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.
First, we’ll take a look at the gear I used to dial everything in:
Gear I Used in This Article
- Line 6 Spider IV 150-Watt Amp
- Boss MD-2 Mega Distortion
- Seymour Duncan Pickups
- Positive Grid JamUp App
- Guitar Tricks Membership (reference tool)
Applying a Metal Tone
Want to put your new metal amp settings to work?
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If you want to know more about the full membership, you can checkout my Guitar Tricks review for all the gritty details.
Otherwise, enjoy the free song help.
Rolling with the heavy metal parking lot | Flickr Image via Chris Piascik
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 trusted friend
So 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.
Always heavy metal | Flickr Image via Steve Leggat
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:
The Fender Deluxe combo amp controls with a drive knob and channel selector | View Larger Image
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.
Front of the Diezel VH4 with four channels and onboard gain controls | View Larger Image
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:
My Boss MD-2 distortion pedal | View Larger Image
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 pushed the mid and treble knobs south of 50%, while leaving the bass a little higher around 80% or so.
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 ptrings
- 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 the Diezel VH4 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?
Could you use more gear help?
Producing “great tone” is a worthy pursuit, but not always an obvious one.
We all own a unique collection of gear that seems to sound different all the time. That’s normal, but still something we need to learn to deal with.
We need to learn our gear.
If you want to access some resources that will help dealing with a specific tonal pursuit, piece of gear or other questions related to your rig, I’d recommend giving Guitar Tricks 14-day free trial a test run - there’s no obligations and you’ve got nothing to lose - except two free weeks of one of the most comprehensive and thorough guitar education websites in existence.
You’ll learn a lot and get access to a number of other resources that all guitarists can benefit from.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kyle Gaddo