The Guitarists and Gear of Nü Metal

Many people associate 1990s hard rock with grunge and the flood of albums from alt-rock, indie, and punk bands. These bands mainly looked to decades past for inspiration and often used gear popularized in the '60s and '70s. We’ve already looked at the gear of Britpop bands, which mostly consisted of items that could have belonged to their parents.

With this new entry in our "Guitarists and Gear" series, we’ll look at a different guitar-heavy genre born in the late 20th century—one that often made sounds with contemporary gear. In order to craft the sound of nu metal and rap rock, guitarists, bassists, producers, and even DJs used a variety of cutting-edge equipment and occasionally pushed it even further, demanding specs that didn’t exist yet.

Before we get into the details, let’s briefly look at where nu metal came from. The sonic landscape of hip-hop has always overlapped with rock—partially because of their shared origins in blues and similar genres—but also because early MCs, DJs, and producers would sample and loop phrases from all genres, including rock.

The Rick Rubin-produced collaboration between Run DMC and Aerosmith, "Walk This Way," is an early mainstream example of the overt combination of rock arrangement with rap vocals. Another Rick Rubin project, The Beastie Boys, combined rock and rap in many of their hits, such as the satirical "Fight For Your Right" later, "Sabotage." In turn, a young metal band named Anthrax parodied Beastie Boys with their early single "I’m The Man."

Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Biohazard, Sepultura, and Living Colour combined elements of other genres with the aggressive riffs, volume, and tempos of metal. Faith No More’s biggest hit, "Epic," featured Mike Patton’s rap-like verses and cracked the Billboard top 10 in 1990. In 1991, Anthrax again made its mark on the hybridization of rap and metal by collaborating with Public Enemy on a new version of "Bring The Noise." A couple years later, many of the previously mentioned artists appeared on the soundtrack for the film Judgment Night, on which every song was a collaboration between a rap act and a guitar-based band.

Tom Morello

An early huge name in rap rock, and arguably still the biggest, is Rage Against The Machine. Their 1992 self-titled debut LP has sold millions of copies. Unlike many nu metal acts, Rage prided themselves on creating a diverse and dynamic soundscape with traditional rock arrangements. Over their brief but consistent discography, vocalist Zack de la Rocha adds emotional, socio-political rhymes to the swing-like rhythms from Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford.

Guitarist Tom Morello helped set RATM apart from the growing collection of funk metal and rap metal bands, sometimes confusing listeners who couldn’t identify what instrument they were hearing. Morello, with a collection of pedals and a unique playing style, can turn out a catchy riff. He can also make a guitar sound like no one else can. He slides his hand over the strings and uses his pickup selector as a kill switch in combination with wah, phase, delay, and pitch shifting to sound like a DJ scratching a record or looping samples.

Although most of his gear was in production during Rage’s peak, Morello hasn’t changed his rig much in the last 30 years. His main guitar is an extensively modified partscaster. Elements include a generic graphite neck, EMG pickups, and an Ibanez Edge bridge.

His main amp is a Marshall JCM 800, played through a Peavey cabinet. His pedalboard chain for most Rage Against The Machine albums is a Dunlop Cry Baby Wah, DigiTech Whammy, Boss Digital Delays, a DOD 7-band EQ used for boost, and an MXR Phase 90.

James "Munky" Shaffer, Brian "Head" Welch, Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu

In early '90s LA, Korn formed when guitarist Brian "Head" Welch and vocalist Jonathan Davis joined members of former Bakersfield funk-metal band L.A.P.D (James "Munky" Shaffer, Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu, and David Silveria). In 1993, the band earned a local following for their unique sound, opened for House Of Pain and Biohazard, and recorded their first demo.

Ross Robinson—who would soon become one of the most notable producers in nu metal, screamo, and other aggressive rock—recorded the band's debut LP. He’d worked with Shaffer, Arvizu, and Silveria previously, when they were called Creep. Robinson cut his teeth as a thrash guitarist before working with industrial-metal band Fear Factory and '80s metal veterans W.A.S.P.

Korn toured in support of their successful, influential debut album for two years, eventually opening for one of the inventors of metal, Ozzy Osbourne, alongside fellow California innovators, Deftones.

