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How to Sound Like Mastodon: A Guide for Guitarists

How To Sound Like Mastodon
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What kind of guitar gear does one need to sound like Mastodon, you ask? Here’s everything you need to know (and a little bit more besides)…



Mastodon Rig Rundown

  • 🎸 Brent Hinds plays unique guitars like an acrylic Plexi V and a Gibson Custom Silverburst Flying V with large gauge strings
  • 🔊 Hinds uses a combination of Marshall, Diezel, and Orange amps for his powerful tone
  • Bill Kelliher plays a signature Gibson Halcyon Les Paul with Lace Dissonant Aggressor pickups and an array of his ESP signature models, notably the Sparrowhawk.
  • 🎚️ Kelliher relies on Friedman amps and cabs along with a Fractal Axe-Fx II for effects

If you want to sound like Mastodon there’s a few core concepts you need to understand. From the way you tune your guitar to your amp settings, there’s a fair amount of nuance that goes into Mastodon’s sound.

Mastodon has been dominating the metal and rock scene for over a quarter of a century. As the guys enter their 50s, they’re not showing any signs of slowing down.

Hushed & Grim was an incredible album. Arguably, the band’s most proggy to date. And that’s fine. But Bill Kelliher has officially confirmed that with the band’s next album will be A LOT HEAVIER.

And that is goddamn music to my ears. I love all of Mastodon’s records but my absolute favourite are Leviathan, Blood Mountain, and Remission.

I love Crack The Skye too, but for me its biggest hitters, riff-wise, are Leviathan and Blood Mountain. Ever since I first heard these albums, I’ve been obsessed with Brent and Bill’s guitar tone and style.

If you’re a guitarist looking to emulate their style, there are a few key elements to consider. In this guide, we’ll explore the guitars, amps, and pedals used by Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher of Mastodon.

Guitars

brent hinds guitar

Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher both use a variety of guitars in their playing Bill used to play Gibson Les Paul guitars a lot but then he inked a deal with ESP, much like James Hetfield, and has been playing them for over the best part of the last decade.

Bill left Gibson because – to be blunt – they weren’t interested in creating models specific to his requirements, whereas ESP was eager to work with Kelliher and we’ve seen a slew of signature models released during their partnership, most notably the Sparrowhawk.

Some of the most commonly used models include:

  • Gibson Les Paul Custom (Bill)
  • Gibson Explorer (Bill)
  • ESP LTE Sparrowhawk (Bill)
  • Gibson Firebird (Bill)
  • Fender Telecaster (Brent)
  • Fender Stratocaster (Brent)
  • Gibson Flying V (Brent)
  • Gibson SG (Brent)

Mastodon Guitar Tone

What-Guitars-Do-Mastodon-Use

In general, Mastodon’s guitar tone is characterized by thick, heavy distortion with plenty of midrange.

Bill and Brent are pros, so they use expensive – often times signature – models. But you can emulate their sound pretty closely with any style of electric guitar, so long as it is rocking a set of humbuckers. 

Prices of electric guitar vary massively, from less than $200 right up to $5000 for a Gibson Les Paul Custom. 

Finding your sweet spot is key, especially if you’re just starting out. My advice? For beginners, start with something that is good but won’t break the bank. Then, after a couple of years of hard practice, treat yourself to a more premium model.


The Best Budget Guitars

Cheap doesn’t have to mean bad. Not anymore. If you’re looking for a great-sounding guitar that packs in a ton of value for money, we got you covered


But if you cannot afford Gibson prices, like most people, you plenty of other Les Paul-style alternatives.

Our current favorite right now would have to be the Epiphone Les Paul Prophecy or, for a cheaper alternative, the Epiphone Les Paul Custom.

You don’t have to spend thousands on guitars these days, plenty of brands like Epiphone and Schecter produce excellent models for way less than $500 in most cases.

Hell, one of our all-time favorite guitars, the Epiphone SG, retails for around $399.99 and is an absolute beast when it comes to creating a thick, heavy metal guitar tone.

Mastodon Guitar Tuning

In order to properly dial-in Mastodon’s trademark sound, you’ll need to tune your guitar down.

Plenty of Mastodon is in D Standard (DGCFAD) which is a whole step down from Standard Tuning (EADGBE).

Mastodon also uses Drop B tuning, so BGCFAD, whereby you run the guitar in D Standard but drop the bottom string down two whole steps to B and, for really special occasions, they’ll drop the lowest string down another step to A for a tuning that looks like this: AGCFAD.

Keep in mind, if you want to use these lowered tunings you will need to use strings designed for lower tunings.

For the most part, though, Mastodon likes to play in D Standard. The vast majority of its most popular songs are in this tuning, so if you want to learn some iconic Mastodon riffs, dropping your guitar down to D Standard is the place to start.

The upshot of D Standard is that you can also learn the riffs and parts in Standard Tuning as well. It won’t sound as “heavy” or as “low” as the record but it’ll all transpose the same.

All the patterns and shapes are the same, ditto chords, only with D Standard you’re a whole step lower which is what gives Mastodon that “heavier” sound when compared to metal bands that play in Standard Tuning.

Amps

new mastodon album 2021

Mastodon’s guitar tone is also heavily influenced by their choice of amplifiers. Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher have used a range of amps and cabs over the years.

With Brent Hinds, his current amp setup is made up of two Marshall JMP Mark II Lead series heads, a ’76 and a ’77, and a 1998 Diezel VH4.

Each amplifier is connected to two Orange PPC412 4×12 Cabinets finished in a custom color. When he’s playing his lap steel, Hinds uses an Orange CR120 combo amp.

