FEATURE: How to sound like Metallica

The new Metallica album, Death Magnetic, is out and depending on your point of view it’s either the best thing they’ve done since the black album, or the worst thing they’ve done since St Anger. Let’s look back at some of Metallica’s classic rhythm tones and how to get them without raiding the bank.

For this era of the band’s tone, try a Marshall-style amp with a goodly amount of power valve distortion. Passive pickups and a mahogany bodied guitar will get you close (and if you’re after the higher gain Ride The Lightning tone, add an overdrive pedal with the treble reduced slightly), and don’t go overboard with reducing the midrange: in those days there was still a bit of upper midrange crunch to the tone. Of course, one of the most important things to consider is picking technique. Most of the time, James Hetfield picks with solid downstrokes (unless it’s the fast triplet stuff), and there’s an art to striking the perfect balance between pick attack, palm muting, and fretting hand phrasing.

For this tone, scoop the hell out of the midrange and run a compressor in your effect loop. James multi-tracked the rhythm guitars so if you’re really dedicated to nailing that sound but you’re only one guitarist, take this into account. Set up a stereo rig if you can, and add light chorus or a slight pitch shift detune effect. Even a very quick delay will do if that’s all you have available.

This tone is similar to Master of Puppets, but is tigher, sharper and way more compressed at the mixing desk. I’ve had good results running a BBE Stinger pedal (which is no longer made, but the Sonic Stomp is similar) in the effects loop to separate the bass and treble frequencies a little more. There’s also a bit of upper midrange bark in there (despite the scooped midrange at the amp), which was probably added at the mixing desk.

For this sound, active pickups and a chunky tone are in order, but don’t go overboard on the distortion. While there is a decent amount of gain present, if you pile on too much you’ll lose definition and power on riffs like ‘Through The Never’ and ‘Of Wolf and Man.’ There’s heaps of overdubbage on this album, so the same ‘Master of Puppets’ effect tricks apply here.

The tone on these albums is more like an evolution of the Kill ‘Em All era tone, but recorded better. The level of gain is a little reduced compared to the black album, and the midrange creeps back up. James and Kirk both played rhythm guitar on these albums, unlike most of the earlier albums where James tended to record all the rhythm guitars. Try passive pickups for some extra warmth – something more vintage-style rather than top metal guitars.

Really? Ok. High gain and lots of it. Town-tune and just kinda flail away. Save your energy for the next album.

On Death Magnetic, Justice-style compression meets black album grind, but without the hi-fi chorusing effect created by the latter’s severe multitracking. Once again the gain isn’t as high as it might initially sound, because those notes really need punch and power. The treble is reduced a little bit to more Load-like levels and the midrange sits somewhere around 9 o’clock on the dial. Like the first 5 albums, this one depends a lot on pick attack, so if your technique isn’t up to scratch, it might pay to run some picking drills because no matter how close the tone is, you won’t sound like Metallica unless you play like Metallica.

Photo: Ross Halfin