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How To Get Killer Heavy Metal Guitar Tone

Many beginner guitar players buy cheap distortion pedals, looking to get that certain heavy metal guitar tone that their rock heroes have.

Have you ever wondered how your rock heroes get their guitars to sound the way they do? Here are some tips that will get you closer to that elusive sound, that Killer Heavy Metal Guitar Tone.

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Your Guitar Strings

Heavy Metal Guitar Tone
  1. The tone ALWAYS starts with the strings on your guitar. They are the source of the sounds that eventually come out of your amplifier. There are several high-quality string companies that are very well known.
  2. Make sure your strings are in good shape, have the proper gauge, and are tuned to the proper pitch. Getting a great guitar tone without good-sounding strings will be difficult, if not impossible.

Your Guitar Pickups

electric guitar pickups
  1. This is the subject of much debate in the electric guitar community. In my PERSONAL opinion, the pickups of the guitar are the next most important item. However, there are many people out there who will tell you that the WOOD of the guitar is the second most important part.
  2. In my experience, I have put outstanding pickups in guitars that were made out of less-desirable wood and gotten great sounds. When I refer to pickups, I am also including with this the other electronic components that work together to make the pickups work. Items like wiring, pots, jacks, etc.

The Wood your Guitar is Made of

guitar wood
  1. The wood that a guitar is made from absolutely affects the tone. The wood that I think makes the best tone is a solid mahogany body with a mahogany neck. However, this is subject to personal taste.
  2. If you are new to guitar playing, I will point out that the combination of Mahogany body and neck is found mostly on Gibson guitars or their imitators. Some guitars have bodies made from Alder, Swamp Ash, and Bass Wood.
  3. Many guitar necks are made out of Maple. Fender guitars are a great example of this. The wood that the neck of the guitar is made from also greatly affects the tone, as the majority of the length of the string vibrates across and along and through the neck.

The Tube Amplifier

tube amplifier
  1. Let’s face it. If you care enough about the guitar tone to read this article, then you want an amplifier with tubes in it. At one time, I was spending 3-4 nights a week at live music events.
  2. My ears got so tuned into the sweet sound of overdriven power tubes that I could tell the difference within 2-3 notes between a solid-state amp and a true tube amp. In my opinion, the sweetest guitar sound comes from the power section of a tube amp being over-driven until it goes into saturation, producing what is known as “power tube distortion”.
  3. There is no pedal, no rack unit and no digital effects processor that can recreate that sound. While it may be tempting for a new guitar player to buy the $200 special at the big box music store, you will be cheating yourself out of Killer Guitar Tone.
  4. A quality tube amp will cost a bit more. The upside is that with a tube amp, you can get a small combo of around 40-50 watts that is so loud that you can’t stay in the same room with it when it is cranked to 8 and will get you evicted at that volume level. In today’s world, there is no music venue where you will need that much power.

Your Fingers

guitar fingers

A significant part of your sound actually comes from your technique and the way you touch the strings. This requires quite a bit of experimentation to get dialed in.

Pedals and Effects

guitar pedals

This is so far down on the list for a BIG reason. Pedals and effects enhance your tone. They do not create your tone. YOU CAN NOT MASK TERRIBLE TONE WITH A PILE OF EFFECTS.

I was at a concert about 2 months ago, and a decent metal band was playing. The guitar player had one of those $300 half stacks that you can pick up at the “big box” music stores all day long.

Their songs were decent enough that I was able to ignore the fact that he was playing through a solid-state amp, and his tone was terrible. And then he decided to turn on a bunch of effects.

He basically buried what little tone he had under a huge pile of BS. The sound became so confusing and diluted that the subtleties of his playing (which was actually pretty decent) were completely lost.

…With that said, here is a list of pedals and effects that can give your tone that killer edge IF they are used correctly.

Ibanez Tube Screamer

This unit should be run IN FRONT of your tube amp to give it a boost. One way that this is used by heavy metal musicians is to tighten up the low-end fuzzy sound that can be heard when the gain is turned up high.

This is used to give more definition to the subtleties of the often intricate picking techniques. There are 2 versions of this pedal. One is very expensive and sought after by the “boutique” crowd. The other one costs about as much as any other average pedal. I can not tell the difference myself, so I have the cheaper one, and it is pretty sweet. It definitely gets the job done.


This effect comes in many different packages. Lots of multi-effects units have it, lots of amps come with it built-in, and you can get several great pedals that have it. Boss makes a great one.

This effect, if used correctly, can give your sound that electric heavy metal edge. It can make your tone sound like it has a deeper level of distortion and overdrive than it really has. Many beginning guitar players buy cheap distortion pedals, looking to get that certain heavy metal guitar tone that their rock heroes have.

When what they really need is a good chorus. However, if the chorus is over-used or used with the wrong EQ settings, it can come across as really harsh, tinny-sounding, and can become completely overbearing.

It tends to enhance the mids and highs and, therefore, should be used in small, subtle amounts until it’s time to kick it up a notch for a lead or solo. Also, some amps (such as the Roland JC) can have a very aggressive chorus, so learn how to tame that beast!


Again less is more. Sure, on your masterpiece record, you can create some very dramatic sounds with reverb, but in a live setting, the more reverb you use, the less you will be heard. A very little bit will give your sound a subtle thickness and depth.

Also, reverb is designed to mimic the way sound moves around different size rooms. If you have different settings (ie Room, Hall, Theatre, etc), look for one that more closely matches the size of the room you will be playing for a more natural sound.

Noise Suppressor

Often called a noise gate. This will clean up the hums and buzzes and give a cleaner overall sound. I use a Boss NS-2. These elements, when put together correctly, will help any guitar player to achieve Killer Tone.

Remember, nothing will make you sound better than PRACTICE. Enjoy!

Passionately invested in the music world for over 20 years, Jake studied music for 14 years at the Royal Conservatory Of Toronto. He has a degree from Champlain College & Bishop’s University in Business & Music. He is the owner of Fly Away Music & Media Studio in Montreal since 2014, with over 500 happy artists recorded, mixed and mastered.

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