Korn’s second album, Life Is Peachy, sold over 100,000 copies in the first week and earned them a Grammy nomination. Soon after, they co-headlined Lollapalooza with Tool. By the end of the '90s, the Korn success story had expanded into an endorsement with athletic brand Puma, a web series, and the release of their third album Follow The Leader, which debuted at number one on Billboard.

Unlike Rage Against The Machine and Biohazard, Korn’s music is often a less literal interpretation of hip-hop and funk. In the vein of Faith No More, Jonathan Davis’s unique vocal style and range is probably the first thing most listeners notice. Songs are built around Fieldy’s percussive bass playing and Silveria’s tight, snare-focused beats.

Fieldy’s '90s gear included Ibanez Soundgear 5-string basses into a Mesa Boogie M-2000 amp and Hughes & Kettner 4x10 cabinets. In the 21st century, he’s used Ampeg cabinets. More recently, Ibanez has released various signature 5-string models. Among Fieldy’s pedals were the Boss SYB-3 Bass Synthesizer, Voodoo Labs Tremolo, and Ibanez CF7.

Like peers Tool, the density of the rhythm section on most songs allows Head and Munky to be creative on guitar, often crafting call-and-response vamps that sound like hip-hop loops. The guitarists also play some catchy riffs in the tradition of Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell—one of the pioneers of groove metal and an undeniable influence on a lot of nu metal.

Korn’s guitarists use 7-string guitars. Although the 7-string guitar dates back over two centuries, in America it was mostly associated with jazz guitarists. Ibanez made the first mass-produced electric, a Steve Vai signature guitar, in 1990. Korn purchased a few copies of this model, known as the Universe.

The Ibanez K-7 and K-14 (a 12-string style version of the Ibanez super strat) are appropriately associated with Korn. Eventually, Head and Munky would have their own signature Ibanez guitars. Often tuned to drop A and using Dimarzio pickups, the 7-string guitar allows them to contrast high octave melodies and eerie licks with crushing bass-heavy chords.

Like many nu metal acts, Korn favored Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier amps. They have also used Diezel amps, often in combination with Mesa Boogies.

Korn uses a variety of modulation effects to help further set their sound apart. Munky especially likes a variety of tones, using many of the same pedals over the years. The Ibanez Bi-Mode helps create an interesting clean tone recognizable on many Korn songs. He’s used pedals like the Digitech XP-100 and Boss Super Shifter for pitch effects. Shaffer’s rigs have also included the Small Stone phaser, Phase 90 and Dunlop Univibe or BBE Soul Vibe.

Another sound associated with nu metal partially because of Korn is a heavily EQed, "AM radio" tone, achieved with the Ibanez LF7 or distortion pedals such as the Metal Zone or Digitech Metal Master. Welch’s pedalboards are normally simpler, including the XP-100 and Boss CE-5 Chorus. They also use Boss digital delays and reverbs.

Wes Borland

The most polarizing band of the nu metal trend was Limp Bizkit. They transcend the genre—covering George Michael, collaborating with Method Man, and antagonizing boy bands on MTV’s TRL. But beyond Fred Durst’s tabloid presence and nasaly raps, the band crafted music that helped define the era.

Drummer John Otto and bassist Sam Rivers laid down funk and hip-hop influenced grooves while DJ Lethal accented Limp Bizkit’s rap production facade with record scratches and samples. In many ways, guitarist Wes Borland was the most intriguing of the group: often silent, covered in precise makeup and tailored costumes during his energetic stage performances.

Like many of his peers, Borland played Ibanez 7-string super strats, including one with a LR Baggs piezo pickups in the saddles. Borland also played several 4-string baritones, starting with a modified Ibanez Musician. He later used modified PRS guitars and elaborate custom designs by luthier George Gorodnitski. His most recent 4-string is a PRS with a custom vibrato bridge and 26.5-inch scale. The guitar has separate volume knobs for guitar and bass pickups.

In the '00s, Yamaha made the CV820WB, a unique custom model for Borland. The guitar is an offset semi-hollow body, similar to the Fender Starcaster. It features a locking vibrato bridge with unique quick-release saddles that make changing strings lightning fast.

