If you’re wondering how to make your guitar sound metal, you’ve come to the right post!
Defining Metal Tone
Metal isn’t simple and there are countless subcategories within the genre.
At this point, it’s far from a simple task to define what is or isn’t metal.
This also goes for the guitar tone, so any discussion about what sound “metal” or not gets complicated in that regard as well.
If you want the simplest answer, there’s no one way to make your guitar sound metal.
However, I can explain a few different approaches depending on what you want to achieve.
Two Main Directions to Go Into
The easiest way to go about it is to have either a more American-style or British-style tone.
Of course, these days, you can get any nuances in between, but I’ll focus mainly on these two approaches.
Your traditional British tone is what you’ll hear with Marshall or Orange amps, pretty much any tube-driven stuff with EL34 or EL84 power tubes.
British tone is pretty mid-heavy and can get more or less fuzzy.
It also stands out easily in the mix and can sound very rich and sharp.
At the same time, it might get a bit too messy for some guitar players.
American tone, for instance, is what you’d notice with Fender or similar tube amps.
These come with 6L6 or 6V6 power amp tubes.
This kind of tone is usually pretty tight in the bottom ends, although it might sound too scooped.
The mids aren’t as pronounced, and the guitar could sound just a bit less noticeable in the mix.
However, the tone is not as messy compared to British-style stuff.
The American-style tone is what you would aim for if you wanted a more modern approach.
Additionally, we’ll have to go over different amplifiers, guitars, pickups, pedals, and settings.
The goal here isn’t to give you a simple step-by-step setup that will make you sound metal.
Instead, we want to give you knowledge so that you can dial in the tone that works for you.
Choosing Your Amp
The first thing you’ll need to think of is what kind of an amp you want.
Or, in case you’re using digital plugins or solid-state amps with onboard modeling, you’ll have to find the right digital replica.
When it comes to amps, you obviously have the choice between solid-state and tube-driven ones.
In a perfect setting, I’d almost exclusively go with a tube-driven amp.
Sure, it’s an expensive way to get a metal tone, but it’s easily the best for most metal stuff.
A tube-driven amp will provide a richer and often warmer-sounding distorted tone.
You’ll also have a more dynamic response on some low to mid-gain settings.
Solid-state amps, on the other hand, will sound more “sterile” and sharper.
Using digital amps will give you the most versatility, and you can find some pretty decent and affordable stuff today.
I already mentioned the differences between American and British-style tube amps.
If you want a mid-heavy tone with a rough and more or less fuzzy kind of tone, go with tube amps with EL34 tubes.
In case you want it tighter and scooped, I’d rather recommend something with 6L6 valves in them.
What is also important to note is that some amps get pretty versatile and can do both.
Mesa Boogie is a safe bet, although it’s not exactly the most affordable brand.
Although traditionally considered inferior, solid-state amps can have their use as well.
For instance, Dimebag Darrell preferred them over tube-driven amps as they gave him that staple high-gain compressed sharp tone.
So they’re good for that 1990s and early 2000s-style metal tone.
Choosing Your Guitar and Pickups
What I’ll say now may seem pretty controversial to some.
When it comes to guitars, anything will work well for metal tone as long as the instrument is properly set up.
Other than that, what you should focus on the most are the pickups.
In my opinion, humbuckers with hotter output work the best.
Mid-output humbuckers can also work great for some classic metal as they’ll give you a pretty great dynamic response in combination with tube amps.
For all the modern metal stuff, the safest bet is EMG’s active set of their 81 and 85 humbuckers.
Now, single-coils can also work, but some specific tones may be trickier to pull off.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t use single-coils for metal.
However, you’ll have a harder time getting them to sound the way people expect metal to sound like.
When it comes to the humbuckers, in my opinion, you should always leave the tone knob to the maximum.
If you’re really into single-coils, I’d advise that you roll off the tone pot just a little to help them sound beefier.
In case you want to use lower tunings, I’d suggest going with a guitar that has a longer scale length.
Most of Super-Strat kind of guitars have a scale length of 25.5 inches, which should work.
Gibson and Gibson-style guitars are shorter, measuring 24.75 inches.
You could also make a shorter scale length work with lower tunings.
I’ve been playing a Gibson in drop C for a while now, and it can work well if you use thicker strings.
For super-low tunings, either get a 7-string or an 8-string or just consider any of the long-scale baritone 6-string.
Setting Up the EQ
Whether it’s the pedal or an amp-based EQ, there are two main approaches here.
Once again, I’m bringing up the mid-heavy or scooped kind of tone.
Of course, no two amp or pedal models are the same, so don’t copy these identical settings.
Always listen to your amp and see how it reacts to different controls.
For a mid-heavy tone, always set the mid knob to at least 60%.
Feel free to push it to 100% if you really want to make it sound punchy.
Then see to set the bass below 50%, unless your amp is generally thinner-sounding.
For scooped tones, set the mid knob to about 20 to 30%, or just keep it below 50%.
Other parameters are optional and depend on what you generally love to hear.
If your amp has a presence knob, play around with it and see how your amp reacts.
For lead tones that cut through the mix, I’d always recommend setting the presence control up high.
The Biggest Myth About Gain
One of the biggest myths about metal guitar tone is that you need to push the gain up high, maybe even all the way up.
Sure, that can work as well, but it’s not guaranteed that you’ll sound heavy.
In fact, there are plenty of great metal guitar tones that technically aren’t high-gain.
My advice would be first to shape the main characteristics of your tone in lower-gain settings.
Then push it high enough to make things sound heavier but without making it sound all too fuzzy.
The problem with setting the gain control too high is that things can get too muddy.
It’s counterproductive to set the gain up high just for the sake of it, only to ruin all of the great characteristics that make it sound heavy in the first place.
Different amps and pedals react differently to gain knob settings, so listen carefully and avoid making things too messy.
When it comes to metal tones, it’s important to keep things simpler.
Aside from distortion, try not to add too much stuff on top of it.
Delay is useful for both lead and rhythm tones in metal.
However, when it comes to rhythm tones, I’d advise that you keep the repeat time shorter and levels lower.
Just a dash of chorus can help you thicken things up.
Just try not to overuse it.
Compressors can also help you in some settings, especially if you’re playing a guitar with single-coil pickups.
How to Make Your Guitar Sound Metal: Conclusion
I hope this article has given you some good ideas about how to make your guitar sound metal!
And if you want to learn more about how to get different sounds out of your guitar, then check out:
- The Best Doom Metal Amp Settings
- Black Metal Amp Settings: A Thorough Guide
- The Best Death Metal Scales to Know
Lastly, feel free to leave a message in the comments below if you have more questions about this or another guitar-related topic!