Metallica Amp Settings – James Hetfield & Kirk Hammett Guitar Tone!

Author: Dedrich Schafer | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Metallica is not only one of the biggest bands in metal, but one of the biggest bands in all of music. Their decades-long career has helped to popularize metal and make it one of the biggest genres of music in the world.

The two guitarists of Metallica, James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, are also considered two of the best players in the industry and are certified guitar gods.

Their sound has helped to shape modern metal. But what goes into creating this defining sound? Let us take a look at some of the gear that they use and the amp settings to some of their songs to understand how they achieve their famous sound.

The Guitars

There are three main guitar brands that both Hetfield and Hammett have used throughout their careers: ESP, Gibson, and Jackson. They have used a number of other brands as well, but these are the three that are most frequently associated with them.

But even though they choose the same brands, their choice of guitar does differ a bit.

James

James Hetfield is probably best known for his Explorer shape guitars, from the classic Gibson Explorer to his more modern-looking ESP Snakebyte.

He can also often be seen playing with Les Paul shape guitars – both his own ESP signature model and the classic Gibson Les Paul.

Hetfield also plays with Flying V shape guitars, like the Jackson Pro King V. He does seem to prefer the more traditional shape over the asymmetrical V shape used by guitarists like Alexi Laiho and Randy Rhoads.

Kirk

A big ESP player like his bandmate, Kirk Hammett prefers the more traditional Super Strat shape, usually playing with his ESP LTD signature.

But just like Hetfield, Hammett also often plays with Les Paul-shaped guitars. He also has his own signature ESP model and a Gibson Custom which is his main Les Paul.

Kirk is also a fan of the Flying V shape. He used a Gibson Flying V on many of Metallica’s greatest hits and has a Jackson Randy Rhoads that he still plays live.

On a Budget

Many of the guitars used by James and Kirk are quite expensive and likely outside the budget of many guitarists. That doesn’t mean that you can’t recreate their sound with cheaper alternatives.

Even within their brands of choice, there are many guitars on offer that will get you very close to Metallica’s sound.

Jackson and ESP both have very affordable guitars that can emulate both the Metallica sound and look.

Jackson’s JS series has Explorer and Flying V shape guitars. The Jackson Kelly has a similar shape to the Gibson used by Hetfield, while the Jackson Rhoads is the same V shape used by Hammett.

For ESP, there is the ESP Eclipse for those looking for a Les Paul shape, while the ESP EX-201 has a sharper Explorer shape. Kirk Hammett’s own signature Super Strat shape also comes in a more affordable variant.

The Greeny Experiment

What would you say is a common ground between Kirk Hammett, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Gary Moore, George Harrison, and Rory Gallagher? They’re all guitar legends, I know.

Well, recently, that common ground expanded since Kirk bought “Greeny”, the legendary guitar that Peter Green used in Fleetwood Mac and the John Mayall albums. Moreover, it’s the guitar that helped Gary Moore tear the fabric of music apart by bending those notes up to the stratosphere, and that was played by all the people named above.

But what makes “Greeny” so special? Well, to begin with, it’s a holy grail, a ‘59 Sunburst Les Paul. The other thing that makes it unique is that the neck pickup is reversed, giving the lucky owner a weird out-of-phase sound in the middle position.

Here’s Kirk Hammett talking about his impressions after having purchased “Greeny”.

But that’s not all the news, the news is that Gibson came up with three versions of the guitar to accommodate all budgets. Well, most budgets.

You can get the absolutely precise recreation of the guitar with all its battle scars and years of stage presence. That’s the most expensive version, the Custom Collector’s Edition. Yes, I know, that’s one hefty price tag. If you compare it to the real thing, though, it’s only a small percentage of the real value.

The second alternative is the NOS (New Old Stock) version of the guitar. This is the instrument without the high mileage. It comes with a drastically lower price tag attached and the same reversed neck pickup.

Finally, Gibson even changed the headstock to a traditional “open book” Gibson shape for the Epiphone version of “Greeny”. And guess what? Yes, Kirk played the Epiphone version on stage with Metallica in front of a lit audience and the guitar performed flawlessly.

That’s the most affordable version of “Greeny” so far.

EMG Active Pickups, the Secret Ingredient

Along with Zakk Wylde and a handful of other metal guitarists, James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett embraced active pickups for their guitars three decades ago. In fact, let me tell you that, most of the band’s aggressive punchiness and super-tight low-end comes from the active pickups on their instruments.

I’ve gone down that road installing the almighty EMG-81 (Hammett and Hetfield’s choice for the bridge) on a super-strat, and boy was it an adventure. Your guitar turns into a gain monster, and suddenly, every riff is heavier.

Spiderman taught us that “Great power comes with a great responsibility”, thus, I have to warn you that there’s a learning curve for active pickups. A steep one. They will teach you to play cleaner because you can hear everything clearer… and I truly mean everything; mistakes included.

