Daron Malakian is well known for his catchy guitar riffs and songwriting for the nu-metal band System of a Down.
SOAD are unmatched in their ability to shroud serious and heavy topics behind a humorous and comedic front.
They played a pivotal role in the popularization of the nu-metal genre, crafting a sound that was simultaneously playful and extremely hard-hitting.
So today I’m taking an in-depth look into the guitars, gear, and settings Daron used to craft such a unique personality on his instrument.
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One of the main characteristics of Daron’s sound is that he’s diverse. You’ll be heading from crystal clear clean sounds to ultra-high gain distortion tones from section to section.
Daron has had a longstanding relationship with Ibanez. For the longest time, he used various models of the ICX120 that would have unique artworks and designs painted onto them.
Then in 2004, he released his signature model, the Ibanez DMM1 which is based on the aforementioned ICX120 Ibanez.
Fundamentally it’s very similar, but features a new custom tail plate and Ibanez’s own Axis pickups which have individual tone control knobs, much like the SG.
These guitars are pretty expensive and even tougher to find nowadays. So a more modern production guitar like the Ibanez Iron Label Iceman can work as a great alternative.
Daron also likes to use a regular Gibson SG standard which is left completely stock. On occasion, he’d also use a Gibson SG Standard ’61 Maestro Vibrola for when he needed the floating bridge and vibrola system.
This combination of dual humbucking pickups with a mahogany body and medium output pickups allowed him to achieve the wide variety of sounds he needed.
You’ll be able to achieve very similar results with both the Epiphone SG Standard and Epiphone SG Standard ’61 Maestro Vibrola as these have the same mahogany body and pickup configuration.
Daron uses Drop C tuning exclusively for System of a Down.
This means every string is dropped by 2 semitones to make D, G, C, F, A, D, then the lowest string is dropped a further 2 semitones to make it a drop tuning giving you C, G, C, F, A, D.
As far as amp go, he likes to keep things pretty old school, sticking primarily to a traditional tube amp and cab setup.
The general ethos is that they’re all high gain and high wattage as he’d rely almost exclusively on pre-amp gain for the majority of his distorted tones.
Marshall JMP 2203 Mk II Master Lead
Often described as God’s gift to rock guitar. The Marshall JMP 2203 produces that quintessential rock guitar tone whilst still retaining enough headroom for some pleasant clean sounds.
He’d use his Gibson SG into this head paired with a 4×12 Marshall cabinet which would actually be recorded with a single room microphone, instead of the traditional closed mic technique.
One unique aspect of this amplifier was the fact he had modded the second channel to include additional gain staging to get that more modern nu-metal sound.
So while you can’t purchase an off the shelf modded amplifier like Daron’s, something like Marshall DSL100HR or a JCM 900 will pump out enough gain for his style of music.
But for the average home player, something like the Marshall DSL20HR is going to give you comparable gain for a fraction of the volume (and price).
Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier
It’s not known how much studio use this amp received. But it certainly was seen often when System would play live.
The Mesa Boogie Dual and Triple Rectifiers are the gold standard when it comes to modern high-gain tones.
Not only do they sound great, but they’re built like tanks and can stand up to the busy touring schedule playing in System of a Down would demand.
You can achieve similar tones with other popular high-gain heads such as the Peavey 6505, or even the Mesa Boogie Mini Rectifier, although you may need to drive it a bit harder by using a distortion pedal.
Daron’s Amp Settings for System of a Down
As Daron needed to utilize both clean, crunch, and high gain tones for System of a Down’s music, he’d make heavy use of the different channels of his amp and adjust his settings to whatever the song required.
Here’s a really solid baseline setting you can use to get that signature System of a Down high gain tone.
Gain: 7 – Daron didn’t rely on distortion pedals so you’ll need as much gain as you can get out of the preamp before the tone starts becoming unwieldy. If you are using low-output pickups then consider raising this to 8.
Bass: 4 – System of a Down uses very clear high-gain tones that don’t require a lot of bass. So rolling this off a bit can help to tighten things up.
Mids: 6.5 – The brunt of Daron’s tone was coming from the mids, so a fairly generous boost here is going to help the guitar push through the other instruments nicely.
Treble: 6 – A small treble boost just to accent the pick attack helps a lot.
Everyone’s favorite System song. Here you’ll need to be muting the guitars pretty quickly during the pre-chorus. So a slight roll off of the gain will help tighten things up.
The main riff on Aerials relies a lot on moving the bass notes around on the guitar. So pumping up the bass here will help the clean guitars to sound thicker.
This song uses far more of a traditional rock and roll sound. So once again a bit less gain to help the riffs stay tight and articulate.
Almost all of the pedals Daron utilizes are modulation effects to help augment his tones.
While not a massive effect user, a few key pedals here and there can help you nail the System of a Down tone.
FullTone Clyde Wah Pedal
A modern wah pedal that has its heart set in the 60s and early 70s as it’s designed with a custom-wound Fulltone pot that accurately reproduces the Wah tones of that era.
While there are not many other pedals that aim to achieve this, really I think you can get away with something like a Dumplip GCB95 or even the Behringer HB01 which both sound great and are far more affordable.
Line 6 DL-4
The DL-4 is designed to be an all-in-one delay and looper pedal that can emulate everything from the old transistor tape echos all the way to modern digital delays.
The DL4 MkII is still one of the best bang for your buck pedals around in terms of the sheer number of delay emulations it gives you access to.
However, you can use something like TC Electronics Gauss Tape which will give you a great sounding tape echo, you just won’t have access to the other delay types.
MXR Phase 90
One of the most popular guitar pedals ever made. The MXR Phase 90 is beloved for its affordable price and simplicity.
The EHX Nano Small Stone Phaser or the Blood Moon Phaser, while not having the history that the Phase 90 has, can still make great-sounding substitutions.
There’s nothing too complicated about achieving Daron’s tone. He uses fairly standard equipment that’s widely available and has been battle-tested on the road for decades.
This is great for anyone looking to achieve a similar tone providing you follow our amp settings guide and use a little common sense, you’ll be able to easily nail those classic System of a Down tones for yourself!