When the question “What’s Your Favorite Classic Rock Amp” was posed to Seymour Duncan readers a while ago, some very clear choices arose. So it seemed the next logical extension would be to determine readers favorite amps for metal. We knew there might be some crosstalk between lists, but for the most part metal is its own beast, and prefers an amp capable of something way more assertive and aggressive than anything that could be considered “classic.” Some amps are just versatile enough to cover both territories. However, rather than just do another “Top 4” list, and since readers mentioned multiple models from various manufacturers, we’ll try to expand on many of the amps mentioned in the “metal” realm. Still, it’s no surprise the first choice was the…
As described in the “Classic” listing, this beast was derived from the veneralbe “Plexi” model, and was one of the first Marshall amps to feature a Master Volume control. As music became heavier and distorted guitar sounds became all the rage, the ability to achieve heavily saturated tones at more manageable levels became a necessity. The Master Volume allowed the user to crank the (now beefier) preamp section while keeping the power amp at a level that didn’t make people in neighboring towns call in noise complaints. This is great in theory, but power amp distortion is what originally wowed listeners, so while it gets great tones, it may not be the universal choice for “ultimate” metal amp. To cover even higher gain levels Marshall later introduced the JCM900 and JCM2000 series.
Mesa-Boogie (Mark and Rectifier series)
Randall Smith’s “giant killer” amp, the Mark I, first made from a converted 1x 12 Fender Princeton in his kennel/garage/workshop, amazed people due to the copious amounts of gain Smith’s moded circuit was capable of generating. When the Mark II was introduced in the 80s, it quickly gained popularity thanks in no small part to Brad Gillis’ utterly SICK tone on Ozzy’s live “Speak of the Devil” release. No one had heard such a huge sound, which Gillis achieved by running two Mark IIC+ amps (still the most coveted of that series) in stereo. Its monstrous distortion and seemingly liquid, effortless sustain were unbelievable at the time. Players like Akira Tagasaki of Loudness jumped on board, but once it became well-known that the then new kings of metal – Metallica – had begun using them? Guitar sounds would never be the same.
Mesa progressed through the III and IV series before in the late 80s they decided they wanted to cater to an even HEAVIER crowd. Something with even more low-end; one that tracked tighter, too…all the better to palm-mute with. Thus the Rectifier series was born. This amp in its Single, Dual and Triple Recto (100 and 150 watts!) variations has become at least as much if not more of a benchmark for metal tones than the Mark series (which is now up to version V). Almost anyone heavy you can think of from the 90s was using them.
EVH 5150 III
Meanwhile, when looking to replace his ailing “Grail” Marshall Plexi – Edward Van Halen, after a brief flirtation with Soldano amps, in 1992 worked with designers at Peavey to create what would become the 5150 series later re-christened the 6505 when Van Halen parted ways with the company. He went on to redesign the amp yet again with Fender as part of his EVH brand, who makes the current incarnation, the EVH 5150 III. While EVH isn’t generally considered a “metal” player, the amp design (also capable of volcanic levels of saturation, punch and sustain, much like the Mesas) quickly caught on with metal players, even the far heavier black/death metal heads love all of them!
Over time most if not all of these amp designs began to incorporate multiple channels as well, so players could have a choice between “clean,” “dirty,” “lead” and in some cases “kill everybody” tones. Gotta love versatility! Amps catering to heavier styles are still being developed, and there are some new offerings that are seriously gaining some tracton due to the killer (but slightly different) tones they’re capable of producing. A few that deserve honorable mention:
Engl has created a buzz for itself lately with ominously-named and equally ominous-sounding models like the Invader, Savage, and Powerball – these in some cases four-channel amps are gaining popularity amongst metal players. The Invader model even boasts MIDI switching, further increasing its flexibility. Engl amps can be found in the backlines of acts like Kreator, Judas Priest, Craig Goldy and Shadows Fall.
You know they’ve got something going when no less than Ola Englund (whose new Signature Washburn features Seymour Duncan pickups!) swears by the Thrasher model, and his tone is HUGE. And by “swears by,” I mean “until his signature Randall model becomes available.”
Once known primarily for their solid-state designs, several of Randall’s latest designs have been tube-based, like the aforementioned Thrasher 120-watt all-tube model, with gain and crunch to spare. They also offer signature series amps for George Lynch in the LB-103, as well as the Nuno Bettencourt signature model the NB King100, a three-channel MIDI-switchable all-tube beast. One aside, both of those series Celestion-loaded accompanying 4×12 cabinets look sick while the Thrasher cabs harken back to the old-school Mesa Mark series look. It also seems per the readers apparently the VOX Valvetronix series is capable of some serious metal tones as well! Who knew? Duncan readers, that’s who.
So there you have it, a cross-section of some of Seymour Duncan reader’s favorite metal amps. A plethora of choices to covers all kinds of (heavy) sonic ground. What’s YOUR favorite amp for metal?