Axe FX 101: The Complete Beginner’s Guide [2024]

Axe FX 101 a complete beginner's guide
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Steve Vai, Metallica, John Petrucci, John Mayer. They all use Axe FX. But what is it and how does it work? Here’s everything you need to know…

First released in 2006 by Fractal Audio Systems, the Axe-Fx is a high-end digital guitar processor that has become a go-to tool for serious guitar players, both professional and amateur.

But what exactly does it do, and why has it caught on so widely? This guide will explain everything you need to know about Axe-Fx, what makes it so good, and why bands like Metallica are making the switch from analog to digital amp modellers.

What is Axe FX?

Axe FX 101: The Complete Beginner's Guide [2024]

The Axe-Fx is best described as a multi-effects unit and amp modeler. It gives guitarists access to a wide variety of tones and effects all within one unit, eliminating the need to connect various pedals.

Models feature powerful DSP to run ultra-realistic amp simulations and capture the nuances of classic effects.

If you’re a touring musician, lugging gear around – things like amps and pedals and cabinets – isn’t just a pain in the ass, it costs you extra money too.

On tour, weight matters. This is why more and more artists have switched to Axe-FX. 

Imagine the scene: you’re booked to play a string of shows along the West Coast, culminating in a show in LA. You’re at the penultimate gig and your tube amp blows its top. 

You don’t have time to get it fixed, so you’ll need to either borrow one from a friend or – god forbid – break out the plastic and buy a new one. 

This is an old-world problem. With something like Axe-FX, this just isn’t an issue: you can plug it direct into the venue’s PA, pair it with a cab, whatever which means you can play the show.

All of your tones, FX, and settings are hermetically and digitally sealed inside the unit itself. And they seldom break (unlike tube amps). 

This makes the Axe-Fx incredibly versatile for practice, recording, and live performance applications. But the main USP of using a modeller over a traditional amp stack is reliability whilst on tour.

And increased reliability means fewer surprise costs and a more consistent, predictable sound for each show.

Different Models

Axe FX 101: The Complete Beginner's Guide [2024]

As always, there’s a bunch of different Axe-Fx models available to buy, ranging from older models to newer models and, of course, the most expensive and flagship models. 

Here’s a quick overview of the current lineup of models you can buy, including some of the legacy models that are now discontinued: 

  • Axe-Fx III Mark II: Released in 2022, it’s the flagship model with the most processing power, features, and flexibility. Offers additional Turbo DSP option for even more complex effects.
  • Axe-Fx FM9: Released in 2021, it’s a floor-based unit with nine footswitches and four DSP cores, offering most of the Axe-Fx III’s capabilities in a more compact and portable format.
  • Axe-Fx III: The 2021 flagship model with immense processing power
  • Axe-Fx II XL Plus: Enhanced version of Axe-Fx II with added amp models
  • Axe-Fx II: Previous generation model, now discontinued
  • Axe-Fx: the OG model, launched in 2006

Past models like the Axe-Fx Ultra and Standard paved the way, but today’s versions offer more amps, effects, and connectivity at varying price points.

You can pick up older models for quite a bit less, though, so if you’re looking to try Axe-Fx and you don’t want to spend mega bucks (they ain’t cheap, obvs), then a used, older model from a reseller could be the way to go.

Using & Working With Axe-Fx

Each Axe-Fx model is different but they all share some similarities when it comes to setting them up, dialing in tones and FX, and making your way around its user interface (UX). 

