How to Get a Killer Metal Bass Tone (Ultimate Guide)


Sculpting a killer metal bass tone may come across straightforward, ie.. lots of distortion, aggressive playing, and hey presto!

But it’s not as easy as you may think. 

There are lots of other aspects to consider to create and perfect a snarling metal sound.  

This is why I came up with this complete guide to obtain a sweet metal bass tone. Discussing EQ, amps, guitars, strings, the fundamentals, and more. 

No matter your preferred metal subgenre, we’ll help you set up a great foundational tone. 

So let’s go; how do you create an excellent metal bass tone? Getting a great metal bass tone consists of a mix of proper distortion, amp EQ, effects, and aggressive playing. This collection should create a ‘gritty,’ ‘clanky,’ and ‘aggressive’ sound. Also, the bass needs to find its own sonic space in a band mix to compliment the heavy guitar sounds.  

Metal Bass Tone Video Tutorial

The Foundation of a Great Metal Bass Tone 

First, what you need to bear in mind first is that metal is a broad category. There is no one simple way to get a killer metal bass tone as there are so many different subgenres. 

But there are some basic things that you can cover first, and that would serve as a foundation of every excellent bass part in the genre. 

The central part that you need to cover is to know how to work your amp’s equalizer. Additionally, you’d also have other pedals, maybe even preamps, that come with additional EQ controls. 

The goal here is to get that “beefy,” “clanky,” and aggressive tone that still has enough brightness and high-ends to make it stand out but not overpower. 

Amp Settings (EQ) for Metal Bass

Your amp’s settings are where it all begins. You’ll first need to tweak the EQ on it and other parameters, as this is the foundation.

On the other hand, the type of amp, bass, and gear that you are using will have more impact in the end. 

Anyhow, the EQ usually consists of three basic controls for “lows,” “mids,” and “highs.” Each of these controls covers a specific range of frequencies. 

  • Bass (Lows) – The knob labeled as “lows” or “bass” covers the bottom-end frequencies, anything up to 250 or 300 Hz. Adding a solid amount of low-end gives your tone power, making it sound “fat” and complete. 
  • On the other hand, if this parameter is predominant compared to others, your tone will most likely be too dull for metal music.  
  • Middle (Mids) – Going anywhere from 300 to 5000 Hz, midrange gives that much-needed “growl” in your tone, something that can make it stand out and cut through the mix. Of course, this is a wide category, and the mids can be divided into low-mids, midrange, and high-mids. More expensive bass amps can help you either choose the mids to pronounce (like a parametric EQ) or have two separate controls for low and high mids. 
  • Treble (highs) – High-ends are anything above the 5 or 6 kHz mark. This particular part of the audible spectrum adds more presence and “ring” to your bass tone, helping it cut through the mix. Adding some of the sharpness to the tone can be essential for most of the metal music subgenres. 

Distortion

Although bass should, in most cases, not overwhelm the mix, you can always add some distortion to it. We would advise just a little bit of overdrive from a pedal or the amplifier in most cases.

But suppose you want to push it into more serious territories and make the bass guitar cover regular guitars’ territories. In that case, you can combine pedals and your amp’s distortion circuit. 

The main goal with distortion for basses is not to lose clarity but still add some growl to your bass tone. This can help in some particular settings in metal music. 

Just make sure to think of the entire mix. After all, the bass is, in most cases, a backing instrument and a part of the rhythm section. You don’t want to “drown” all of the other instruments. 

Step by Step Guide

So with this said, let’s look at how you should dial in your perfect tone using the amp’s EQ section.

Just bear in mind that there’s no singular “perfect” solution. Firstly, every amp is different, and secondly, you’ll always have your own preferences depending on your taste. 

However, some basic guidelines to follow if you want to start dialing your desired metal tone. Here we have a list of things that you should do to get you started on shaping the tone:

  • Set the volume level at a desirable level
  • Set all EQ parameters at 12 o’clock
  • Play a few notes and hear what it sounds like
  • Cut all mids to zero
  • Start playing and add enough midrange to the amount it works for you
  • Tweak the bottom ends to the amount that works for you
  • Add enough high-ends to hear the “clang” in the tone but without it being too sharp
  • Adjust the volume and distortion level according to your needs

Mistakes to Avoid With EQ

But on the other hand, there are a few other things to consider. Here are some of the things you would want to avoid or just be careful about when doing the basic tone-shaping with your amp’s EQ. 

  • Don’t push the volume too high or keep it too low
  • Don’t put the bass or any other parameters all the way up
  • Avoid adding too much distortion
  • Don’t turn on any effects pedals while shaping your EQ; the tone should be dry while you’re doing this
  • For a good metal tone, parameters shouldn’t be all flat  

Solid-State Bass Amps 

Solid-state amps are most common among bassists these days. The main advantage of such amps is that they are significantly cheaper compared to tube-driven ones. 

