Are Stratocasters Good For Heavy Metal?

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Written By Sarah Barlow

Chief Music Officer

The Fender Stratocaster is undoubtedly an amazing electric guitar that can perfectly complement most musical genres. Metal, on the other hand, is a genre that Stratocaster is questioned to suit. This is primarily because of the bright tones they often produce and twanging clean tones excellent for playing blues, rock, and country music. 

In this article, I am going to discuss whether the Fender Stratocaster is good for playing heavy metal and what necessary adjustments and customization you should apply to enhance its sounds and make them suitable for metal music.   

Reasons The Stratocaster Isn’t The Best Instrument For Playing Metal

It is rare for a metal guitarist to utilize Stratocasters during their performance due to three factors which include:

  • Stratocasters are prone to produce humming, background noises, and feedback when using a distorted amplifier.
  • Stratocasters generally produce bright and twang tones.
  • Stratocasters feature a weak bass response making their tones sound thin.
  • Stratocasters feature a low output because of their passive single-coil pickups making them less powerful in contrast to humbuckers.

Metal music requires many distortion and bass to help you produce that thick and rich tone you need. In addition, to complement metal music you will need to produce a fairly dark and dense sound. 

One major reason why a Stratocaster is not the best for metal is due to its sound. Metal music requires dark tones which single-coil pickups and tonewood (maple or alder) featured in the Stratocasters can’t produce. Stratocasters emphasize the tone on the treble frequencies resulting in the production of sharp and crisp sounds.

Due to Stratocaster’s single-coil pickup and tonewood material, they can’t generate a highly resonant tone and don’t produce a sufficient amount of sustain. Single-coil pickups have a weak bass response while maple and alder are dense tonewoods that reduce sustain.

In attempting to generate more bass, a great alternative is to play power chords or riffs on drop tunings. The only downside of applying this using your Stratocaster is that they tend to sound weak and thin which is unsuitable with metal music. 

Additionally, you may try using single pickups to add more distortion to your amplifier in an effort to make your Stratocasters produce deep and rich tones. This approach is still not appropriate for metal music because it will eventually cause feedback and humming background noises on your Stratocaster.

Advantages Of Playing Metal Music With Stratocasters

Even though Stratocasters seem unideal and disadvantageous to use in playing metal music, it still offers some advantages, especially with regard to their playability. 

Slim Neck

The Fender Stratocaster features a slimmer neck, especially when compared to the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Telecaster. However, it isn’t slimmer than Ibanez and Jackson electric guitars that are specifically made for shredding. A slim neck is a beneficial feature that enables a guitarist to play faster, execute quick riffs, and move smoothly around the fretboard  

Contoured and Double-Cutaway Body

The weight of an electric guitar isn’t quite impactful with regards to the sustain it can generate but it is advantageous in other aspects. For instance, the lightness of the Stratocaster along with its contoured body structure makes it highly comfortable for guitarists to use either in a sitting or standing position. 

On the other hand, the Stratocasters’ double-cutaway design enables guitarists to have easier access to higher frets when playing.

With regard to metal music, playability is crucial especially since this genre requires guitarists to perform riffs and solos. This makes the Stratocaster’s quite comfortable design beneficial for playing metal music.    

Tremolo Bridges

Tremolo systems are frequently used when playing metal music which is why the majority of electric guitars designed for playing them feature a Floyd Rose Tremolo bridge.

Even though most Stratocasters don’t feature a Floyd Rose Tremolo, they still feature Fender’s standard tremolo arm which is beneficial in playing most musical genres.

How To Make Your Stratocaster Suitable For Metal Music

If you are really determined to use your Stratocaster in playing metal music, there are techniques and modifications you need to apply to minimize its humming and feedback issues and to generate thick and rich tones.

  • Utilize either the Middle or Neck Pickup
  • Increase the amplifier’s bass and mids
  • Decrease the amplifier’s treble
  • Utilize distortion pedal
  • Utilize a noise gate pedal

Pickup

The primary consideration you should incorporate whenever playing metal music using a Stratocaster is its pickup selection. The Fender Stratocaster has three (3) pickup which is located in near the bridge, neck, and middle. The placement of these pickups differs in the tones they produce and is controllable via a pickup selector. 

Pickup Selection And Tone Distinction

  • For brighter and shaper tones, you should use the Bridge Pickup as they provide more emphasis on treble frequencies than that of the bass.
  • For warmer and richer sounds, you should use the Neck pickup that offers more emphasis on bass frequencies than that of treble.

As mentioned previously, the tones produced by Fender Stratocasters are often brighter and sharper. This is the opposite of what metal music requires which is darker and heavy tones. Hence, one method you can do to make your Stratocasters tone suit metal music is to play using its middle or neck pickup. If ever you think that the neck pickup is too mellow, it is then best to switch to the middle pickup or a combination of middle and neck pickup. 

Fender Stratocaster’s 5-way Pickup Selector

  • Bridge Pickup
  • Bridge and Middle Pickup
  • Middle Pickup
  • Middle and Neck Pickup
  • Neck Pickup

The best pickup selection in playing metal music includes the middle, middle, and neck, and Neck pickups. 

Amplifier’s Equalization

The single coils of the Fender Stratocaster are designed to emphasize high frequencies, which results in subpar bass and mid-range performance. They consequently create brighter but thinner tones, the exact opposite of what is required for metal music. However, you can resolve this problem by changing the settings on your amplifier.

You should check first whether your amplifier is equipped with a bass, mid, and treble adjustment knob. If it does, you must increase your amplifier’s bass and mid and decrease its treble. 

