Metal Head

June 25, 2008

Dear Dude,

I just bought a Marshall JCM 900 head and I am about to get the 1960 speaker cabinet. I also have a LINE 6 POD XT, a few analog pedals (Boss Metalzone, Marshall Jackhammer, Morley’s Bad Horsie, etc…) and have some questions that I’m sure you can answer.

Can the JCM900´s distortion be heavy or crunchy enough to play modern metal (IE Arch Enemy, Darkest Hour, ETC)? If not, is it better to play with my POD XT through the head’s clean channel? Would that result in a good sound? Or should I use my analog pedals instead?

When it comes to soloing, how would you boost the signal? Especially if it is the amp’s distortion that I’m using. What other equipment do u think I should get to improve my metal sound?

Metal Head

Dear Metal Head,

Whoa buddy, that’s a lot more then one question. But thankfully all these questions are intertwined in one man’s quest for the perfect metal tone. I will walk you though all these questions, but I got to warn ya, its not going to be pretty.

The JCM 900 is a tricky beast. There are many different types (IE the SLX model which is more gain, the duel channel model, the single channel model etc.) and let’s not forget they make 50 and 100-watt versions. I have used and abused JCM 900’s all over the world because it’s usually the amp that shows up when I request an 800 (most people don’t know there is a huge difference between the two). Even though there are many different types and styles of 900 my advice will always be the same: Dude, I’m sorry, but you should get a different head all together.

Whenever I’ve had to use a Marshall 900 for DH it’s always been nothing short of a disaster, and I have never seen a professional metal band of any type use one. Before answering this letter I wanted to try and give the 900’s the benefit of the doubt, so I called my main man, and uber producer, Paul Leavitt of Valencia Recording Studios (Senses Fail, Gwen Stacy, The All Time Low) for his advice. Paul is the only man on earth I have ever heard make a 900 sound good, but alas, after a few seconds on the phone with Paul I knew he was going to agree with me. Had he used a 900 on a good sounding metal recording? Yes, but only to layer over other guitar sounds. He was really happy with what adding this tone to the overall sound did for the recording, but both Paul and I both agreed the 900 sound just wasn’t great for metal in general. It sounds awesome for rock and punk but doesn’t have the nice low end, full gain, and overall drive that other modern gain amps have for metal.
If you are insistent on sticking with the 900 I would suggest playing around with a different tube set up. I have always found that installing 6505 or 6L6’s (which Paul suggests too) can actually add more low end, girth, and gain to the way most Marshall’s sound. As far as distortion pedals go I have always had good experiences with the Ibanez (and especially Maxon) tube screamers and have even used the Zakk Wylde MXR custom distortion pedal in their place. But neither of these pedals are going to make a 900 sound like a rectifier, 5150, Randall MTS, or even Marshall 800. I just haven’t stumbled across a pedal can do that!

Also, in my experience running a POD for distortion into an amp doesn’t ever sound good. Usually it is too muddy, too distorted, and kills most of the low end. In fact you would probably get a better over all metal sound if you just ran the POD directly into a PA (but lets not get into that because playing live with no amp might work for Mushuga but won’t for most people!).

Is there a possibility I am off my rocker and you have the best sounding JCM 900 in the world? Yes, absolutely. Don’t let my words discourage you from experimenting. And hey if you can make it sound cool then shit even email me back because I would love know what you were able to do. But, based on my extensive experience with many models of the 900 and the experiences of most of my peers, none of us think this is the right head for metal. What are good heads to start with? I believe you did ask what other equipment would improve your metal sound. Here are a few that are worth trying: Marshall JCM 800, Marshall JCM 2000, Peavey 5150, Peavey 5150 (2), Peavey 6505, Randall MTS, Krank Revolution, Mesa Duel, Single, and Triple Rectifier, Mesa Mark IV, and Mesa Stiletto.

I’m sure there were always people asking Dimebag why he didn’t use a Marshall amp and a Les Paul guitar. At the time Dean guitars and Randall Amps were not the cream of the crop, but he found something that was different and made it his own. So please experiment, that’s how you will eventually find your unique sound, but since you asked this dude, I’m going to serve up some rough justice and tell you the JCM 900 is not the best head for playing modern metal.

The Dude