In this article I’m going to show you how to nail down optimal metal amp settings.
And while we might not have the same gear, think of this as a template or jumping off point to give you something to work with.
Switch between amp settings easier
These are some of the devices we recommend for amp switching and moving between settings. If it's helpful to you, you can buy through our Sweetwater links at no extra cost, which helps support us. If not, no worries. Enjoy the article.
Voodoo Lab MIDI Amp Channel Switcher
MXR A/B Box
Whirlwind A/B Selector
Boss FS-6 Dual Footswitch
Boss FS-6 Dual Footswitch
Boss LS-2 Line Selector
I’m assuming you’re working with a mid-range amp and guitar with a decent distortion source.
Additionally, here are a few other best practices:
- Humbuckers work better than rails or single coils
- Thicker string gauge is helpful (.049 or higher)
- Heavier picks work better than light or medium
- The neck pickup is your best friend
Thicken up the strings and picks, then make sure you’ve got your pickup selector in the middle or neck position.
I’ve found that the middle position (assuming a three-way selector) is the best spot.
With your guitar and gear set, we can start getting into the numbers.
Metal Amp Settings by the Numbers
The optimal metal amp settings need to accomplish three basic things.
After these three things are accounted for the rest of tone-shaping becomes largely a matter of preference.
Low-end means that we have a little extra bass and thickness in the EQ. Metal guitar is characterized by a low, kind of “booming” sound that you get from lower power chords and thicker strings.
Dialing in extra bass highlights that aspect of your tone.
Sustain is how long your signal rings out audibly after the strings have been hit. It’s typically a symptom of heavier distortion or higher gain levels.
Saturation simply refers to the amount of gain or distortion that’s present in your signal.
Any good metal tone will have a heavy amount of saturation, which is dialed in by a pedal’s distortion level or a gain source coming directly from the amplifier.
If you have all three of these qualities, you’ve got a good metal tone.
Should I use my amp or a pedal as a distortion source?
Typically, your saturation will come from a distortion pedal.
The alternative is your amplifier, the feasibility of which will depend on the amp and style of the onboard gain.
Most amps have an onboard gain source but, don’t necessarily sound heavy or saturated enough for metal.
Take the Fender Deluxe combo amp for example:
I owned one for years and loved it.
However, the dirty channel (gain) sounds more like classic rock or light blues than anything else.
Not exactly “metal.”
Typically the more expensive amplifiers are better-suited to act as their own distortion source.
A few good examples:
These amps are similar to what the pros use and are some of the best distortion sources money can buy.
The problem when you go down to some of the cheaper combo amps is that the gain isn’t nearly as metal-friendly.
You’ll need to test this out yourself to see if your amp meets the saturation requirement.
If it sounds too weak or just bluesy, you might need to go with a pedal-based distortion instead.
In my case, the Line 6 Spider IV had a decent gain setting built in, which I found to be every bit as good (maybe better) than the Boss MD-2 distortion which served as my pedal option.
So it’ll just depend on what you have available.
Whether it’s an amp or a pedal, keep the gain high.
Pedal Numbers and Suggestions
If you go the pedal route, you don’t have to spend big.
I’d recommend something from the Boss lineup.
Any in this list would work:
All of these pedals have a two or three-band EQ along with some form of gain-boosting functionality built in.
For example, the ST-2 has a Drive knob that can go between “Crunch” and “Ultra.” The closer to “Ultra” you get, the more distortion will be added to your tone.
For your EQ, you’ll want to lean heavily on the lows or bass knob while keeping midrange a bit lower.
Something in this neighborhood could work:
In this case the “Drive” knob is listed as “Dist” but means the exact same thing. It’s your gain control.
Your level knob controls the master output of the pedal.
If you want to see what I did, here’s a shot of my MD-2 with what I found to give me the best metal EQ:
You can model your EQ on whatever pedal you have after these settings.
I only have the gain knob at five because this pedal is pretty aggressive and didn’t need a lot of extra push.
