Late 90’s/Early 00’s Pop Punk Distortion Was Super Heavy – WTF Happened?

The 90’s and early 00’s are generally remembered as a crappy time for “real rock music fans” because the guitar-based bands ruling the charts were, for the most part, poppy punk rock. But when I look back on that time, I’m consistently impressed by how those albums sound – especially in terms of the guitar tones and production.


Sum 41, for example, are a really interesting band: despite their tunefulness, their guitar tone is super attack-y and aggressive. “In Too Deep” has such a straight, articulated clean tone in the opening verses – while the chorus and later verses have a SUPER gritty distortion, almost black metal in tone. AND the climax’s guitar solo mixes Iron Maiden harmonies with Metallica songwriting sensibilities and pop-punk tone. There’s just so much going on!

Ditto for Blink-182, whose laser-precise guitar parts are some of the most effective per-song of any band from the era. Everything on their records is in service of the song! Bands like Blink utilized a simple playing tool so often overlooked by metal and real punk bands: an even balance between bridge, middle, and neck pickups on their super-layered guitar parts, and movement between palm-muted verses and open-strum choruses.

The end result is that songs like “The Rock Show” and “All the Small Things” are so crystal-clear in their movement between sections. Blink were a simple band, but they delivered on their simplicity. Is there a song whose extremely-distorted palm-mute parts work as well for the song as “All the Small Things” outside of “Master of Puppets?”

There are tons of examples of effective palm-muted distortion tone from this era. One of the key songwriting tools was taking that perfectly distorted tone and riding between full-bore strummed choruses and SUPER-fast, intricate palm-muted verses.

“The Anthem” by Good Charlotte is a prime example of this technique:

Although the rest of this particular recording is decidedly low-fi – the bass is basically there as carpet-dressing, and the drums are kinda cardboard boxy – the distortion is nice and meaty. As a side bar, I can’t think of too many metal or “real punk” songs that have such an interesting harmonic escalation as the chorus as this Good Charlotte song – and the heavy tone suits it perfectly.

The Foo Fighters have also always been masters of this. I hate that I have to defend this band – they’re some of the best songwriters out there, fantastic musicians, and have been putting out great records more consistently than almost any other band in rock history (they’ve been going for 20+ years, and 2011’s Wasting Light is probably their best!)

So what happened?

For my money, everything changed in the mid-00’s – specifically in 2004-2006, after LeviathanAshes of the Wake, Trivium, Municipal Waste, etc. got every guitarist excited about “rebelling against teh system” and writing “real metal” riffs. Then the rise of djent basically put the final nail in the coffin – now, everything has to be grit-free, Swiffer-clean, and “perfectly” played.

But the truth is some of the albums made before the return of “real metal” are so much heavier than what’s going on today. Those guitarists may not have played the most technical riffs or sweep-picked solos, but they (and their producers) had such a keen ear for designing distortion tones that worked for the song.

Written by

Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.

Latest comments
  • I blame the folks who use AXFX and hairbands over their strings. Get a mesa or a marshall, turn the volume up about a quarter of the way, turn the gain about half way, and rock your fucking face off.

    • Not sure what Michael Keene uses. He is an admirable musician and song writer, but I hate his thin tone.

  • Trvth.

  • Jimmy Eat World has some of the best production and song writing. I’ve borrowed many ideas from them for metal.

  • These tones are righteous. I think that all editing aside, these tones still stand stronger than a lot of the more hyper-focused tones I hear these days. Mixing metal is hard as hell, but I think we could learn something from these young hooligans.

    • I think a big part of the problem is metal mix’s dont leave a lot of room for dynamics, and these songs make use of different levels of gain and compression, and it makes the heavy part heavy. But when a double bass drum is blasting away at 200bpm, there is just no room left for the mix to pull back on the guitars or they disappear.

