Choosing the best guitar for metal is a delicate business. So, your heart is set on creating the kind of noise that the devil will consider you one of his own, will make your parents disown you, and will ban you in most places where they prize civil company? It’s time to look at what instrument will help you to achieve this. Let’s take a look and listen to what is the best guitar for playing heavy metal music.
What goes into creating a good heavy metal guitar sound?
Let’s face it. When I play heavy metal guitar, the last thing on my mind is subtlety. What I am looking to do is melt faces, create giant earthquakes, and potentially have a kid etch my band’s logo into his math textbook. You’re likely after the same thing!
With heavy metal guitar, loud is defeaningly better, and more can’t be enough. Power chords and simple picked arpeggios are best left to those who play folk, punk guitar, or, even worse still, indie guitar. The technique can only take you so far. This is where the job of a good instrument and a top amp comes in. They will help you play metal guitar. (Note that acoustic guitars can’t be used in metal, but not for too long of a stretch and when used they have to play something complex).
Scales can only get you so far. But, ask any guitarist worth his salt and they will tell you that the sound is all in the fingers. Use your picking hand to hit notes with a consistent attack. Make sure your fretting hand has the correct posture so as to decrease the time it takes to reach a note. Check this video of Joe Satriani rocking a much cheaper version of his preferred metal guitar. Saint Joe still manages to get an excellent tone.
When creating your sound, also make sure that you opt for a balanced approach in terms of the mix. Don’t go too heavy on the bass, or treble. Don’t deny the smoothness of your mids either. The same can be said about your choice of pedals and the cabinet. Opt for quality gear, if you can, but remember that the best guitarists, metal musicians included, need to leave space for the frequency of the other instruments when playing.
Finally, choose a quality guitar that suits your needs. The guitar itself affects the tone just as much as the other items we’ve listed. However, a heavy metal guitar that is right for you lets you feel comfortable. I can’t play any other guitar better than the one I’ve owned for a long time (a Gibson Junior) because I’m familiar with every inch of it, and because I know what it sounds like. Besides, it looks cool. If you want to play heavy metal guitar, you’ll want a guitar that looks cool. Some may call this shallow, but the people who say this mustn’t be very creative with their personal looks.
Cost of a guitar used for heavy metal?
I couldn’t afford an expensive guitar when I was growing up. I settled for a mid-range one the moment I’d saved the money. Fortunately, regardless of your budget, your modern options are much more numerous. Simply put, because of the change in terms of the cost of the material that goes into a guitar and the price of labor, excellent guitars can cost less than they did in the past. Sure, you also have all the other brands if you’ve heard your favorite metal guitarist play like Ibanez, Jackson, ESP, or Gibson. Those still cost a lot. Especially, the latter.
If buying new, you’ll be able to find a good instrumental for under $300 with a bit of scouting. Mind you, many of these are not quite arena concert ready. But, they should do the job as you progress. Depending on the quality of the parts used, some may even be turned into decent recording metal guitars. Some of the guitars currently recommended in this bracket are:
- Ibanez RG421
- Schecter 430 C-6 Deluxe
- Ibanez GRX70QA TEB
A mid-range price for a new guitar for metal use would be between $500 and $1000. This cost should guarantee you a semi-pro instrument manufactured by a brand of some renown. The items included in these are usually more expensive. Also, they may be built in countries where labor is more costly. Lastly, you may also be paying for the brand itself, or for a signature model. Kerry King, Dimebag Darrell or Adrian Smith Jackson guitars are highly prized commodities. Some guitars included in this bracket include:
- ESP LTD EC-256
- PRS SE Standard 24
- Dean Razorback
If you have over $1000 to spend on an electric guitar, you’re either searching for the perfect instrument, or your folks are profoundly wealthy. Either way, you can have your pick out of a series of high-quality, well-respected instruments. These are the guitars that with minimal setup work should be ready for a metal guitarist to use on a large stage, or in the studio. Some of the best-rated instruments in this category include:
- PRS SE Mark Holcomb
- Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster
- LTD EC-1000 EverTune
A more expensive instrument won’t make a novice guitarist sound like Randy Rhoads, but it will make a good guitarist sound and look like Randy Rhoads. Really, with the quality of today’s gear, there’s no reason you can’t sound as good as the classic heavy metal guitar players.
History and future of the heavy metal electric guitar
Before we go any further, I’m going to give you a quick history lesson. Don’t worry! There’s no quiz here and you needn’t memorize any dates. Just remember three names: Tonny Iommi, Randy Rhoads, and Eddie van Halen. If nothing else, these will set you on the right track.
Heavy metal began at the tail-end of the psychedelic 1960s with bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Jimmy Page’s bluesy pentatonic lines and Tony Iommi‘s detuned guitar riffs lit the spark to an explosion that we feel even today. I am Iron Maaaaan!
By the end of the 1970s guitarists were getting faster, more precise, and playing at louder volumes. Eddie van Halen made kids want to learn double-tapping. Yngwie Malmsteen sent them scouring to figure out what J.S. Bach might play. And, Randy Rhoads taught them the importance of accuracy.
Since then, numerous sub-styles of heavy metal guitar have been born, nurtured, and allowed to blossom. From doom to glam, from goth to deathcore, from hard rock to black metal the possibilities are endless. Perhaps, the one thing that all of these do have in common, is the use of a loud, usually over the top, electric guitar sound.
That’s it for the history lesson. But, remember that things in metal change at a considerable pace. Styles like metalcore, djent, mathcore, or prog-metal require superior instruments that can keep up with the imagination of the players. We may just live in the golden age of guitars, where they sound and look better than they ever did in the past. Except for the Gibson Gold Top of the 1950s. People say they don’t make those like they did anymore. But, for a few hundred dollars, you and I can buy a cheap, reliable knockoff which Gibson disowns and threatens legal suit against. Oh, well!
