How to Get a Great Metal Tone on Your Guitar

We've all been mesmerized by the gnarly roars of Kerry King's Dean and Mustaine's Flying V, hoping to someday sound like our heroes. Now, every seasoned musician will tell you that the search for the right tone is perpetual, especially in the world of metal.

Even though it will probably take you years to try out different guitars and amps before you find your unique tone, we'll be able to help you get a great metal tone on your current guitar with simple tips and tricks, so let's get straight to it.

1. Understand your guitar's controls

Beginners are often oblivious of their guitar's control knobs, focusing more on how to learn their favorite licks, trying to play as fast as possible, and generally exploring everything but the knobs.

The truth is that these controls affect your tone more than any other piece of guitar, but not in a distinctly obvious way. Namely, the guitar's control knobs affect the spread of the frequencies, the volume, and how pickups react.

You could achieve similar effects by adjusting the controls on your amp and pedals, but getting familiar with your guitar's built-in settings is fundamentally important for finding a great metal tone. Some of the most typical control settings are volume, tone, and pickup selectors.

The volume knob affects the output of your pickups, making your tone louder or quieter; the tone affects your guitar's responsiveness to different ranges of frequencies. Some guitars have one, some have several; multiple knobs allow you more flexibility in terms of fine-tuning the frequencies you want to accentuate or 'deflate'.

2. Controlling your picking

There's a reason why musicians outside of the metal world struggle with this style of music. Metal is supposed to be played differently, and it involves a huge array of unique techniques. Palm-muting, slides and most importantly attack play a key role in how your tone will ultimately sound.

Practicing those techniques will afford you more consistency, and you will notice that regardless of what amp, pedal or guitar you are using your tone will sound a bit more metal every time.

3. Taming your gain

Distortion is the go-to effect every metal guitar player relies on, but not many people understand how to utilize it properly. Even when you are not using any pedal and are playing through a clean channel on your amp you are still using just a hint of gain, and understanding how to control will completely change your tone for the better.

Now, beginner metalhead guitarists believe that you can never have enough gain, so they crank up their pedals, guitar knobs, and amps up to 13 whenever possible. While pumping up the gain will certainly make your guitar growl like a caged beast, there are hundreds of drawbacks to this approach.

Excessive use of gain will make your tone muddy, in certain situations beyond recognition, leaving you with a sonic mess that hardly any compressor or EQ can sort out. Balance your guitar's sound signature with pedals and amps by adding just about enough gain, but don't overdo it.

4. Change your strings often

This may sound like a piece of basic advice, but the one thing that most guitarists tend to forget is that old strings sound bad, no matter how great and expensive they were when you first bought them. A good rule of thumb is to update your strings every three months; gigging musicians change them a week before their show while recording musicians switch strings before every session.

That aside, consider the possibility that you may be using strings that are not particularly well-suited for metal music. Thicker strings sound heavier by default, so you may want to start using them if you haven't already.

5. Use the right pedals

There's a fixed number of options you'll have in finding the right metal tone on your guitar without spicing it up with external factors. Obviously enough, purchasing a better amp would cost hundreds of dollars, so updating your pedalboard is easily a better, cheaper alternative.

Pedals can completely shift your tone, but they'll also respond to any changes made to your pedal chain. Finding the right combination of pedals is a huge step towards achieving a massive, distinctive tone.

While a solid distortion will lay the bare bones of your 'new' tone, having an equalizer and a compressor to provide more definition will significantly help. Noise gate effect pedals are meant to help you control the background noise (feedback buzz), so investing a couple of bucks in these should also help find a great tone.

6. Get a better cable

Believe it or not, guitar cables do affect your guitar's tone. More precisely speaking, the length of the cable directly affects your guitar's tone. Without getting too deep into the technical details, all you need to know is that shorter cables offer less capacitance, which means that they make your tone clearer, and vice versa. That's why ultra-short cables are used to connect pedals in the pedalboard.

Longer cables will make the tone sound muddy, but not necessarily heavy. Better guitar cables are essentially numerous smaller cables stuck together, which means that they will be able to provide you with a clean sound regardless of their length. Switching to a better cable is one of the least expensive ways to refine your guitar's tone, if at least by a tiny bit.

7. Practice

Our final advice is straightforward and obvious, but ultimately the best advice any professional could give you. Through practice, you will build confidence, and that is the most definite tone-setter. Being confident in your playing will subconsciously allow your muscle memory to take over, eliminating the 'over-thinking' aspect of your playing that makes you sloppy.

Practicing your guitar techniques will also refine your personal touch and make you more familiar with your guitar's capabilities and limitations; ultimately, this will help you break the borders and find the best metal tone your guitar can release.
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