Let’s have a look at a trio different styles of metal, and how the music influences the general setup.
CLASSIC METAL Chances are, if you’re playing less distortion-drenched heavy rock, or metal with a bit of a 70s twist, the sound you’re hearing in your head is a Gibson Les Paul and Marshall stack. This kind of rig can be assembled on a budget, but if you spend big money you’ll probably feel better about yourself, and bragging rights are fun.
For this kind of tone, it’s more about the impact of the note than the level of distortion. Try keeping the gain at moderate levels rather than boosting the hell out of it, and maybe jack your guitar strings up a few millimetres. This will add bottom end to the tone and allow you to really dig in. All that extra wallop will make for a crushing, crunchy, natural metal tone. It’s important to let the sound breathe, as this type of music has a lot more open space than later, ‘chuggachugga’ metal, so don’t go overboard on the preamp or pedal distortion. Some is good, a lot is too much. Crank your amp to get that punch and grind.
THRASH Good old thrash. Oh that it were 1987 again. The main feature of this sound is that scooped mid, tightly compressed tone perfected on Metallica’s Master of Puppets album. To get this sound, try an EMG active pickup (the ‘81’ model is a good place to start), run it into an amp with the midrange turned down, and try using higher wattage speakers which won’t distort easily – let the distortion come from the amp and/or pedals rather than the speakers so you can maintain the bass frequencies so important to this sound. To get the perfect level of distortion, start with turning your gain all the way up, start chugging out on the open E string, and slowly dial the gain back until you find the sweet spot where there’s still a good amount of edge, but that fizzy sizzle between notes disappears. Also, try running rackmounted compressor and BBE Sonic Maximizer units in the amp’s effects loop to get that superior chug.
The technique is just as important as the gear for a classic thrash sound, so don’t be shy to pile on the palm muting, and pepper your playing with lots of little grace notes, slides, percussive chugs, and other fun and demonic stuff like that.
DIMEBAG The late great Dime deserves a section all by himself. His distinctive tone was the end result of a whole bunch of elements but aspects of his sound can be achieved with relative ease and a handful of bucks.
Dime favoured Bill Lawrence pickups early in his career before moving on to Seymour Duncan, with whom he designed the Dimebucker pickup. If you don’t have access to either of these, any high output pickup will do, or you can try to cheat and raise your pickup as close to the strings as you can without it getting in the way of the string’s vibration.
True Dime tone can only be achieved by scooping the heck out of the midrange. The best way to do this is with a graphic EQ in the effects loop, set for a harsh “V” curve. Next, run the EQ into a noise gate to tighten up those power metal stop-start rhythms. Again, high efficiency speakers will help transfer more of that glorious low end. Dime always had his tech turn off the noise gate when he played a solo, so keep that in mind so you don’t end up chopping off the sustain of longer notes while you’re wailing away.
Prog’s basic tone is similar to thrash, but with more midrange and, typically, passive humbuckers. You’ll need a slightly warmer sound that is able to work with notes all over the fretboard because you’ll probably be playing long single note lines that take you from the low strings to the high ones within a microsecond or two. Also look for a sound that has good note definition within chords – you’ll need it once you start stacking those 9ths and 11ths on top of your 7ths.
The hardcore sound also has some similarities with the thrash tones of yore: very high output pickups, and oodles of amp distortion with a minimum of speaker breakup. The Peavey 6505 is a very popular hardcore amp, but other models by Rivera, Hughes & Kettner, EVH and Mesa Boogie seem pretty popular too. Aim for an aggressive tone with lots of upper midrange, perhaps emphasised by a Tube Screamer or similar overdrive pedal. You need to strike a balance between up-front note impact (after all, you’ll be picking some pretty damn precise riffage at high speed) and a full, bass-heavy body. This is one instance where you really have to get to know your rig and how it reacts to various picking strengths.
While its origins are with bands like Meshuggah, the current hero of Djent is Misha ‘Bulb’ Mansoor of Periphery. The term itself is an onomatopoeic representation of what it sounds like: a heavily distorted electric guitar (often downtuned or extended range) rocking a heavily palm-muted octave power chord. Djent Djent Djent. There’s a whole online community dedicated to the perfect djent, so there’s plenty of info out there on how to achieve it. You’ll need to cut the bass below 200Hk, boost 800hz for the body of the note, and goose 1.6Khz to really bring out the pick attack. Again the sound is helped along on its way with a Tube Screamer type overdrive, but make sure you’re using a pretty tight noise gate to cut out any non-djent artifacts.
This article is an expanded version of a column for beginning metalheads which originally ran in Mixdown magazine.