Skip to Content

Metallica Amp Settings Guide: A Historical Heavy Metal Tone

Metallica Amp Settings Guide: A Historical Heavy Metal Tone

You don’t have to be into guitars to know about Metallica, as they are easily one of the world’s most famous bands, especially in the heavy metal scene.

Formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1981, they have released several historical records that people from different generations have been listening to for decades.

As a musician and teacher, I love to revisit their songs, whether I am at home or in the classroom, where many of my students ask me to help them learn their favorite Metallica songs. It always takes me back to when I was about 6 years old and saw them performing on the TV.

No one had ever shown me anything similar, my mind was blown and I knew that I wanted to play guitar since that moment, so I really owe them a lot!

Playing Metallica songs is much more satisfying when you have the correct guitar tone, and that is where this Metallica Amp Settings Guide will come in handy.

Let’s check what the main ingredients of their colossal tones are, and see how you can replicate it at home.

Bottom Line Up Front

Metallica’s guitar tones have inspired thousands of young people to pick up the instrument for the first time, myself included. The aggressive guitars are a trademark of their sound profile, but there’s more to it than just cranking the gain.

Both James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet have used a wide variety of gear to achieve their tones, but they display a tendency to choose guitars with humbuckers or active pickups, and high-gain amplifiers that can saturate and compress a lot more than what jazz and blues guitarists like to use.

If you’re trying to replicate their sound, you should start with the following amplifier settings: Gain at 7, Treble at 6, Middle at 2, and Bass at 6.

Once you’re done, you should play for a bit, try a few Metallica riffs that you can play confidently, and listen to everything very carefully. This is when you start thinking about any adjustments that will steer you in the right direction even further.

There are several tips and tricks throughout this guide to help you out, so stay with me while we go over everything!

Metallica Amplifier Settings: For Whom The Amp Tolls

Metallica Amplifier Settings
Image from Fandom

The amplifier settings that I suggest in this guide are meant to be used in conjunction with an amp that already has a good amount of gain by itself. If you have something that sounds mostly clean like a Fender amp with a lot of headroom, you will have to compensate with a distortion pedal without a doubt.

James Hetfield likes to use a Diezel VH4 head, as well as several Mesa Boogie models, like the Triple Rectifier, the TriAxis, or the IIC+.

Kirk is also known for enjoying Mesa Boogie amps, although he has also played Randall amps a lot and even has his signature model (RM100KH Kirk Hammet Signature Head).

Fortunately, you won’t need to spend thousands to get pretty close to their sound, as you can get excellent results if you know what to adjust on what you already have.

Start with the following settings:

  • Gain: 7/8
  • Treble: 6/7
  • Middle: 2
  • Bass: 6

These settings are meant to grant you a beefy sound that has enough saturation and compression to really nail those powerful, percussive riffs where you have to chug the E string aggressively.

You don’t want too much bass muddying up your sound, and you want your mids to be fairly scooped. It should also be bright enough to cut through the mix, so keep an eye on that treble knob as you experiment. As always, use these as a starting point.

Depending on your guitar’s pickups and amplifier, they will yield slightly different results, and that’s where your critical hearing will come into play.

Even though heavy metal is known for very distorted guitar tones, try not to use too much gain, as this will make you sound cleaner and have fewer unwanted noises. You should still be able to get a nice sustain and even feedback when you approach your amp.

What Constitutes an Amazing Guitar Tone?

Guitar Player

Talking about tone and how different types of gear affect it has to be among most guitarists’ favorite topics to discuss. If you have several guitarist friends in your circle, I’m sure you’ve already spent a few hours talking about gear.

But what exactly comes into play when crafting a stellar guitar tone?

The ability to make the most out of the equipment you already have can make a massive difference in how you sound, regardless of whether we’re talking about recording or playing live.

Maybe you already have everything you need, and you just need to tweak everything properly to get the sound you have been dreaming of.

