Using Pedals to Shape High–Gain Amp Tones

Even when armed with a high–gain amp, high–output pickups, and that perfect metal guitar, many guitarists find that they just can’t get that exact right metal tone. Palm mutes and tremolo picking might lack articulation, even when the guitarist is using proper technique. Similarly, rhythm and lead parts may well find get buried underneath a dense mix.

But many guitarists have found a simple solution: boost.

It’s the same solution Stevie Ray Vaughan found when looking get dirt with a Fender Super Reverb. Or more pertinently, it’s the same solution Randy Rhoads found when he crafted his jagged, buzzsaw tone while playing with Quiet Riot and Ozzy Osbourne.

When you're dealing with an amplifier with tons of gain already on tap, you’ll want to be careful choosing an overdrive pedal. It's possible to choke up a signal with too much gain and compression, or worse, trigger a wall of feedback while on stage.

Here's a look at some of metal's most popular pedals, and how they might suit your own individual rig.

Tube Screamers: Tightening up low end frequencies

It's no secret that the Ibanez Tube Screamer is one of the all–time great pedal designs. That three–knob overdrive with the perfect mids boost has become a ubiquitous part of blues and rock rigs, from Stevie Ray Vaughan to U2’s The Edge to Trey Anastasio.

As those types of guitarists who have used one know all too well — whether that’s the TS-808, TS9, or Maxon OD-808 — the Tube Screamer is great for adding dirt or as a boost to push an amp’s preamplifier section.

But it’s not just for blues and rock guitarists. The Tube Screamer is one of the metal community’s best kept secrets, proving especially popular with guitarists working in metalcore and other extreme subgenres.

When a Tube Screamer is paired with a high–gain amp like the popular Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier or Peavey 5150/6105, it’s often used to sculpt tone instead of boost the signal.

Commonly, the pedal’s volume is set high and its gain is set low, with the amp’s gain reduced a bit as well. With these settings, the pedal's midrange frequencies tend to balance out the bottom– and top–heavy tones characteristic of these amps. This makes the bass sound tighter while the upper–mid frequencies get the perfect amount of edge without turning shrill.

Using the Tube Screamer this way makes for tight palm mutes, articulate tremolo picking, and enough midrange to cut through a dense mix during breakdowns, leads and anything between. All of this is achieved without sacrificing the core tone coming out of the amplifier.

With that said, some artists will use it as a dirty boost on into the amp’s gain circuit, which proves great for heavy rhythm and screaming leads in more classic metal genres.

You’ll likely want to pair a noise suppressor like the Boss NS–2 or ISP Decimator with your Tube Screamer. This will help you cut down on unwanted noise characteristic of running an overdrive pedal into a high–gain amplifier.


Equalizers: Jack of all trades

Whether you stick it in your effects loop or run it straight into the amp as part of a typical pedal chain, an EQ pedal is a great tool for zeroing in on the parts of your tone that give you clarity and articulation while preserving all of your favorite nasty frequencies.

The biggest advantage of an EQ pedal is its versatility. The Boss GE–7, MXR 6–Band EQ, and even the budget–friendly Danelectro Fish & Chips all give a formidable volume boost with the flexibility of focusing on whatever bass, mid, or treble frequencies your playing demands.

An EQ pedal can be used to subtract, either reducing bass frequencies or scooping midrange. But it can also accentuate some of the higher frequencies that give a guitar a little more bite during a solo.

EQ pedals are also great for fighting a common foe to all guitarists using high–gain: undesirable feedback. While the feedback between a guitar and amp may be desirable for your playing, microphonic feedback from a monitor — as the signal cycles through your rig, back through the microphone running to the PA and out the monitors again — is often unmusical. High–end feedback will hurt ears and bass feedback will ravage tone.

Bass–heavy feedback commonly occurs in the 250 to 500 Hz range, while treble–heavy, “ice pick” feedback is often heard in a sonic range above 2 kHz. Play with the corresponding sliders on your EQ pedal and you’ll find your tone is a whole lot better off.


Distortion: Retaining bass

Both overdrive and EQ may make sense to you for now thanks to their tone–shaping capabilities. Maybe for this exact reason, using a distortion pedal seems counter–intuitive. Especially with the aforementioned Dual Rec or 5150, a distortion would only pit a frequency–hungry pedal against a frequency–hungry amp.

If you’re dealing with a EL–34 tube amps like a Marshall, however, distortion can add some much needed low end. The solves the problem of a Tube Screamer robbing an already upper–mid–heavy amp of its low end.

In the early 1980s, guitarists who use EL–34 amps began to rely on a relatively new batch of distortion pedals — such as the Boss SD–1, the ProCo Rat, and the MXR Distortion + — to add both aggression and body to their tone.

Similar to how the Tube Screamer should be used with high–gain amps, you’ll want to set your distortion pedal’s with a high volume and low gain. Then, adjust the tone and gain to taste with your EL–34 amp already breaking up, and you’ll end up with singing overdrive perfect for leads and high–gain rhythm. You’ll keep bass frequencies intact while accentuating your midrange.

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