Part I: The Legends

Metal tones may seem static sometimes, but listen closer and you’ll realize it’s not all the same old distortion. Revered metal bands and their guitar players have specific ways to get their specific sounds. Be it a certain type of pickup, an important pedal in their chain, or the right amplifier, each of these guitarists has a method to achieve their sonic character. If you want to emulate some of their greatness, check out these explanations of each band’s guitar rig(s).

Nothing gets us metal heads more amped up than hearing the best riffs from the most influential metal bands. Certain melodies, palm-muted rhythms, and searing solos inevitably make you nod your head and bounce in place.

Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy.” Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave.” Hearing those killer riffs kick in—especially live—is about as powerful a feeling as you can get from music. So it’s natural for those of us that play guitar to want to recreate those sounds on our own.

Black Sabbath

As the Godfathers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath found their sound by using powerfully rhythmic minor tones and more gain than most of their predecessors. Ominous and booming, the dark, down-tuned tone of Tony Iommi’s guitar took early blues-rock and molded it into what we now know as metal. Being a pioneer of this style of music, Tony didn’t have the benefit of advanced effects pedals or digital amp rigs—but he still sounded really heavy.

A big part of Iommi’s signature sound and style is the Gibson SG. He’s been seen time and again playing the devilish Gibson axe and much of Sabbath’s vibe can be attributed to it. During the early days of the band, Tony used a 1965 Gibson SG Special. The Special had a Gibson P-90 pickup at the bridge and a John Birch Custom P-90 single-coil at the neck. He also tuned down to C# to obtain a bigger, fatter tone. Little did he know the effect that would have on generations of guitar players.

Tony used a Laney amp to achieve his loud, towering sound. Though initially playing through a Marshall, Laney—which at the time was a new Birmingham company, was willing to give him free gear. He happily accepted. Tony also used a modified Dallas Rangemaster treble booster for quite a few years.

Early in his career, Tony sustained an injury on the fingertips of his fretting hand. The physical deformity and extra sensitivity necessitated strings that were a bit easier to play, so he used light-gauge strings.

Bottom Line: If you want to sound like Tony Iommi you can get a Gibson SG Special to attain Tony’s early sound, or try a Gibson SG Standard for a later Sabbath tone. Another affordable and very authentic option is the Epiphone Limited Edition Tony Iommi Signature SG Custom. It would work well with Tony’s signature Laney amp, or in the alternative, a Marshall tube amp.

An awesome alternative to the full on amplifier Tony used is the Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra Foundation Overdrive. It’s a custom-tuned Rangemaster-based booster combined with the pre-amp section of a Laney Supergroup. The customizable Gain, Presence, and Range knob allow you to really attain the Sabbath sound, cracking the code that created heavy metal.

Metallica

If Sabbath are the Godfathers of metal, Metallica are the masters. Beginning in the early ’80s, the four horsemen composed songs and created sounds that would come to be the standard by which all others are measured. Metallica’s thrash metal foundation lent itself to heavily distorted, but tightly compressed chugging power chords and searing, memorable lead riffs. Over time, they opened up to include more dramatic shifts, allowing acoustic or clean guitars to usher in their recognizable crunch.

The guitarists in Metallica have gone through a few variations in gear and tone over their very long, very successful career, but there has always been common thread across all time periods. With a very modest start, the six-stringers in Metallica recorded their first album Kill ‘Em All with Flying Vs and a modded Marshall amplifier. Lead singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield then moved on to a Gibson Explorer, while lead guitarist Kirk Hammett went with a Jackson Flying V Randy Rhoads model.

During the Master of Puppets years, Kirk continued using Marshall amps while James began using a Mesa Boogie. When they recorded Master, James used a Jackson V with Seymour Duncan Invaders and a Mesa Boogie amp run into a Marshall JCM 800. Kirk joined his bandmate in using Mesa Boogie shortly thereafter on …And Justice For All. Around that time, James added a Roland JC-120 for his clean tone.

Kirk has been quoted explaining his use of both an Ibanez Tube Screamer and an ADA MP-1 preamp during parts of the ’80s and early ’90s. James also used the ADA MP-1 during that time period.

The guys in Metallica really love their ESP guitars. Since the late ’80s, both James and Kirk have used ESPs in very heavy rotation, occasionally swapping out for certain Gibson models.

