Metal bands and the whole metal genre defines the youth. If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting a live metal performance, you’d know the contagious energy they have. Whether you’re a fan of the metal genre or just someone who would like to experiment with their guitars to sound more metal, we’ll be sharing some great tips to get started with what you may already have – an electric guitar and an amp.
Remember, there is no one metal sound. It is more like an umbrella term that includes a lot of sub-genres like death metal, power metal, and doom metal, to name a few. Metal musicians are constantly evolving and borrowing styles, even from unrelated genres.
Today, we’ll be providing you with a guideline for a generalized metal sound that most people who know the genre would perceive as such. You can then keep experimenting and adding your flavor to make the sound more personal and to your liking. Let’s get started!
What Gears Do You Need for a Great Metal Sound?
Tube or valve amps are believed to be better for metal tones than solid-state amps. The reason is their ability to still sound clean when pushed to the limits with gain and volume set to high, unlike solid-state amps, which begin to sound noticeably harsher (and not in a good way). If you don’t already have a tube amp, there is no reason to be disappointed or buy one, as solid-state amps can still produce excellent metal sound.
Most amps have a channel selector to select channels – a clean channel and an overdrive (OD) channel. We’ll use this setting depending on our other gear (like a pedal). Some smaller amps may not have this switch, in which case you can use the Gain knob for overdriving the sound, but your best bet would be to get a distortion effect pedal (discussed below).
Guitar with Multiple Pickups and Selector
A guitar with multiple double-coil humbucker pickups can deliver the cleanest metal sound. These can cancel out interference with the dual-coil design, which provides a cleaner sound when pushed to the limits. The sound from a guitar can quickly go from sounding metal to harsh and shrieky, and much of it can be porevented with a humbucking arrangement.
Active guitars also have a preamp onboard, usually powered by a 9-volt battery, that may clean out unwanted noise and interference and make the signal stronger. This is why many people in metal music prefer active guitars with humbucker pickups.
Also, having a pickup selector that lets you select the pickup(s) to get the signal from would be nice. Some guitars and music styles sound better through certain pickups, for metal you can try middle-and-bridge or just the bridge pickup.
If you do not own an active guitar, there is no need to worry. You can get metal sound from just about any guitar (even single-coil ones). However, keep this in mind if you plan to buy a new guitar.
Pedals are devices that connect to your guitar to shape the tone. There are a variety of effect pedals available, but for metal, you’ll mainly need a distortion pedal. There are also pedals available that can produce multiple effects. A multi-effects pedal, also called a multi-FX pedal, with effects such as overdrive, compression, delay, reverb, and noise gate, can be handy and cost-effective.
Various pedals are available, ranging from cheap to very expensive. For most people, a $100 overdrive pedal like a Boss MT-2 (around $115 at the time of writing) would suffice. The Amptweaker Tight Metal Pro II might be a better but pricier option if you want better tone shaping and inbuilt EQ.
However, for most beginners, a general-purpose multi-effects processor like the Mooer GE200, with more than 70 effects and dozens of guitar amp model emulation, would be the most cost-effective way. It would take some time to get used to and learn the pedal, but the results should be great.
Setup and Settings for a Great Metal Sound
The following assumes that you have a distortion pedal, either a standalone pedal or a multi-FX pedal that has a distortion effect. If you don’t have one, see the next section.
A great sound starts right from the guitar. Therefore, we need to do some tweaking here. To begin, if your guitar has a pickup selector switch, set it to bridge or middle-and-bridge pickup. You can set the volume knob pretty high or in the middle (try both) and leave the Tone knob in the 12’o clock position. The Tone knob becomes pretty much redundant when playing with high gain (unless you have an active guitar), so you can even keep it anywhere, but a higher setting should be better.
The pickup selector will affect the tone the most, along with the Volume control, which changes the signal level.
With a setup comprising of an amp and a distortion effect pedal, there are two ways you can create an overdriven sound which is a hallmark of metal music. If you have a high-quality distortion pedal, you might want to set the amp channel to clean and use only the pedal for distortion.
