A Creative Commons image of Nirvana

What Genre Were Nirvana? A Definite Answer

Nirvana fall primarily into the grunge genre, which itself is a subgenre of alternative rock. They don’t just fall into the genre they are essentially the figurehead of it. They do however have other influences that include punk rock, metal, and even pop.

Let’s have a deeper look and see where Nirvana’s genre influences shine through. 

What is Grunge?

Grunge is a subgenre of alternative rock that emerged in the late 1980s, originating from the Pacific Northwest, particularly in Seattle. It is characterized by its raw, distorted sound, combining punk, hard rock, and indie rock elements.

Grunge music often features angsty and introspective lyrics, reflecting themes of rebellion, disaffection, and the singer’s position as a social outcast. The genre, because of this lyrical content, quickly established a distinct aesthetic. Grunge rockers brandished long hair, baggy flannel t-shirts, and flowing loose jeans.

The whole idea behind the genre meant that it quickly became a cultural phenomenon and an important era within the overarching genre of alternative rock.

Music was Sleepless in Seattle

Seattle the city where Nirvana's Genre Grunge originated
Seattle the city where grunge originated (Credit: Daniel Schwen)

In the late 1980s, the city of Seattle had a vibrant punk and indie-rock scene. This, alongside the prominence of bands such as Black Sabbath, led to a new blend of alternative rock—a blend that was grittier, more raw, but also more melodic. The artists that were pivotal in Seattle at this point were artists like The U-Men and The Melvins.

This scene would grow, and new bands would form, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and of course, Nirvana. Each one of these bands would develop their own unique grunge sound and begin to see individual levels of success.

Then the mainstream hit. Grunge would be the first alternative rock genre to fully dominate the charts, and we all know what caused this—yes, the release of Nevermind. The album propelled the genre into dominance as it managed to resonate with the feelings of America’s youth.

Nirvana defined the grunge Genre

Lyrics and Guitars

Nevermind would become the staple of grunge, defining everything about the genre. The album epitomised the raw, angst-ridden essence of grunge and catapulted the genre into the mainstream. Let’s look at some conventions it utilised. 

For starters, grunge is synonymous with heavily distorted guitar tones. This is evident all throughout the album with Kurt rocking his DS-1, think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “In Bloom”. Both of these songs also highlight another staple, raw raspy emotional vocals. 

Grunge music also often delves into personal struggles and feeling like a social outcast. Cobain’s hauntingly emotive lyrics shine on tracks like “Come as You Are” and “Lithium,” tackling themes of identity, isolation, and struggles with his mental health.

Solos were also outlined as taboo. The genre prefers less virtuosic guitar playing, which means that the guitar is utilised in a way which raises the vocal, as opposed to allowing the guitarist to show off.

I recommend reading this interview with Kurt. 

Melodies and attitudes

Grunge songs often juxtapose catchy melodies with abrasive hooks. The iconic chorus of “In Bloom” and the infectious riff of “Stay Away” exemplify this juxtaposition, creating a captivating lyrical line which gets stuck in your head.

Grunge was always looking to challenge conventions, and it does this with song structures, embracing a more alternative and experimental approach. The unconventional structure of “Drain You” features a large break within avoiding the conventional bridge. Grunge bands were always looking to stand out.

While grunge would eventually be far from the independent scene it was originally, the DIY spirit and authenticity never died. Grunge rejected over-produced studio sounds and preferred a raw natural sound. “Nevermind” captures this spirit, and Butch Vig allowed Nirvana to maximise this.

Do Nirvana show influences of other genres?

Punk Rock

The influence of punk rock on the brand is much more prevalent on Nirvana’s early music. Their debut album “Bleach” showcased a raw and aggressive punk sound. Tracks like “Negative Creep” and “School” exemplify their punk rock roots with fast-paced, distorted guitar riffs, and energetic performances.

Tracks like “Love Buzz” show the simplicity of punk shining through. The initial hammer on bass riff continues throughout anchoring the music. Raw growled vocals emphasise the hook “Can you feel my love buzz”, while heavy distorted guitars accent the track. 

Two other ways Nirvana show this genre’s effect is how they embraced an independent, self-reliant approach to their music in this album. Bleach had a very DIY tone and live music feel to it, this fully captured the essence of punk with it. 


Nirvana incorporated heavy metal elements into their music, especially evident in their earlier work. Songs like “Breed” and “Territorial Pissings” from “Nevermind” showcase heavier guitar riffs and a more aggressive sound, drawing from the heavy metal genre.

“Aneurysm” is the song I believe highlights this metal influence the most. Heavy guitar riffs are employed throughout with some points bordering on thrash metal. During the instrumental breaks the song flies off the handle breaking down into sludgy chugging chords. 

“Black Sabbath were a huge influence on me when I was growing up. I loved their dark, heavy sound.” – Kurt Cobain, Rolling Stone, 1993


Kurt’s and grunge’s relationship with pop music was tumultuous, to say the least. He appreciated the value of it, but often dislike the people behind it and the reason for it. “I think pop music is great when it’s done well, but it’s often just so vapid and meaningless.” – Kurt Cobain Guitar World, 1992. 

Despite this Kurt was naturally talented at creating memorable vocal hooks. Tracks such as “Come as You Are” and “All Apologies” feature memorable and melodic hooks, making them more accessible to a broader audience, similar to pop music’s intentions.

So, what genre were Nirvana?

Nirvana’s music undoubtedly drew influences from a diverse range of genres, but is evident that the band’s defining genre can only be seen as grunge. Their legendary album “Nevermind” became a figurehead work for the genre, they were active in the Seattle music scene, and they are even to this day seen as the most important band to come from the genre. 

Read more on Kurt’s famous Moserite guitars here!