Note the BOTTOM dial is set at nearly 80%, giving me that extra low-end thickness.
Let’s move onto our amp’s EQ
Metal Amp Settings
To get that low-end sustain from your amp you need to focus on keeping the output and bass fairly high.
If you have a presence knob, keep that down since it boosts the higher ends of your signal.
For my amp I kept the mid and treble knobs south of 50%, while leaving the bass a little higher around 80% or so.
This setting worked great for covering songs by Disturbed, Tool or Korn.
It was just a the quintessential modern rock tone.
You can hear it on my cover of Korn's “Thoughtless:”
The guitar track is primarily the rhythm portion, played by James Shaffer on the album.
In this video I was using the amplifier’s distortion and not the MD-2.
So it’s not an exact science and will always depend on your gear. However, it is a template that you can use to get started.
Gain: 10 (or 0 if you’re using a pedal) / Bass: 8 / Mids: 4 / Treble: 4 / Presence: 0 / Reverb: 0
A Broad Overview
We’ve covered a lot of moving pieces so I want to put it all together in one spot.
From your guitar picks all the way to your amplifier, here’s what you’ll need to dial in proper metal amp settings
- Heavy picks
- Thicker strings
- Pickup selector in the middle position
- Humbuckers instead of rails or single coils
- High gain and low-end EQ for pedal (if not using amp for distortion)
- High gain and low-end EQ for amp (if not using pedal for distortion)
There might be some tweaking and adjusting that you need to do but, this covers all the basics and should get you close to the sound you’re looking for.
If it doesn’t there could be other issues in play.
What if it still doesn’t sound like metal?
One of the simplest problems guitarists run into when trying to craft a certain tone is that their gear just doesn’t meet a high enough quality standard.
Particularly when it comes to amplifiers, cheaping-out makes it really difficult to get the kind of sounds you want.
Cheaper gear just doesn’t do the job.
If you’ve gone through the list in this article and things still don’t sound right, it might be time to consider investing in a new amp.
Not that you have to sink $4000 into a Diezel amp, but there are plenty of decent combo amps out there that will give you a good baseline of tone to start with.
From there you can add pedals if needed.
What metal amp settings do you use?
Have questions or thoughts about the article?
Get in touch via the comments section and let me know about it.
what other amp, comes close to a boogie amp?
If you’re looking for something more affordable, I’d recommend Blackstar.
FlaKO Bruto says
U have a very “bassy”and mud tone, not useful to rec or jam. My settings: gain at 7-8, bass at 4-5, mids at 8-9, highs at 9-10. Presence at full. A pedal in front of the amp to boost mids an attenuate lows and highs (tubescreamer style or EQ). Must have a tube amp and a 2 x 12 or 4 x 12 cab to have a good metal tone.
27 years in a grind death band.
Hey Flako – thanks for chiming in.
John G says
I take it this guy doesn’t do much in recording guitars in a mix or live with a band. Settings like that work well if what you are doing is playing in your bedroom and uploading to You Tube, but in a live band mix, or recording mix, you’d be left with a muddy mess that the recording/sound engineer would have to EQ out the muddy noise so your guitar can be heard in the mix.
Why would it be a muddy mess? Too much bass? I think it depends on the setup.
I used a king v with Duncan JBs at both spots, the neck pup was inverted(south up)… plenty of output and slightly out of phase for “cow tone” as Ozzy calls it…straight into an Ampeg VH-140C and a 4/12 cab w/vintage 30s…bass and gain dimed out, mids around be 6-6.5, highs just under 5…the only way to get a more metal sound in mid 90s was an armed robbery and a trip to a mesa boogie dealer, what I had blew several mark IVs off stage volume wise and I didn’t have to worry about pissy little tubes and ALL thier annoying quirks…in studio mesa won, but up and down the road night after night Ampeg mopped the floor with em…then some jackass handed me an MT-2 and we’ll hell, nothing’s gonna out gain that. Great pedal if you put in the time to learn the eq and run it as a floor mounted preamp, though you can run in front as well if your amp is good with pedals (read as not a tube amp). Tubers def need to run thru the loop….everybody is spoiled rotten these days, high gain is as common as loose women. Everywhere, cheap and easy…and wanna hate on the gear that inspired what they take for granted…maybe if they learned a bit about how it was made they’d appreciate the tones they get by pressing a button on thier modelers….ps…that’s still somebody else’s sound your playing, doesn’t matter if you tweak the parameters or not. And there’s nothing more satisfying than coming up with YOUR sound, trust…yeah, too much effort, right? Lol, wouldn’t trade it for all the money and time I invested poorly over the years, it’s worth every cent.