That said, whatever guitar you acquire from the list, you can install a James Hetfield EMG set or a Kirk Hammett EMG set. Just bear in mind you need room for a battery inside the guitar.

The Amps

Although there are some similarities with the amps that they use, Hetfield’s and Hammett’s choices differ a bit more when it comes to their guitars. Both guitarists have also used a wide variety of amps over their careers.

Both have used Mesa/Boogie, Marshall, and Vox amps over the years. Mesa/Boogie Dual and Triple Rectifiers, Marshall JCM800 and DSL, and the VOX AC30. There are a few other amps that both guitarists have used, but these are perhaps the most well-known amps that are still in production today.

James

James Hetfield is known for also using Krank amps for live performances. Both a Krank Revolution and a Krank Krankenstein are used. He also uses a Diezel VH4 amp head.

For cleaner tones, Hetfield also uses a Roland JC-120. He has moved over to the head version of this amp in recent years.

Kirk

Kirk Hammett has his own signature range of Randall amps that he uses live. The Randall KH series, which he pairs with Randall 4×12 cabinets.

Hammett also uses a Bogner Uberschall and Peavey 5150. These amps are a bit hard to come by, but the Bogner Helios and Peavey Invective are great alternatives.

On a Budget

Just like their guitars, the amps used by Hetfield and Hammett can also be quite expensive for most guitarists. And just like their guitars, there are a number of great alternatives at more affordable prices.

The best alternative would be a combo modeling amp. These amps will feature all the effects needed to sound like Metallica and eliminate the need to also buy a bunch of effects pedals.

There are quite a few excellent modeling amps on the market, the top picks being the Boss Katana MKII, the Blackstar ID:Core, and the Marshall Code 50. These amps come with a fantastic selection of effects and amp sounds and are all more than powerful enough for practically any venue.

… And Modelers For All?

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely an amp guy. I love to hear the guitar’s tone going through the tubes and the pedals and coming out nasty and menacing through as many 12” speakers as I can fit on stage.

Well, Metallica went to Antarctica to play a show in 2013. They made a documentary about it and all (you can watch it below for free and in all its full-HD glory).

The thing is that to protect the utterly fragile and rare environment they were in, they couldn’t do the amp thing. Yes, polar bears, whales, and arctic fauna don’t enjoy heavy metal the way humans do.

Thus, the band was forced to use amp modelers and stream the sound straight to everyone’s headphones.

After that experiment, 10 years ago, the band realized they could pull it off and play “their sound” without “their amps”. Hence, they decided to take it all one step further and have their amp rig replaced by Fractal Axe-FX modelers.

Nowadays, the band tours the world and plays in arenas in front of thousands of people with no classic amplification, just a pair of Fractal Axe-Fx III loaded with all the presets and scenes per song.

Furthermore, there aren’t any cabinets on the stage anymore, just monitors to hear the guitar blasting whenever they want to feel the air moving their pants.

But not only Metallica made this switch, going over to Fractal’s website, you can see everyone from John Mayer, The Edge, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Guthrie Govan, Muse, John Petrucci, and even classic bands like Aerosmith, and Def Leppard play through Fractals.

For cheaper alternatives, you can try a Neural DSP Quad Cortex, Line 6 Helix, Kemper Profiler Power Head, and the new player in town, the Fender Tone Master Pro.

Who knows, maybe they’ll have us convinced too and we’ll stop playing through amps too!

The Pedals

The list of pedals used by James and Kirk is almost too extensive. Both have their own unique pedalboards with their own selections of pedals.

There are a few pedals that can be found on both pedalboards, as well as a few noteworthy ones found on each.

Both Hetfield and Hammett use the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer. This is a classic distortion pedal that is used by countless metal guitarists and is beloved for its excellent distortion and tone.

Both guitarists also use the Boss NS-2. This is an excellent noise suppressor that helps to maintain control over your sound and avoid feedback.

For wah, both use the tried and true Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal, although Kirk has his own signature model. James also has a Pro Co RAT that he uses to fatten up his distortion a bit more.

Metallica Amp Settings

While there is going to be a slight difference in the settings of Hetfield and Hammett’s amps, it isn’t a massive difference. Their settings are close enough that either one will work for a Metallica sound.

But both settings are based on the same basic principles to create a sort of standard Metallica sound. Using these principles, we can then get fairly close to the actual settings used by Hetfield and Hammett.

The Basics

First, let us take a look at the basic elements of Metallica’s sound: distortion, reverb, and EQ.

For distortion, more is generally better. Metallica has a very heavy sound. This means that you want to push the distortion on your amp or pedal as far as possible.

In most cases, you will likely max out the distortion on your amp or pedal. If the distortion sounds too harsh or starts to break up too much, then dial it back very slowly until you are left with a nice and heavy distortion. Ideally, you won’t go any lower than 9 on the dial.

As for EQ, it can be split between distortion and clean. Hetfield and Hammett also use reverb to give their sound more weight and character.

