10 Essential Guitar Pedals For Grunge and Alt Rock


Grunge broke into the mainstream in the early nineties. It was a way of rebelling against the opulence and bling-bling of the eighties.

This music movement was characterized by two things that were very particular to their sound: minimalism and dynamics.

Instrument and equipment-wise, Grunge musicians and bands stripped it all off to get to the very basics. They usually played cheap, second hand instruments as well as few effects and amps.

All the things that the hair bands of the eighties would brag about, this musical movement would just laugh at.

What Kind Of Pedals Are Perfect For Grunge?

Music-wise Grunge songs would usually have very quiet verses and explode into huge choruses. Hence, distortion pedals were an absolutely crucial link to the effects chain. There are countless examples of this kind of dynamics in songs. For example, the ultimate grunge anthem: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

We are about to see a series of pedals that will allow you to sound like the Grunge bands of back in the day. Of course, without breaking your bank account.

In this minimalist approach that we are talking about, high-end, expensive pedals are completely forbidden. Inexpensive sound-making machines like Boss pedals are very common.

Read on, put your pedalboard together and play your favorite grunge songs sounding just like your heroes.

Distortion Pedals

As we said before, distortion pedals are crucial to play Grunge. The tonal quality they have is that they are “huge” distortion pedals that make your guitar sound humongous while you scream the chorus lyrics.

So, let’s go through best distortion pedals for grunge music!

Boss Turbo Distortion DS-2

Also known as the “Cobain” distortion, this pedal is basically two-in-one. With the mode on Turbo, it is a huge distortion that can take you to any Nirvana song chorus in a heartbeat.

It really does sound very similar to those records if you dial it in correctly. On the other hand, the normal mode is just Boss DS-1, the traditional distortion.

The extra bass and punch on the turbo side are a trademark sound that only comes from this orange box.

The great thing about Boss pedals is that they are inexpensive and that they are very reliable, built for war. For the price of 105 bucks, along with the pedal you get instrument and patch cables, guitar picks and polishing cloth.

It is not uncommon to find very old and very used ones that are still working properly.

You can hear it in the feet of John Frusciante for the explosive chorus of “Dani California” and appreciate what it does to the guitar sound.

You can hear how it sounds like from the following video.

Read some customer reviews, and get yourself one from Amazon, here.

ProCo RAT 2

The ProCo RAT is a distortion pedal that has a trademark sound. It is like starting a chainsaw and putting it in your pedal board.

It was widely used during the Grunge years by bands like Radiohead (Pablo Honey and The Bends), Blur, Sonic Youth, The Foo Fighters and even Metallica.

The sound of the ProCo RAT is huge and there are many different versions available in the market today.

This one, the RAT 2, is still the simplest and best sounding of them all. If you want a killer distortion at a moderate price, this is the best bet; besides it is built like a tank.

The only drawback of this pedal is that it needs a specific adapter different than most of the other pedals.

Hear how it sounds like from this video.

Anyway, check this pedal on Amazon, along with customer reviews, here.

Big Muff Pi

This Big Muff Pi is the Russian-made version of the pedal that was very popular among Grunge bands in the nineties.

It was always used by the prog-rock bands in the 70s (David Gilmour solos). It was Jack White’s and Dan Auerbach’s signature sound in their killer careers with The White Stripes and The Black Keys.

This pedal is still widely used today by many guitar players. It is not technically a distortion pedal since it falls into the fuzz category. Nevertheless, it is used to make those choruses sound huge and Grunge songs definitely need that.

This pedal is the newest version in a smaller package (the original Russian Big Muff is huge and bulky) that sounds very much like the original and is built like a tank.

The one thing to bear in mind is that if you are playing with other people, the sound will get a little lost in a band mix.

Check how it sounds like when it’s in use.

Check out more detailed information about this pedal on Amazon, here.

Overdrive pedals

The name indicates what these pedals are: overdrive. What is the difference with distortion and fuzz?

That signal overdrive is a natural thing, if it happens when the signal receives more gain than it can handle. Then it and overdrives. For Grunge’s not-so-clean sound during the verses, it is a definite must.

Let’s go through some of the best, affordable overdrive pedals for grunge.

Ibanez Tube Screamer TS-9

Ibanez is not the most famous brand in the world for making pedals. Still, it is the manufacturer of one of the most iconic effect box in the world for sure.

Everyone, from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Munky from Korn to Kurt Cobain, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, Robert DeLeo, Chris Cornell and a million others benefited from its tonal characteristics.

It is the best way to add some mids to the signal and boost that particular frequency that makes a guitar stand out in a band situation.

It is possible and recommended to mix it with any of the distortion pedals mentioned above. The Tube Screamer is one of those pedals you can leave on the entire night and make it be an integral part of your sound.

Of course, you can also turn it on as a boost momentarily and have three sounds: clean, overdrive and distortion.

All I can say about this pedal is that it is a one-way ticket; the more you play with it, the more you want to play with it.

Check how it sounds like.

Order yourself one from Amazon, here.

Boss Super Overdrive SD-1

For those who don’t like Tube Screamer’s mids so much, this Boss version of an overdrive is the next best thing.

For starters, it is a little dirtier than the TS9 and it also lacks the strong mid frequency that the green marvel has.

Because of these qualities and because the price tag is also half the TS9; it is not uncommon to find this pedal in many Grunge/Alternative Rock pedal boards.

Look at this video to hear what it sounds like.

Check it out on Amazon, here.

Modulation pedals

Modulation pedals are what many of the Grunge-era bands used to make those verses between the explosive choruses vibey and cool.

