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Getting a metal sound out of a Stratocaster the easy way

Squier Simon Neil Stratocaster

I've posted videos about this before, but it was time to get a written version down of how to do this.

There have been many who have wondered how I get a Strat single-coil pickup to "sound metal" when I want, even without tone control on the bridge pickup position (which is how the most Strat guitars are wired.)

Okay, this is in fact really easy to do as long as you understand the nature of how a Stratocaster single-coil pickup works.

You've got this Strat, be it Fender or Squier, and by design there is no tone control for the bridge pickup (Leo Fender himself designed it that way; it's tradition.) You throw some distortion at the guitar and end up with this twangy, ear-piercing tone that sounds just plain awful.

The key to getting a Strat single-coil to "sound metal" is to:

  1. Decrease the treble
  2. "Scoop" the mids
  3. Boost the lows
  4. Kill the buzz
  5. Use compression (optional)

Here are a few ways to go about doing this. I'll mark each one with a word in [brackets] to tell you what applies to what.

1. EQ control on the amp [treble, mid, bass]

Plug in your Strat, use the bridge position pickup, turn up to 10, activate distortion pedal (I specifically recommend the DigiTech Grunge for a Strat, arguably the best metal pedal for Strat single-coils), then go to your amp and turn the treble control all the way down.

After that, turn the bass control up to the point just before it starts to "boom." You'll know it when you hear it.

Then - if you have the option - turn your midrange down to about 3. Turning down your midrange EQ control is called "scooping a mid." The lower you turn that control down, the more you're scooping.

The treble control is the most important part. If when turned down it "muds" too much, slowly bring up the treble just enough to get some definition, but not too much or else the twang of that single-coil will come back and start sounding crappy again.

2. EQ control on the distortion pedal [treble, bass]

Just like on the amp, turn that treble control all the way down, and then turn the bass up enough to where the bottom end is heard but isn't "booming" to avoid a "muddy" sound.

I strongly recommend the DigiTech Grunge pedal for Strat metal tones as its high distortion works very well with single-coil Strat pickups. You may hate the pedal at first, but watch (or should I say hear) the magic that happens when you turn that treble or "HI" control down and turn up the bass "LO" control.

Other distortion pedals can work, but for whatever reason the Grunge really makes a difference when you want to get that thick, distorted metal tone. Grunge is so good that most of the time you don't even have to turn up the distortion level past a 3/4 turn, even for the low-output Strat bridge pickup.

3. Noise gate [killing the buzz]

Unless you have a hum-canceling single-coil in your Strat, which you probably don't, you'll need a noise gate or you'll be buzzing all over the place in a bad way.

Get the BOSS NS-2 for that. Not cheap, but absolutely worth having. Believe me when I say you can use the NS-2 for every single electric guitar you own; everyone needs a gate to kill buzzing noise even for guitars with humbuckers in them.

4. "Squash" the tone [using compression]

This is basically "the big secret" to making a Strat single-coil get that thick, heavy metal tone. When you use compression, your palm mutes on the thicker strings will get "chunk" like you wouldn't believe on a single-coil (or for humbuckers.)

There are many thousands of guitar players who own a BOSS CS-3 because it is probably the best compressor pedal that exists. Is it the most expensive? Fortunately, no it isn't. The CS-3 is just designed right and does exactly what you expect of it.

Every metal player should own a CS-3 regardless of what guitar is being used and regardless of whether a single-coil or humbucker is used, because when you want the "chunk," the compressor delivers it.

One of the best things about having a compressor pedal for metal is simply the reason you can turn your distortion level way down and still get monster amounts of chunk from your palm mutes. Having the distortion level down means far less buzzy noise and better control over your sound.

Here's another advantage: You can get monster chunk with compression even playing quietly. No need to crank your amp to 11 when the compressor is engaged.

"Distortion, distortion, distortion" never works on its own

Beginner metal players make the mistake of just piling on ridiculous amounts of distortion, thinking at some point if you use enough of it, it will magically make a Strat single-coil or any other guitar "sound metal."

Wrong.

A lot of what metal tone is made of involves a very "squared off" sound where the distortion is evenly spread, the treble is held down, the mids are usually scooped quite a bit, and the bass is turned up. That in concert with compression to even all that out, and a noise gate to kill the noise is a very good winning combination to get that metal tone you've been dreaming of.

In other words, distortion alone is not metal tone, but rather the starting point of it.

Final notes

Even though this is written primarily for Strat players, those of you out there with humbuckers can use the same knowledge to "beef up" your metal tone as well.

If from reading this you've said to yourself, "So... I don't need a better amp for that metal tone?" That's partially correct. If you already have an amp in good working order that can blast out some good volume but it's just your tone that's the problem, getting a bigger, louder amp won't magically get you that metal tone you want. In fact, getting a bigger, louder amp will just take your existing crappy tone and make it even louder.

To address the tone issue, you need to pay attention to the EQ on both the amp and the distortion pedal, and optionally add in compression and a gate for extra chunk and to kill the noise.

I will admit that some amps just can't do metal very well, but it's usually only the little crappy practice amps that suffer from that because they just can't push air to get that good bass response (there's only so much air a small speaker can push.)

As long as you have an amp that can really belt out the volume without mudding out, it can do metal. My Fender Frontman 212R can do metal all day long. It's one of the beefier combo amps out there and can blast out volume like nobody's business - even enough to keep up with a 100-watt 4x12 half-stack easily.

The only time you'll really have any issue is when using tube-type amps. Tube-type, as most players are aware, only sound good when the tubes are really hot from high-output volume. Yeah, that's cool and all that, but it really limits your range for when your metal tone "sounds right." If your tube-type only sounds good between volume 8 to 10, that's not much room to work with.

Solid-state will sound the same at volume setting 2 as it does at 9, and the speakers will "crackle" a whole lot less. If you're a metal player that appreciates consistency of sound no matter what volume you play at, which is what most metal players want since you can accommodate any playing environment (at home, a club, a house party, whatever,) you want solid-state.

Yeah, it's true you can get a lot more volume with a lot less watts when you use tubes; I know this. But I also know a tube-type sounds totally different at 3 than it does at 7. Solid-state doesn't do that and keeps things much more consistent. With tube-type there is a good amount of "amp tuning" involved, and that can get really annoying real quick.

You're probably used to listening to metal music with headphones or ear buds, so take this into consideration: If you want that same kind of sound control from your guitar on loudspeakers, solid-state will serve you far better than tubes ever will.

And remember, Dimebag Darrell used solid-state, so if you need a famous metal example of a guy who used that technology to get the tone he did, there you go.

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