The History of Grunge Music and Its Bands

Nowadays, people mostly hear the words “grunge music” and think of flannel shirts, sandwich shops, or making a wish if you throw a penny in the fountain outside the Bellagio.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, grunge was not much more than a name that described a rather obscure subgenre of hard rock and alternative music. But just because grunge—which was influenced by bands from punk and metal—was once something of an underground genre doesn’t mean it’s dead.


What is Grunge Music?

Probably the best way to answer this question is to get into what grunge wasn’t. Grunge was not happy pop-rock music. It was not hair metal. It was not a fashion statement. And it definitely wasn’t about making money (at least, at first).

Many of these misconceptions are rooted in one fact: grunge music originated in Seattle around 1990 and made stars out of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots.

But unlike many music capitals, such as New York City or Los Angeles, Seattle’s alternative scene didn’t really have many connections with the mainstream music industry or the corporate media giants that dominated it at the time.

The origins of Grunge

Many elements of grunge were based on punk rock, but many others can be traced back to other genres. Grunge musicians were inspired by heavy metal and progressive/psychedelic rock, but also by indie rock music (especially from bands like the Pixies). Other influences came from glam metal.

Grunge was also heavily influenced by the early work of Sub Pop records. This Seattle-based label is often considered the “godfather” of grunge, and it’s true that many of the most important grunge albums come from this record label.

However, there weren’t strict rules on what could and couldn’t be called “grunge.” Instead, it was a general term that encompassed any kind of music being made in or around Seattle at the time.

What makes a song Grunge?

So, what are the defining features of grunge music? It’s a little difficult to pin it down as one thing in particular. Grunge is best described as a type of music that takes elements from punk and heavy metal, combining aggressive guitar sounds with a punk attitude.

Regarding sound, grunge is characterized by distorted guitars—also called overdriven or crunchy guitars—and simple arrangements. Occasionally, the guitars are tuned lower than standard tuning, but not always; use of power chords commonly accompany this style of guitar sound.

Drums generally play a simpler beat than rock or metal musicians might play—often built around the snare drum, with little complexity in cymbal rhythms. Typically, you’ll also hear the influence of punk in the bass lines (or basslines) and vocals: think guttural shouting with no vibrato or melodic contour to it at all.


Why was Grunge so popular?

Grunge music became popular so quickly and so resoundingly because it was a new style of music that appealed to a generation of teenagers who had grown up on the sounds, looks, and artistry of the 1980s.

All grunge elements–the sound, the look, the words–were a departure from the excesses of that decade. Grunge spoke to a youth culture that wanted an answer for what was different about them.

Grunge spoke to a youth culture that wanted an answer for what was different about them. It showed them they were not alone in their rebellion against mainstream pop culture: There were other kids out there who didn’t want makeup and hairspray, who wasn’t concerned about dressing up or looking “cool,” and who felt angry at their parents for trying to box them in with their values.

If you felt this way as a teenager in any degree, then maybe you can relate to why grunge was (and still is) so popular!

Grunge music characteristics

  • In this section, we’ll examine the characteristics of grunge music, as well as its history;
  • Grunge music emerged in the late ’80s and early ’90s;
  • At the time, it was seen as a direct response to the polished pop and glam rock of mainstream music at the time;
  • In this section, we’ll examine the characteristics of grunge music, as well as its history;
  • One way that you can tell if a song is grunge is by paying attention to its tempo. Many grunge songs are played slowly or moderately slow (between 60-120 beats per minute), which isn’t common for most other genres;
  • Grunge songs are also often heavy and distorted due to their use of electric guitar with a lot of overdrive or distortion effects added on top;
  • The majority of musicians who played in grunge bands were guitarists who used power chords to make their sound heavier and less melodic than other popular styles at the time (like classic rock);
  • Guitar solos were a big part of grunge music because they gave musicians more freedom to express themselves than traditional song structures allowed for—at least that’s what many people believed at the time;
  • The use of feedback and distortion pedals like wah or fuzz boxes also helped create an “aggressive” sound that fit well within these new musical boundaries: dark tones with little melody but lotsa energy expressed through tempo changes/breaks called “riffs”.

grunge music

Grunge bands

You’ve learned that grunge music is characterized by its rebellion against the excesses of mainstream pop music, its emphasis on simple guitar harmonies and distortion, the angst-ridden lyrics of its songs, and its use of alternative rock influences.

Now you’ll learn about some bands that are usually associated with grunge music. By no means is this a comprehensive list; there were many other grunge bands you may not have heard of before. These bands were among the most popular ones during the rise of grunge in the early 90s:

  • Nirvana
  • Pearl Jam
  • Soundgarden
  • Stone Temple Pilots
  • Alice in Chains
  • Temple of the Dog (a supergroup consisting mostly of members from Soundgarden and Pearl Jam)

Other influential grunge artists include Tad, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, and Green River.


Much like the rock phenomenon that preceded it, grunge created its own unique culture, complete with iconic fashion statements, a fascination with music gear, and a sound based on the rawer fringes of rock ‘n’ roll. Grunge was niche from the get-go, and today it remains one of the most singular sounds in rock history.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments