making sure the music is distorted and heavy. However, there is an actual method for this performance, and that is by filtering out the treble strings.

What’s the Rhythm Like?

Grunge is built around switching off between power chords. Most songs like the ones played by this acoustic guitarist only have chords. In case you need a rehash, a chord is a set of multiple notes in one strum or in a sequence known as an arpeggio performed where their songs are played in a straight four-of-four-time signature that brings together up & down strums while carrying the song’s groove. Even though there are songs like Nirvana’s “Breed” with an uptempo that use sixteenth downstrokes, the majority of songs use a more general, open strum. To make everything more “grungy,” many musicians would strum uncontrollably to go crazy and destroy the guitar. Maybe that is more on the extreme side of things. Most of the time, it involved palm muting chords accidentally and plucking extra strings. All of this was done on purpose, of course.

Moreover, it makes it hard for someone to try and imitate a performance that out-of-tune. Purposefully reverting to sloppy strumming takes true guitar mastery. It was maybe necessary to change some habits such as hand positioning, strumming technique, or even performance mood.

Speaking of palm mutes, unlike heavy metal, it isn’t a technique that is utilized heavily. Instead, musicians need to consider the rhythm for which they create before adding muted strumming. On a side note, how do you create a palm mute? All you need to do is lightly rest your strumming hand’s palm on the bridge of the guitar, thereby silencing the ringing from the vibrating strings when playing.

When discussing a song’s patterns, the solo was a topic that was up for debate in the world of grunge. It was not something that the whole genre embraced. Some grunge bands looked down upon it as many believed that solos were nothing more than improvisations that diverged the audience’s attention from being enthralled in the lyrics.

Not all of the grunge movement took this strategy into play. Instead, famous guitarists like Kurt Cobain sought to introduce solos in his music without it overtaking the song. One could say that he and a few others took a middle approach. For example, Nirvana’s “In Bloom” music video shows the band placing breaks where Cobain would play random notes with bends. Other songs such as “Lithium” showed how Kurt took time out of the song to run or do a physical performance instead of using that time to play solos.

On the other hand, bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam performed advanced solos that rivaled some classic legends like Eddie Van Halen and Slash. A sophisticated example is Mike McCready’s “Alive” solo. The song has a shredding solo, but it also borrowed some guitar techniques from other genres, such as the pentatonic emphasis that is more commonly seen in classic rock than grunge. However, it is the implicit fact that this style was interwoven into a grunge song that made it stand out from the rest.

To conclude, rhythm in grunge takes on a whole range of characteristics. Some are unique to the music style, while others aren’t. The intriguing thing about it is that much of it is combined to allow grunge to be unique from other genres. To produce this effect, one needs to have a cooling level of focus. Rehearse your chords until you can memorize them in your sleep and then practice the solos. If you want to master grunge, work on what is most played.

Lastly, one that hasn’t been mentioned yet understands how to create feedback with your guitar. A guitarist needs to learn to manipulate the sound so that the noise vibrations from the strings and pick-up amplify the sound continuously in a loop. The best electric guitar to get would be the Fender jaguar. According to a few grunge artists such as Nirvana’s frontman, this guitar rocks your world as it allows artists to have all the necessary means to produce all the essential sound effects in grunge. Listen to some Sonic Youth songs, and you will know the power of the Jazzmaster. Also, an alternative for alternative music (the music category that grunge is a part of) is the Jaguar, also made by Fender. Finally, to truly amplify the iconic sounds produced in grunge, the Big Muff Pi fuzz pedal, followed by a Fender amp (all options are good), would be all that you need to become a grunge legend.