The minimalistic playing was usually done with a chorus, tremolo or phase pedal and some delay, so here are the best options for them.

Boss Chorus Ensemble CE-5

John Frusciante, Kurt Cobain, Robert Smith and many other players in the nineties used this pedal (or another incarnation of the chorus effect like Electro Harmonix Small Clone).

I bet, the moment you plug it in and start listening to your own playing through it, you’ll be taken back in time to that iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” verse, the intro for “Black Hole Sun” and so many other tunes from back in the day.

The good thing about this version of the Chorus pedal is that it is stereo. You can plug it to two sound sources at the same time.

Like all Boss pedals in this list and also in life, this little machine is built for war and is pretty affordable.

Hear how it sounds like.

Get yourself one from Amazon, here.

Boss Tremolo TR-2

  • Price: 97.30 $
  • Rating: 4.5 / 5

The silent hero of the Grunge revolution was the Tremolo pedal.

For many of the transitions, backing tracks, spacey verses, Sonic Youth’s tone mayhem and other affairs, the tremolo pedal was there, watching from the first row.

This version of the pedal is built like a definite tank that will never let you down. It is capable of blending a peak signal versus a square signal making the effect more subtle or more aggressive at your will.

In case you don’t know what it does, tremolo pedals are sound choppers. What you hear is something like Johnny Marr’s guitar sound on “How soon is now” from the ´84. Or “Between the eyes” by Love Battery in 1992, “Crush with eyeliner” by R.E.M. from 1995, “Bones” by Radiohead in 1995 all the way to “Howlin for you” by The Black Keys in 2011.

The tremolo effect used to be a factory feature in Fender amps in the sixties. It has been widely used since then, being present for example in “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones back in 1969.

See this video to hear how it sounds like.

Check the details on Amazon, here.

MXR Phase 90

This is another hugely iconic pedal from an iconic brand.

The MXR Phase 90 is the most iconic phaser that has ever been manufactured and sold in history and can make an instant “Mayonnaise” from Siamese Dream, the dual record of Grunge icons Smashing Pumpkins.

What this effect does is to modulate the signal making it go up and down as if it was a rollercoaster. What you get then is a sweeping effect that makes chords and arpeggios a little more interesting.

Another great example of the use of phaser is the song “Given To Fly” by Pearl Jam for their 1997 album Yield.

A newer song using this effect is Endors Toi by Australia’s Alternative Rock/Pop superband Tame Impala. At the very beginning of those songs, it is easily audible how the phaser effect is making everything sweep and move around.

The MXR Phase 90 is one of the few effects (along with the chorus) that survived the ’80s and came out the other way triumphantly.

For you to have an idea; there is an Eddie Van Halen signature version.

Hear how it sounds like.

Anyway, get yourself one from Amazon, here.

Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Wah GCB-95

A wah pedal is not a modulator, but a filter. What it does is to scoop out in real time the lows or the highs of the guitar sound.

This way, when you rock the pedal to the front, you take out the lows and the opposite thing when you bring the pedal back down. As a filter, it is the most widely-used around the world.

A very iconic guitarist to use it for a very iconic song is Jimi Hendrix and his “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” hit. In the Alternative Rock and Grunge universe, it is very used as well.

Players like Alice in Chains Jerry Cantrell, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Soundgarden’s Kim Tahyl, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, Red Hot Chili Pepper’s John Frusciante among many others played this pedal both live and in the studio to create iconic songs.

Some of them like Jerry Cantrell even have their signature pedal manufactured by Jim Dunlop.

Hear how it sounds like.

Anyway, feel free to get yourself one from Amazon, here.

Delay pedals

A delay pedal basically samples the signal and then repeats it over your playing. That way, you’re creating “more than a guitar” effect popularized by players like U2’s The Edge.

It was present in the Grunge era. This is the most common model you can get.

Boss Digital Delay DD-3

Perhaps the most iconic delay unit in the world and especially in the ’90s is the Boss DD-3.

It could be found in the pedalboard of most of your guitar heroes from that time all the way to the current days. It is a very versatile pedal that lets you dial in everything from a small slapback delay all the way to 800ms.

You also have the option to HOLD the note for an entire song if you like. The fourth knob in this pedal chooses the mode between Short, Medium and Long.

They go from 12.5 milliseconds to 800 milliseconds in the Long mode. If you think of it, 800 milliseconds is almost a second of delay, meaning that the sound of the sampled guitar will come an entire second after your original playing.

To give you an example of a long delay, you can hear “Us & Them” by Pink Floyd and hear it applied to the vocals.

A great thing about delay is that you can easily stack it up with other effects to get different sounds. For example, many players go into a solo with the overdrive + distortion + delay + wah and stand out from the band, cutting the mix and going forward.

Another, more experimental use of the delay can be found in bands like Sonic Youth. In a recent interview, Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth guitar player) said that he couldn’t live without his delay pedal.

For alternative rock and also for the more noisy side of grunge, experimenting with your delay pedal’s knobs can take you to some very strange and distant sonic territories you’ve never been to.

Delay pedals have the ability to oscillate when you set the time and repeats to the max. There is a lot you can do with just that weird noise in music.

This is how it sounds like.

Start experimenting by ordering this one from Amazon, here.

Final Words

I hope this article gave you a valuable information about guitar pedals.

I tried my best to cover this from all angles. If you enjoyed reading this article, as much as I enjoyed writing it, I’m more than happy about it.

Don’t forget to check out other interesting articles and product reviews from this site!

Cheers, and rock on!

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