Building the Ultimate Metal Guitar Pedalboard

You’ve got the pointy guitar, high-gain amp, skinny jeans, long hair, and maybe even some tribal tattoos. Now it’s time to complete the setup and get your pedalboard sorted!

Elliot Stent

Elliot Stent

Whether you’re into early Sabbath, high-octane ‘80s “hair” metal, ‘Big Four’ thrash, or modern djent — we believe that there are a few staple guitar pedals that all metal guitarists should own. From tone-tightening Tube Screamer overdrives to heavenly-sounding chorus pedals and lead-thickening delays, we‘ve provided you with our best metal guitar pedalboard recommendations that will take your rig to a new level!

Before we get started though, make sure to check out our extensive range of pedalboards and pedal power supplies — if you don’t own either of these already! And if you’re a complete stompbox novice, you might even want to read our ‘How To Set Up Your First Pedalboard’ blog too.

Distortion / Preamp Pedal

First things first. If you’re not using an amplifier that can achieve high-gain sounds, then you’ll need a dedicated distortion or preamp pedal that can transform it into a fire-breather! And luckily for you, there are loads of options available out there. But what are the differences between distortion pedals and preamp pedals?

Distortion stompboxes are quite straightforward. They’re designed to be plugged into the main input of your amplifier and engaged over a clean tone — adding tonnes of gain to your signal. Most distortion pedals also have fairly simple controls, often sporting ‘Level’, ‘Drive/Distortion’ and ‘Tone’ knobs.

Preamp pedals, on the other hand, are a little bit more sophisticated. These are designed to emulate the preamp stage of a guitar amp, which is where almost all of an amplifier’s gain, EQ characteristics and, ultimately, “tone” come from. Preamp pedals therefore boast the controls you’d find on most guitar amplifiers; including EQ knobs (like ‘Treble’, ‘Middle’ and ‘Bass’) that allow you to precisely adjust their sounds. Preamp pedals can be plugged into the front-end of your amp, but often work better in the effects loop as they can essentially bypass and replace your amp’s existing preamp stage — yielding a richer and more organic tone.

For more info on preamp pedals and effects loops, check out our related articles:

And if you want to narrow down the perfect distortion/preamp pedal for metal, watch our ‘Ultimate Metal Pedal Shootout’ below!

Tube Screamer Overdrive Pedal

So, you’ve sorted out your distorted tone. What’s next? You need to tighten it with a Tube Screamer pedal! The legendary Ibanez Tube Screamer overdrive is synonymous with metal guitarists. Introduced in the late ‘70s, this classic low-to-medium gain circuit is used in a fairly unconventional manner by metalheads — who plug the pedal into the front-end of their amps in order to enhance and add focus to an already distorted sound (this also works if you place a Tube Screamer in front of a distortion/preamp pedal). But how does the Ibanez Tube Screamer achieve this effect?

The famously “mean and green” Tube Screamer possesses unique EQ characteristics; shelving flabby low-end and boosting mid-range to increase clarity. Because of these qualities, Tube Screamer pedals interact incredibly well with distorted high-gain guitar amplifiers and also help to produce extra saturation by adding a touch more gain. Most metal players will typically set a Tube Screamer’s ‘Drive’ knob low, and use the ‘Volume’ control to adjust the gain to taste — with ‘Tone’ acting like a presence control.

Ibanez build lots of different Tube Screamer overdrive pedals, but there are loads of pedal companies out there that have cloned the circuit and offer tweaked versions of it — from affordable to high-end. Trust us, a Tube Screamer style overdrive pedal is a must for a metal guitar pedalboard!

Colin from CSGuitars explains how to use a Tube Screamer in his video below. He includes audio examples that show how the pedal’s unique EQ characteristics enhance all of the right frequencies of a guitar’s signal:

Noise Gate Pedal

With all of that gain going on, you might experience some unwanted noise and feedback. Not to worry though, as there are many companies out there that make noise gate pedals! These ingenious devices are designed to drastically reduce audible hum and hiss coming from your rig. While they can’t cure the cause of the buzzing or interference, they can help to mask it very effectively!

So, how does a guitar noise gate pedal work? It’s actually a lot simpler than you might think. A noise gate works by “opening” and letting sound through when your guitar/amp signal goes above a certain threshold (which you can manually set on most noise gate pedals). It then “closes” to eradicate the hiss when its level falls below that threshold.