In the 21st century, Borland has gotten into modding his own guitars and no longer uses a 7-string Ibanez. Recent instruments of choice include a Jackson King V with an ebony fretboard, which was originally a left-handed model. Wes modded the guitar to be right-handed and have a single humbucker in bridge. Borland often uses Floyd Roses vibrato systems with locking nuts and replaces strap buttons with huge metal rings that his strap clips to.

Wes Borland has been on and off as a member of Limp Bizkit through the last couple decades, but he’s had several other projects. For recent recordings for Big Dumb Face, a band started with Wes’s brother Scott, Borland heavily used the Line 6 Helix. He also uses a Bilt Revelator guitar and a Fender Bass VI.

Wes Borland has used a variety of pedals through the years, usually into Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifiers and Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120 amps, although more recently he has switched to EVH 5150 amps. Borland was an early adopter of the Boss RV-3 Reverb/Delay. In the past decade, he’s converted to Strymon delays and reverbs. He also used a DOD Envelope Filter, MXR Phase 90 and Boss Super Phaser.

Recent boards also featured multiple Boss Digital Delays, a big box Electro-Harmonix Micro Q-Tron, and ZVEX Lo-Fi Loop Junky. Other effects in his collection include a Maestro Echoplex, Beetronics Swarm Harmonizer, Gamechanger Audio Plasma Coil and EHX 95000 Looper.

Daron Malakian

Yet another titan of unique heavy music in the late '90s and beyond, System of a Down came into popular consciousness with the release of their self-titled album in 1998. The LA-based group of mostly school friends released demos and played several shows before encountering mega producer Rick Rubin, who rose in the industry working with Run DMC, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, and Slayer. Rubin signed the band and produced their LP for his American label under Columbia Records.

The album, and the band’s sound in general, sets itself apart amongst the rap rock of the time. SoaD’s sound features hefty jazz-influenced rhythms from bassist Shavo Odadijan and drummer John Dolmayan. Frontman Serj Tankian and guitarist Daron Malakian fill out the melodies with interesting vocal harmonies and tasty riffs. Their songs often include drone notes, simple melodies, modal modulations, and variations in time signature. These characteristics make SoaD one of the most progressive bands associated with nu metal.

In the band’s early days, guitarist Daron Malakian often used an Ibanez Iceman or ICX 120. In 2004, Ibanez realized the limited DMM1, Malakian’s signature ICX, which features a mahogany body and set-in neck. The guitar is loaded with Ibanez Axis humbucker, controlled with a bland knob rather than a switch.

On their twin albums Mezmerize and Hypnotize, Malakian played a 1962 Gibson SG—a guitar he’s used for recording most tracks since then. On System of a Down’s 2020 singles, he also played an early '80s Gibson Korina Flying V. During the same time frame, his amp was a 100-watt Marshall JMP100 into a 4x12 cab. One channel of the Marshall is stock, but the second has been modified for extra gain. Recently he’s added a 100-Watt Friedman to his tracking arrangement. He’s also used the Divided by 13 FTR-37.

In the '90s, Malakian’s pedals included an Ibanez TS9 and Boss HM-2. His rigs have often included Boss digital delays. After experimenting with the Line 6 DL4 and various other big-box pedals, Malakian has settled into a simple setup that includes the MXR Phase 90, Boss DD-6 and Strymon DIG digital delay. His setup is often controlled by a Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pro MIDI Controller.

Jim Root and Mick Thomson

On the Ozzfest ‘99 tour, along with their heroes Slayer, System of a Down shared a stage with Slipknot—a band memorable to anyone who’s ever laid eyes on them or heard their dense sound. Slipknot formed from the metal community of Des Moines, Iowa. As the band sought to reproduce studio work and diversify its sound, more members were recruited, swelling the band to a nine-piece. Nu metal architect Ross Robinson produced their self-titled album, released in 1999. The band went on to sell millions of albums and earn 10 Grammy nominations.

Throughout Slipknot’s mainstream success, two guitarists have defined its sound, along with textured layers of percussion and samples and the vocals of Corey Taylor. First is Mick Thomson, who grew up listening to and playing death metal.