      • The ‘clicky’ metal kick just never sits right in a mix .Blame Florida/ Morrissound/Death for that trend that won’t die. Bands got so obsessed with hearing each. individual. hit. Dumb. The bass drum rides over top the guitars in many cases, when it should be an underpinning.. Metal guitarists actually re- discovering mid-range might help a bit too.


  • Would be nice if you gave some actual examples of what you consider weak modern metal guitar tone that these examples are heaver than, without such examples this just feels like passive aggressive tutting and “kids these days”-ing.

  • Honest question, how much of this can be attributed to the production budget of those bands?

    • A fair bit, I’d say. (Though perhaps less so nowadays.)

  • Yeah like n00b asked, how much can this be attributed to big budgets?

    Also, I agree, a lot of today’s metal tone is shite (heavy reliance on amp sim/axeFX/post- processing/editing).

    But, also I wonder if pop punk bands could get away with such meaty tones because their riffs are so much more simple with lots of space sometimes. When the “real” metal bands are riffing much more complex parts with no relenting, it is hard to use such a meaty tone and not get it lost in the mix or just get ear fatigue from it.

    • Metallica has been known to turn down their distortion more than what usually expected for more clarity/tone. Although I think they’ve probably gone too far based on recent releases.

      And everyone’s favorite band Nickelback. Say what you will, their guitar tones on most of their albums is amazing. Huge sounding, raw, and polished at the same time.

      • “But, also I wonder if pop punk bands could get away with such meaty tones because their riffs are so much more simple with lots of space sometimes. When the “real” metal bands are riffing much more complex parts with no relenting, it is hard to use such a meaty tone and not get it lost in the mix or just get ear fatigue from it.”

        Absolutely on the money; I’m glad somebody pointed this out. Although I’m not a fan of pop-punk, I think Max Frank’s article here makes a good case. But you’re very right. Especially in relation to the “lots of space” remark.

        The same thing happens with drums. Standard hard rock bands playing AC/DC-type rhythms can afford to have a nice big, open drum sound. Try that on busy, up-tempo death metal and it just shrinks.

        • Honestly, I think there’s something to be said for composing your music with a mind for how it’s going to sound when you produce it or perform it live.
          Your super technical riff might sound really cool in the Guitar Pro demo, but unless you’re going to arrange the instrumentation to support it properly to allow for clarity, then no one else is going to hear what you’re playing.

  • Maybe if you weren’t listening to wimpy djent shit and cranked up some Electric Wizard or Terra Tenebrosa, you wouldn’t have to worry about such lame guitar sounds from your metal bands.

  • Counterpoint: Foo Fighters make uninteresting music that’s best consumed as background noise.

    Really though, I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who feels this way. I’ve thought it kinda started right around All that Remains Overcome album. SOOO POLISHED and sounds like the balls were cut off. Only gotten worse with bands like Periphery, Tesseract, and even Fallujah. I always think when I hear Fluffs FAQ mondays that his tones suck, even though he spends so much time on trying out new amps. Just that sound is garbage. Just emotionless.

    I think part of the issue is that guys love to down tune, so there can’t be a ton of grit because it would muddy up the tone.

  • Strung Out shat and still shits all over these weak assed bands.

    • i always wanted to like them more than i did. they had way too many filler songs on their discs. when they were on, though, Strung Out could crush almost any other band in their genre.

  • I checked out a couple of the example videos, and I just… don’t hear it. When you say that Sum 41 song has “a SUPER gritty distortion, almost black metal in tone,” I have to wonder if we’re listening to the same song.

    • honestly, I’ve heard grittier distortion on hair metal songs than on this one. Not to diss Sum 41, they weren’t actually that bad.

  • But what gear was used in each of these songs? And the approximate settings?

  • you know, listening to this Blink song, which i haven’t heard in years, I don’t really hear this heaviness you’re talking about. what I do hear are some nicely-written Cure riffs with added distortion and a bit of twang and atmosphere, especially towards the end

    • and I guess if you wanna hear some really like, murder-heavy guitars on 90s popular rock songs, listen to Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins, who had, respectively, cripplingly fuzzy tone or just mangled, gnarly almost industrial distortion on a lot of their songs.

