One of the biggest questions that people have about Stratocasters, is whether they can play metal or not. Strats are well known for their bright and twangy clean tones, so what happens when you crank up the distortion?
The Quick Answer
Stratocasters aren’t usually used for metal because they have a fairly thin and bright tone, that’s also susceptible to feedback. For metal, it usually works better if you have a darker and thicker tone.
However, it is possible to use a Strat for metal, you may just need the help of some pedals like a noise gate, distortion or EQ. You’ll also need to adjust your amp and guitar settings to reduce the brightness and feedback, and increase the depth of the tone.
Problems with Using Strats for Metal
So why are Stratocasters not usually used by metal guitarists? Well this comes down to three main reasons.
- Strats are susceptible to humming, background noise and feedback when you use a distorted amp.
- Stratocasters have a bright and twangy tone.
- The bass response of a Strat is weak, meaning the tone sounds thin.
- Strats have passive single coil pickups, with a pretty low output so they aren’t very powerful compared to active humbuckers.
For a good metal tone, you need plenty of distortion and bass, to give you that thick wall of sound. You also need a fairly dark and heavy tone to fit in with this genre of music.
what do strats sound like?
Strats kind of embody the opposite of this.
Firstly, the single coil pickups, and the tone woods like maple and alder, place a lot of emphasis of the tone, on the treble frequencies. This causes the tone to be quite sharp and crisp, and not at all dark, which is what you need for metal.
Secondly, Strats don’t have a very resonant tone and don’t have much sustain. This is because of the single coil pickups, which have a weak bass response, and the maple and alder tone woods which are known for being very dense, so decrease the amount of sustain.
This is an issue when it comes to playing power chords, or riffs in drop tuning where you need a lot more bass. With Strats, the power chords and riffs tend to sound weak and thin.
One of the biggest issues with using a Strat for metal, is the humming background noise and feedback you get when you increase the distortion on an amp played through single coil pickups. Everyone knows that metal is all about the gain. So the background noise can become a real issue.
Are There Any Advantages of Strats for Metal?
So are there actually any advantages of using Strats for metal. Well, there are actually a few that come to mind, and those are largely centered around playability.
Strats have a thin neck
Stratocasters have a pretty thin neck when compared to something like a Telecaster or Les Paul. Although the Strat’s neck isn’t as thin as an Ibanez or Jackson that’s designed for shredding, the neck is pretty quick. That makes it fairly easy to perform quick riffs, move around the fret board easily and shred.
Strats have a contoured, double cutaway body
Although the lightweight body isn’t much use when it comes to the sustain you get out of a Strat, it does help in other ways. Strats are very comfortable to play on for the majority of players. This is because they have a contoured body, that’s easy to sit and stand with, and also the double cutaway design makes it easy to reach the top frets.
Playability is super important when it comes to playing very technically demanding riffs and solos which are commonly found in metal. So the comfortable design of the Strat is definitely a plus in that respect.
Strats have a tremolo bridge
A lot of metal riffs and solos make full use of tremolo arms. That’s why you’ll see a lot of guitars that are designed for metal, featuring a Floyd Rose bridge. Although most Strats don’t have a Floyd Rose trem, the fact that they actually have a tremolo arm is very useful in a lot of songs.
Tips on Using a Strat for Metal
Okay, so what do you do if you want to use your Strat for metal still? Well there are quite a few things that you can do to reduce the feedback issues, and thicken up the tone of a Stratocaster.
How to Use a Strat for Metal:
- Use the middle or neck pickup
- Increase the bass and mids on your amp
- Decrease the treble on your amp
- Use a distortion pedal
- Use a noise gate pedal
- Bridge pickups sound brighter and sharper, as they place more emphasis on the treble frequencies, rather than the bass.
- Neck pickups sound warmer and more mellow because they place more emphasis on the bass frequencies, rather than the treble.
So you’ll remember that Strats sound bright and sharp, but for metal you need a darker tone. So one simple thing you can do, is use the middle or neck pickup, instead of the bridge.
If you find that the neck position is too mellow, switch to the middle, or you can use the middle and neck pickup in combination.
Strats have a 5 way pickup selector allowing you to activate the following pickups at a time:
- Bridge only
- Bridge and middle
- Middle only
- Middle and neck
- Neck only
Positions 3,4 and 5 will most likely serve you best for metal.
Check out this post I’ve written explaining the difference between bridge and neck pickups for some more info.
Adjust the EQ of your Amp
The single coils on a Strat give them a weak bass and mid-range response, and focus more on the treble frequencies. This is what causes the tone to be bright, but thin. So you counteract this, you can adjust your amp settings.
If your amp has individual bass, mids and treble settings, then turn your bass and mids up, and turn your treble down.
You don’t want it too high, or it’ll sound too “boomy”, but try turning it up a touch until you find the sweet spot.
Some amplifiers don’t have individual controls though, instead, they’ll have a tone or EQ control. Turning this control counterclockwise will allow you to increase the bass and decrease the treble.
Some amps have other controls like presence and contour. Presence acts like a treble control, so you’ll want to turn this down a bit to make the tone less sharp and bright. The contour control is basically the mids, but in reverse. So turn the contour down, to increase the mids.
Check out this ultimate guide to amp settings to find out more.
Use a Distortion Pedal
If you’re having a hard time getting a good quality distorted tone using your Strat, then consider purchasing a distortion pedal.
A distortion pedal will give you a better quality source of gain, that you can control more easily, and to higher precision. When using a distortion pedal, you’ll suffer less from a lack of clarity, and also a lack of depth and thickness to your tone.
If you want an overdrive and distortion pedal all-in-one, then check out the Boss OS-2 Distortion/Overdrive Pedal. It’s what I currently use because it stops my pedal board getting cluttered, and it’s really versatile and gives you tonnes of high quality gain on tap.
If you’re just after pure distortion, then you may want to look at something a bit heavier like the Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal.
add a noise gate pedal
Now let’s talk about the feedback and humming issue you get with Strats, when you crank up the gain on your amp. If you want to get rid of this, then check out noise gate pedals. They essential remove any unwanted noise and buzzing from your signal, before it goes into your amplifier. This way you won’t be held back by annoying humming.
Modifying a Strat for Metal
If you’re serious about turning your Strat into a metal machine, then you can consider modifying it.
One of the best modifications you can make, is changing the pickups. You can turn your regular Strat into a Superstrat, by installing a humbucker in place of one of the single coils, usually in the bridge position.
Take a look at this post I’ve written all about Superstrats to learn more.
Or you can switch out your stock single coils with pickups better suited to high gain. Here are some of the best single coil pickups for metal:
These pickups sound a lot warmer and louder than traditional single coils. Although they don’t sound exactly like traditional humbuckers, they are about as close as you can get with a single coil pickup. They also have hum-cancelling, which allows you to increase the gain, without annoying feedback and background noise. Check out these DiMarzio DP422 pickups on Guitar Center.
EMG are specialists in designing pickups for metal. These pickups are some of the only active single coils out there. This means you’ll get a boosted mid-range, plus a higher output so an increase in sustain. If you want to know more about active pickups, then check out this post on all the different pickup types to find out why they’re for metal. Check out the EMG SA pickups on Guitar Center.