The Best Guitar You NEED To Play Grunge!
Published on 08 November 2023
Grunge. The attitude, the loud noise of distorted guitars feedbacking through old amps, the sheer pain of existential crisis themed lyrics topped off with that liberating vocal fry (Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell); the nonchalant look that somehow became fashion synonymous with the musical genre. As a kid growing up in the 90s and entering my teens in the early noughties, grunge was my whole world. It was my escapism, comfort zone and the reason why I picked up the guitar.
Having worked on the shop floor I got asked many times: which guitar is best for grunge?
With its recent resurgence in popularity and more and more guitarists looking to imitate that particular sound, I am thrilled to go down the memory lane and offer you some suggestions as to which guitar is best for playing grunge today.
So, if you’re after that Seattle Sound, buckle up, let’s Dive into my top picks.
- Fender Jaguar
- Fender Stratocaster
- Gibson Les Paul
- Fender Jazzmaster
- Fender Mustang
- Fender Jag-Stang
- Gibson SG / Guild S-type
1. Fender Jaguar
It goes without saying that the success of Nirvana was what made grunge surface from underground to mainstream. And for a lot of us, Kurt Cobain’s sound equals grunge. Therefore Fender, his go-to brand, remains the obvious choice for the best, quick route into that Seattle Sound. The Fender Jaguar is the best guitar for grunge if you’re looking for a quick answer. Although his true signature model was his own design JagStang, Kurt was known for using the Jaguar live on stage most of the time and Fender righteously honoured the legend (posthumously) with his own signature version of it.
For purists, it may be important that Kurt’s original guitar has been heavily modded: factory pickups swapped for a DiMarzio PAF & Super Distortion set, controls simplified to a toggle etc. In reality, you can still achieve that heavy grunge sound if you go for any Jaguar and pair it with the immortal BOSS DS1 or SD-1, Electro-Harmonix Small Clone and run it through a Fender Twin-Reverb.
Take note: the Player Series Jaguar DOES come equipped with a humbucker if you’re not keen on modifying your guitar.
Squier makes an affordable take on the Cobain Jaguar model if you’re on a budget.
2. Fender Stratocaster
From Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, through Courtney Love to Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, nearly every grunge guitarist used a Stratocaster at some point. Corgan was particularly fond of his ‘57 Reissue Fender Stratocaster equipped with Fender Lace Sensor pickups.
Fender has recently released Mike McCready’s signature stratocaster and I personally think it’s a superb guitar that can bring out the essence of those sweet soaring solos Pearl Jam is loved for.
3. Gibson Les Paul
There certainly was a slightly heavier side to the grunge scene, one that almost blends into hard rock. Bands like Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots or Soundgarden often tapped into the darker territory and used down tuning quite a lot. Jerry Cantrell may just be the perfect example of that ‘other’ grunge guitarist. His go-to axe was a Les Paul Custom known as 'Wino' due to its Wine Red colour: great to withstand d-tuning and Pro pickups that can handle the thickest lows whilst maintaining articulation and sustain.
Here I also have to note the other Pearl Jam’s guitarist: Stone Gossard. Whilst McCready took on the leads, Gossard held the rhythm together with a rather characteristic wall of sound created mainly by Les Pauls: we see him wield a Goldtop in the iconic Even Flow video. Stone was mainly a single-cut guy and if you watch some older live performances, you can see Les Paul Customs in abundance.
4. Fender Jazzmaster
The second obvious best choice for grunge guitar is another Fender offset: the Jazzmaster. Often seen in the hands of other great 90s bands’ guitarists (J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr is the perfect example, dare I say). In fact, the reason why so many grunge bands turned to offset guitars is because they were not selling well back in the 90s and therefore were affordable. Truth be told, a second-hand guitar or whatever was in stock and cheap would often be the choice for a grunge guitarist. They often played in small local pubs, thrashed about the stage so it couldn’t have been anything valuable as it was very prone to damage.
Fancy a little trivia? All the guitars on Superunknown album (apart from the solos) were written and performed by the singer Chris Cornell and played on a red Jazzmaster!
