A lot of people seem to be spamming up all the big guitar and metal forums asking about the newest "big thing" in metal music and guitar tone, which is djent. If you're reading this article I'm sure you must know what djent is, so we'll just move on to the important part of this article, and that's how to achieve the iconic and recognizable guitar tone so popularized by djent.
Before we get started there are a few things we need to address. The first is that these are general rules and guidelines, nothing is set in stone and rules are meant to be broken. You do not need the specific pieces of gear I've recommended, nor do you need to use the same methods. This is all based on my own experience and lots of information from both professional musicians in the genre and from fans like you and I. I've gotten a Telecaster to djent going through a Metal Muff into a Fender Blues Junior, tone is in the hands just as people always say, and the way you play has a big effect on whether or not your gear/setup will "djent". Because these are just principles and ideas, they can easily be applied to any setup even if you aren't using a real amp/cab setup. The reason I don't cover digital units** like the AxeFX, POD HD, Eleven Rack etc. is because all the same rules still apply. The rules to picking an amp can be applied to picking a digital unit, and the rest is directly applicable to their digital counterparts. These methods still work with multi-effects units or with software plugins.
**But for the record... yes, the AxeFX, POD HD, and Eleven Rack can all "djent".
"Djent" tone is actually quite simple to achieve, but most people get caught up on what gear will get them there. All you need to get this tone is relatively high gain or distortion levels, lots of midrange, a healthy amount of treble, a good amount of clarity, and the most important part: a boost in your EQ at 1.4kHz. It's really that simple, the problem most people have is how to achieve those things. We're going to look at the important parts of this tone and what can help you get there. Any guitar can djent. Let me say that again... any guitar can djent. We will take a brief look at strings and pickups to help with the sound, but again these are just guidelines and nothing here is mandatory in getting a djent sound.
Starting with the Amp:
The basis of your sound is going to come from your amp, and you'll want to use a distorted amp as a starting point. If you wish to use a distortion pedal, you may, but I will get to the details of that later. Let's not forget that this djent sound came from solid state amps to begin with, so using a solid state pedal is just fine. That being said, while tube amps are not necessary they are preferred most of the time for not only a warmer sound and increased dynamics, but you'll generally have more control over your tone using an amp's distortion channel instead of a distortion pedal. What you should look for in an amp is a very clear sound with lots of note definition. Progressive metal generally employs the use of bigger chords making clarity an important part of our sound more than other genres of music. The feel and response of the amp is also very important. You want a very tight, responsive sound that reacts quickly to your playing, as opposed to a more saggy, loose sound of an amp. Your settings should be fairly low on the bass, lots of midrange, and a decent amount of treble. Things like presence and resonance should be to taste, but it's worth experimenting with replacing bass with resonance, treble with presence, or the other way around.
Here's some common amp choices to look at for this kind of music:
Peavey 5150 II
Fender 5150 III
Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier
Mesa Boogier Triple Rectifier
Line 6 Vetta II
Using a Distortion Pedal on a Clean Amp:
As nice as it would be to have a really nice amp, sometimes that's just not an option when it comes to cost. Using a distortion pedal is totally fine, and can yield great results, but as I stated earlier you may not get the warmth, dynamics and control over your tone you would get with a tube amp. You should be looking for pedals that give you a lot of control over your tone, and if it doesn't have a midrange knob it probably isn't going to be helpful to you, considering how important midrange is in this genre. As with choosing an amp, you want to go for lots of clarity in the sound of your distortion pedal as well, allowing you to hear every note in a chord with lots of definition. If you're using a distortion pedal on a clean amp, it's very important that you pick an amp that takes pedals well. Solid state amps are generally not good at taking gain pedals, mostly overdrive. A decent small tube amp might be better like a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe (yes, really!) or a Blackstar HT-20. The choice is up to you.