Distortion: Metallica’s sound is very bottom-heavy, with a slightly scooped mids sound.

The bass should be set quite high, usually around 8 to start. Mids are set fairly low, never really going higher than 4. While treble hovers around 6, depending on the song.

Clean: Metallica’s clean sound is a bit brighter than its distorted sound, but not shiny or sparkly.

The best way to achieve this tone is to turn the bass way down to around 3. Mids are set slightly above halfway at around 6. And Treble hovers around half to start, around 4 or 5.

Reverb: The reverb is usually set fairly low, around 3 or 4. This is to add some character and fatten up the tone a bit without giving it a reverb sound.

With this basic setup down, you can then start to adjust each part until you get to the right sound for each specific song.

To help get a better sense of what the settings should look like eventually, here are the settings for a few of Metallica’s most famous songs.

Amp Settings for Songs

Nothing Else Matters

Clean:

  • Bass – 6
  • Mids – 4
  • Treble – 4
  • Gain – 1/2
  • Reverb – 4

Distorted:

  • Bass – 6
  • Mids – 3
  • Treble – 8
  • Gain – 8
  • Reverb – 4

Enter Sandman

Clean:

  • Bass – 5
  • Mids – 4
  • Treble – 6
  • Gain – 3
  • Reverb – 3

Distorted (Kirk):

  • Bass – 9
  • Mids – 2
  • Treble – 5
  • Gain – 9
  • Reverb – 3

Distorted (James):

  • Bass – 9
  • Mids – 4
  • Treble – 9
  • Gain – 8
  • Reverb – 3

One

Clean (Kirk):

  • Bass – 7
  • Mids – 6
  • Treble – 8
  • Gain – 1/2
  • Reverb – 4

Clean (James):

  • Bass – 8
  • Mids – 6
  • Treble – 6
  • Gain – 1/2
  • Reverb – 4

Distorted (Kirk):

  • Bass – 7
  • Mids – 7
  • Treble – 8
  • Gain – 7
  • Reverb – 4

Distorted (James):

  • Bass – 8
  • Mids – 3
  • Treble – 7
  • Gain – 10
  • Reverb – 3

Fade to Black

Solo (Kirk):

  • Bass – 8
  • Mids – 4
  • Treble – 7
  • Gain – 10
  • Reverb – 4

Riffs (James and Kirk):

  • Bass – 8
  • Mids – 3
  • Treble – 7
  • Gain – 10

Master of Puppets

  • Bass – 9
  • Mids – 4
  • Treble – 8
  • Gain – 10

… And Justice for All

  • Bass – 9
  • Mids – 4
  • Treble – 7
  • Gain – 10

Kill ‘Em All

  • Bass – 9
  • Mids – 2
  • Treble – 6
  • Gain – 9

Seek and Destroy

  • Bass – 9
  • Mids – 5
  • Treble – 9
  • Gain – 9

Ride the Lightning

  • Bass – 10
  • Mids – 2
  • Treble – 6
  • Gain – 10

For Whom the Bell Tolls

  • Bass – 10
  • Mids – 4
  • Treble – 7
  • Gain – 9

Modern EQ Settings – ‘90s and Beyond

After going for the classic metal “scooped” era (the EQ resembles a V, and while bass and treble are cranked, mids are almost out of the equation), Metallica and most heavy metal bands shifted away from thrash into a more “rock” sound bringing back the mids to the equation.

You can suddenly hear the guitar “breathing” with the midrange. Still, the bass is cranked, but the treble doesn’t sound shrill at all, it’s tamed by the midrange.

This came along with a stylistic change. Solos and songs became shorter and with simpler structures. This all derived into what we know as the Nü Metal scene that roared over the planet with heavily distorted, low-tuned guitars and simple riffs.

Metallica is always Metallica, thus, when everyone was going in that direction, they made a change and decided to go for a more classic, early-days audio and song structure in their album “St. Anger” (2003), produced by Rick Rubin, with a polemic snare sound and almost no solos from Kirk.

Finally, in my opinion, they found a great balance of modern sound and classic song structures in their last opus: “72 Seasons”.

Load

  • Bass – 7
  • Mids – 6
  • Treble – 7
  • Gain – 10

Reload

  • Bass – 8
  • Mids – 7
  • Treble – 8
  • Gain – 8

St. Anger

  • Bass – 9
  • Mids – 3
  • Treble – 5
  • Gain – 6

72 Seasons

  • Bass – 8
  • Mids – 5
  • Treble – 8
  • Gain – 10

Conclusion

As you can see, quite a lot goes into one of the most recognizable guitar sounds in history. But with all of this, hopefully, you now have all of the information you need to recreate Metallica’s iconic, heavy sound.

Avatar photo

About Dedrich Schafer

Dedrich is a guitar player, songwriter and sound engineer with extensive music production and studio experience. He mostly listens to classic rock and punk bands, but sometimes also likes listening to rap and acoustic songs.

Leave a Comment