But additionally, they also have more headroom, meaning that they can’t distort that easily and can keep your tone pretty clean. This also makes them a good “platform” for bass players who like to use many pedals. 

Solid-state amps are also much easier to maintain and carry around. Not only are they far less fragile, but they are also significantly lighter in weight.

Unlike regular electric guitars, solid-state amps are far more common for basses and even professional metal players use them frequently. 

Just like any other type of amps, they can come in combo and “stack” variants. Professional settings usually involve amps that are in the “stack” variant, meaning that they have separate amp head and cabinet sections. 

Tube/Valve Bass Amps 

On the other hand, tube-driven bass amps have their good sides. While it comes down to personal preferences, a tube amp allows for a more dynamic response. 

This means that they have less headroom and that they distort according to the dynamics of your playing. Additionally, such amps add more warmth to the tone and let you get that “crunchy” kind of saturation on top of it. 

While tube amp tone is usually more appreciated by both the musicians and music listeners, there are some downsides.

Firstly, they’re much more sensitive and challenging to maintain, in addition to their heavier weight. 

 What’s more, metal bassists usually prefer solid-state amps due to a clearer and more balanced tone without dealing with too much dynamic response. 

But in the end, the choice is up to you. Just bear in mind that tube amps are usually much more expensive. 

To learn more, this topic has been covered in-depth in our amp comparison post…Solid-State vs Tube Amp for Bass. You can view this post right here!

The Cabinet  

Bassists mostly prefer to go with separate amp heads and cabinets.

This usually provides you with more flexibility in tone shaping. This is why you should dedicate the same effort to finding the right cabinet as you would for an amp and other gear. 

In fact, a cabinet can ultimately make or break your tone. An awesome amp needs a proper cabinet. However, a good cabinet will never be able to help a poor-sounding amp. 

Either way, choosing the one with the right type of speakers can help you a lot. You’ll just first need to know what kind of tone you’re looking for and go from there.  

Cabinet Size

But while we’re at it, one of the most important aspects here is the cabinet size. In most cases, bass cabinets come with four speakers. On the other hand, you’ll also find a lot of them with just one speaker in there. 

Additionally, there are also cabs with two speakers placed vertically one above the other. Which is a different configuration compared to regular guitar amp cabinets with two speakers. But the general rule is that the larger the main speakers are, and the larger the cabinet, you’ll get more powerful bottom-ends. 

In most cases, bass cabinets can come with 10 or 12-inch speakers in them. However, there are those with 15-inch speakers, as well as some with combined sizes.

Some cabinets also include small drivers that help them reproduce high-end frequencies better, giving your bass guitar that “zing” in the tone. If you prefer to have that sharper edge in your bass sound, we’d recommend a cabinet with a tweeter. 

Metal Bass Guitars – What to Know 

Metal Bass Guitars  

Of course, finding a proper bass guitar is essential for your tone quality. 

And when it comes to metal music, there are specific brands that focus on making great basses for the genre. These

  • Ibanez
  • Schecter
  • ESP
  • Dean
  • Warwick
  • Jackson 
  • Charvel
  • Gibson
  • Epiphone

On the other hand, you don’t always need a specialized bass for metal music to get a great bass tone.

These days, it’s not uncommon to see a Fender Jazz bass in hands of metal players. When combined with a great amp and pedals, it can work pretty well for these settings. 

The most important factor here is having proper pickups. The great combination of pickups, electronics, tonewood, and hardware can help you bring a great metal tone as well as enough sustain. 

You’ll also need to make a pick between active and passive electronics. Those with an active preamp can bring a strong output, more “punch,” and a lot of tone-shaping options. 

Generally speaking, you’d want to look at basses that are around the $400 mark and up. Anything below tends to be not good enough. 

4 Strings vs. 5 Strings For Metal? 

One of the most common discussion points among metal bassists is whether you should go with a 4-string or a 5-string bass.

A 5-string brings an extended range of notes but might be a bit more challenging to play. In some cases, having 5 strings isn’t even necessary. 

If you’re in a band that covers a lot of bottom-end areas, and you’re playing a style that usually involves 7 or 8-string guitars, then having a 5-string bass would be a better option. 

On the other hand, if you’re playing music that includes regular 6-string down-tuned guitar riffs, then a 4-string will be enough. After all, you don’t really need to spend a bigger sum on something that you won’t need. 

Active vs. Passive Pickups 

Passive Bass Pickups  

One of the most essential points to consider when buying a bass for metal is going with passive or active pickups. 

There’s no “wrong” or “right” option here, just what you prefer. Passive pickups have a more controlled tone, usually with a lower output compared to active ones. 

