Without it, a guitarist is nothing.
Without it, a band is nothing.
And without it, a metal band is especially nothing.
More than any other guitar-based music, metal depends on that combination of man and machine called tone. Entire albums are won and lost with tone. So, let’s talk about it.
Tone is first and foremost in a guitarist’s fingers. Two guitarists playing the same equipment will sound different due to the different ways they attack the strings. But equipment matters. Tube amps sound different from solid state ones. Materials and body construction matter for guitars. Production, from recording to mixing to mastering, also alters tone. Tone is a technical beast.
Here are my picks for the top 10 most bad-ass metal guitar tones ever recorded. They are the sounds of sticking fingers into the electric sockets of the gods. Increased heart rates and invisible oranges lie ahead.
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10. Godflesh – Selfless
Despite the monolithic nature of his projects, Justin Broadrick has had a wide variety of tones over the years. Godflesh’s Streetcleaner is probably the most immediate choice for tone, but bass and drum machine do much of the heavy lifting on that record. Blessed with major label money, Selfless is when his axe sounded biggest. “Axe” is probably the wrong word; “battering ram” is more appropriate.
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9. Fear Factory – Soul of a New Machine
Guitarists everywhere must have had a collective heart attack upon hearing Soul of a New Machine in 1992. Dino Cazares’ immense tone, which owed much to Godflesh, dwarfed that of any prior. In “Crisis”, he sounded like he was digging up huge chunks of earth and throwing them at the listener. Thrash suddenly sounded small.
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8. Metallica – …And Justice For All
Yes, the overall mix of this record is weak. But if you turn it up, the guitars are gigantic. Freed of considering the bass, they hog the midrange. Every time James Hetfield palm mutes, you can really feel it. His tone is like a big serpent, dry and sinuous. See also: “Breadfan”.
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7. Scott Ian – Joey Belladonna-era Anthrax
Scott Ian is one of the few guitarists who are recognizable within a few notes. That’s partially due to how he palm mutes riffs (and also how he writes them.) His signature sound is most evident in the mosh parts of old Anthrax songs. He lost that sound in the John Bush years – let’s hope he gets it back.
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6. Black Sabbath – “Supernaut”
Now we’re talking! “Supernaut” isn’t Sabbath’s heaviest moment – Tony Iommi had some huge tones in the Dio years – but its intro has one of metal’s most influential tones. That nasal, vocal-like tone is the ancestor of some of the tones coming up.
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5. Pantera – Far Beyond Driven
Like this one! The sound is different, of course; Dimebag Darrell is playing high-output humbuckers through a solid-state amp, resulting in a denser, tighter sound. But the Iommi lineage is obvious. When this album came out, Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazine (RIP) complained that Dimebag’s guitars sounded like “big-ass Harleys”. That’s cause for celebration, not for complaint.
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4. Eyehategod – entire catalogue
Eyehategod have legions of imitators, yet they are still recognizable within a few notes. This is due both to a “Supernaut”-inspired tone rich with squawking midrange, and a playing style that takes full advantage of it. Microtonal bends, greasy slides up and down, feedback all over the place – the sound is goddamn electric.
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3. Tom G. Warrior – Monotheist onwards
When Celtic Frost returned after a long hiatus with 2006’s Monotheist, Tom G. Warrior upgraded his sound significantly. Supposedly he gets it by rolling his tone knob all the way back, which seems weird since his tone is full of nasal midrange – again, shades of “Supernaut”. He has the same tone in his new band Triptykon, but tonewise I’ll go with Monotheist, which sounds more raw. Somewhat related is Jerry Cantrell’s massive tone in Alice in Chains’ Black Gives Way to Blue – see, e.g., “Check My Brain”.
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2. At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
The liner notes of the Slaughter of the Soul reissue revealed the signal chain for its legendary tone: “One Boss Heavy Metal distortion pedal, One Boss Metal Zone distortion pedal, One Peavey Supreme 160 amp… and here’s the tricky part: Anders’ home built cabinet with 2×10″ speakers and 2×12″ speakers… ” (Never mind the fact you’d probably need Anders’ fingers, too.) If you could turn a semi-truck into a tone, it would be this record.
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1. The Sunlight sound
If my inbox could have a sound, this would be it. There are approximately 2,387 bands today wielding the knobs-all-the-way-up Boss metal pedal sound. (See tutorial here). New bands are using it, old bands are using it, old bands are reforming just to use it. So many bands have this sound now that I could make this blog entirely about the Sunlight sound – but don’t worry, I won’t. Just be glad that the most bad-ass guitar tone ever is here to stay.