Smells Like Teen Spirit



Smells Like Teen Spirit

Guitar Techniques 131

Unfortunately I’m not allowed to put the actual transcriptions on the website.

I posted everything else though!


In the early 90’s rock music changed direction drastically when the Seattle underground scene exploded with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The rock world was coming out of the shred/’big hair’ era and, as a reaction, moved to a more straightforward, instinctive and authentic genre.

Nirvana was formed by Kurt Cobain (vocal and guitar) and Krist “Chris” Novoselic (bass) in the late 80s. They were joined slightly later by Dave Grohl (drums) and this is the classic lineup that released their masterwork, 1991’s ‘Nevermind”. This month we’re going to talk about the opening song of the album ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’.

The song is mainly based on one four-chord progression; they wanted to be the ‘voice’ of a generation so the focus was more lyrical than musical. It’s very interesting to see how Cobain arranged the guitar parts to give three different dynamic levels and three distinctive sections over the same chord progression, an influence he took from the Pixies.

This month transcription is section by section so keep in mind the structure of the song:

  • Intro: one clean guitar
  • Main riff – 2 times: two distorted guitars play the same thing
  • Verse 1 – 3 times: one clean guitar
  • Pre-chorus 1 – 2 times: 1st guitar plays the arpeggio, 2nd guitar framing with power chords. Both guitars are distorted.
  • Chorus 1 (main riff) – 3 times: as before
  • Bridge 1: two distorted guitars play the same thing
  • Verse 2 – 3 times: as before
  • Pre-chorus 2 – 2 times: as before
  • Chorus 2 – 3 times: as before
  • Bridge 2: as before
  • Solo: over two guitars play the main riff 4 times
  • Pre-Chorus 3 – 2 times: as before
  • Chorus 3 – 3 times: as before
  • Outro – 4 times: 1st guitar plays the outro part, 2nd guitar plays the main riff 2 times.

Don’t forget, this track really needs the energy and the attitude of the original to come to life!


Kurt Cobain’s set up was quite simple. His main guitar was a left handed 1965 Fender Jaguar equipped with DiMarzio Super Distortion or PAF Pro pickups, although he sometimes used a 1970 Fender Mustang or 1990 Fender Stratocaster. His gear starts with a Boss Distortion pedal and the Electro Harmonix Small Clone (chorus) and then Mesa Boogie Studio 22 pre-amp, Crown power-amp and Marshall 4×12 cabinets loaded with 25 watts Celestion Greenbacks or Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. (Thanks to Daniele Amatori – Best Bass student of The Institute’s diploma – for recording the bass on this track).