How to Make Your Guitar Sound Metal

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Written By Sarah Barlow

Chief Music Officer

There are not many guitarists out there who have not tried to get a metal sound out of their electric guitar at some point in their life. Whether you are a metalhead or just a visitor to the metal world. It is a sounds you must play with at some point. It is just too much fun.

How Do I Get the Best Metal Sound?

Your ability to make your guitar sound metal will depend both on the music gear you have, and the way you configure that gear. This article will unpack both, looking at how your guitar, amplifier, and guitar effects can contribute to your ability to get a great metal sound.

Please keep in mind that there is no single ‘metal’ sound, and within the heavy metal genre there is a huge variety of different sounds used by different players and bands. This article will explore a few ways you can achieve one metal type sound and give you ideas about how to experiment and try out variations.

What Gear Do You Need to Make Your Guitar Sound Metal

At the very least you will need an electric guitar and amplifier to start playing metal. You can also consider the use of effects pedals, but these are not required.

Electric Guitar

An electric guitar will be required to make a metal sound. Though I guess you could grab an acoustic guitar with a pickup and plug it into an amp and distort it, you will be limited in what you can play and achieve soundwise.

There are special guitars you can get with an extra string (seven strings), but for the purpose of this article, I will assume you are working with a standard six-string guitar.

You could use any electric guitar to live out your metal dream but different guitars are better suited, depending on the pickups they have. Some electric guitars are equipped with single-coil pickups (Fender Stratocaster), some are fitted with double coil humbucker pickups (Gibson Les Paul), and some come with a mixture of both.

Metal sounds are typically achieved better with at least one, but usually with double coil humbucker pickups, so if metal sounds are a priority, keep this in mind when purchasing a guitar. If you already have a guitar and are not getting the sound you want, pickups may be a contributing factor.

Electric Guitar Amplifier

Most electric guitar amps have either a button you can push to engage ‘distortion’ mode, or are dual-channel amps and will have two lots of EQ settings you can switch between. As long as you know which one your is, or keep that in mind when shopping for one, you will be equipped to follow the instructions below in the ‘settings’ section.

Metal Effects Pedal/Unit

A shortcut to achieving a quality metal sound is to buy a stompbox or guitar effects processor with some Heavy Metal presets built-in. Some popular stompboxes on the market are the Boss Heavy Metal (HM-2) Pedal and Ibanez Tube Screamer. Each can be adjusted to produce a great metal sound.

Other effects may come in handy as well (e.g. compression) to help with muddiness etc that can occur with high levels of gain and distortion.

What Settings Do I Use for the Best Metal Sound?

If you have all the gear you need to create a good metal sound then the next thing to do is adjust the settings to bring that sound to life.

Metal Guitar Setup

There are a variety of things that you can do to your guitar itself before it is even plugged into an amp to maximise the quality of metal sound that you can get from it.

Pickup Selection

Your electric guitar will have a pickup selector switch that determines the pickups that are being used. Certain pickup settings will give you a better type of distortion. Typing selecting the bridge pickup (closest to the back), will give you the most definition, by trying the difference of that, compared to all pickups (especially if you are using dual humbuckers).

If you don’t know which pickups are being activated by the different switch settings, you can adjust the switch and then tap the pickups with your plectrum and the pickups that make a sound through your amp are the ones being activated by the switch.

Bridge Alterations

Some components of the guitar can have a significant impact on tone. Especially the bridge. If you are getting pretty serious about your playing then you can work with companies like who specialise in guitar components that improve tone. That is their sole focus.

How To Tune Electric Guitar for Metal

There are two main alterations to tuning that you will come across in the metal world.

Drop D – One of the most popular tunings for young metalheads involves detuning your bottom E (the thick string at the top), from E down to D. By doing this you can then place a single finger across the top three strings of your guitar and get a nice power chord. These chord types are super popular in the metal world.

Drop C – Drop C follow the same intervals as Drop D, except your whole guitar is another whole octave lower.

Getting in and out of Drop D is quite easy, but if you are going to detune a whole octave then you will want to have a decent tuner or tuner app to help you.

Best Amp Settings For Metal

Debate rages in the metal community about what amp settings give the most authentic metal setting. So no doubt the advice I give here will get some hate – but it is pretty basic, beginner level advice to get you a classic metal tone you can play with and experiment from there.

Scoop The Mids

Assuming you amp now has the ‘distortion’ mode engaged, or you have activated the channel that includes gain/distortion, the first thing we do is neutralise the bass and the treble knobs by putting them at five, or the indicator at 12 o’clock, pointing to the ceiling.

Then turn your ‘Mid’ setting right back at nearly zero.

Then turn your gain/distortion up to, or close to 10.

You can also experiment with your bass and treble being a bit higher as well (maybe an 8) to see if that makes the difference.

This ‘scoop the mids’ setting was used heavily by Metallica on a few early albums and popularised from there.

Though a lot of metal players still utilise this approach there is a very vocal subset of the metal community that is passionate about the mids and achieve their tune through quality tube amps using high volume and level of gain/distortion.

If you can afford expensive tube amps, then no doubt this provides a better quality sound. But if you are jamming in your bedroom on a 10w practise amp, scooping the mids is a great way to experiment with metal.

Should I Use an Amp or Effects Pedal to Get the Best Metal Sound

If you can’t afford high-end gear then a Heavy Metal effects pedal is a great and easy way to make your guitar sound metal. They eliminate the need for quality in your amps onboard EQ and give you the option to adjust the level of distortion as well as other EQ elements to experiment with different sounds.

Many pro-level players used pedals extensively, so it is definitely not an amateur move to incorporate them into your setup.

Other Things to Keep in Mind That Contribute To Making Your Guitar Sound Metal

When using effects, you might want to experiment with different settings on effects pedals, such as switching different guitar amps or changing guitar pickups.

There are other factors besides gear that can influence your metal sound. Things that have a big influence are how you practice your craft. (e.g. lots of practice or very little practice), what you play e.g. full band or shred solos, how you play it e.g. completely tight and tight or completely loose, and how much you are honing technique.

Bad technique with the best gear still won’t give you the perfect metal sound, so don’t forget the need to hone your craft as well as tinker with your gear.

Useful References