7 Essential Metal Amps and the Subgenres They Define

Making sense of heavy metal subgenres can be one of the most fascinating and frustrating endeavors of any music genre. Think about it: Judas Priest is as far from Meshuggah as Hank Williams is from Florida Georgia Line. And the metal family tree is only getting more complicated as time goes.

Interestingly, though there are countless forms of metal, there are only a handful of guitar amplifiers that have laid and continue to lay the foundation for them all. So in an attempt to bring some sort of unity to the ever-tumultuous waters of what's metal and what's not, let's investigate the high-gain heads and combos that unify music's heaviest form.

Honorable mentions: Marshall 1959 100-Watt Plexi, JMP 2203, JCM800 2203
Subgenre: New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM)

Marshall 1987x Amp Head | Reverb Demo Video

"British Steel," "Number of the Beast," "Ace of Spades." The sound of a boosted Marshall Plexi and "Metal Face" amp was responsible for all three of these albums—and invented what we know today as high-gain metal tone.

That's thanks in large part to the fact that there weren't many other options around at the time. As hard rock morphed from '70s swagger to the galloping-riff power that was exploding out of the UK, their punishingly loud volumes and thick (for the era) onboard distortion made them the only real choice for the bands at the forefront of metal. And they've been the pinnacle of rock amplification ever since.

Honorable mentions: Mesa-Boogie MK IIC+, Modified Marshalls, Soldano SLO 100
Subgenres: Thrash, Hair Metal, NWOBHM

As metal took its next evolutionary step into early '80s thrash metal, players needed more gain—and a faster response than the older amps could provide. Once again, Marshall was there to answer the call with what is now one of the most revered rock 'n' roll amps in history, the JCM 800 2203 100-watt head.

Take a look at early pictures of any of the big four thrash bands (Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer). You're all but guaranteed to see multiple of these hard-rock icons resting proudly on their walls of full stacks. In fact, Slayer's Kerry King swears by his signature JCM 800s to this very day.

But thrash wasn't the only ones to lean on these amps. The hair metal scene also embraced the 800 models with equal fervor. From the amp's most famous evangelists, Zakk Wylde, Mötley Crüe's Mick Mars, and Ratt's Warren DeMartini, there wasn't a backline on the Sunset Strip that wasn't dominated by Marshall's reigning champion.

Honorable mentions: Randall RG series, Peavey Bandit 112
Subgenres: Nu-Metal, Death Metal, Djent

Death - "Spirit Crusher," Live in Eindhoven 1998

While solid-state guitar amps were never the signature voice of an entire genre, they are a style of high-gain amp that has made their presence known time and time again. And it's arguably the Marshall Valvestate 8100 100-watt head that has carved out the most significant legacy of any non-tube design.

When you combine its use by Chuck Schuldiner of Death, Meshuggah's tone on their groundbreaking early albums, and the massive success Static-X's 8100-driven Wisconsin Death Trip, inexpensive or not, there aren't many other amps that can live up to the 8100's resume.

But of course, the 8100 isn't the only solid-state amp to carve out a niche for itself. The singular sound of Dimebag Darrell's Randall RG series amps is seared into every metalhead's mind. And it was Peavey's underrated Bandit 112 combo that supplied the buzzsaw tones of Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse.

Honorable mentions: None. It was Rectifiers or nothing.
Subgenres: Nu-Metal, Death Metal, Metalcore

Korn - "Blind," Live at Woodstock '99

While many subgenres of metal can be criticized for burying the low end in the mix, the low-end groove of nu metal's heyday was at the very core of its popularity. And it wouldn't have achieved that signature sound without the Mesa-Boogie Dual and Triple Rectifier amps.

It was their ability to handle Korn's paradigm-shifting use of down-tuned 7-string guitars where these amps came to the head of the pack. Soon, it was as if there were no other amps on the market. Every nu-metal band out there was playing Randall Smith's flagship designs.

Yet to classify them as only a nu-metal amp would be to do a mighty disservice. These amps continue to be a popular choice for a wide variety of players, from the pulverizing death metal of Cannibal Corpse to Mark Tremonti's work in Alter Bridge, Creed, and Tremonti.

Honorable mentions: Peavey 6505 series, EVH 5150 III series
Subgenres: Djent, Death Metal, Metalcore, Thrash, Black Metal

Machinehead - "Davidian"

Eventually, nu-metal waned and technique-driven metal guitarists craved the gain of the Mesas but with a tighter, faster response. And it was Peavey and Eddie Van Halen that had inadvertently stepped up to the plate with the 5150. The head's signature midrange, tactile gain, and tight bottom-end sit perfectly in a chaotic metal track and have made it the go-to amp for countless death metal, metalcore, and thrash bands.

But as most guitarists know, Eddie eventually moved on from Peavey and released the newly designed 5150 III under his own brand, EVH. Not only did his new amps present metal diehards with an equally inspiring voice in the same tonal vein as the original 5150s, but Peavey carried their designs on, rebranded as the 6505 line.

Today, both of these amp lines continue to be at the forefront of high-gain amplification.

Honorable mentions: Matamp GT120, Sunn Beta Lead, Sunn Model T, Ampeg V-4
Subgenres: Doom, Stoner Rock, Sludge, Post Metal, Thrash, Nu Metal, Nordic Death Metal

Bored of the overly processed and produced metal albums, doom, sludge, and post metal bands are stripping their rigs back to old school and simple amps that are really f'n loud!

While a vintage Orange OR120 is a prime example of a holy grail doom metal amp, it is only one of a few sludgy classics. The qualifications for an amp to be embraced by these bands are simple. Offer an ungodly loud, clean pedal platform and/or have an equally loud high-gain voice that's an experience you'll feel as much as hear.

Honorable mentions: Kemper Profiler, Line 6 Helix, Positive Grid Bias
Subgenres: Djent, Progressive Metal

Mark Holcomb on Gain Settings with Fractal Audio Axe FXII

Amp modeling has been around for decades. But where the digital side of amplification really got its foot in the door was with djent and modern prog metal bands, such as Meshuggah, Periphery, and Animals as Leaders.

This new generation of technically advanced players horde systems like the Axe-Fx, Kemper Profiler, and Line 6 Helix. But it's not just these bands loading their racks with modelers. Their infinite tonal possibilities, unmatched convenience, and tones that give any tube amp a run for its money are responsible for a growing wave of guitarists throughout music ditching their tube rigs for these digital alternatives.

There are as many amps out there today as there are metal subgenres. So keep in mind, this list is far from gospel. But these amps that defined a genre, sound, or style of playing. So forgive us if we didn't include the one you love most. But trust us, if you want to grind it out in any of these subgenres, these amps are the best in the business.

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