Getting Started

  • Connect everything: Power up your Axe-Fx, plug in your guitar, speaker, and any audio interface or DAW connection. Refer to the manual for specific input/output configurations.
  • Explore the UI: The touchscreen interface is your command center. Swipe, tap, and hold to access different functions. The main screen displays the currently selected preset, with amp, effects, and routing blocks visible.
  • Navigate blocks: Each block represents a specific amp, effect, or routing function. Tap a block to access its detailed editing menu.
  • Tweak your sound: Each block’s menu offers various parameters for tone sculpting. Explore gain, EQ, effects settings, and more. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Building Your Tones

  • Preset exploration: Axe-Fx comes preloaded with diverse presets. Browse them by genre, amp type, or effect focus to find starting points.
  • Preset editing: Customize existing presets to your liking. Tap and hold specific parameters to make changes, then save your tweaks.
  • Building from scratch: Start with an empty preset and choose your desired amp model. Add effects, adjust routing, and tweak parameters to craft your unique sound.
  • Global settings: Access global parameters like master volume, tuner, and MIDI settings through dedicated menus.

Software and Updates

  • Fractal Audio Axe-Edit: This free software (more on this below) lets you manage presets, update firmware, and access deeper editing options on your computer.
  • Firmware updates: Fractal Audio regularly pumps out firmware updates too, bringing improvements, bug fixes, and new capabilities.

Fractal Audio Axe-Edit

Axe FX 101: The Complete Beginner's Guide [2024]

User Experience

Axe-Edit III is a software editor designed for the Axe-Fx III, enhancing the user experience by leveraging the capabilities of a computer interface.

It allows users to utilize a larger display area and input devices such as a full-size keyboard and mouse or touchpad.

This setup significantly simplifies the process of creating and adjusting sounds, making the navigation and manipulation of intricate setups more straightforward and user-friendly.

Editing Capabilities

The software extends considerable creative control to the user, enabling a comprehensive range of editing actions.

Users can effortlessly manage presets, including viewing, editing, copying, pasting, saving, and swapping.

Beyond presets, Axe-Edit III facilitates the manipulation of scenes, blocks, channels, and user-created cabinet simulations.

The addition of drag-and-drop functionality enhances the efficiency of the workflow, making the editor both powerful and intuitive.

Workflow Efficiency

Axe-Edit III is designed to streamline the sound creation process. It includes preset Templates, which serve as starting points to accelerate the development of new tones.

The Block Library, another key feature, allows users to quickly access and utilize their preferred sounds.

These sounds are stored on the user’s computer, enabling swift retrieval with a single click, thus optimizing the workflow for speed and convenience.

Beyond Amps & Effects

The Axe-Fx III’s countless options extend beyond its formidable amp and effects collection.

It also boasts a handy built-in tuner, looper to record/layer guitar tracks, and USB audio interface capabilities.

By connecting to a DAW, guitarists can access best-in-class tone when recording while applying effects in real-time via plugin control software like Axe-Edit.

The unit also features MIDI integration to have parameters controlled by an external MIDI device such as a foot controller.

These extras add further flexibility for both live and studio use. With its comprehensive toolset, the Axe-Fx aims to be an all-encompassing solution.

Guitarists can sculpt world-class tone for virtually any context while controlling every parameter imaginable right from their panel or computer.

Is It Easy To Use?

With immense capability comes complexity. Some guitarists feel overwhelmed by the Axe-Fx’s endless options and parameters.

It took me months to really get my head around using it properly; it’s not because it is hard to use, per se, but because there are just so many potential options and customizations.

The best approach, at least, for me, is to go in with specific goals in mind: I want this sound, or that sound, or this kind of sound with that effect. Narrowing your focus helps to NOT get overwhelmed by all the possibilities which inside Axe-Fx are near-endless.

Price & Value

Axe-Fx pricing spans a wide gamut depending on the model. Flagship Axe-Fx III units cost nearly $3000, while the oldest Axe-Fx II models run under $500 used.

This high-end gear represents a serious investment.

The expense may only make sense for professionals and dedicated hobbyists.

However, when considering the cost of building a rig with equivalent analog gear, the Axe-Fx may offer more value long-term. Compared spec for spec, this all-in-one tone toolbox certainly delivers despite the initial price tag.

Axe-Fx Alternatives

Axe FX 101: The Complete Beginner's Guide [2024]

The Axe-Fx reigns supreme but isn’t the only option. Other major amp modelers include the Line 6 Helix series and Boss GT-1000CORE.

