Let’s Get The Dirt On How To Get A Classic 80’s Style Metal Guitar Tone

Let’s Get The Dirt On How To Get A Classic 80’s Style Metal Guitar Tone

Motley Crue formed in the summer of 1981 and went on to become one of the highest selling bands of all-time, as well as one of the hardest partying bands of all time!

They defined and captured the spirit of the 80s, with loud, brash, in your face guitar tones all over songs about girls and having a good time.

Guitarist Mick Mars used a variety of instruments and amplifiers, but let’s focus on the classic combination of a Les Paul and Marshall amp in creating something akin to this tone. This combination is ubiquitous in rock and metal, with big, beefy and aggressive tones on tap with this pairing. He also tuned down a whole step, which added even more grunt to his riffs.

And as any kid with an electric guitar will tell you, it’s damn good fun to make a lot of ungodly noises like this.

Mars used JCM800 amps (sometimes in combination with other amps such as a Soldano or Rivera) which are incredibly powerful…and incredibly loud. Match these up with Marshall quad boxes and then turn the volume all the way up and you’ll have the police knocking on your door very soon. For the majority of us such a rig is not even an option if we are gigging in pubs and clubs, or even at festivals. One of the challenges most of us face is getting the amp up loud enough to distort as Mars did.

Enter the distortion pedal. This is aimed at providing such a tone, but at a much more manageable volume. And for this entry I am going to use the Fender Full Moon Distortion Pedal.

Fender and hi-gain distortion? Seems a strange combination, given their legacy of legendary classic blues, country and rock tones. But in the past two years Fender have released a number of very high quality effects pedals aimed at guitarists across the playing and tonal spectrum.

The Full Moon Distortion features four EQ knobs, A dual-footswitch chassis offers on-off and boost options, two toggle switches shape the voicing of the distortion, and then there are level, gain, and boost knobs. 

These features allow the guitarist to best match the pedal to their guitar and amp combination, and also craft a wide-range of distorted tones. 

One caveat; if you are looking for blues and classic rock tones, this isn’t the pedal for you. But if you are looking for a pedal that covers a range of hi-gain distorted tones set to stun, this might be exactly what you need.

In the accompanying video I have used my Gibson Les Paul into a Marshall Origin amp. The guitar is set to the bridge pickup - with this much gain I want to retain an element of bite and clarity and the neck pickup will be too thick tonally for that - and the amp is set to a clean sound. 

I’m not trying to recreate exactly what Mick Mars produced on ‘Kickstart My Heart, but rather produce a guitar tone consistent with the song, genre, and era. It would be almost impossible to exactly recreate his tone anyway. Mars has stated he sometimes used 5 amps on the one song, that rhythm parts were doubled and layered, and that the producer would walk around the studio placing mics where they thought things sounded best. Multiple mic’ing of guitar cabinets is very common. All of this would then be mixed down into the final track. The guitar parts combined would sound huge, but sometimes when you listen to one in isolation it isn’t as distorted or as fat as you might think. 

The balanced between preamp and master volume gain on an amp also makes a big difference to the final tone. A lot of the 80s metal and heavy rock bands used a lot of preamp gain, which added a lot of fizz to the tone. Certain Marshall amps have a predilection to fizz anyway, and the JCM800 was a very popular amp at this time. 

The blues and classic rock tones tend to boost the power amp section of an amp, and keep the preamp (input) low. This gives a lot of body to the tone, but not the same characteristics of distortion. 

There is no right nor wrong with this; it is purely personal preference. 

When it comes to eq, scooped mids combined with pronounced bass and treble is the way to go with setting an amp and pedals for this tone. And while it is hi-gain, too much distortion with see you lose any definition in your playing, so keep that in mind as you set the tone. 

I’ve notated the riff form the chorus out for you as well, in case you’d like to learn that too.

Have fun!

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