From my perspective and experience, the following factors affect your guitar’s tone the most:

  • Guitar Body Type: Solid Body, Semi-hollow Body, Hollow Body
  • Pickup Choice: Humbuckers, Single-coils, P90’s, Goldfoils, etc
  • Amplifier Type: Solid State, Tube Amp, Plugin/Emulator
  • Amplifier’s Settings: Volume, Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence
  • Effect Pedals: Overdrive, Distortion, Fuzz, Modulation, Time-based Effects, etc

It isn’t hard to tell that the correct amplifier settings have an influence on your guitar tone, but they are hardly the only thing to take into account.

In fact, I would say that the other factors can influence the sound even more, but you should never overlook the way you set your amp since it will affect how it interacts with everything else.

Ideally, you should be able to listen to your favorite guitar player’s sound, compare it to what you are currently achieving with your gear, and start establishing core differences that you can slowly adjust to get to where you want.

Does your tone sound muffled and lacking clarity? Decreasing the bass should have a good effect. Are you getting too much feedback to the point you can barely play? You are probably using too much gain.

Figuring these things out is only possible by trial and error, so make sure to experiment and explore your gear as much as you possibly can. The solution does not have to be overly complicated – switching to the bridge or neck pickup when appropriate might be all you need to do.

Lastly, it is imperative to pay attention to the player’s technique and expression. Metallica’s riffs feature a lot of down-picking, palm-muting, and other elements that have to be present if you want to achieve a convincing tone.

Metallica’s Electric Guitar Tone: Saturated Amps, Scooped Mids and Powerful Gain Stages

Metallica Amplifier Settings
Image from Fandom

Guitar players can be a bit finicky about their rigs. Not to say that I do not know people who don’t worry too much about the equipment they play, but we’re definitely more particular about it than the majority of musicians.

This eventually leads to complex setups with lots of cables, pedals, power supplies, effect loops, and more. The best part of this is that it is completely optional, and you can have a setup as simple as going directly from your guitar to your amp, or as complex as Ed O’Brien (Radiohead).

If you’re after Metallica tones, you will be glad to know that you will not need a bunch of pedals to get there. In fact, I would be more interested in finding a guitar with the right set of pickups (active EMGs are a great choice), and an amplifier that already eliminates the need to get a distortion pedal.

James Hetfield’s and Kirk Hammet’s Main Guitars

Aside from some famous custom builds like Hetfield’s Explorer-style guitar made by Ken Lawrence in 1996, both James and Kirk are known for using Gibson and ESP guitars more frequently than anything else.

In terms of pickups, they usually have EMG active pickups, like the EMG 81 and EMG 60, or a signature set like Hetfield’s EMG-JHs. Most of their axes are either Explorers, Flying Vs, Superstrats, or at least inspired by those body shapes.

Here are a few of the most famous guitars that the Metallica guitar duo has used throughout the years.

  • 1984 Gibson Explorer “More Beer” – used by James Hetfield from around 1984 to 1988
  • 1987 ESP MX220 “Eet Fuk” – the first ESP that James got, used during the “And Justice for All” period.
  • 1996 Ken Lawrence Explorer – One of the most iconic guitars in Hetfield’s collection, he even has two of them. Equipped with EMG 81/60 pickups, Sperzel locking tuners, and a Tonepros tune-o-matic bridge.
  • 1970s Gibson Flying V – one of Kirk Hammet’s main guitars which he used to record several hits. He kept it in stock condition until 1987, when he swapped the pickups for a set of EMG active pickups.
  • ESP KH2 M-II “The Mummy” – Kirk has said that this is his favorite guitar, and you can see him playing it on several occasions. It is also one of the most recognizable due to its unique appearance.

James Hetfield’s and Kirk Hammet’s Main Amplifiers

Diezel Amplifiers
Image from Wikimedia

As for amplification, both James and Kirk are notable fans of Mesa Boogie.