Regarding where to put a noise gate in your signal chain, it should go after your gain stompboxes. In essence, you want to place noise gate pedals wherever the noise is! So it’s therefore most conventional to have a noise gate at the end of your signal chain. That was all a very basic explanation, so make sure to read our Ultimate Guide to Noise Gate Pedals if you want to learn more about this essential device for your metal guitar pedalboard!

Chorus Pedal

Heavenly, chorus-laden cleans are the perfect counterpoint to a hellish onslaught of frenetic, high-gain riffage. If distortion is like the devil on one shoulder, chorus is the angel on the other side! High-gain guitar sounds define most metal bands, but it’s hard to think of many artists within the genre that don’t use clean guitar tones in order to make their music more dynamic and intriguing. And in the context of metal, these clean sounds are often coloured with chorus.

But what do chorus pedals sound like? Chorus is a lush modulation effect that, when applied to a guitar, creates a “doubled” sound that’s akin to a 12-string guitar. This is because a chorus pedal works by splitting an instrument’s signal into two — leaving one unaffected, while slightly delaying the second signal and modulating/detuning its pitch. That’s how the rich doubled effect is achieved!

Chorus pedals, and modulation effects in general, usually sound better when routed through the effects loop section of your guitar amp. They just sound a bit more natural and less “in-your-face” when placed between an amplifier’s preamp and power amp stages. Read our Ultimate Guide to Chorus Pedals for a more detailed explanation.

Delay Pedal

Let’s be honest — a “dry” lead guitar tone doesn’t sound great, does it? A solo with zero effects on it can sound sterile and anaemic, which is why you need a delay pedal that can add glorious, ambient wetness to your signal! It’s simply the ultimate lead guitar thickener/enhancer, and a must-have for your metal guitar pedalboard. In fact, if you hear any guitar solo in a rock or metal track — then 9 times out of 10, it’ll have been recorded with a delay unit! But what does a delay pedal actually do?

Delay pedals are designed to repeat the notes that you feed through them, just like when you hear an echo in a cave or a reflective space. Most delay stompboxes allow you to dictate their speed and amount of repeats (often labelled ‘feedback’), as well as the level of the echoes. By using a delay on your lead tones with subtle settings (about 4-6 low-volume repeats), then you’ll notice how big a difference it makes. The idea is to prevent the delay from being obvious, but to use just enough to make an audible difference. What you’re ultimately trying to attain is a sound that’s similar to a studio-recorded, double-tracked guitar.

Just like most main pedal types, there are loads of delays options out there. However, for metal specifically, we’d probably recommend an analogue or tape-style delay over a digital delay. That’s because analogue/tape delays typically have “warmer” repeats that decay more naturally than the pristine, hi-fi repeats you’d experience with most digital delays. For thickening a lead guitar sound, they’re just perfect! Oh, and these also work best in the effects loop of your guitar amplifier. Take a gander at our Ultimate Guide to Delay Pedals for more info, info, info.

Honourable Mentions

We’ve covered all of the main stompboxes that every high-gain hero should have on their metal guitar pedalboard. However, there are a few extra effects that you might also want to consider!

Metal Guitar Pedalboard

Wah Pedal

There aren’t many guitar effects out there that sound as expressive and vocal-like as wah pedals! These foot-controlled devices can make your guitar scream like a banshee, and are used by thousands of guitarists of all genres. In metal, wah is perhaps most synonymous with Kirk Hammett (Metallica) and Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society), who use the effect to help their lead parts really cut through in a frantic metal mix. They’re not just used exclusively for leads through, with Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) using wah on some of his most iconic riffs, like “Dirt”:

Pitch-Shifter Pedal

Sweet harmony, Batman! That’s right, if you want to emulate the dual-guitar harmonies of Iron Maiden or Trivium, then you can use a pitch-shifter to achieve that unique, layered sound from just one guitar. Pitch-shifter pedals are quite broad though as, with some of these, you can drop your guitar down a few semitones (or even a full octave) to make it sound like it’s been heavily detuned. Digitech‘s dedicated ‘Drop Tune’ pedal is designed solely for this purpose, but their Whammy line of effects units can also achieve this while allowing you to dramatically sweep up/down pitches with a foot controller. It’s Tom Morello’s favourite toy, and Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell also used it frequently:

Our Ultimate Metal Guitar Pedalboard!

Want To Learn More?

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Elliot Stent
Elliot Stent
Elliot is a Senior Digital Product Marketer at Andertons, and at least the 7th best guitarist in the company's Web Team. He's exactly one day younger than Harry Styles, and believes that this "head start" is the only reason why Harry's more successful than him.

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