On Slipknot, Thomson played a Jackson King V loaded with EMG pickups. In the late '90s, he often used an Ibanez RG560 super strat. Ibanez later made Mick Thomson signature models: the MTM10, MTM20, and MTM100. In the early years of the band’s success, he played B.C. Rich guitars and had a signature Warlock.

Thomson is currently a Jackson artist, and they make his signature model Soloist SL2, an S-style guitar with Seymour Duncan Blackout humbucker pickups. He also uses a Double Rhoads V with the same pickups. On the self-titled album, Thompson used a Rocktron Piranha preamp into a Mesa Boogie 295.

On the second album, he started recording with a Marshall JMP-1 preamp. On Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, he mainly played through a VHT Pitbull Ultra Lead into a Carvin cabinet. On more recent recordings, Thomson has used Omega Ampworks heads, the Rivera KR-7 and a vintage Marshall JCM800.

Fellow Iowa guitarist Jim Root joined Slipknot in 1999, while they were working on their breakout album. Early in his time with Slipknot, Root was seen playing PRS and several Jacksons, including KEXTMG, Soloist, and Warrior models. Several years ago, he signed with Fender and has several signature and custom models, including a stripped down Jazzmaster with humbuckers and a Floyd Rose bridge and his signature Telecaster with active EMG humbuckers.

Root often plays through Orange amps, especially the Rockerverb 100. He’s also used the Rivera K120TRE Knucklehead, Friedman Brown Eye and Diezel Herbert KT77 Mk2. Both guitarists keep several pedals to shape their sound. Thompson likes a soft overdrive to boost his amps, such as the Maxon OD820 or an Ibanez TS808. When he wants harsher tones, the Death By Audio Fuzz War brings the noise.

Root uses Dunlop wah pedals, such as the Jimi Hendrix signature or Cry Baby rack unit. He’s used the MXR Auto Q for clean, Leslie speaker tones, as well as other modulation pedals like the Small Stone phaser and Maxon Auto Filter. His rigs almost always have at least one MXR Carbon Copy analog delay. Root also likes to have a fuzz pedal on his board, such as the Maxon Void.

Slipknot’s guitarists have also used the Boss GX-700 and GT-PRO rack effects units.

Morgan Lander

Another metal band that exists as a kind of community—although, in this case, a long list of past and present members—is the Canadian act Kittie. Formed around the trio of guitarist Fallon Bowman and sisters Mercedes (drums) and Morgan Lander (guitars and vocals), the high schoolers played together for a couple years before recording a demo and performing live. In 2000, they recorded Spit and toured with Slipknot.

Kittie’s early recordings fit well within nu metal, which was dominating much of the industry at the time. But as the lineup experienced turnover and the musical taste of the Lander sisters evolved, their releases became darker, heavier, and more melodic. In 2014, members of the band funded a documentary via Indiegogo called Origins/Evolutions, which chronicles the band's rise, development, and internal struggles.

Throughout her career, Morgan Lander has often favored V-shaped guitars, such as the Gibson Gothic V and Hamer Vector, including a black 2005 she often favors. Her amps vary between Mesa/Boogie Dual or Triple Rectifiers, a Krank Krankenstein+ or Peavey 6505. Morgan Lander is also a member of the metal band Karkaos.

Ryan Martinie and Greg Tribbett

While it may be easy to write off Illinois natives Mudvayne as a footnote in the deluge of metal, punk, and hip-hop-influenced hard rock bands that flooded CD racks and Headbanger’s Ball around the turn of the century, doing so ignores the talent of the musicians involved. Mudvayne is vocalist Chad Gray, dummer Matthew McDonough, bassist Ryan Martinie, and guitarist Greg Tribbett.

Over Mudvayne’s five albums, the songs range from smooth and melodic to progressive and complex. Along with McDonough physically demanding percussion, Martinie creates snappy polyrhythms and strong backbones for the band’s tracks. Much of Martinie’s sound is the unique way he plays with all fingers, often percussively tapping higher notes to create interesting tones and arpeggios. He also filled in for fellow groundbreaking bassist Fieldy on one of Korn’s tours.

