Easy Nirvana Songs to Play on Acoustic Guitar

Easy Nirvana Songs to Play on Acoustic Guitar

Nirvana are one of the most influential rock bands in history and are credited with spearheading somewhat of a musical revolution during the 90s “grunge era”, aka “The Seattle Sound”.

Coming off the back of the glitter-laden showy glam-rock style that was prevalent during the 80s, when Nirvana appeared with their stripped-down, raw, and unrefined sound, fans took to it immediately as a welcome reprieve, and the grunge era was born.

Kurt Cobain

They remain one of the best-selling bands of all time, with over 75 million in album sales, not to mention multiple Brit Awards, Grammy Awards, and every other accolade a band could hope for.

Their unique style puts a huge emphasis on memorable riffs that ooze personality and attitude, without a great deal of emphasis on technical ability, making Nirvana’s music well suited for beginner guitarists. So today we’ve gathered up 10 of their best songs that any beginner can learn on the acoustic guitar, and we’ll be taking a look at how both how they are played as well as some of the music theory concepts behind the compositions.

How to play Heart Shaped Box

Tuning: C# G# C# F# A# D# (Drop D with 1/2 step down tuning)

Released as the lead single from Nirvana’s highly anticipated, third (and final) studio album (In Utero) in 2003. Heart Shaped Box makes great use of some melodic dissonance and creative bends to create a gritty, moody feel.

Heart Shaped Box - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full Tablature:

The first thing you should to do play this song is get your acoustic guitar into drop C sharp tuning. This is essentially the same as regular drop D tuning, where you just lower the bottom E string by 2 semitones which allows you to play the power chord shape by just barring a single fret. But in addition to that, you’ll then drop every single string by an additional semitone.

This will make your strings a little looser, but as you’ll be doing plenty of bends in the chorus of the song, the lower tension actually helps.

The track opens with some arpeggiated power chord shapes, which are simply regular power chords that you play 1 string at a time instead of all at once.

On the fourth bar of the main riff, there is a good use of the tritone or augmented fifth interval between the 3rd fret of the A string and the 4th fret of the D string. It’s a great example of how using dissonance purposely can really add dimension and mood to music.

Moving onto the chorus you’ll be outlining the same chords, but this time as straight power chords which are broken up with small half-step bends. By bending those notes sharp you are actually leaving the key of the song (A minor) which is another example of melodic dissonance.

Nirvana’s ability to move out of the key into what we call ‘non-diatonic harmony’ is an essential part of what gives their riffs this angular quality to them. Give it a try next time you are writing your own riffs. You might be surprised with what you can come up with!

How to play Smells Like Teen Spirit

Tuning: Standard E

When Nirvana released “Smells like Teen Spirit” as the lead single (and opening) track from their second album ‘Nevermind’ no one could have anticipated what a cultural phenomenon this would become. Dubbed as the “anthem for apathetic kids”, this was the single that turned Nirvana into a household name.

Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full Tablature:

This is one of the most popular guitar riffs ever written, and for many new players, it may be the first thing they will ever learn.

To play it, we are simply using 2 power chords on the first and fourth frets of the low E string, followed by 2 more power chords using the same frets on the next set of strings above it.

What gives it that extra bit of musical spice and intrigue is the fact that between the power chords Cobain uses muted picks to give it that percussive element.

This is achieved by laying multiple fingers over the strings, but not actually fretting them, so they are just resting on the string very lightly. It’s important to use more than one finger to mute otherwise you can get what’s called “natural harmonics” ringing out.

When you strike the string with your fingers simply laying on the strings you get a percussive ‘chik’ sound where there is no audible note or tone being produced, just the nice percussive sound of the pick hitting the strings.

There’s an easy guitar solo in this song too, sometimes it can be hard to get the same amount of sustain that an electric guitar has which makes it not translate to the acoustic quite as well. But if you play cleanly and pick pretty hard it still works just fine!

The song is played in F minor using the 4 chords: F, Bb, Ab, and Db, all of which are played using the regular power chord shape but with that extra octave added on the top, which makes the guitars sound richer and fuller.

How to play In Bloom

Tuning: Standard E

Another track that’s from Nirvana’s second album “Nevermind”. In Bloom was never physically released as a single in the US, but due to its award-winning accompanying music video from American director Kevin Kerslake it still went on to be one of the best-known Nirvana songs and a fan favorite.

In Bloom - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full tablature:

Although this song primarily relies on the simple power chord shape throughout, it translates exceptionally well to the acoustic as they often add the higher octave of both the root note and fifth, almost turning the chords into straight bar chords.

You’ll also see more uses of that ‘percussive muting’ technique here, particularly on the chord progression leading into the verse.

The song is in the key of Bb major, but Nirvana does a good job at subverting that overly major tonality by using the VII chord or the Diminished seventh. Although they play it as a straight power chord which doesn’t give it that distinct diminished sound, the fact that it’s 1 semitone below the root note gives it just enough of that edge to give it that quintessential Nirvana flair.