If you don’t have an effect pedal, you can set the amp to an overdrive channel and turn the Gain to something high for a metal sound. The tone and overall distortion quality may not be as good, especially if you push the amp too far. See this section for more information.
It is also possible to use the combination of the above two by using a distortion effect pedal and setting the amp to use the overdrive channel. You can get an excellent metal sound out of this arrangement with some tuning. Try the pedal alone for the effect and then set the amp to overdrive (OD) and see which one sounds better.
You can try the pedal and amp combination if you have a passive guitar but with humbucker pickups. However, this arrangement might not be optimal if you have a passive guitar with single-coil pickups. For active guitars, you can try both and see what you like.
For the EQ settings:
- You can start with both Bass and Treble set to the middle mark (12 o’clock position)
- Set the Volume to low, then work the volume up
You can fine-tune the Bass and Treble according to your taste. Some people like heavy tones with much more low-end punch, while others prefer brighter tones. Experiment and see what you like.
Most amps also have a knob for mid frequencies, while some may have a sweepable midrange. If yours has one for the midrange, we suggest starting low (around the 10 o’clock position). Amps with a sweepable midrange that lets you “sweep” or select where the midrange starts will let you have far better control over the mids.
Another setting some amps have is the Presence, which you can play with, especially if you wish to add brightness to your sound. If you have this control, set it to the middle or 12 o’clock position and only after having set all the other settings to something that gives you a desirable sound should you start tuning this to get some extra ‘oomph’.
Setting Up the Effects Pedal
The only effects pedal you’ll need for this is the distortion pedal. Most distortion pedals come with either three or more knobs. We’ll focus on the three main knobs: Tone, Level, and a third marked Gain or Distortion or Drive (one of these).
- After connecting the guitar to the pedal and the pedal to the amp, start by turning the Gain/Drive/Distortion knob down to zero.
- If your pedal has more than 3 knobs set them to their neutral position (in most cases the 12 o’clock position).
- Now start with the Level knob and keep turning it until you get the same sound from the amp with the pedal turned on or off. This would be our neutral or starting position to add the desired metal sound through the pedal.
- Turn the Gain/Drive/Distortion knob until you get your desired metal sound.
- Having done this, you can take a picture of the knob position for reference and start tuning any other knobs the pedal has, especially the Tone knob. With some tweaking, you’ll be able to get a good metal sound.
With the pedal fully set, you can finally do some minor tweaking in the amp once more to adjust the tone and remove any unwanted, harsh distortions that might have crept into the sound output.
Other Things You Can Do for a Better Metal Sound
Many metal guitarists prefer their guitars to be in a different tuning. If you have always played in standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), try drop-C (C-G-C-F-A-D), which is supposed to make the guitar sound brighter, to see if you like the tone. On the other hand, if you like slightly harsher heavy metal sounds, you can try drop-D (D-A-D-G-B-E) tuning.
Guitar tuning for metal is a personal choice. While many metal guitarists and bands prefer non-standard tunings, you can just as well get a great metal sound with standard tuning.
Metal music is an expansive genre, and metal bands employ many techniques that would take a lengthy article on its own. Here we’ll be mentioning two essential techniques which would be very useful for a beginner starting with metal music.
A common technique where the palm of your strumming hand is pressed on the strings near the bridge to mute them. Practice until you get the perfect muting when the notes are not entirely muted but instead produce a muffled sound. Palm-muting, like many techniques, has to come effortlessly to sound pleasing and takes some time to get good at.
Extensively used in metal music, especially heavy metal, power chords are made up of two root notes and are, therefore, very easy to learn. Power chords can be played across the fretboard with the same shape for any chord. They are an easy way to add chunkiness to your sound. Therefore this should be one of the primary things you should learn or employ along with palm muting. Check this website out for a great beginner tutorial.
What to Invest in If You’re Serious About Metal Genres?