It is essential to adjust them little by little and listen to every slight adjustment you make to ensure that you get the right combination. If you increase your bass and mid too much, you will generate a boomy tone which is not what you’d want. 

On the other hand, if your amplifier doesn’t come equipped with individual adjustment knobs, you should look for its tone or equalization adjustment knobs. Once you find it, adjust it clockwise to decrease its treble and increase its bass. 

In addition, if your amplifier also has a presence knob and contour controls, you should also adjust them. Presence functions as a treble in which you must slightly decrease to lessen the sharpness and brightness of the tones you generate. Contrarily, the contour control functions as your amplifier’s mids. But it works in reverse, meaning, if you decrease your amplifier’s contour, it increases its mid.             

Distortion Pedal

Having a distortion pedal may help if you are having trouble raising your Stratocaster’s gain to achieve the murky, gritty tone that metal music demands. 

Guitarists can easily regulate additional gain with the help of a distortion pedal. Furthermore, great precision guarantees that every tone you produce is loud and clear, making them perfect for playing metal music.

Noise Gate Pedal

One problem that makes Stratocasters unideal for playing metal music is the feedback and humming it produces when you increase the gain of your amplifier. 

However, with the use of a noise gate pedal, you will be able to eliminate all unwanted humming and buzzing feedback in your signal before it reaches your amplifier. By doing so, you eradicate any unnecessary background noises and feedback.  

Customizing Your Stratocaster for Playing Metal Music

If you are really determined in playing metal music using a Fender Stratocaster, one of the best courses of action you should do is to customize it. 

In order to make them suitable for metal music, replacing its single-coil pickup with a humbucker, especially in the bridge position can surely help your Stratocaster generate that thick and rich sounds necessary in playing metal. 

Why Is Humbucker More Suitable For Metal Music?

It is said that any electric guitar can effortlessly play metal music if it features a humbucker in its bridge position. This is because humbuckers are specifically designed to have a coil along with its coil and magnet direction that produces a noise control effect that removes humming in your signal making your sounds ideal for higher gain.

Why Humbuckers Are Better For Metal Than Single-Coils  

  • Humming and buzzing cancellation
  • Lesser feedback
  • Thickens and darkens the tone you produce
  • Adds bass to your tones
  • High output
  • Eliminates twang and high-end treble
  • Better handling for high distortion and saturated tones

These are the main reasons why it is unusual for metal guitarists to use Stratocaster during their performances. Two preferred types of Humbuckers for metal include active and passive. They both help thicken the tones you generate, excellently handle high distortion, eliminate humming effects, and are very complementary for metal tones when combined with tones that have high distortion and saturation. 

Lastly, Humbuckers produce a darker sound needed in playing metal music than the Stratocaster’s single-coils which typically generate bright and warm tones.

Which Humbucker Is Better For Playing Metal Music?

Pickup selection highly impacts the sounds you generate and how they complement the genre you intend to play. So which type of Humbucker is better for playing metal music? Active or Passive?

Active Humbucker

Unquestionably, active pickups—particularly electron-magnetic generators—are favored over passive pickups when playing metal music. The 81 bridge and 85 neck combo are strongly recommended for high output resulting in an ideal gain for saturation distortion.

Active humbuckers, when combined with notes having high gain saturation offer the best string definition and prevent any out-of-tune tones. In addition, this humbucker is considered the most noiseless pickup with regards to humming and feedback making them highly sought after by metal and rock guitarists.

The only main drawback of humbuckers is their power source which requires a 9-volt battery and a powered pre-amplifier in order to function. They also eliminate the dynamic and clarity of the sounds they produce, making them a bad choice when trying to generate clear and bright tones because of their sterile sound.  

Overall, if your main priority is a high gain distortion which is essential in metal music, and you care less about clear tones, then choosing an active humbucker pickup is best for you.

Passive Humbuckers

A passive humbucker pickup’s main advantage over an active humbucker is its versatility which enables guitarists to access many dynamic ranges. This pickup’s frequency range has the capability to perform numerous musical genres including metal. 

Their only main downside is that they don’t have the clarity and definition possessed by active humbuckers concerning high gain distortion. However, what they lack in that department is what they make up for in terms of their versatility. In addition, passive humbuckers don’t require a 9-volt battery to function, unlike active humbuckers.

Overall, passive humbuckers are perfect for almost every musical genre especially those that require lighter tones like country, jazz, and blues but may also complement heavy-toned genres such as rock and metal. 

Successful Metal Guitarists Who’ve Used Stratocasters

  • Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden)
  • Dave Murray (Iron Maiden)
  • Glenn Tipton (Judas Priest)
  • Kenneth Keith Downing Jr. (Judas Priest)
  • Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
  • Yngwie Malmsteen (Alcatrazz, Steeler, and Soloist)
  • Jim Root (Slipknot)

Key Takeaway

Fender Stratocasters in their stock form are unideal for playing heavy metal and heavy-toned genres. They are renowned for producing bright and thin tones and excel in complementing country, jazz, and blues. 

However, this does not necessarily imply that it can’t be played for heavy metal. One of the biggest advantages Stratocasters offers guitarists is their customizability and versatility. 

If you really intend to use a Stratocaster in playing heavy metal genres, then replacing its stock single-coils with a humbucker pickup in the bridge and neck position is highly recommended. 

There are also methods to get the thick, deep, and rich tones in your Stratocaster that are necessary for playing metal music. This includes using a noise gate pedal, a distortion pedal, and adjustment in the equalization of your amplifier.