The solo here is nice and slow and shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge regardless of your skill level. The main thing to watch out for is just how playful they get with the pitch of the bends. They like to mix up half and whole step bends to give it that slightly atonal quality which can be a challenge to match on the acoustic guitar if your strings are too tight.

There’s nothing wrong with just sticking to the chord progression that underlines the solo either.

How to play Lithium

Tuning: Standard D

Lithium is the third single from Nevermind, and once again featured an accompanying music video from Kevin Kerslake which is a compilation of live performance footage.

The song has a fairly upbeat chord progression and catchy sing-along chorus which underpins the quite dark lyrics.

Lithium - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full tablature:

So the first thing to do in order to play this song is to tune every string down by 2 semitones each, so you’ll have the same intervallic relationship between each string, only it’ll all be 2 notes lower.

We called this ‘D standard’ instead of ‘Drop D’ where we would only lower the first string.

The song opens with what can be described as ‘sequenced arpeggios’, so rather than just ascending up the chord or descending in a linear fashion, instead, we have broken-up sequences that take the core chord progression, but the order in which you play the notes are jumbled around or ‘sequenced’. This is a fantastic technique in order to use arpeggiations in a more interesting and engaging way.

Rhythmically you will also notice that on the verse many of the stronger downbeats are left silent, for example on the first bar the 1 and 2 do not have notes, and on the second bar beat, 2 also doesn’t have a note.

This idea of stressing the &’s and off beats adds a lot of rhythmic intrigue. And it offers a unique challenge to newer players who are very used to playing more straightforward ‘on-the-beat-’ music.

Then for the chorus, things get even easier as we are just playing some simple power chords. Where the real ‘Nirvana’ element comes from is the fact that it jumps out of key to create some interesting and unexpected chord changes. A key part of their style!

How to play Territorial Pissings

Tuning: Standard E

While not released as a main promotional single for Nevermind, the track is still a ton of fun to play and only uses 3 chords so you can go a little nuts with it.

The song itself was written by Kurt and details his disdain for the stereotypical toxic male pride, hence the song’s name.

You can see a fantastic performance of this track in 1991 on The Jonathan Ross Show, where they were originally scheduled to play Lithium, but Kurt surprised everyone by unexpectedly playing this song instead.

Territorial Pissings - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full tablature:

You’ll be in the key of A minor for the majority of the song outlining the chords A, F, and D. Which are played as the typical power chord shape with the added octave Nirvana often likes to use.

The main thing to note about this song is the speed, at 196 bpm with straight alternate strummed chords it will give your arm a nice workout! One of the key points here to get this sounding tight is to use the bottom flesh of your left hand’s fingers to lightly touch the top 3 strings of the guitar. This way when you strum, as your pick inevitably hits that 4th and 5th string no matter how good you are, as long as your fingers are choking those strings it doesn’t matter and you’ll only hear the strings you want ringing out.

In addition to that, there’s a little bit of palm muting on the refrain before the final chorus, although this is somewhat of a punk style of picking it actually translates to the acoustic guitar very well.

How to play About A Girl

Tuning: E standard

Heading to Nirvana’s debut album ‘Bleach’ next with “About A Girl, which takes more of an open, strummed chord approach as opposed to many of the power chord-centered songs we’ve covered so far.

This also famously has an acoustic-only version that was recorded as part of MTV’s Unplugged series.

About a Girl - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full Tablature:

This is a great first song for beginners to learn as we’ll be sticking to simple, open-strummed chords.

The entire verse is played with just 2 chords, Em and G. Then as we move into the chorus we swap to using barre chord shapes with the progression C sharp 5, F sharp 11, E, A, and C.

One thing you’ll notice on the tablature is that it looks like there are very specific groupings of strings that need to be targeted as you strum. While this is technically true, the actual application of this is a lot more free and liberal than the tablature indicates.

As you strum you will naturally feel your hand gravitate towards lower string groupings on a downstroke, and higher groupings on the upstroke.
It’s very much driven by ‘feeling’, so don’t rely on the tab too heavily and let your hands dictate where you need to strum. Just try to stay loose and keep that pivot happening from the wrists.

There’s also a short guitar solo section in Eminor, it’s all played by ascending up the fretboard and is slow enough to where you can simply play the whole thing with down picking.

How to play Rape Me

Tuning: Eb standard

Despite what the song name might suggest, this was most definitely written as an anti-rape song. The confusing nature of the title and lyrics has meant Kurt needed to clarify the lyrical meaning of the song multiple times.

Despite the inevitable contention the song name drew, this is still a fantastic song and a lot of fun to play on the guitar.

Rape Me - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full Tablature:

Here we’ll need to tune to D sharp/Eb standard, which is essentially identical to standard tuning except we need to lower each string by 1 semitone to be in pitch with the song.

The song is in the key of A major (or technically Ab major as we’ve tuned down a semitone).

