How to Sound Like Metallica: Amp Settings Guide


If you want to sound like James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett on guitar, you’ll need to tune in the right amp settings. Sounding like Metallica can be difficult if you don’t own the same amps, guitars and pedal effects, but in this article I’ll give you the best place to start and how to make the correct adjustments to make you sound just like the legendary band.

Quick Guide to Metallica Amp Settings

To sound like Metallica, start with the following amp settings:

  • Gain: 9
  • Bass: 9
  • Mids: 3
  • Treble: 7

If the tone sounds too thin and brittle, increase the mids and bass. If the tone sounds too muddy and muffled, decrease the gain and bass, and increase the treble.

Remember that these are starting points. It is likely that you will need to tweak your amp settings to get closer to Metallica’s sound, unless you are using the exact same rig.

The Basics

Metallica’s tone is characterised by high gain and bass, mid-high treble to provide definition and relatively low mids. This EQ does change based on the song though, and on the clean sections of course.

In this next part of the article, we will go through each basic setting to dial in the best tone. Then, we will move onto some settings for specific songs and some common issues and how to deal with them towards the end of the article.

Gain/ Overdrive

Of course, plenty of Metallica songs have clean intros and verses, in which the gain setting on your amplifier should be very low. However, here we are talking about the heavy riffs and choruses.

  • If you have a solid state amplifier (probably most people reading this), increase the gain until 9-10 to achieve a heavily distorted effect.
  • If you have a tube (valve) amplifier, you will need to turn the volume up until it becomes heavily distorted. Alternatively, you can use a distortion or overdrive pedal to achieve this effect without increasing the volume too much.

EQ (Bass, Mids, Treble)

The EQ settings allow you to shape the tone of your guitar. Some amplifiers will just have an “EQ” control, whereas others will allow you to adjust the bass, mids and treble settings individually. Here’s what they do.

Heavy Gain Sections

  • Bass: determines the low frequency sounds. High bass results in a fuller and “boomy” quality to the tone. This should usually be quite high to sound like Metallica, so turn this up to 8 to start with.
  • Mids: this refers to the mid-range frequencies. A relatively low mids-setting is characteristic for Metallica, which is often described as “scooping” the amp.
  • Treble: this determines the high frequency sounds. The higher the treble is, the sharper and more defined the sound will be. Turn the treble up to 6 to start with to avoid the tone becoming muddy.
  • EQ: if your amp has a single EQ setting, then turn this down to favour the low-end (bass) frequencies. Use the bridge pickup on your guitar to avoid the sound becoming too muffled.

Clean Sections

You may need to adjust the amp settings for cleaner sections of the song to make sure the tone is correct. Of course, this is inconvenient midway through a song, so consider investing in an EQ effects pedal, or change your pickup selector or tone control on your guitar to allow for these changes.

  • Bass: low-to-medium, start on number 3.
  • Mids: mid-high, start on number 6.
  • Treble: medium, start on number 4-5.

Remember, you can change the pickup selector to affect the sharpness and depth of the tone.

  • Bridge pickup: this is most commonly used as it suits heavier styles of music and allows the tone to cut through, even with distorted amp settings.
  • Neck pickup: this will suit the cleaner sections of Metallica songs, as it produces a warmer effect.

Effects

Effects pedals, or built-in effects on your amplifier can be very useful to dial in Metallica’s tone. Here are some common effects which will be useful:

  • Distortion: distortion pedals provide a high-quality distorted, heavy-gain effect which is often less muddy than the high-gain setting on an amplifier.
  • Compression: this helps to “smooth-out” the tone by increasing the volume of notes picked lightly, and decreasing the volume of notes picked aggressively. This produces an overall more-professional sound.
  • Noise-gate: these help to decrease feedback which can be helpful when using high-gain amp settings.
  • Reverb: this is one of the most common effects and helps to provide more depth and character to the tone, particularly useful when soloing or palm-muting.
stack amp

Amp Settings for Popular Metallica Songs

Now we’ve been through the basic starting point, here are some more specific settings for popular Metallica songs. Again, keep in mind that these are all just starting points and you will likely need to adjust the settings slightly to achieve the desired tone. If you’re not sure how to adjust them, skip ahead to the troubleshooting section of the article.