Here's a list of pedals that are very tweakable and include at least bass/middle/treble controls and possibly other cool features:
AMT Electronics P-Drive (emulates a 5150/6505)
Mesa Boogie Throttle Box (emulates a Rectifier-type sound)
Electro-Harmonix Metal Muff
Akai Deluxe Distortion (NOTE: This pedal has a selectable mid frequency, possibly eliminating the need for the EQ pedal explained later in this guide)
Wampler Triple Wreck
MXR FullBore Metal Distortion
Radial Engineering Tonebone Plexitube
Bogner Ecstacy Red Pedal
Bogner Ecstacy Blue Pedal
Bogner Uberschall Pedal
Blackstar HT-DUAL Tube Distortion Pedal
Blackstar HT-METAL Tube Distortion Pedal
Hughes & Kettner Tubeman 3-Channel Tube Distortion Pedal
Boosting with an Overdrive:
Using an overdrive in front of your amp is not only going to add a bit of gain, but it's going to give us more midrange, more dynamics, and can bring more clarity to a dark sounding amp. One of other major benefits of using an overdrive is tightening up an amp, especially in the low end. When using a 7 or 8 string in metal having a tight low end is extremely important to make things responsive and clear on your lower strings. With overdrives so many of them are based off the same circuit that most of the differences between pedals are fairly subtle. That being said the best place to start is with the standard Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer. I find that trying out the most common, classic tube screamer is the best way to figure out what you want in an overdrive, but take whatever route works for you. Once you try out the sort of "industry standard", figure out what you do and don't like about it and look up some demos of other similar pedals.
Again I'll give you a list of popular choices:
Boss SD-1 Super OverDrive
Voodoo Labs Sparkle Drive
Voodoo Labs Sparkle Drive MOD
Keeley Mod Ibanez TS9
Keeley Mod Ibanez TS808
The most common setting for an overdrive in metal is using the Gain on 0, the Level on 10, and the tone to taste. This allows the pedal to really push the front end of your amp without adding too much gain or tone coloring from the pedal itself. Usually having the tone control a bit on the bright side is going to give you more cut and clarity.
Sustain, Clarity and "Pop" Using Compression:
Compression is something rarely used in metal and other high-gain genres because of how distortion and overdrive already compress the signal naturally. In progressive metal it is used not only to compress the tone for more sustain, but it also helps fight the noise gates (which we will get to shortly) allowing you to have all the sustain you could want, despite having a lot of gating in your signal as well. The compression is also really helpful in bringing out clarity and note definition in chords. Lastly it helps even out your tone wherever you play on the fretboard, so if you're playing a riff that jumps from the low strings suddenly to the higher strings it'll make those notes "pop" a lot more.
It's worth going over how compressors work so you know how to set yours properly. Some compressors just have a Sustain and Level knob but a lot of the ones on the market (pedal or rackmount) are more detailed than that. Threshold is the volume at which the compressor starts actually compressing your signal. Your Sustain knob is obviously going to equal the amount of compression, and can also appear labeled as Ratio. Ratio basically the amount of input signal to the amount of output signal after your signal passes that threshold. In other words, if your ratio is 5:1 that means that if your signal goes 5db above your threshold, the compressor will reduce that to 1db above the threshold. Attack is how quickly the compressor kicks in after your signal passes the threshold. Release is how quickly the compressor stops working as soon as your signal drops below that threshold. Obviously your Level knob will control the overall output of the compressor.
Popular compressor models are quite few really, with the most popular model by far being the Keely 4-knob compressor. It has all the options you need and is generally regarded as the most transparent compressor. Transparency is generally what you want with a compressor, and the less it colors your tone the better. If you like how a compressor colors your tone though, feel free to use it. I also recommend the MXR M87 Bass Compressor, which also has a visual display of how the compressor is working, which is fantastic.
Crucial EQ and the "Djent Frequency":
There's two very important EQ adjustments that should be made, the first is the actual "djenty" sound itself. To enhance that "djent" sound (notice I said enhance, not get. More on that later...) a boost at around 1.4kHz is necessary. This is where that really scratchy, metallic sound is occuring in the frequency spectrum. Unfortunately this is not a frequency that can easily be boosted, because most EQ pedals are graphic EQ pedals, meaning the frequency bands are fixed and you can't change what frequencies you are controlling. All that being said, the best route to take is getting a parametric EQ pedal so you can select the 1.4kHz frequency and boost it as you wish. Remember that the more you boost frequencies, the more noise you are introducing into your signal as well. Of course any unit that can boost this frequency (or close to it) can be used, and it may even be worth buying a cheap multi-effects pedal and using its EQ, if capable. Keep in mind it's around 1.4kHz, not exactly 1.4kHz.