  • Good analysis. Still to this day, some of my favorite guitar tone (of ANY genre) can be heard on: Strung Out – Twisted By Design (they always have killer tone, but its best on that album), so fucking thick, Propagandhi – Less Talk, More Rock, No Use For A Name – Leche Con Carne, Good Riddance – Ballads from the Revolution, Pennywise – Full Circle/About Time/Unknown Road, Pantera – Fay Beyond Driven, the Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity, the Hope Conspiracy – Cold Blue, Cannibal Corpse – Bloodthirst, Testament – The Gathering, and for later tone Soilwork – Stabbing The Drama, Carcass – Surgical Steel, Machine Head – The Blackening, and Unearth’s tone on all their Adam D. albums (the Kemper tone on their latest is twangy and thin, despite the album being a total crusher).

    I think a lot of axe-men have really been pushing up their mids to make the tone sound flat. Most the guitar tone out of AudioHammer (Mark Lewis, Eyal Levi or however you spell it) is super heavy in the upper mids, giving a raucous, tone. No chuggy scoop at all. Example: The overall final whole production of Black Dahlia’s later albums sounds nice, but the guitar tone is too tinny and lacks any punch whatsoever.

    Not sure what happened, people stopped using Rectifiers and moved to using 6505 heads in the 6/6/6 setting, and then to thin/twangy Axe FX steups.
    (However, the latest 5150 III seems to capture some of that 90s essence with a nice scoop on the mids).

    My own rig normally consists of a Mesa Triple Rectifier 2-Channel Post-500. Sometimes a Sonic Maxizer or Compressor/Gate in the loop, sometimes raw with no effects. Bass at 4 O’Clock, Mid at 10 O’Clock, high at 2 O’Clock, Presence at 2’o Clock, Gain at 3 O’Clock, and back switched in “Bold’ and “Silicone Diode” mode. And of course replace the stock Chinese Mesa branded tubes with Russian Sovtek 12AX7-LPS pre amp tubes, and Sovtek 6L6GC power amp tubes. Crank it up!

  • My childhood right here

  • I have a hard time stomaching some of the specific detail here — “super gritty almost black metal in tone” during a tone I thought sounded as warm and sparkly as anything in the whole set of videos. And the Sum-41 solo was a ‘you get credit for having a solo, but just barely’ solo.

    Nonetheless I’m with a lot of you on this. Those guys had something to their heaviness we can nick. I can’t go hunting right now, but I rifled through my memory banks for something metal of comparable density and dynamics and impeccableness: how about gojira’s latest work?

    I feel like what we’re noticing here in this generation of pop punk songs is how, for this kind of music, the heaviness had got bumped to the maximum it can support. The older songs I’ve seen quoted here (smashing pumpkins, etc.) were certainly heavier by conventional standards, but since finding germs of heaviness wherever it may lurk and breeding new forms is our mission here,.. it’s quite interesting.

  • i liked the palm muting on the blink song and the foo fighters. the distortion tone given by the last song was also very good. that 2 sums what we all should be looking at. clear palm mutes on fast runs, and clear but still distorted sound coming to you courtesy of jimmy! lml cheers rock on

  • you DONT need mids when you have balls!!

    • That’s not a really sensible thing to say. A lot of the tone actually comes from mids. The strings, the guitar mostly spit out mids.
      Great tone comes from great low-mid balancing. Not that tinnitus-inducing high pitch crap. Fuck active pups and fuck ‘distortion’ pedals in general.

      • i wasnt trying to have a sensible thing to say really. and if i was to extend my opinion on the matter (which im attempting to) is that probably low-mids may result in flatter sound (to my ears) and to me thats also a synonym for “raw” or “balls”. i love sylosis for that, they dont sound djenty, i dont know about the pickups being active or not, but im sure josh m. uses a maxon od, so i too agree with you. fuck distortion pedals. waste of time… cheers

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