Through much of his career, Martinie has used a Warwick Thumb of some kind, strung with DR Hi-Beams. More recently, he has switched to Fodera basses and has a signature model with the builder. He uses Ampeg or Warwick amps and cabs, including the Warwick WCA 600.

Greg Tribbett’s guitar tones often involve relatively simple rigs. He’s used the Morley Bad Horsie wah and ubiquitous Line 6 DL4 delay and looper into Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier amps and a Roland JC-120 for cleans. Later, he added the Digitech Hyper Phase and Line 6 MM4 modulation pedal and played through VHT Ultralead and Randall RM100 heads into Randall cabinets.

Tribbett has used a variety of guitars, most often seen with a Gibson Flying V or similar guitar, such as the Gothic model. He’s also used Ibanez Artists and similar double-cut guitars from the Ibanez LA Custom Shop. Later Washburn released the WV66GT, a Tribbett signature V, made from mahogany, and featuring a single EMG 81 pickup.

Brad Delson

Nu metal and rap rock’s mainstream success reached its zenith—and its decline—with the ascendance of one of the best-selling bands of the last few decades.

Linkin Park released Hybrid Theory in the fall of 2000. The band’s blend of hip-hop, electronic sounds, and tight metal made them a worldwide success. Hybrid Theory reached number two on the Billboard chart and was the 11th best-selling album of the '00s. It’s since been remixed, expanded, and re-released many times.

Linkin Park went on to release seven LPs and lots of other material, including a 2004 mashup collaboration with rapper Jay-Z. Over the band’s trajectory, guitarist Brad Delson has been a quiet but essential part of the band’s sound. Delson is easily recognizable onstage wearing large Shure headphones.

In the early '00s, Delson mainly played custom PRS double cutaways tuned to drop D flat. He used a Mesa Dual Rectifier for most songs, and a Marshall 1959 SLP for distortion. His pedals (controlled remotely via MIDI) were a Boss CS-3 compressor, CE-5 chorus, BF-2 Flanger, NS-2 Noise Suppressor, and Ibanez LF7.

Nu Metal's Legacy

Throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, many bands blasted hybrid forms of extreme rock in studios and on stages. Each successful act had its own take on the subgenre. Sevendust from Atlanta flavored their albums with beautiful vocal harmonies. California’s Hed PE added rap and reggae to the mix. Max Cavalera splintered from Sepultura and brought tribal drums and other diverse elements to Soulfly. Coal Chamber’s version included goth and industrial influences.

Abasi Concepts Larada Master Series
Abasi Concepts Larada Master Series. Photo by Matt's Gear Outlet.

As bands like Kittie and Korn evolved, so did the hard rock landscape. Nu Metal branched into several subgenres, some looking back to the foundations of metal, others looking forward with electronic music and other hybrids and even more advanced guitar technology. Orgy, signed to Korn’s label Elementree, combined distorted guitars with their take on synth-heavy new wave. Similarly, Static X (fronted by the late Wayne Static) integrated electronica elements and precise production into their nu metal sound, following in the footsteps of Fear Factory.

Sharing a symbiotic relationship with metal and other forms of progressive music, extended scale and baritone guitars like the Yamaha "Drop 6" became more common. It’s not unusual to see guitarists play 8-string instruments, such as those made by Abasi Concepts, founded by Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders.

Along with pushing gear forward, nu metal and the popularity of digital music files and streaming helped promote an era of genre agnosticism. Just as it’s common to have hip-hop, rock, and pop in the same playlists, artists are more comfortable with moving between genres. For example, rappers Lil’ Wayne and Young Thug have released guitar-focused albums, while artists like Machine Gun Kelly and Willow Smith transition between rap, pop, and punk without alienating fans.

Despite nu metal’s fading spotlight, the genre’s stars have not gone away. Korn recently released a new album. Rage Against The Machine is scheduled to tour this summer with rap duo Run The Jewels. Limp Bizkit is releasing new material. Slipknot is touring, with a new album due shortly. The people who grew up listening to nu metal are now adults, so it’s not surprising to see their economic influence on new music, and a continued demand for genre-melding tones and the gear those bands used to create them.

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