They have used several models over the years, and if you can get your hands on the same models or anything similar, it will instantly put you in the ballpark of the sound you’re after. James also loves his Diezel VH4 head, and Kirk has used various Randall amps too.

Here are a few examples of amps that were used to craft the guitar tones you’ve listened to countless times on Metallica’s records.

  • Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+
  • Marshall JCM800
  • Roland JC120 (used for clean tones exclusively)
  • Mesa Boogie Mark IV
  • Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier
  • Diezel VH4
  • Randall RM100KH
  • Randall Meathead
  • Mesa Boogie TriAxis
  • Mesa Boogie Strategy 400

James Hetfield’s and Kirk Hammet’s Favorite Effect Pedals

Metallica’s guitarists are not known for using a lot of pedals or complex pedalboards. This is great for whoever is trying to achieve a classic heavy metal tone like theirs.

If you want, you can add a couple of pedals to get a beefier distortion, but if you have a capable amp, there’s no need to buy anything fancy or expensive.

The pedals below have been used by James Hetfield and/or Kirk Hammet at some point in their careers with Metallica.

  • Ibanez TS9
  • Ibanez TS808
  • Pro Co RAT
  • Line6 DM4
  • Boss NS-2 Noise Supressor
  • Lovetone Brown Source
  • Boss SD-1
  • Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby

How to Nail Metallica’s Guitar Tone Using Modern-Day Gear

If you make a short list of the gear that Metallica uses and take it to a music store to see how much you’d have to spend, I’m sure you wouldn’t be very happy. Mesa Boogie amps are expensive, and some of the discontinued models sell for thousands of dollars.

While I can’t argue that they sound amazing, I’m also sure that you don’t need to spend $5k to achieve a legit heavy metal tone that can melt some faces off.

Check below for a few of my favorite suggestions that will steer you in the right direction.

The Guitars: Active Pickups and High Output

When choosing a guitar to pursue a Metallica-inspired tone, the main focus should be the pickup set. Since both James and Kirk enjoy using EMG active pickups, that should be your biggest filter. If you can get a Gibson or an ESP like theirs, great, but you can get extremely close with cheaper options too.

Additionally, if you are more into Kirk than into James, you should also look for a guitar that features a Floyd Rose tremolo system, which he uses on several of his famous solos.

ESP LTD EX-200

ESP LTD EX-200

As a kid, I desperately wanted an Explorer guitar, or at least a body type inspired by it, and that was all because of James Hetfield and his collection of Gibson Explorers and his gorgeous Ken Lawrence custom build.

Unfortunately, I was nowhere near being able to afford that, but there are more affordable options that won’t keep you from rocking out in style.

The ESP LTD EX-200 is clearly inspired by the Explorer body shape, although it features more aggressive lines to give it a more metal look. The body is made from mahogany, and its thin “U” shaped neck is paired with a jatoba fingerboard.

The pickup choice on this guitar is meant for obtaining saturated tones easily. The LH-150 set is based on the same pickups that ESP installs on their high-end guitars, so even though they are not active EMGs, they feel right at home when you crank the gain.

Sweetwater Music – ESP LTD EX-200 Electric Guitar – Black

ESP LTD MH-200

ESP LTD MH-200

If pointy guitars aren’t your cup of tea, but you still want to get something that will handle high-gain distortion easily, the MH-200 might be a great candidate. It features the same pickup set as the EX-200, but it also has a few differences that cater to different tastes.

For instance, it includes a Licensed Floyd Rose tremolo system. Changing strings will be more time-consuming, but you will be able to play dive bombs and other Floyd Rose tricks to emulate Kirk Hammet’s playing much more efficiently than you would with a different guitar.

Other interesting features include a roasted jatoba fingerboard, an ergonomic body to ensure hours of comfortable playing, and a thin “U” shaped neck with a satin feel that will have you playing faster than ever as soon as you pick it up.

