If you want to create a heavy metal sound, you need a heavy metal guitar amp setting!
No matter if you have a huge tube high gain amplifier, or a tiny portable one watt amp, you can play with the amp settings to create all sort of sounds. Heavy metal sound is nothing different. Throughout the late 70`s, 80`s and beyond, guitarists found the way to make their amplifiers scream while soloing and roar while playing fat loud riffs and huge walls of sound.
Gain, Overdrive and Distortion
A very obvious feature of a heavy metal settings is a lot of gain on an amp. Gain is a boost of your signal (from your guitar). Almost every amplifier will have a gain knob, and for this particular sound, you want to turn it up a lot. You don`t have to turn it all the way up, though, unless you are trying to create a death metal sound or a grind core sound, but that is a different kind of beast. Bringing it up to 7, or 8 will be just enough to have a lot of juice and the sound will be full and screaming, but without too much noise – just the way we want it.
Rarely, but still sometimes, some amplifiers will not have a gain knob, but only a volume knob (often they will have both). If that is the case, there is only one option you can do (without buying a different amp or using pedals) – crank the volume all the way up to 10…and ignore the police at the door :). Amplifiers like this were usually built with a clean sound in mind, so they are not a really good choice for hard n heavy riffin`.
Sometimes (not so often), an amp will have an overdrive knob. In the past, when musicians talked about overdrive, what they were thinking about was the warm, smooth sound that came out when they cranked their amp`s gain or volume all the way up. It is not a harsh sound such as the distortion produces, so it is not as suitable for our needs as the distortion. Still, if your amp has a overdrive knob, you want to crank it all the way up. One thing that is really cool is that overdrive goes really well WITH distortion. Together, they create an awesome, full, fat wall of sound so famous for many roaring riffs and blazing solos. Just don`t crank both the overdrive and distortion all the way up at once.
Very often the amp will not have an overdrive knob, but a distortion knob. This one is pretty essential for the creation of the heavy metal settings. Distortion creates much more compressed and harsh sound, which is in short – bloody awesome! With the help of distortion, our weak little guitar signal gets “distorted” and comes out screaming and raging. If you want to get that famous heavy metal sound, you want to put the distortion way up…about to 7 or 8. Above that might get you a lot of unwanted noise.
Basic EQ – Scooped Mids or not?
Ok, so gain and distortion are pretty obvious – crank the gain up, crank the distortion up and you are ready for heavy metal. Pretty clear. With equalization it is not as clear, and this is much more about personal preference.
When talking about EQ, or equalization, we are almost always talking about 3-way EQ – Bass, Midrange and Treble. Each of these knobs will manipulate it`s own specter of frequencies and turning any one of them up and down will have a significant impact on how we perceive the sound. Bass obviously controls low frequencies, Mid-range the middle ones and the Treble high ones.
If you want to experiment yourself with the sounds and EQ, a great thing to do is to put all three knobs to 5 (a middle ground between 1 and 10), and than play with only one of them at a time – turn bass a little bit down, then a little bit more etc. and notice how just the little turns effect the sound pretty much.
One of the effects that is VERY common in the “modern age” of heavy metal is “SCOOPED MIDS”. Scooped mids really mean that the Midrange knob is turned almost all the way down, and the Bass and Treble knobs are turned almost all the way up. So the settings might be like this:
“Scooped mids” will create a tight, strong sound especially great for tight riffing and heavier metal, like early Metallica sound or even bands like Death. Lowering the midrange will also clean up some frequencies which create unwanted noise and make the sound come out as “muddy”. The result will be that the sound will be more focused, cleaner and more modern. On the other hand, some people might argue that these kind of sound is too “sterile” and too cold, that it doesn`t have a character and warmth. That is, of course, a question of a personal preference and of a type of music you are playing. For example, even though almost all thrash metal players scoop their mids, the one that is famous for keeping their mids high is also one of the most famous bands of all time – Megadeth.
For heavy metal tone with a good punch, but still keeping it`s warmth and character, you might want to consider these type of settings:
These settings will sound great for riffing as well as for the solos. Damn it, especially for the solos! Solo without a midrange is really not that pleasant and it lacks the character way too much, so this settings make it sound awesome.
The bet thing you can do is take these two settings above and make them your starting point. Try to play with just one knob at a time until you get to the sweet sound you like. Remember that sound for later and keep on playing. The key here is to really listen to what YOU like. Once you get a grip on the settings that you like, you will be able to plug into any amp you have in front of you and make it sound great and sound like you.
Beyond the Amp – Pedals
To really create that awesome heavy metal sound, you need two three things – a guitar with humbuckers, a high gain tube amp with distortion and an overdrive pedal.
An overdrive pedal will make your distorted signal sound even more awesome and it will make it warmer, fatter and rich. It will help you create that awesome wall of sound and fat solos that dominate. One of the most amazing overdrive pedals out there, and one that is used so much in the past by practically every famous guitarist ever ( 🙂 ) is Ibanez Tube Screamer. This pedal is simply amazing. A great thing to do with this pedal is to set its Level knob all the way up to 10, its Overdrive knob all the way down to 0, and the Tone to the 5 (the middle ground, so it doesn`t effect your EQ).
The reason why you want to keep the overdrive at zero is that you don`t really need any more additional gain coming to the signal, since you already have your distortion. This is enough gain and more of it will sound unnatural and just too harsh.
On the other hand – you can turn the Level up to 10, since it will not really get you much louder, but it will definitely get your sound much fatter and richer and…well…simply awesome. Of course, again, you can take these settings as a starting point and then play around and see what you like and what you don`t like.
And of course – Ibanez Tube Screamer is a great pedal, but for this purpose you can use any good overdrive pedal that you can find.
So, good starting settings for the overdrive pedal are:
Finally – a Choice of Your Guitar
Some people say that there is not such thing as a “heavy metal guitar”, and I agree…to a really small degree. I agree because you could plug almost any guitar and with enough patience and a lot of playing around you could create a heavy metal sound that is “satisfying”.
But on the other hand, there is a LOT of difference between the sounds of guitars out there. If you take a guitar with single coil magnets and try to create a heavy metal sound, you might find a lot of problems. First of all, single coils produce a LOT of noise when used with high gain. If you wanted to fix this you could use a noise gate pedal, but it might make your sound unnatural and forced. Also single coils produce much thinner sound than humbuckers and even though some people like that kind of sound (such as legendary Ritchie Blackmore or Jimi Hendrix), most people agree that for a good heavy metal guitar sound, a guitar with humbuckers is more suitable.
It is simply that a nature of a humbucker is to destroy the noise. Even its name suggests it (hum bucker). That means that you can have more distortion on your amp settings and the noise will still be blocked. Also a humbucker is made out of two coils, and both of them are active at the same time, which really means that the sound is fuller and fatter, which is ultimately what makes that heavy metal sound.
Again, this is all a matter of personal preferences, but you can use my suggestions as a starting point and experiment on yourself to get that heavy metal guitar sound that you really want to.
In conclusion, a great starting point for a great heavy moetal tone is settings like this:
Gain and/or Distortion :
Modern sound (scooped mids):
Warmer, more traditional sound:
In most cases, a guitar with humbuckers.
Alternatively, for a thinner, unique “Blackmore-ish” sound – a guitar with single coils.
Thank you for reading, I hope you found this guide helpful, and if you have any questions or just want to add your opinion, feel free to comment below.