Hinds has his own signature model with Orange, The Brent Hinds Terror.

With Bill Kelliher’s amp setup, it’s a little more nuanced and a little more modern.

Inspired by Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s tones, Kelliher currently uses a Friedman JJ Cantrell Signature 100-watt head, which drives 65-watt Celestion G12M-65 Creambacks housed in a Friedman 4×12 cabinet.

How to Sound Like Mastodon: A Guide for Guitarists
Premier Guitar Got Two Awesome Shots of Kelliher’s Current Amp Setup.

His second amp is a 100-watt Friedman HBE, powering 30-watt Celestions in an Orange 4×12.

To maintain a clutter-free pedalboard, Kelliher has embraced digital technology by incorporating a Fractal Axe-Fx II for his delay, chorus, rotary speaker, and octave effects.

He controls the processor using a Fractal MFC-101 MIDI foot controller, and keeps a DigiTech JamMan nearby for creating seamless sonic transitions between songs.

He also uses an Audiotech Guitar Products Source Selector 1X6 switcher, positioned above his wireless unit, which lets him switch between amps on the fly.

If you’re looking to emulate Mastodon’s sound on a budget, there are plenty of affordable options available that can get you close. Look for high-gain amps with plenty of midrange and bass response.

Alternatively, you can get damn close with software like STL AmpHub if you don’t fancy spending thousands on amps and cabinets. STL is cheap – like $9.99 a month – and you can mix and master hundreds of amps and cabinet combos.

Pedals

Finally, let’s take a look at the pedals used by Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher. This isn’t a definitive list, more of a guide.

Bill and Brent don’t tend to talk about pedals all that much. And neither of them is what you’d consider hardcore pedal users.

They do use pedals, of course, but just a more spartan setup compared to some of their peers.

I’ve seen Mastodon numerous times over the years. My old band even supported them once, so I managed to get a good look at both Bill and Brent’s pedal boards.

I’ve listed all the main-stays used by Bill and Brent below:

  • Electro-Harmonix POG2 Polyphonic Octave Generator
  • Boss TU-2 Chromatic Tuner
  • MXR Phase 90 Phaser
  • Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Pedal
  • Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb

Premier Guitar has a detailed guide on what pedals Mastodon were using on its most recent Hushed & Grim tour.

Hinds relies on two very simple pedalboards to help him achieve his crushing tone. The main board starts with an Ernie Ball VP Junior volume pedal that connects to an Ibanez Tube Screamer.

From there, the signal runs through two MXR pedals—a GT-OD and a Phase 90. His delay of choice is the Boss DD-6, which then runs to an ISP Decimator and a Dunlop Cry Baby 105Q Bass Wah.

A TC Electronic PolyTune Mini keeps Hinds on track, and an MXR Custom Audio Systems Buffer helps with any signal loss due to long cable runs on big stages.

To eliminate a cluttered pedalboard, Kelliher embraces digital technology and uses a Fractal Axe-Fx II to generate his delay, chorus, rotary speaker, and octave effects.

He operates the processor with a Fractal MFC-101 MIDI foot controller, and also keeps a DigiTech JamMan next to it. This looper pedal provides sonic segues between songs to keep the show moving.

An Audiotech Guitar Products Source Selector 1X6 switcher sits above his wireless unit and allows Kelliher to easily move between amps.

Pedals are used to add depth and texture to your guitar tone, as well as create unique sounds not possible with just an amp and guitar alone. Mastodon aren’t a pedal-heavy band. They have a few that they use to devastating effect. And that’s exactly what you should aim to do.

Bill’s pedalboard has now been replaced by the Fractal Axe-Fx II. These are very pricey but as noted inside our review of Fractal Axe-Fx II, if you have the money or are a professional player, this is about as good as it gets right now for sound quality and reliability.

But if you do fancy dialling in some deep, dark, and dirty Mastodon-style tone, you really cannot go wrong with the pedals listed above.

Mastodon Guitar Techniques

Mastodon’s music draws from a wide palette of influences, including metal, stoner rock, progressive rock, Southern rock, and even country.

This eclectic mix of styles which includes techniques like hybrid picking and the use of odd time signatures is what made the band initially stand out amongst their peers.

One of the key elements of Mastodon’s guitar playing is their use of uncommon time signatures.

The band frequently incorporates 12/8 and 6/8 time signatures into their songs, adding a layer of complexity and depth to their compositions.


One of the essential guitar techniques they employ is muted alternate picking. This technique involves rapidly alternating between downstrokes and upstrokes while muting the strings with the palm of the picking hand.

Muted alternate picking is a crucial component of many Mastodon riffs, allowing them to create tight, precise, and aggressive-sounding passages.

You’ll also need to get acquainted with the Phrygian mode. This mode, which is often used in metal music, is what adds that eerie, iconic sound to many of the band’s best riffs

Mastodon frequently employs the A Phrygian mode in songs that are played in drop A tuning, where the lowest string is tuned down to an A note. This combination of the Phrygian mode and drop A tuning creates a powerful and ominous atmosphere that is central to Mastodon’s musical identity.


🎸 Master Guitar Music Theory ⤵️

Think music theory is boring and dull? Think you don’t need it? Well, think again – learning even just a little theory will 10x your playing in a matter of weeks.

If you liked what you read above, check out these posts.

They’re all written with the beginner in mind. No jargon, no nonsense. Just the basics, explained in a way anyone can understand.

[LEARN FROM A PRO]

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This step-by-step framework is the exact process I use to master music professionally. It is the culmination of 20+ years of experience, condensed down into a single, easy to follow workflow

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