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Whereas metal guitarists' overdriven sound generally comes from a combination of overdriven amplifiers and distortion pedals, grunge guitarists typically got all of their "dirty" sound from overdrive and fuzz pedals, with the amp just used to make the sound louder.
The use of pedals by grunge guitarists was a move away from the expensive, studio-grade rackmount effects units used in other rock genres.
Grunge guitarists were influenced by the raw, primitive sound of punk, and they favored "...energy and lack of finesse over technique and precision"; key guitar influences included the Sex Pistols, The Dead Boys, Celtic Frost, Voivod, Neil Young Soundgarden’s guitarist, Kim Thayil, did not use a regular guitar amplifier; instead, he used a bass combo amp equipped with a 15-inch speaker as he played low riffs, and the bass amp gave him a deeper tone.
Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil's punk attitudes encouraged him to downplay soloing in the 1980s; however, when other leading grunge bands such as Nirvana started to de-emphasize the role of the solo during the early 1990s, he began to do solos again.
By the early 1990s its popularity had spread, with grunge bands appearing in California, then emerging in other parts of the United States and in Australia, building strong followings and signing major record deals.
Grunge music has what has been called an "ugly" aesthetic, both in the roar of the distorted electric guitars and in the darker lyrical topics.
Arm first used the term in 1981, when he wrote a letter under his given name Mark Mc Laughlin to the Seattle zine Desperate Times, criticizing his own band Mr. Grunge was also called the "Seattle sound" or referred to as the "Seattle scene", the latter a reference to the active music subculture in that city centred around the independent label Sub Pop, the "strong alternative scene", the University of Washington, and the Evergreen State College.
Seattle musician Jeff Stetson states that when he visited Seattle in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a touring musician, the local musicians did not refer to themselves as "grunge" performers or their style as "grunge" and they were not flattered that their music was being called "grunge".
Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, labeled by Time as "the John Lennon of the swinging Northwest", appeared unusually tortured by success and struggled with an addiction to heroin before he died by suicide at the age of 27 in 1994.
The word "grunge" was used in print prior to the use of the term in mainstream publications, to refer to the Seattle music genre. Clark Humphrey, contributor to Desperate Times, cites this as the earliest use of the term to refer to a Seattle band, and mentions that Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop popularized the term as a musical label in 1987–88, using it on several occasions to describe Green River.
The other effect that grunge guitarists used was one of the most low-tech effects devices, the wah-wah pedal; it is one of the rare pedals that requires no external battery or AC mains power and it uses very simple circuitry.