Learn the Chords & Riffs to Your Favorite Nirvana Songs on Guitar
Learn the chords and play along with Nirvana guitar tutorials for hit songs like “About a Girl,” “All Apologies,” and more.
By Ben Nemeroff
Nirvana may have only given the world three studio albums, but their impact on the musical landscape is undeniable. As pioneers of “the Seattle Sound,” Nirvana’s unpredictable brand of alternative provided something different from the pop rock / “hair metal” sound that typified the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Their 1989 debut album, Bleach, mostly skated under the radar, but their 1991 disc, Nevermind, catapulted them into the public’s ear and grabbed their attention as something new and fresh.
Comprised of singer / guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, Nirvana attained legendary status in their short years together. Their introspective lyrics and songs focusing on depression and pain proved a sharp contrast to the party rock of the ‘80s and were part of the reason why Kurt Cobain was dubbed “the voice of a generation” disenfranchised with a world that didn’t quite seem to live up to its promises. Their sound was a mixture of punk, Black Sabbath-esque fuzz, and a light layer of murky melody called “grunge” by music lovers. It was heavy, yet still full of raw energy and angst.
Nirvana disbanded in 1994, following Kurt Cobain’s death. Dave Grohl went on to form Foo Fighters shortly afterward, taking on vocal duties and joined by Pat Smear on guitar. (Smear also played with Nirvana as the group’s guitarist on tour between 1993 and 1994).
Decades after Nirvana played their last show, new generations of fans have embraced the band. Their sound still sounds as fresh as ever and has prompted listeners of all ages to want to pick up a guitar. Fender Play has collected some of Nirvana’s most recognizable songs and broke them down into bite-sized video lessons. A free trial of Fender Play unlocks these Nirvana guitar lessons that teach you the chords, riffs, and techniques used to play them.
In this article, we’ll show you how to play five Nirvana songs on guitar, including:
• About a Girl
• Come As You Are
• Heart-Shaped Box
• All Apologies
How to Learn Nirvana Songs on Guitar: Chords You’ll Need to Know
Learning to play songs from a band you love deepens your appreciation for their musicianship. Nirvana’s distinctive sound was fueled by Kurt Cobain’s low-key approach to playing guitar. Cobain played a Fender Jaguar guitar, replacing the single-coil pickups with humbuckers, giving him a distinctive tone.
Cobain also took a unique approach to playing, switching between rhythm and lead guitar. When you start playing them, you’ll find that many of the guitar solos in Nirvana’s songs build off of the chords and riffs in the chorus and verses of the song. This makes learning Nirvana songs great for beginner guitarists, giving them the ability to get familiar with some of the chord shapes and their notes before tackling what could otherwise feel intimidating with a guitar solo.
Speaking of chords, power chords were a staple of the Nirvana repertoire. In addition to using a lot of fifth (aka “power”) chords that only require one or two fingers to play, many of Nirvana’s songs worked in chords with easy-to-master shapes for beginners.
About a Girl Guitar Chords and Riffs
“About a Girl” appeared on both the band’s debut release Bleach, as well as their MTV Unplugged special, given the acoustic treatment. Kurt Cobain was inspired by The Beatles in writing “About a Girl” and initially worried that the song would be considered “too pop” given the band’s dark, grungy sound. If anything, the band’s producer Butch Vig noted that this was a unique twist on merging the discontentment of punk with the more pop-oriented song stylings of The Beatles.
To play the intro and verse, you’ll only need to learn two basic chords: Em and G. Alternate strumming -- giving the song a bit of a see-saw feeling. Breaking the song down into parts, this makes “About a Girl” a song that’s accessible for beginners.
The song gets a little more complex on the chorus, working in a chord progression made up of those fundamental Em and G chords from the verse, along with several sharp and sharp 5th chords. Percussive strumming and a slide technique lend some drama to the chorus, giving it a very rhythmic feel.
While Kurt Cobain was Nirvana’s lead guitarist, his technique as a skilled -- and intuitive -- rhythm guitarist often goes overlooked, knowing when to apply distortion or when to rely on rhythm to give a song its unique feel. However, on the guitar solo to “About a Girl,” Cobain repeats a two-bar melody using single note picking, alternate picking, and a slide technique -- bringing in elements of other sections of the song and working them into a simple, yet memorable solo.
Come As You Are Guitar Chords and Riffs
The murky, ominous riff to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” is one of the most instantly recognizable intros in rock. As the follow-up single to their breakthrough hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” -- off their second album, 1992’s Nevermind.
When it comes to playing “Come As You Are,” tone is everything. Cobain’s tone was distinctive and part of the reason why it’s so easy to pick a Nirvana song out of a grunge lineup. In replicating his tone, you’ll want to set your guitar to the brightest tone possible. That may sound contradictory given how dark and heavy Nirvana’s tone sounded. However, a bright tone makes for a more crisp sound. You’ll need this, when building a signal chain of effects, layering overdrive, chorus, delay, and reverb. That bright, crisp sound will help keep your notes and chords from blurring together, giving you the signature Nirvana sound.
With your tone locked in, the bass-heavy riff sets the stage for “Come As You Are,” weaving together single note picking alongside syncopated picking. That style of picking gives way to a syncopated strum technique, building off of the riff and incorporating a simple E chord.
While “Come As You Are” does prominently feature the E chord, it also packs in several sustained chords (such as the F#sus4, the F#sus4, and the Bsus4) throughout the song alongside more basic chords like A, A5, and D. While some of these chords may sound unfamiliar to you, don’t worry! They are easily-accessible for beginners and part of the challenge is adding some of these new chords to your arsenal and making a smooth transition between them.
If you’d rather focus on single notes, the solo on “Come As You Are” is fun to play, thanks to several dramatic slides and note-bending -- which sounds mind-blowing when you layer on the effects.
Heart-Shaped Box Guitar Chords and Riffs
“Heart-Shaped Box” was the first single from Nirvana’s final studio album, “In Utero.” Played using Drop D tuning, “Heart-Shaped Box” uses only four chords, most of which are fifth chords and one D7 chord. Those fifth chords played in Drop D tuning and using arpeggios to break those chords down into single notes are what creates the song’s dark, heavy atmosphere. String bends and dramatic slides between notes on the main riff, chorus, and solo heighten the tension in this emotional piece that swings between soft and slow, to raging, fast-paced, and angry.
Learn to play “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana on guitar.
Lithium Guitar Chords and Riffs
The third single from Nirvana’s landmark album Nevermind, “Lithium” tackles heavy lyrical themes of depression, religion, and suicide. The song’s mellow verse and frantic, screaming chorus underscores Cobain’s conflict-packed lyrics, making it one of Nirvana’s most memorable songs.
“Lithium” once again uses a Nirvana staple -- a variety of power chords -- to give the song teeth alongside some more basic chords. Sometimes referred to as “fifth chords,” power chords can often be played with just one or two fingers. Similarly, several of the chords used to play “Lithium” use a barre chord shape -- barring your finger across a single fret to play a chord. This makes it easier to transition between chords and give a song a crunchy, gritty feel.
While “Lithium” makes great use of power chords that are great for beginner guitarists to master, it also features some more advanced techniques like palm muting to create a choppy, cut-short feel to chords. String bends and arpeggio picking turn single notes into dramatic extensions of chords.
Learn to play “Lithium” by Nirvana on guitar.
All Apologies Guitar Chords and Riffs
“All Apologies” was one of the final songs Nirvana released, off the group’s 1993 album, In Utero. The song conveys feelings of boredom and apathy thanks to its maudlin lyrics and Drop Db tuning, which tunes each string down by a half-step. (Intimidated by Drop Db tuning? Don’t be! Download the free Fender Tune app for iOS and Android devices to tune your guitar on-the-go.)
In addition to Drop Db tuning, “All Apologies” features a handful of effects to create its distinctive sound. To recreate Kurt Cobain’s guitar tone from “All Apologies,” you’ll want to string together overdrive, fuzz, and reverb pedals. If you have a Fender Tone-compatible amp -- such as the Mustang GT or GTX -- the “All Apologies” clean and dirty presets make it easy to replicate the tone from the album version of the song.
Beyond mastering the tone and Drop Db tuning, “All Apologies” leans on just three power chords -- G5, A5, and D5, making this a great song for beginners to learn. Chords are played at varying tempos -- using eight note and whole note strums to set the downcast mood of the song with your playing.
Learn to Play Nirvana’s Biggest Hits on Fender Play Guitar Lessons
Kurt Cobain and Nirvana may have been considered the voice of a generation for alternative rock fans who came of age in the ‘90s, but their influence is still as strong as ever. Whether you want to learn songs by legendary artists or up-and-coming favorites making their mark on music today a free trial of Fender Play unlocks tons of song tutorials that you can learn at your own pace.