Learning how to sing like Kurt Cobain is all about mastering the intricate balance of a laid-back vibe with those powerful, aggressive vocals he delivers.
Kurt had this special way of approaching all of his vocals as if he were singing them from a reclined sofa, and yet still brought such an insane level of grit and power.
If you want to learn to sing like Kurt Cobain, it all comes down to:
- Singing with rasp
- Building a strong (and high) chest voice
- Performing both quiet and killer vocals with a chilled-out vibe
Let’s start off with the most famous trademarks: his vibe.
1. Mastering the Kurt Cobain Vibe
Kurt’s approach to singing has this refreshing foundation of being very chill.
He sings with an indifference that translates to a kind of quiet confidence, and it allowed him to deliver those nostalgic, melancholic vocals that made the world fall in love with Nirvana.
Kurt encompasses the name of his band: nirvana. The concept of nirvana itself is the idea of enlightenment and inner peace, and that’s exactly where Kurt seems to sing from, even when he’s giving us those powerful notes covered in grit and growl.
So, step one in singing like Nirvana: find your nirvana, and physically relax. Relax your shoulders. Ease the tension from your body.
This is advice for all singing, anyway because singing is a relaxed skill! Kurt just takes it to a whole other level.
Often, we’ll hear Kurt’s melancholic, more subdued vocals in a verse of a song.
We usually hear him add the power and aggression to the chorus of his songs. But, even when he sings with that power and aggression, he still has an underlying sense of being laid back and relaxed…
Almost like there’s a friction between the relaxed nature of his approach and the absolutely gritty, near-screams of his vocals. It’s this balance we want to capture, and it’s this balance that makes Kurt so different and organic.
Because Kurt doesn’t aim for a clean and pretty vocal, he sounds so real to us, and it makes the emotional impact that much more powerful.
We will get into how Kurt adds his power, aggression and rasp, but remember that his approach to all singing begins with this relaxed, chilled-out vibe.
So, before we get to add edge and grit your voice the way Kurt does, let’s first learn how to sing with power.
2. Strengthen your Chest Voice
Kurt Cobain’s chest voice is insanely strong. His belt is incredible, and he often belts notes that are fairly high in his range. He doesn’t pull punches when he tackles his songs, especially with the choruses.
Before we go adding in that rasp that he has, make sure you build up your chest voice to where he is at. If you don’t, there won’t be anything for you to add rasp or grit to! He rarely sits in his falsetto or head voice and absolutely goes for those high notes in his full chest voice.
If you struggle with your high chest voice, or you push and strain to hit those high notes with power, it’s time to learn how to sing in your higher chest voice! Belting means your voice is relaxed, and it’s just learning where to put your voice (also called vocal placement).
Here’s one really great way to find your chest voice: yelling.
We all already know how to access our high chest voice! You might have done it today already.
Belting, or singing any note (no matter how high) in chest voice is in the same place we put our voice when we yell.
When I say yell, I mean when you yell at someone, “Watch out!” if they’re about to get hit by something.
If you try this now, just yell, “Hey!” or “Look out!” like you would in everyday life, do you feel any strain?
We never feel strain when we call out to people like this. Our voices simply know where to go to access this power and volume.
This is what it’s like to belt.
The only reason we find it difficult to belt is because when we think of singing, we don’t think of the way we use our voice in an everyday setting. We make singing harder and more complicated by thinking it’s supposed to be more difficult, and try to use our throat, tense up—and a bunch of harmful things that only stand in your way.
So, try this now: yell, or call out, “Hey!” Then, do it again, and hold it a little longer. Stay relaxed, just like you’re calling out to someone.
You just sang in a high chest voice!
Now, choose a song (perhaps one of Nirvana’s!) and pick a note on the song that’s high and powerful. Now, on the same pitch, just yell that word as if you were yelling it to someone across the street. Practice elongating it, and now you’re singing it!
It’s that easy.
This takes quite a while to develop muscle memory for. Keep practicing this until you don’t have to resort to yelling first to get the hang of it.
Now that you’ve got those high notes nice and clean, let’s dirty them up.
3. Singing with Rasp
Kurt Cobain is just as famous for his laid-back approach as he is for his rasp. There are a few different ways to distort your singing voice, such as compression, growl, screaming, and they all come from manipulating your false cords (they do not require strain!)
False cords are the cords that are near your vocal cords, and they’re used to make sure you don’t choke by diverting the path of your throat as you alternate breathing and eating.
Learning to control these cords gives us that gritty sound that Kurt Cobain uses almost all throughout his songs!
There’s over one way to learn these techniques, but I’ve found that the easiest way to get that raspy, gritty sound is by utilizing vocal fry.
- The Vocal Fry Technique
Kurt rarely sings with a clean voice, and he filters in his rasp even over those quieter, more subdued notes.
Listen to this performance, and hear how he layers the rasp over the verse, almost like a sort of buzz laid on top of the vocals, and then hear the rasp get even grittier when he really turns up the dial on it for the chorus:
The easiest way to sing with rasp is by utilizing something you also already know how to do: vocal fry. (We also talked about using vocal fry for distortion in our death metal post, where you can learn even more techniques to help you achieve that aggression Kurt brings to his songs!)
For those who are new to the idea, vocal fry is a sound created with those false cords, and it’s the exact sound you make when your alarm clock goes off too early.
That pitchless, crackly sound of your voice that sounds like a complaining noise of uhhhhh.
All you need to do to sing with rasp like Kurt is to sing like normal, and slowly add vocal fry.
So, choose one note from the song you’re working on, and hold out the note clean. This can be a power note from a chorus or a quieter note from a verse (it’s definitely easier to start with a quieter note until you get the hang of it). Hold out the note, and then intermittently add that crackly vocal fry.
When you do this for the first time, add in the fry to that held note here and there; it’ll be hard to get the fry to sit on the entire duration of the note before you’re used to it. Get used to the feeling; it will feel you’re adding together two very separate things (which you are!).
Continue playing with it.
Soon you’ll get comfortable adding it in, and the fry will sit on the note for the entire duration of it. Practice this a lot to gain control of it, and add in more and less to see what you like! Listen to Kurt’s performances for ideas.
Now that you’ve got that laid-back vibe, a strong high chest voice, and vocal rasp, it’s time to put all three together.
4. Putting It All Together
What makes Kurt Cobain so different and memorable isn’t just that he has a great voice, melancholic vibe and raspy aggression. It’s how he put it all together in a way that no other singer did. Paying attention to when Kurt used rasp and power is the best way to sound just like him.
Check out this performance:
Kurt focuses on his lyrics heavily. Notice how he takes turns sinking into quiet emotional moments by almost mumbling the words in a sort of defeated, pained, or nostalgic way, really embracing that laid-back approach he uses. Other times, he tackles the emotion with power and grit and an almost anger, but mixed with that relaxed approach still makes it feel just as emotionally painful. The way he does it makes him sound so real, and that’s why we love Nirvana so much.
Singing like him has just as much to do with his techniques as it does his approach. He gave us such nostalgic music that carries raw emotion and melancholy because that’s where he sang from. Nostalgia is born from emotion, so remember the importance of Kurt’s approach as you practice his techniques, and soon you’ll be sounding just like the legend himself!
What’s your favorite aspect of Kurt Cobain’s voice? Let me know in the comments!