In this article, we’ll help you to understand how to apply and use the best amp setting for metal.
In short, it’s actually not so simple to determine what the “best” setting for metal would be, since it’s a very personal and subjective matter.
But to achieve a decent metal tone, we recommend you to use a guitar with humbucker pick-ups and a fresh set of strings. If your amp has volume control, decrease it and turn the gain all the way up. Set your bass knob at 2 o’clock, slightly decrease the mids and put your treble somewhere around 2-3 o’clock, and use it as a starting point. And if you’re using a tube amp, remember to always warm it up before playing.
With that being said, let’s dig a little deeper.
Where to start
As you probably already know, the great metal tone starts way before dialing the amp. As a matter of fact, a great sound is always a combination of different correlated factors and just one weak link can easily ruin all of your efforts. For logistical reasons, we won’t bore you with the importance of using high-quality patch cords and a true bypass on guitar stompbox pedals. Instead, for the sake of briefness, we will stick to a very old-school idea of a guitar sound, which means using only a guitar connected straight to the amp head without any additional gear.
Despite that this is a reliable and fairly simple setup, there are still a lot of things that could easily go wrong. If you’re not satisfied with your sound, the most obvious thing to check would be your guitar since there’re only two major components involved in the production of sound. And the other one, of course, would be your amp.
It might be very obvious and unnecessary advice, but you’ve got to have a proper guitar in order to achieve a good sound. It doesn’t have to be fancy or even expensive, just suitable for the occasion. And since we’re talking about metal tone exclusively, unfortunately enough, guitars with single-coil pickups wouldn’t do you much good. And since we’re talking about high levels of gain, we should consider that most of the single-coil pickups produce a lot of hum. So the obvious choice for great metal sound would, of course, be humbuckers since they have considerably less noise, if any and a thicker sound, in general.
The other thing you should consider is making sure that you’re using a fresh set of strings. Strings that you have been using for quite some time tend to sound muddier, which would drastically affect your overall tone. So try to make a habit of changing your strings often, especially if you do a lot of recordings. Also, if you’re not completely happy with your sound, try to change the gauge of your strings. Thicker strings result in meatier sound, but it might take you quite some time to get used to the new gauge.
What amp to choose
You should know that there’s no such thing as just one universally acclaimed metal amp. Different people have different tastes and artistic visions, so telling you what exact amp to use would be completely impossible. What we could do instead is to recommend you some of the best options available on the market today, but the choice is only yours. Regardless of what amp you would choose, you should consider that more old-school players prefer tube amplifiers for obvious reasons, and younger, more modern guitarists tend to use digital emulation simply for convenience and versatility. But usually, all of those options have the same universal set of controls in common, which we’re going to talk about next.
Best amp settings for metal
Most of the amps you can get your hands on will have gain controls and some sort of EQ module. Regardless of any additional controls, they might have, those are the ones that affect the sound the most when it comes to metal. Vintage amplifiers more often than not have only one channel and modern amplifiers usually have more than that. Although the clean tone is also very important, in this article, we will focus only on the overdriven sound.
And we have to remember that we’re merely giving you some recommendations that you may consider using as a starting point. The guitar sound is a very individual and specific thing and as with any artistic endeavor finding your own voice is the hardest part. So consider our advice but also do your own research and figure out what settings your favorite metal bands use and see how it might help you.
Regardless of the amp and what EQ module it implements, it will always have some sort of low-frequency control, usually, it is marked “Bass” for convenience. Turning it clockwise will increase the low-frequency content of your sound and counterclockwise movement will obviously decrease it. When it comes to metal, it’s safe to assume that you want your guitar to sound as beefy as possible. So increasing low-frequencies would be the logical step. But, of course, turning it all the way up, or clockwise, to be more precise, would result in a very messy sound and unhealthy working environment inside of your band.
So, unless you want your bandmates to be extremely displeased with you, put your bass control knob somewhere around 2 o’clock and start from there. If your amp has numerical markings around the knobs, put it on 8 and decrease it if necessary. Going higher than that wouldn’t be a very wise choice.
After you’re satisfied with your low frequencies, the next step would be to adjust middle frequencies and for that, most amplifiers have a knob called “Mids”. It usually has the same clock-based movement principle, but if you’re using a Marshall amplifier, you should know that some models, especially vintage ones, take a slightly different approach. Some Marshals have a “Contour” knob which also controls middle frequencies but for some odd reason in reverse, so on Marshalls moving the “Contour” knob clockwise will actually decrease middle frequencies, and to increase it, you have to move it counterclockwise.
Regardless of the amp, mids are a sensitive subject since there’s no universal consensus of how to set it. Some metal bands tend to scoop out their mids a lot, but others leave it as is. Nevertheless, you may try to start with your mids at 12 o’clock and decrease it if you feel like your guitar still sounds a bit muddy.
As you have probably already guessed “Treble” knob controls the high-frequency content of your guitar sound and this setting will very much depend on the timbre of your actual guitar. If it has a generally bright sound, too much treble will probably do you no good. But if it sounds a bit darker, you may consider a slightly bolder approach to setting the treble knob. A good place to start is somewhere around 2-3 o’clock and figure it out from there.
Remember that, as with the bass knob, it’s very easy to overstep other instruments in the band, especially vocals and cymbals. So unless you want to be fired from the band immediately, pulling it all the way up is not the wisest idea. And, of course, if your amp has numerical markings, the equivalent of 2 o’clock would be 7, which generally is considered to be a sweet spot when it comes to metal sound.
Since we’re talking about metal, the “Gain” knob should be considered the most important one since it controls the amount of distortion you would have. Modern amps have separate volume and gain controls which makes it very easy to dial in extremely beefy sound without obliterating your eardrums. So remember, if your amp has those two separate controls, the more you increase gain, the lower volume should be, especially on rehearsals.
When it comes to metal, there’s no doubt that it has to be all the way up or on 10, to be more precise. Although there isn’t much noticeable difference between 10 and 9, some players leave it at 9 for some weird reasons. If you’re using a vintage amplifier that has only one channel, you can still achieve a somewhat clean sound if you need it. When the gain knob on the amp is all the way up, the volume knob on your guitar actually functions as a gain control itself. So turning the volume down will decrease the amount of distortion coming from your amp.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a successful metal banger without a thick and bitey guitar tone. Although guitar timber is very individual and, more often than not, is signature to the artist, with great certainty, we can say that when it comes to metal, we all start on the same common ground. Of course, we encourage you to experiment as much as possible and find something that you could call “your own sound.”