This is quite a generic question.

Since the day I started learning guitar, I have been lazy and never tried to understand how sound really works. I plugged the guitar in the amp and just turned the button to "clean" or pushed another one when I wanted to play some metal. Treble? Gain? Compressor? Tone? Drive? All of this is almost a foreign language to me.

I want to change this now and understand how to create a tone from the beginning. I bought an iRig and use GarageBand now. The guitar presets seems pretty good, but I didn't found an "amazing" tone for metal, for example. And I have the feeling I should create this amazing sound by myself to learn, rather than count on presets.

Now that I have good software and hardware, the only missing thing to reach my purpose is knowledge :)

I already tried a lots of combinations, but it feels like I'm trying to fly a plane and pushing all the cockpit buttons. Not very effective...

Can you give me some advices or tricks?


4 Answers 4


The tone of electric instruments, especially distorted guitar, is driven by harmonic saturation.

Consider a sine wave at 440 hz. There is no harmonic complexity, only a single tone. Compare that sound to a plucked A string on an instrument, and the plucked string contains a greater variety of frequencies, creating a more complex sound. Different instruments are described as 'full' or 'tinny' because of what harmonics they emphasize, and whether that harmonic content is pleasing. The wikipedia about the harmonic series has a physics-oriented description of how this harmonic content is created by vibrating objects.


To create a richer, thicker, and then distorted tone, the first thing we want to do is increase the volume of the harmonic content, so that many frequencies are prominent. This is what is usually meant by a 'boost' or 'drive' pedal. Compressors can also have this effect by reducing the volume of the fundamental frequency, so the upper harmonics are easier to hear.

The next step is to create 'clipping' in the wave forms. When a frequency reaches the maximum possible amplitude for a stage in the circuit, it will flatten out. If you have a synthesizer, try creating a sine wave, and then a square wave at the same frequency. This will give you a sense of how the two waveforms sound different.


Distorted guitar sounds are a complex waveform, with a lot of upper harmonic content, and lots of clipping. If you record your guitar, you can see that the waveform almost looks like a rectangle. That is clipping and harmonic saturation in action. If you want to play metal guitar use 'boost' or 'drive' pedals to increase the harmonic saturation and create clipping, and then EQ sound that the pleasing parts of the harmonic content are emphasized. Changing the order of the effects will influence the final sound. If you put an EQ with a big bump to the mid frequencies before a distortion, then you will get more aggressive clipping in that frequency range, because more of the waveform will hit the maximum possible amplitude.

  • Very interesting explanations, thanks, even if it may seems hard to start with :) Feb 7, 2018 at 19:21
  • 1
    From a less technical perspective, here's a quick run down of common effects. Distortion - add grit, noise, and crunch to the sound (the main tool of heavy rock music). Try one that imitates a "Big Muff" or "Tube Screamer", these are some of the most famous distortions in rock music. Reverb will make your guitar sound like it is in a big room, and create artifical reflections like the sound is bouncing off the wall. Delay - think of the opening riff from 'Another Brick in the Wall', that repeated sound that fades away is a delay. Compression - very complex, a whole lesson in itself.
    – Alex Y
    Feb 7, 2018 at 21:20

While iRig is a nice piece of kit, and GarageBand is okay I would not suggest it will let you create an amazing metal sound.

Really, what everyone does is try effects. Loads of them. Physical stomp boxes, software effects etc. Work out which ones you like and if necessary tweak them. Don't try and create one from scratch as there are too many things to adjust. And it's not just the effect that makes the sound - the amp is critical to the final sound.

Get down to your local guitar shop and just play.

  • 1
    And always bear in mind that the great sound you have with certain settings on effect pedals, etc., won't ever be the same in a different room/hall...
    – Tim
    Feb 7, 2018 at 12:55
  • Very true - or with a different guitar...
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Feb 7, 2018 at 13:15
  • The second-hand market is full of interesting effects you can buy, try for a few weeks and re-sell at the exact same price. Has worked pretty well for me so far to try plenty of them for free and find the ones I like. I'm not good enough to get a feeling of them in 30 minutes at a shop.
    – Marc Q.
    Feb 8, 2018 at 6:51
  • @Marc Q. But the thing is I'm using only my mac and an iRig so every effects are "virtual" now. It's a lot easier because I can test potentially everything in garageband. I know some purist won't like this, but for now I'm happy with it, I have no visible latency and I call have all the sounds I want for free. I just miss some skills ^^ Feb 8, 2018 at 8:59
  • So download ones that sound interesting and mess with them. You don't need to waste time trying to work out how every setting works, just grab one you like.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Feb 8, 2018 at 9:20

I think some of these answers are making what you're after seem overly complex.

Want a metal sound? Try adding a distortion effect to your guitar track, or maybe even several in succession. Experimenting is important - be patient.

With that out of the way, understanding EQ is important. You mentioned treble. Treble refers to the high frequencies of an audio signal. To put it simply, it's the opposite of bass - at the extreme, it's the hissy sounds. When you see the Tone dial, this will emphasize whichever area of the frequency spectrum you wish to emphasize. If the tone dial is low, it will emphasize the lower frequencies (bass). If the tone dial is high, it will emphasize the higher frequencies.

Another concept to be familiar with is compression. Compression refers to the dynamic range of an audio track. With high compression, an audio track will usually remain at a constant volume and have no peaks/valleys in volume. With low compression, an audio track can fluctuate from lower volumes to very high volumes.

Garageband is fantastic for experimenting and learning tone/sound design. Don't let anyone try to convince you that it is not.

  • Thanks a lot for your explanations and encouragements. I'll experiment a lot :) For example today I was blown away when I added a reverb on my guitar tone, it was really nice to hear. The sound was less "self contained", don't know how to define this. Feb 7, 2018 at 19:18

Look no further than YouTube! Personally, I like CSGuitars' channel. His first video about metal tones specifically is here, though there are plenty more that cover issues like "Overdrive vs Distortion vs Fuzz: What's The Difference?" "Do I need a compressor?" etc. There are also plenty of other channels that will probably show up in the suggested videos.

  • Oh thanks a lot for the good link ;) Exactly the kind of thing to make me progress step by step I guess :) Feb 8, 2018 at 8:57

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