Here's a list of Parametric EQ's that have access to the 1.4kHz frequency:
Boss PQ-4 Parametric Equalizer
Boss SP-1 Spectrum
Carl Martin 3-Band Parametric EQ
Ibanez PQ-9 Parametric EQ
Boss PQ-3B Bass Parametric EQ
BYOC Parametric EQ
Artec SE-PEQ Parametric Equalizer
TC Electronic Dual Parametric Equalizer
TC Electronic Sustain + Parametric Equalizer
The other EQ adjustment worth making is rolling off a lot of the low end in your tone. Most of the time this method is used in recording and not live, but I find it works just as well live and will really help your band's live sound. Using an EQ to roll off any frequencies below 80Hz-125Hz (Anything below 100Hz is usually a safe bet, but it all depends on your guitar, setup, and your own taste as well) will tighten up your low end, allowing more clarity on your lower notes. When playing with a band this also allows you to avoid clashing with the bass guitar, and you let the bass take up those frequncies. You can hear the bass more, and you can hear the guitars more. This can be done with a parametric EQ like one of the above, but there are also a lot more graphic EQ's on the market which can do the same thing, or at least similar.
Tightening Up and Killing Noise:
A high-gain amp alone will cause unwanted noise in your signal, but with the addition of a compresser, an EQ and an overdrive we've got way too much noise in our signal. The noise gate setup we're going to use is rather unconventional compared to what has been done in the past, but it works well and kills two birds with one stone. The first is that we get rid of all this unwanted noise, the second being that we will be able to achieve really tight start/stop, stacatto riffing. Now, you don't need to use any specific number of gates, but I'll explain the best way to set up your gate(s) in several scenarios.
The basic setup is just a single noise gate. In this case the best thing to do would be sticking your noise gate in the effects loop of your amp. Your amp is contributing the most gain to your signal and is usually where you want to put your gate if you have noise. Now, some amps are either surprisingly quiet and don't need a gate, or don't have an effects loop, in which case you should also experiment with putting the gate first in your signal chain, or after your compressor and overdrive. I find most of the time it should be in the effects loop of the amp, but experiment for the best results. Your signal chain should look like this:
Guitar > Compressor > Overdrive > EQ > Amp > Amp Effects Loop Send > Noise Gate > Amp Effects Loop Return
For a two noise gate setup, one gate in the loop of your amp and one after the compressor and overdrive is best. This way you are gating noise from your guitar, compressor, and overdrive with one gate, your noisiest elements before the amp. Yes, your EQ pedal will cause a bit of noise to come into your signal as well, but trying to fight too much noise with just a single gate probably isn't going to yield the results we are looking for. But again, experiment with your second gate, it may work better elsewhere. Your signal chain should look like this:
Guitar > Compressor > Overdrive > Noise Gate > EQ > Amp > Amp Effects Loop Send > Noise Gate > Amp Effects Loop Return
And finally we have the three noise gate setup, which is the one used by all three guitarists in Periphery before they made the switch to the AxeFX. This ensures the tightest response from your guitar because you're gating different sources of noise separately, rather than trying to gate all your noise from several sources with a single gate. The three gates were placed as such:
Guitar > Compressor > Noise Gate > Overdrive > Noise Gate > EQ > Amp > Amp Effects Loop Send > Noise Gate > Amp Effects Loop Return
By far the best noise gate as recommended by professional and bedroom players alike is the ISP Decimator G-String. The G-String model has a loop where you put the pieces of gear you want to be gated, and a separate input and output for your guitar. This tracks the guitar signal directly, separate from the effects that you want to gate (which are in the loop), allowing for much better tracking. ISP also makes a Standard Decimator, which works like most other noise gates in that it only has an input and an output, and should be placed after the parts of your signal you want to gate.