5. Fender Mustang
Who played Mustangs? Well, you know it - if it’s got a Fender name on it, it will be Cobain - you’ve seen Smells Like Teen Spirit video, right? But also the lesser known groups like Mudhoney or Green River were into similar axes, often resulting in similar sound. The Mustang makes for a slightly lighter version of all the other guitars that are great for grunge.
What’s truly great about these guitars in my opinion is the bridge which, unlike other Offset models which are notorious for going out of tune, actually offers superb tuning stability. Nice and compact with a short scale will let even the smallest of you rock out on stage without breaking your back… or bank. Mustangs still to this day are one of the most affordable Fenders. I’d personally recommend the American Performer or the Vintera range for best experience. However, once again Squier Mustang comes in with an irresistible budget version that looks and plays the part.
6. Fender Jag-Stang
Coming back to the sacred pedestal most grungers hold Kurt Cobain at, we’re landing at the legend’s very own creation: Fender Jag-Stang. As the name suggests, this model is literally two guitars merged together: Jaguar and Mustang.
Aside from its rather peculiar looks, Jag-Stang features an alder body that delivers a punchy tone perfect for big power chords, and the 24" short-scale reduces string tension for easier playing. Then you have the ideal vintage single coil & humbucker set to battle clean tone melodies and dirty riffs.
Could this be the best guitar for grunge? I recommend you try it for yourself, there’s really nothing like it out there!
7. Gibson SG / Guild S-type
The darker and warmer tones of mahogany bodied Gibsons were a choice for many grunge guitarists who were on the border with the hard rock genre. They just seem to work better than Fender, ok?
L7’s Suzi Gardner for example liked her Gibson Melody Maker.
Sleater Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein both slayed Gibson SGs.
Kim Thayil of Soungarden was very fond of the horned electric guitars, too, mainly seen with an S-100 in his hands during live performances.
Oh, don’t forget to add A LOT of fuzz, too. Big Muff is your secret grunge sauce!
8. Acoustic guitars in grunge - MTV Unplugged
When you look back at the music industry in the 90s, you’ll see it differs a lot from what the modern world has to offer. One thing in particular was the involvement of satellite TV, more precisely the MTV channel. Their involvement in promoting bands' videoclips was undeniable and their live sessions have gained an iconic status. If you haven’t come across the Unplugged series, you’re in for a real treat! Many grunge bands rose to fame thanks to their MTV Unplugged performances (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole). What did they all play? Mostly Martin guitars to be honest. Kurt sang his heart out whilst strumming a modified (obviously) Martin D-18e.
Mike McCready pulled off all the roaring Pearl Jam solos impeccably playing a cutaway Takamine.
Jerry Cantrell made a stupendous performance on Guild D-30 and JF-30 during the Alice in Chains Unplugged show.
Stripped back from their fuzz and distortion effects, you could think it would sound terrible. Yet the opposite is true! And I think the most beautiful thing about it is that those songs sound just as mesmerising on acoustic guitars as they do on electric.
Someone once told me that that’s how you recognise a good songwriter. And I couldn’t agree more.
With a selection of the best guitars for grunge music described above, I think the conclusion is pretty simple: get a Fender for a more melodic, catchy hook style of playing and a Gibson if you want to sound heavier. It’s really just the basic realisation as the fact is grunge isn't particularly a genre but more of a media umbrella term that was used to describe the bands that came out of Seattle in the late 80s and the early 90s.
And I think it’s worth mentioning that after all, grunge was about what YOU made of it rather than what others did. So if you as a player prefer to go into heavier territory, there is nothing stopping you - don’t be afraid to experiment with the sound because that’s exactly what your grunge guitar heroes did!
Remember: after all, grunge is your mindset.
If you’re still unsure which guitar is best for grunge, why don’t you pop over to your local guitarguitar? We’d be more than happy to plug you in with those guitars that appeal to you the most, offer some grunge pedals and amps to try it through and hopefully help you get your dream grunge rig sorted.