Today, James uses an ESP Vulture and an ESP Snakebyte, outfitted with EMG Het Set pickups and strung with Ernie Ball strings. He’s also got some Gibson guitars including a V, Explorer, and Les Paul. As for Kirk, he’s got his signature KH-602, as well as an ESP Zombie guitar. Additionally, he has his own company and signature pedal –the KHDK Electronics Kirk Hammett Ghoul Jr. Mini overdrive pedal. He also has a Dunlop KH95 Kirk Hammett Signature Cry Baby Wah Wah.

Both of the guys are now using Fractal Axe-FX processors when playing live. They cite the simplicity and versatility of using the system, along with its awesome and consistent sound. They’ve said that while it may not be the exact tube head sound they once had, it’s pretty close, and the ease of use on tour makes it well worth it.

Bottom Line: You can achieve Metallica-like tone with an ESP guitar stocked with EMG active pickups and a Mesa Boogie or Marshall amp. Add a tube screamer on to that and you’ll have all the Metallica tone you can handle.

Slayer

Slayer is heavy—really heavy. And the heavy nature of their songs is emphasized by their heavy tone. The guys play with their distortion on full-throttle and the volume turned all the way up, creating a wall of highly energetic darkness that encompasses all frequencies and envelopes the listener.

As probably the biggest “underground” thrash metal band of all-time, California’s legendary shred-quartet has always kept things relatively simple when it comes to gear. By most accounts, Slayer’s guitar rigs have been pretty consistent over the years. In the beginning, both Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman used B.C. Rich guitars with Marshall JCM 800 2203 heads, run through Marshall 1960 cabinets. They also used a Boss 10-band EQ.

Today, Kerry plays essentially the same rig. He has a few B.C. Rich guitars stocked with his signature EMG pickups, some paired with a Sustainiac neck pickup. Some of his B.C. Rich’s have a Kahler trem and others have a Floyd Rose.

As for amps, Kerry now has a signature Marshall JCM 800 2203. In designing it, he had his favorite JCM 800 head sent to Marshall to analyze. They found it had “perfect parameters” and used it to create his signature model. It features a “Beast” button which engages Assault Mode—essentially a built-in gate with a 10-band EQ and a decibel boost. On stage, Kerry runs 3 of these heads into 6 Marshall cabs.

Sadly, Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman passed away in 2013, way before his time. He was replaced by Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, an apt choice to continue Slayer’s musical legacy. Gary has a few signature Schecter models, as well as a one-off custom Schecter designed in tribute to Jeff. He also has a signature ESP LTD GH-600. All his guitars are stocked with EMG Gary Holt GH signature humbuckers. Additionally, Gary uses Dunlop picks with custom imprints on them.

Earlier in his career, Gary was using a Marshall JCM 800, then switched to a Marshall JVM, but got too much hiss. So he switched to the Marshall DSL100H. He runs an Ibanez Tube Screamer all the time, uses a Pigtronix War Hog lead boost for his leads, and has a TC Electronics Shaker solely for the effect in “Disciple.” All his pedals are run through the Rocktron Patchmate and then out through a few rackmounts – including a TC Electronic G Major for the delay, a Radial JD7, and MXR for the gate. Gary’s Marshall cabs are still rigged on stage in the same way Jeff liked them, an awesome homage to his late friend.

Bottom Line: If you want to sound like any guitar player from Slayer, you could do it with a B.C. Rich or an ESP, with active pickups—just make sure it has a tremolo bridge for that little extra something when you need it. If you play through a Marshall JCM 800 or a Marshall DSL, with the help of an Ibanez Tube Screamer, you’ll achieve a true thrash sound like the dudes in Slayer.

Heroes Get Remembered, but Legends Never Die

The music these legendary metal acts created will not only live on eternally in its own right, but will be heard and felt forever in the sound of countless other bands who they inspired. By now, you’ve probably already honed in on which of these bands you’re most inspired by and have begun to formulate what gear would be best for you. You may have even noticed the commonalities.

And now that you know what the most influential names in metal used to achieve greatness, there’s nothing holding you back.

You can check out everything else we have to offer metal heads at Samash.com.

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Anthony "Chio" Chiofalo has been entranced by music since the day he was born. As a young kid, he was inspired by the variety of artists he heard on the radio. In his early teens, he began delving into alternative rock and heavy metal. At age 13, he discovered an old acoustic guitar in his grandparents' basement and became enamored with emulating the music he loved. Since then, Anthony's been playing in bands, writing songs, and continuously searching for new experiences as a musician. Shortly after releasing his first solo EP Unlearned Lessons in August 2018, he joined the Sam Ash team as a copywriter, happily engaging in both his passions for music and writing, simultaneously. You can hear Anthony's music or read his personal blog posts at chiosound.com.