These provide extensive effects and tons of amp tones at more affordable prices.

Check out our full guide to the best (cheaper) Axe-Fx alternatives we’ve tested during the past 18 months.

However, Axe-Fx still leads in realistic tube amp recreation thanks to its robust modelling and immense processing capabilities. Fractal’s simulation of high-end, high-gain amps is the best I have ever come across which is probably why most metal pros gravitate towards it.

If you’re not a pro player and more of a hobbyist, Line 6 is probably more in your price range – it has an entire range of products that offer the same kind of functionality and convenience as Axe-Fx, just at around half the price.

Why Guitarists Use Axe-Fx

15 Guitarists That Use Axe FX

The Axe-Fx has earned a reputation with professionals as well as hobbyists for good reason:

  • Amp Modeling – With 119 current amp models ranging from classic to modern to boutique, it nails iconic guitar tones.
  • Effects – It comes loaded with over 250 effects like phasers, flangers, reverbs, delays and more that are fully customizable.
  • DSP Power – Quad-core processing makes complex presets and effects chains sound pristine.
  • Convenience – Carrying one unit to gigs rather than an amp stack and pedalboards simplifies transport.
  • Professional Sound – It’s built for pro use. Top guitarists like John Petrucci leverage the Axe-Fx live and in studios.

Of course, with great power comes complexity. The Axe-Fx does have a learning curve, and units can get pricey. But for versatility and authentic tube amp sound, it’s hard to beat this digital powerhouse.

Notable Guitarists That Use Axe-Fx

What Pickups Does James Hetfield Use
James Hetfield and Metallica have been using Axe-Fx for years
  1. Steve Vai: A pioneer of guitar virtuosity, Vai has used the Axe-Fx for its versatility and ability to recreate classic and unique tones.
  2. John Petrucci: Dream Theater’s lead guitarist relies on the Axe-Fx for its high-gain prowess and extensive effects capabilities.
  3. Mark Tremonti: The Creed and Alter Bridge frontman utilizes the Axe-Fx for its tight distortion and ability to deliver punchy rhythm and soaring lead tones.
  4. David Gilmour: Pink Floyd’s iconic guitarist has been spotted using the Axe-Fx for its nuanced clean tones and ability to recreate specific vintage sounds.
  5. Don Felder: Former Eagles guitarist Felder utilizes the Axe-Fx for its versatility in recreating the band’s classic tones and exploring new sonic possibilities.
  6. Noodles: The Offspring’s guitarist employs the Axe-Fx for its reliability and consistency in both live and studio settings.
  7. Aaron Marshall: Founder of progressive metal band Intervals, Marshall uses the Axe-Fx for its pristine clean tones and complex effects chains.
  8. Chris Letchford: Scale the Summit’s guitarist relies on the Axe-Fx for its dynamic responsiveness and ability to handle technical playing styles.
  9. Paul Waggoner: Periphery’s guitarist utilizes the Axe-Fx for its powerful djent tones and unique effects processing.
  10. Plini: Australian instrumental guitarist Plini uses the Axe-Fx for its clean and ambient tones, exploring lush soundscapes and complex textures.
  11. Misha Mansoor: Animals as Leaders guitarist Mansoor uses the Axe-Fx for its extended range and ability to achieve precise djent and tapping tones.
  12. Monte Montgomery: John Mayer’s longtime touring guitarist employs the Axe-Fx for its versatility in recreating blues, jazz, and other genres.
  13. Pete Loeffler: Chevelle guitarist Loeffler utilizes the Axe-Fx for its heavy distortion and tight low-end response.
  14. Adrian Belew: King Crimson’s avant-garde guitarist uses the Axe-Fx for its vast array of effects and ability to craft unconventional soundscapes.
  15. Devin Townsend: The Canadian progressive metal pioneer utilizes the Axe-Fx for its ability to handle his diverse music styles and complex soundscapes.


Master Your Music To A Professional Standard Even if You’re A Total Beginner

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