Additionally, their tone is usually slightly mellower and warmer. Even a single-coil pickup on bass can be more controlled if it’s passive. 

They’re usually a better option for those who like to play classic metal and hard rock. But on the other hand, they can be useful for more “extreme” metal subgenres if you prefer their kind of tone. 

Additionally, basses with passive pickups are easier to use since you don’t have to think about having backup batteries all the time. 

Active Bass Pickups 

Active pickups bring a lot of “punch” to your bass tone. This is not just about their powerful output but also about having more pronounced mids and high-ends.

Combining them with tube amps, for instance, can easily lead you into those “organically” distorted territories. 

If you’re into modern metal or just like a really sharp bass tone for any subgenre, then active pickups are the way to go. They can also help you cut through the mix more easily if that’s what you’re looking for as a bass player.

In some cases, a bass with active pickups is somewhat comparable to a piano, giving that sharper attack, along with beefy bottom-ends accompanying it. They have become more popular over the past decade or so. 

Effects for Metal Bass

Distortion/Fuzz

While distortion might be getting more popular among bass players, you should always be careful with it. Adding some “dirt” in the mix can be a great way to enhance your tone for metal music.

However, you should bear in mind that you’re never supposed to compete with any of your band’s guitar players. 

Whether you’re looking for some classic distortion or a very saturated fuzz, it’s important to keep things under control as a bass player. 

If it’s a part where you’re playing just with a drummer and no one else, then you’re free to experiment. But if the entire band is playing, then you should keep things under control and not go into the guitar player’s territories. 

The best way to go is to have a distortion pedal with an EQ and other tone-shaping parameters. This will make things much easier without any need to do further tweaking on your amp.  

Overdrive

Overdrive is also a type of distortion, but with smoother clipping. Overall, it’s something that I’d recommend over classic distortion or fuzz.

With a good overdrive pedal, you’ll add some dirt to the tone but it will be much easier to control. You’ll just add some punch to the tone without going into overly saturated fuzzy territories. 

EQ Pedal 

I’d say that having an EQ pedal is mandatory for every serious bass player, especially in metal music. There will always be one part of your repertoire that requires a different type of tone. 

And with a proper EQ pedal with more frequency ranges, you’d be able to access that with just a flick of a switch. You can use it to boost or cut frequencies according to your needs.  

Noise Gate

Noise gate pedals are especially useful for metal players. There will be a lot of unwanted noise in between the notes when playing metal, especially if you prefer to have active pickups. Just make sure not to cut out the quality portion of your sound. 

Plectrum or No Plectrum for Metal? 

Here we come to one of the biggest arguments among bass players. Using a plectrum while playing bass has a somewhat controversial reputation.

While playing with standard fingerpicking and slapping techniques have its advantages, playing with a pick can give you more attack and help you play some specific parts for metal music. 

There is no right or wrong way here, just what you as a bass player prefer. But in the end, the best idea is to get good at both fingerpicking and plectrum techniques.  

This way, you’ll be able to implement them when needed. Both of these are good options when you’re looking for a way to achieve a specific kind of tone.

And remember – if a bassist plays with a pick, it’s not “wrong” or “cheating,” but rather a way to achieve a specific kind of tone.  

Choosing Strings for Metal Bass

Stainless Steel Strings 

Even though they might seem simple, strings can be a huge portion of one’s tone. Among many different types of strings, stainless steel ones are easily the best choice for metal music.

Your standard round-wound stainless steel strings will bring a strong attack, a lot of brightness and will help you sound more aggressive. 

And if you’re feeling like the tone is too “crisp” or bright for a specific song or a particular subgenre, you can always control things with an EQ on your amp, bass, or pedals.

But in general, stainless steel round-wound strings are the most popular choice among metal players and are something that you’ll want to consider. I’d also advise that you keep away from flat-wound strings.

String Gauge Guide

Finding proper string gauges comes down to personal preferences. It’s advisable that you use thicker strings for lower tunings, especially if a bass has a shorter scale length. Using lighter strings is a better way to go if you’re playing in the standard E or E-flat tunings. 

But in the end, it’s up to you to find what works the best for your particular playing style. Try different gauges for your preferred tunings and see how it turns out. 

Into an amp and being quiet enough so that the rest of the band is heard. You, as a bassist, are the foundation of everything. And your tone should be strong enough in the bottom ends yet still have its character. We hope that this guide was helpful to you and that you’ve learned something new. Stay safe!

Thanks for Reading

Adam

Adam is the founder and author of Tone Topics and dedicated to providing the best guitar content for like-minded gear nerds. Please enjoy all the content on the site and support us by sharing these posts with other people. It would really help us out!

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