Bobby Kittleberger says
Interesting take on the Ampeq. I’ve gotten some good tones out of them but haven’t played with them enough to really know what they can do. In my mind, amp-generated gain is always going to be owned by Mesa Boogie. Their “Recording” preamp is my weapon of choice, and if not that, then the AmpTweaker Tight Metal JR pedal is great floor alternative.
Can’t argue about boogie, I’ve been in lust with the tri-axis/simul 2:90 set up since the mid nineties… Not over it yet. The Ampeg is a great amp, it’s got cleans that rival the Roland 120 and a chorus that really should be in a stomp box. Somebody actually did pot the preamp in a stomp this year, pricey too. I guess it’s the semi parametric mids eq that makes it behave the way it does. It’s kind of a one trick pony on the dirt side but it’s very adept at it.
This is a beginners way to dial in a metal tone. You need way less bass, and more mids, and bit more treble too. Your guitar is gonna “fight” against bass with these settings, and gonna lose too, because guitar isn’t a bass. You need tight attack middle with lots of gain.
Bobby Kittleberger says
I think it depends on the amp. If it’s too muddy then you would cut the lows back, but I like a heavier guitar sound. I want that low-end punch.
Feel free to submit some numbers.
It handled it very well thanks. The JBs in a king v are kind of heavy on the mids, and the ol made in England V30s throw some super tight bass. Another guy who’s basically a bass God wound up putting 2×12 V30s in his rig after playing thru my amp one weekend. As to my bass levels, with the mids as pronounced as they were, and considering our bass player was better left to “resonate” at the time(great guy, right attitude and worked like hell on every aspect, just green) we had a gap in the punched up bass department and I was filling it. Never had a complaint from a sound guy outside of being too loud if the master got over the 2 mark. My fav in the area was really good about communicating with anybody that would listen and he liked the mix, it worked with what was happening. Last I heard he was touring with Iron Maiden for about 3 years and counting so I’ll call him qualified. And for the record I don’t dial in sounds with my eyes. I literally have my back turned and Mike(bass player) will adjust according to hand signals till it’s right. If I used my eyes the settings are a lot closer to what’s been drilled into my head for decades, so it looks good but sounds bad. Forcing my eyes out of it works a lot better. Our predispositions from our subconscious mind can do really strange things and are responsible for about 90% of all we do. And that’s the case even if we’re aware of it. Had to force that into submission to get what I wanted… It worked.
But the guitars primary frequency is mostly mid range. Why would you want to cut that, you will lose your overall precence in the mix (live) Might be able to get away with it in a rexording.
Personally not in the slightest bit close to how I would dial in a metal tone.
Bobby Kittleberger says
I don’t entirely cut it, but I would also argue that modern metal focuses more on lower frequencies and less on middle ones. Depends on the guitar, depends on the player.
Yeah, that’s part of what makes modern metal rather soulless and boring. I think a sound such as that on Iron Maiden’s The Number Of The Beast album, Dio’s Holy Diver or even Metallica’s Master Of Puppets is ideal for metal. I’d guess that to be something like a _ -_-_ pattern on the equaliser.
I wouldn’t say that it’s soulless and boring. But I will say, the nu-metal distortion tone (Limp Bizkit, Korn, etc.) was dramatically different then higher gain sounds from any time before it. I like the smoother, bass-heavy distortions. Just a matter of preference.