Nothing Else Matters Amp Settings

Clean Section:

  • Gain: 1-2
  • Bass: 6
  • Mids: 4
  • Treble: 4
  • Reverb: 4

Distorted Solo:

  • Gain: 8
  • Bass: 6
  • Mids: 3
  • Treble: 8
  • Reverb: 4

Enter Sandman Amp Settings

Clean Section:

  • Gain: 3
  • Bass: 5
  • Mids: 4
  • Treble: 6
  • Reverb: 3

Distorted Section (Kirk):

  • Gain: 9
  • Bass: 9
  • Mids: 2
  • Treble: 5
  • Reverb: 3

Distorted Section (James)

  • Gain: 8
  • Bass: 9
  • Mids: 4
  • Treble: 9
  • Reverb 3

One Amp Settings

Clean Section (Kirk):

  • Gain: 1-2
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 8
  • Reverb: 4

Clean Section (James):

  • Gain: 1-2
  • Bass: 8
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 6
  • Reverb: 4

Distorted Solo (Kirk):

  • Gain: 7
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 7
  • Treble: 8
  • Reverb: 4

Distorted Section (James):

  • Gain: 10
  • Bass: 8
  • Mids: 3
  • Treble: 7
  • Reverb: 3

Fade to Black Amp Settings

Distorted Solos (Kirk):

  • Gain: 10
  • Bass: 8
  • Mids: 4
  • Treble: 7
  • Reverb: 4

Distorted Riffs (Kirk and James)

  • Gain: 10
  • Bass: 8
  • Mids: 3
  • Treble: 7

Master of Puppets Amp Settings

  • Gain: 10
  • Bass: 9
  • Mids: 4
  • Treble: 8

Whiskey in the Jar Amp Settings

Distorted (James)

  • Gain: 8
  • Bass: 6
  • Mids: 5
  • Treble: 6

Distorted (Kirk)

  • Gain: 9
  • Bass: 8
  • Mids: 3
  • Treble: 5

The Unforgiven Amp Settings

Clean (Kirk)

  • Gain: 3
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 4
  • Treble: 7

Distorted (Kirk)

  • Gain: 8
  • Bass: 8
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 8

Distorted (James)

  • Gain: 9
  • Bass: 9
  • Mids: 4
  • Treble: 8

Troubleshooting Common Issues

So now we’ve got a good starting point for Metallica’s overall tone, and some specific popular songs, what do you do if it doesn’t sound quite right? As mentioned earlier, it’s unlikely it will sound completely spot on with the first try, so here’s how to adjust it to get it just right.

Muddy Tone

If the tone sounds too muddy and muffled try the following tweaks:

  • Turn the bass down
  • Turn the gain down and increase the volume
  • Increase the treble

Make each adjustment one by one, and only change one variable at a time so you can dial it in and pinpoint the issue.

Weak and Brittle Tone

This can be a common problem during the distorted sections. Here’s what to adjust:

  • Increase the bass
  • Increase the mids
  • Increase the gain or use a distortion pedal

More Tips to Sound Like Metallica

It’s not all about amp settings if you want to sound like James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett on the guitar. Here are some more tips to consider:

  • Use the neck pickup to give your palm-muting sections, riffs and solos some more bite.
  • Use heavier gauge strings to achieve a fuller tone.
  • Consider using a distortion pedal to add better quality gain to your tone.
  • Keeping the action of the guitar low will help when performing quick riffs.
  • Using active instead of passive pickups will help you to achieve the classic metal tone.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the answers to some more questions you may have on your quest to sound more like Metallica.

What tuning do Metallica use?

Metallica play most songs in standard tuning (EADGBE) but often play a half-step-down (Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb) when performing live.

What amps do Metallica use?

Metallica are well known for using Mesa/ Boogie amplifiers such as the Mark IIC. James is also known to play the Roland JC-120 for his clean tones. Kirk also has a signature line of amps with Randall.

What guitar does James Hetfield play?

James Hetfield is known for playing ESP guitars and has a signature guitar by the brand using active pickups. He also played some Gibson guitars particularly in the early stages of the band.

What guitar does Kirk Hammett play?

Metallica’s lead guitarist, Kirk, is well known for using ESP guitars with active pickups in a Superstrat design, along with Gibson Les Pauls.

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Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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