The above setup should get you started with metal music. There are many techniques and equipment metal musicians use, and you’ll be learning about them as you go along your journey. It is not how many gears or equipment you use together but which one (or the combination) suits you and your music style better. The list below would be helpful for you if you’re seriously considering metal music and want some general pointers as to where your initial investment would get you with the best return on investment insofar as your tone and sound output are concerned.
Metal guitarists generally use only a few pedals; the most important one you’ll need is the distortion pedal. If you’re serious about pursuing the metal genre, you can get more expensive pedals like Blackstar HT-METAL or Amptweaker Tight Metal Pro II, both of which have EQ controls onboard. Inbuilt EQ is a much sought-after feature and would be particularly useful if you do not have or do not want to invest in a high-end amp.
You can also get a noise gate (or noise suppressor) pedal to remove any buzzing or hissing background noise. While these are not a quick fix for a poor setup, when used correctly, they can make the sound cleaner even at very high gain and volume.
Other pedals like a compressor and an EQ (if the distortion pedal doesn’t have this) can improve your tone depending on your style or equipment.
The best pickups for metal music are undeniably the humbuckers, so if you’re serious, you should consider trying out a guitar with humbuckers. In most cases, you’d feel the difference straight away. Like many people who already have a guitar with signal-coil pickups, you can get humbuckers fitted by a guitar repair shop. If done by a professional, these after-market pickups should provide a sound output as good as company-fitted humbucker guitars.
Guitar with Active Pickups
Metal guitarists, especially those in the heavy metal genre, like the sound of active pickups. These produce a higher output owing to the electronic circuit onboard the guitar, which is driven by a battery. In addition to providing higher output and gain, these pickups may be able to cancel out noise and unwanted interferences better.
If you’re considering getting your pickups changed you could consider active humbucker pickups. Do some research, get a live demo at a store, and see if these suit your music taste.
What If You Don’t Have a Pedal?
What if you wish to try metal music but don’t have a distortion pedal and don’t want to get one either? Never mind, you can try out the following setup where you need a guitar and an amp.
- Set the amp to use the Overdrive or OD channel. If your amp has a Gain knob, set it high.
- If your amp has separate EQ knobs, set Bass to high, Mids to low, and Treble set to high (but not full). If your amp has just the Tone knob, set it to something mid-low.
- Keep turning the Volume until you get to where your guitar starts sounding metal enough.
- Now, you can start to fine-tune the EQ, but for the most part, leave the Gain knob set to something high or even full if your amp can handle it without causing noise issues.
The above settings won’t produce the best metal sound, but it should be fine for someone just starting out and who doesn’t want to invest in a distortion pedal just yet.
Other Ways to Get Great Metal Sound?
An audio interface is a device that lets you connect your musical instruments, like a guitar, to your computer. The computer uses software called Digital Audio Workstation or DAW to record, edit, and produce audio files. These softwares provide a plethora of effects (think of them as virtual effects pedals) and the ability to simulate the sound of high-end amps.
With the improvements in audio interfaces and Digital Audio Workstation, many effects that were otherwise impossible without costly gears, like top-of-the-line pedals and amps, are now possible without them. A setup like this will be optimal not just for recording your guitar, but if you have good quality speakers, you can even output the sound without needing an amp.
Not everyone likes the digital sound, though. However, for most people, it is virtually impossible to tell the sound of a real amp from that of a simulation amp that the DAW mimics.
The downside to using this setup is the learning curve and the price of the software. While there are free DAWs available, even very capable ones, however, the learning curve is indeed steep.
Metal music is a vast and ever-evolving genre that has undergone a lot of development and change since its inception in the 1960s. Our intention while writing this article was to provide a base for someone new to the genre and wondering how to make electric guitar sound metal.
Metal music nowadays lends some styles from genres beyond rock and blues. And, if you’re a fan of rock music, you’ll have a great time transitioning to or trying out metal music. You’ll need a distortion pedal to get started if you own a guitar and an amp. Metal music is about aggression and passion for something one wants. If you like this music style, go for it. This guide will help you get started, and in time you’ll find your style!