Sweetwater Music – ESP LTD MH-200 Solidbody Electric Guitar – Black

ESP LTD KH-602 Kirk Hammet Signature

ESP LTD KH-602 Kirk Hammet Signature

Although this guitar is significantly more expensive than the last two, no list of this kind would be complete without mentioning a signature series guitar such as the ESP LTD KH-602. Developed in collaboration with Kirk Hammet himself, the KH-602 is stage-ready, and it comes fully equipped with everything that an avid Metallica fan would want on their guitar.

The neck-through-body construction will maximize your sustain, while the active EMG Kirk Hammet Bone Breaker pickups will nail the heavy metal tones you’ve been craving. A locking nut complements the Floyd Rose 1000 bridge, and access to the highest frets is easy due to the large cutaway on the body.

If it fits into your budget, you should try this one out and see how it feels!

Sweetwater Music – ESP LTD Kirk Hammett Signature KH-602 – Black

The Amps: High Gain, Massive Riffs and Soaring Leads

Although a high-gain Mesa Boogie head seems like the obvious choice, these are not always easily accessible, nor they are cheap. Fortunately, today’s music market has plenty of legitimate options that deliver quality high-gain tones at a more affordable price point.

Find some of my favorite picks below.

Boss Katana MkII Combo

Boss Katana MkII Combo

The Boss Katana MkII combo finds its way to lots of buyer’s guides and suggestion lists, and for good reason. It is affordable, the fact that it is a solid-state amp means that it probably won’t have problems as frequently as a tube amp would, and the versatility of this little box is off the charts.

I was very surprised with the quality of the clean tones, but also the more distorted sounds, as well as the number of decent effects that I would use for recordings or live performances with no issues. I still prefer my pedals, but this is a lot of bang for your buck.

With its multichannel footswitch (sold separately) you can access a myriad of patches that you can program beforehand, and have a huge arsenal of sounds at your disposal.

Sweetwater Music – Boss Katana-50 MkII 1 x 12-inch 50-watt Combo Amp

Marshall DSL20CR Combo

Marshall DSL20CR Combo

Entering the tube realm, Marshall has been at the forefront of dirty tones for decades, and even though their early models like the JTM45 gained popularity being used by rock and roll artists, their more modern options are more than suited for heavier genres.

The DSL20CR is powered by a trio of ECC83s and a pair of EL34 tubes, giving you that characteristic British amp sound. This series has several controls that allow you to craft your sound meticulously, whether you’re looking for an edge-of-breakup tone, or a wall of sound that screams high-gain anywhere you go.

It also comes with handy features for the modern musician such as Softube speaker-emulated output and an effects loop. It also includes a 2-way footswitch to switch channels and toggle the FX loop on and off.

Sweetwater Music – Marshall DSL20CR 1×12″ 20-watt Tube Combo Amp

Peavey 6505II Head

Peavey 6505II Head

If you won’t settle for anything less than a powerful amp will can turn everyone’s head as soon as you hit your first low E at the gig, then you can’t disconsider the Peavey 6505II head.

Considered by many to be one of the best amps for metal and any heavy genre, this 120W 2-channel monster will never leave you desiring a little bit more power or gain.

It has several useful features such as a 3-band EQ, Resonance, and Presence controls on each channel, foot-switchable Crunch boost and Bright switch, and a preamp out jack.

Your neighbors will hate you, but your fans will adore you for playing this!

Sweetwater Music – Peavey 6505 II 120W 2-channel Tube Head

The Effect Pedals: Practical and Efficient Pedalboards

While pedals aren’t as important in this context as they would be for someone trying to emulate David Gilmour’s (Pink Floyd) sound due to the massive differences in the number and variety of pedals, there are still a few options that can help you get your dream heavy metal tone.

Check below for a few stompboxes that will elevate your metal game.

Pro Co Rat 2 Distortion

Pro Co Rat 2 Distortion

There aren’t many distortion pedals as versatile as the Pro Co Rat 2. It can be used as a low-gain overdrive, a blistering distortion, and it can even venture into fuzz territory.