Throughout almost every section of the song, you’ll be using some more of those ‘percussive mutes’ between the chord changes. The strumming pattern is quite fast here so be sure to keep the wrist nice and loose.

What makes the chord changes quite comfortable to perform here is that Kurt will often replace the final strum with an ‘open’ strum where he will simply strike the strings with no frets being held down which gives his hands time to get ready to hold the next chord.

This is also another example of where it might be tempting to just strike all 6 strings, especially for those big G chords. Part of Kurt’s style is that he will usually only hit groups of 3 or 4 strings at a time as he strums, and depending on whether it’s a downstroke or an upstroke he will adjust the string groupings he hits.

It sounds like a very meticulous thing, but in fact, you can approach it in a very “rock and roll” fashion, using the provided tablature as a very rough guide you can mostly rely on feel and let your hands naturally guide you here.

How to play Dive

Tuning: Standard E

Taking a short departure from the mainline Nirvana songs to one of the B-side tracks of their second non-album single ‘Sliver’. Despite not being a part of their mainline releases it did gain a lot of traction for its approach of essentially being pop music but ‘heavied up’.

Because it’s mostly power chord driven with a steady strumming pattern it translates to the acoustic guitar exceptionally well.

Dive - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full tablature:

The song’s key center is based on F sharp Minor where we’ll be primarily riding off of the second fret of the low E string. But of course, in typical Nirvana fashion, there are plenty of moments where we deviate from that traditional minor sound.

Particularly with the use of the F#7 chord in the verse that contains within it that angular-sounding tritone.

In addition to that, you’ll notice that the main riff of the song includes a half-step bend on that F# power chord on the second fret. What makes this unique is that, unlike regular guitar playing where we will only usually bend up a single note, in “Dive” Kurt actually bends up all three notes of the chord essentially bending it up to a G power chord.

What’s really important to capture the feel of the song here is the speed in which you both bend up to the G and return to the F#, they almost use slow and lethargic bending speed which gives the riff its unique flavor. Try to play along with the song to get that exactly right!

Once you have that mastered you’ll pretty much just be playing power chords for the entirety of the song and a couple of big E5 open chords you’re no doubt already familiar with.

How to play Polly

Tuning: Standard E

Originally written and demoed by Kurt back in 1987, it was then re-recorded for the album Nevermind in 1989. You’ll probably notice that the sound is particularly dull and doesn’t sound quite in line with what you’d expect from a bright-sounding acoustic guitar.

That’s because Kurt actually recorded the whole song with an old $20 Stella guitar that only had 5 strings that were completely dead and devoid of tone. And as much as guitarists might turn their nose up at the idea, it definitely adds something to that raw and unrefined sound we’ve come to expect from Nirvana.

Polly - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full tablature:

For this track, we’re just playing 4 easy chords in the key of E minor. The 4 chord progression of Em, G, D, and C extends over 2 bars, with each chord getting half a bar of playtime each.

Where the song really starts to come to life is in the strumming pattern. Over the 2 bar sequence we get the pattern of D-xU/DUxU/DUx/U-UDU, this looks complicated at first but if you take it 1 chord at a time where each slash is indicating a chord change you’ll pick it up quickly.

The main thing to take note of are the percussive mutes indicated by an X, what you want to do here is use the palm of your hand to smack down on the strings, hard enough to where they actually strike the frets and create that percussive ‘chick’ sound.

If you look carefully at where those mutes fall on the bar, it’s always on the 2 or 4 count which is the same place you’d put a snare drum on a traditional rock beat. So if you mentally imagine that drum beat as you play you’ll fall into the groove much easier.

How to play All Apologies

Tuning: Drop D

Ending things with the final song from the final album ‘In Utero’. All Apologies contrasts a lot of Nirvana’s more aggressive and high-energy songs with this more dialed down and moody track which carries an iconic guitar motif.

This is also another track that had a dedicated acoustic rendition made for MTV’s unplugged series.

All Apologies - Nirvana - Guitar Tab

Full tablature:

We’ll be in Drop D tuning for this song which you can achieve by taking any standard tuned guitar and simply tuning the low E string down 2 semitones to D.

The song is mainly driven by having that low D drone out while there is a melody or motif being played on the string above it.

In music terminology, this is also known as “pedal point“, where there’s an interaction between the longer sustained notes and some kind of movement that’s happening on the higher strings.

The song is in the key of D major and we’ll be spending most of the time jumping between those lower strings of the guitar.

Overall it’s a very easy song to play and works great whether played on an electric or acoustic guitar. Once you have that main motif memorized you’re already 90% of the way there!

Final thoughts

We hope you’ve enjoyed gaining some insight into the theory, techniques, and composing concepts Nirvana used in their music to get away from the more ‘in the box’ musical style and give it a little bit of that edge and personality.

Learning the songs listed in this article can help to expand your own musical vocabulary so next time you’re writing a song, you might think a little more about how to pull it out of key or add intriguing and interesting note choices to define the mood of a track.

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