Here's a list of the more popular gates on the market:
ISP Decimator G-String
ISP Decimator (Standard)
Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor
MXR Smart Gate
Rocktron Hush Noise Reduction
String Gauges, Tension and Tone:
Strings are not an essential part of your tone, but are more like a small adjustment that can help you go the extra mile. Thicker strings are important for tuning down, and people usually stick with 10's or 11's for both 6 strings in Drop C and 7 strings in Standard, Drop A or Drop Ab. The thicker strings and higher tension are essential in getting the tightness and clarity you want from the low notes. If your strings are too loose as well, when you play your low string it will go very sharp before settling into the proper pitch. Now a little bit of this happens whenever you play a note, but the higher the tension the less sharp it will go, and because this genre requires stronger picking than most others it's important to make sure every note on that low string is in tune. It's also important to note that a lot of us do not like playing really heavy string gauges, in which case there is an alternative. I like 9's on my 7 string, but the lowest string isn't tight enough to get the clarity I want and goes too sharp when I play it, so I bought a 6 string pack of 9 gauge strings, and then bought a bunch of single strings that were a gauge higher. This offers the best of both worlds, the string gauges you want for playing leads and doing bends, but still a really tight, clear and aggressive response from your lowest string when riffing. You can buy single strings from most companies, but if you can't find what you want D'Adarrio has an amazing selection of single strings available.
Pickups, Output and Clarity:
When choosing pickups, keep in mind anything will work, and this is just to give some helpful tips on polishing your tone a bit with your pickup choices. Most people have the idea that playing metal or high gain guitar requires a high output pickup. A high output pickup is great in many ways, they are usually have less noise and will distort more readily than lower output pickups. For djent specifically, I would recommend medium output pickups. The reason for this is that lower output pickups tend to have a bit more clarity, and will have much better clean tones. These pristine sounding clean tones are another important part of djent, and having medium output pickups offers the best of both worlds. As far as active vs. passive, both work. For example, Misha Mansoor (Periphery) uses BKP Cold Sweats a lot, which are medium output passives. But on the other hand Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders) uses EMG808 high output active pickups. Both are considered major icons in the djent and progressive metal world, and both have clear, articulate, heavy tones. In general I personally find active pickups to be muddier, and so do others, but other people feel quite the opposite, and it is totally dependent on your tastes and your rig. If your tone is too weak sounding, try higher output pickups. If it's too distorted and muddy, try lower output pickups.
The Most Important Part:
The most important part of getting a djent tone is technique, and most people overlook this. Tone is in the hands, don't forget that. The djent sound itself came from how you play a power chord in this genre (generally). A power chord in standard tuning is - from low to high - played (355xxx). In drop tuning (Drop D, Drop C etc.) that same chord is played (555xxx). In djent a power chord has an added note, making the chord shape into this (5557xx). For those who know theory, you're going to play (again, from low to high) a root, fifth, root, and another fifth. Playing this power chord in the open position (0002xx) is where the djent sound originally came from.
Picking hard and really scraping the pick through the strings while palm muting this open chord is the most important part of getting the tone you want. The palm mute should be in a location you might not have thought of. Usually we palm mute with our hand on the bridge, but resting your palm further away from the bridge (either on top of the bridge pickup or between the bridge pickup and the bridge) really helps fatten up your palm mute and tighten it up in the low end. When picking hard, keep in mind this is not like a hard strum like when you play chords normally. Think of it as more of a firm, concise picking motion that digs into the strings more. It's not a large motion, it's just a very firm and purposeful motion. The motion should come from your wrist, not your arm.
It's also very important that you pick with your pick AT AN ANGLE. Picking the chord with your pick parallel to the strings is fine most of the time, but when going for a really aggressive sound you should angle your pick. Anywhere between 35 degrees to 75 degrees works much better. When you angle your pick you're getting a lot of string noise, almost like a crunchiness added to your sound. You're letting the pick make more noise when it scrapes the string, basically. This is a huge part of heavy sounding guitar. Playing this way also naturally makes you take slightly longer to play a chord, puts you just ever so slightly behind the beat and gives you this sense of laid back groove that sounds extremely fat.
Well, that's about it! I hope this at least answers some of the questions people have been asking and clears up a lot of the confusion as well. Enjoy!
A tutorial covering how to achieve the tone and technique of the newest metal craze.
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