James Hetfield has used these to beef up his distorted tone, hitting the front end of his amps even harder. You can either replicate the same strategy, or you can even use this pedal as your distortion unit, in case your current amp cannot provide high-gain tones easily.

Sweetwater Music – Pro Co RAT 2 Distortion / Fuzz / Overdrive Pedal

Friedman BE-OD Overdrive

Friedman BE-OD Overdrive

The BE-OD is one of Friedman’s most interesting pedal offers. It is inspired by their BE100 amp, and even though it is technically an “overdrive”, it can do distortion very easily, so don’t let the name fool you.

Aside from the amazing sound you can get out of the box, the Treble, Bass, Tight, Presence, and Gain knobs enable you to get almost any kind of tone out of it.

It can be powered at 9v or 18v for increased headroom, something I always do if I can, as it makes my pedals sound less artificial and more like a real amp, which is what most guitarists are looking for.

Sweetwater Music – Friedman BE-OD Overdrive Pedal

Dunlop KH95 Kirk Hammet Signature Crybaby Wah

Dunlop KH95 Kirk Hammet Signature Crybaby Wah

The KH95 wah was developed by Dunlop in collaboration with Kirk Hammet himself, to ensure that the final product resembles his iconic wah tone as much as possible, taking into account the EQ, volume, tone, and sweep.

Even though you can get similar results with other wah pedals, this one is always going to be a fast-track ticket to emulating Kirk’s sound.

Sweetwater Music – Dunlop KH95 Kirk Hammett Signature Cry Baby Wah Pedal

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Metallica’s Amp Settings

Question: What Guitar Amplifier Settings Should I Use to Sound More Like Metallica?

Answer: Metallica has used different sounds and gear throughout the years, and you should also think about whether you’re trying to emulate James’ or Kirk’s tone. Regardless, the following settings are a great starting point: Gain at 7, Treble at 6, Middle at 2, and Bass at 6.

Question: What Amplifiers do James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet from Metallica Use?

Answer: James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet favor amplifiers that are loud, powerful, and with a lot of gain. Throughout their careers, they have used several Mesa Boogie amps such as the Rectifier models, IIC+, and the TriAxis.
James is also known for using the Diezel VH4 head a lot, even though their current live gear features AxeFx units, most likely so that everything is more reliable and needs fewer technical interventions.

Question: Which Effect Pedals are Best to Nail Metallica’s Guitar Sound?

Answer: Neither James nor Kirk is famous for using a lot of effects. You can hear James using chorus on a few of his clean parts, but he generally gets it from the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus combos that he uses for clean tones. Kirk Hammet is an avid wah pedal user, but he does not use much more than that in terms of effects. They have used a few different distortion pedals, such as the ProCo RAT, a few Tube Screamer models, and the MXR Distortion+.

Closing Considerations About Metallica’s Amplifier Settings

After going through everything that a guitarist needs to take into account when attempting to emulate his heroes’ tones, you have surely realized that setting your amplifier properly is only a small percentage of the total pie, even though it is mandatory to have at least adequate settings.

Metallica’s guitar tones are characterized by their raw, aggressive power that shines through every single one of their riffs and solos. It tends to sound mid-scooped, but still retains enough bottom-end without becoming muddy, and bright enough so that it cuts through the mix, despite lacking a bit in the mid frequencies.

Grab your favorite guitar with active pickups, a high-gain amp, and start with the following settings to get close to a tone that James Hetfield himself would dig: Gain at 7, Treble at 6, Middle at 2, and Bass at 6.

Keep in mind that the best thing you can pair with the right amp settings and guitar choice is an appropriate technique. Metallica uses a lot of down-picking and palm-muting, so these elements need to be present to nail their sound.

After that, adjust depending on the Metallica era or record that you’re trying to emulate, and have fun playing your favorite riffs!

Latest posts by Gustavo Pereira (see all)