What to look for in terms of pickups?
Now that we’ve established just what kind of sound you and I are chasing, let’s talk about pickups. After all, the electric guitar is only a piece of wood with pieces of wire that communicate to an amplifier. Arguably, the factors that most influence your metal guitar sound are going to be the pickups and your guitar amplifier. Don’t believe, me? Check out James Hetfield playing Carl, a guitar built from the wood of an old shed that Metallica used to inhabit.
There’s never been a better time to buy modern guitar pickups. The quality ones should come equipped with the tone they’re promising. Many guitarists opt to change the standard pickups with which their guitar was provided initially. This is a non-permanent solution. As long as you, or a specialist, does a good job changing the pickups, you may be able to experiment with different pickups however many times you like.
There are two main types of magnetic electric guitar pickups: active and passive. The passive pickups are the old-fashion solution. These are attached to your guitar, provide a weaker signal, and need to make use of the power of your amplifier. However, it’s worth remembering that until recently, these pickups were pretty much the industry standard.
Meanwhile, active pickups rely on a battery, which is housed in your guitar for their electric output. They feature their own preamp, provide a more compressed sound and an even, balanced signal. This makes them more reliable, especially when playing fiery riffs. However, some guitarists believe these take away some of the dynamics of their playing.
What’s the price for a good set up heavy metal guitar pickups? Obviously, the price will depend on price and brand recognition. However, you can pick up a good set of pickups for no more than $80. Prices can climb up to $250 depending on the specs of the model.
Some of the most popular guitar pickups for metal at the moment include:
- Fishman Fluence Modern Set
- DiMarzio Super Distortion
- Seymour Duncan Distortion Bridge
What guitar strings to use for metal?
In my pursuit to find the nastiest guitar tone possible, I’ve tried numerous types of strings. After all, the guitar strings are the easiest and cheapest elements one can change on their metal guitar. I’ve heard stories of people using piano strings or fence wire. Those are legends, by the way. I’ve heard of guitarists like Billy Gibbons using the slinkiest strings around in order not to work when playing bends. That one happens to be true. Those are the ones that I use today.
In theory, the thickness of strings plays a part in the tone. Thicker guitar strings should hold their tune a bit better. They should also provide a bit more output and help the initial attack when playing a note. That being said, they’ll also wear on your fingers if you’re looking to be a guitar wizard. Aren’t we all?
You’ll be surprised that most metal guitarists, especially the virtuoso ones, opt for thinner, slinkier strings. Provided that they’re made by a reliable company, they should rarely snap, regardless of the strain that you put them under.
There are even some, like Zakk Wylde or Slash, who swear by the use of a hybrid of thin and thick strings, with a light top and a heavy bottom end. Frankly, the best way to decide the combination that works for you is to try out different models on the same guitar, amp, pedal setup.
How much do electric guitar strings for heavy metal cost? A set of good guitar strings should cost between $5 to $30 regardless of model or manufacturer. Most modern sets tend to last a long time, but it is advisable that you change them every few months if you are a hobbyist guitarist, or more frequently if you often play live.
Some of the best guitar strings for heavy metal at the moment include:
- Ernie Ball 2220 Power Slinky Nickel Wound Electric Guitar Strings — .011–.048
- Dunlop DHCN1048 Heavy Core NPS Electric Strings — .010–.048 “Heavy”
- DR Strings MT-10 Tite-Fit Compression Wound Electric Guitar Strings — .010–.046 Medium
Personally, I like to use Dunlop Billy Gibbons Rev. Willy Electric Strings Super Fine 7-38. It’s an acquired taste, I know.
What guitar pick to use for metal?
The choice of guitar picks, much like the strings, depends on the level of accuracy and the attack that you’re looking to get. Heavier picks, normally, allow you more control. Thinner picks allow you to pick notes quicker.
When in doubt, just use a Dunlop Tortex 1.0mm. Most of your favorite guitarists do the same. If you’re feeling fancy, feel free to experiment. Brian May, after all, uses a sixpence coin to play guitar and nobody’s complaining about him.
What guitar to use for death metal, black metal, doom, etc.?
As we’ve established there are several factors that go into creating the heavy metal guitar tone: the guitar, the amp, the pedals, err.. your fingers. Still, you and I know that we buy things based not solely on logical criteria. Your metal guitar must be an instrument that makes you thrilled to play it. Because of that, you will probably consider the aspect of the guitar and the history of guitarists who’ve adopted it along with factors related to tone and the quality of the build.
Let’s look at some of the guitars that have become intrinsically linked to certain heavy metal genres, and use this as a springboard to get an untamed beast of a guitar into your hands.
Classic heavy metal guitars:
- Gibson Les Paul Standard
- Ibanez RG550
- Gibson SG Standard
Death metal guitars:
- Jackson Pro Series Soloist SL2
- Schecter Reaper 6
- B.C. Rich Warlock (this one will make you look like a necromancer carrying a summoning tool. You’ll never get a gig as a jazz guitarist using this)
Best guitars for doom metal:
- Gibson SG
- Epiphone SG Special VE
- ESP Viper
Best guitars for black metal:
- Ibanez Destroyer (Quorthon played one. Must be good)
- Gibson Flying V
- ESP Black Metal series
Note that the guitar models here matter less. What matters most in black metal is the look and your right-hand technique. You might even consider purchasing a mandolin first to practice your tremolo picking.
What’s the most metal guitar body shape?
The B.C. Rich’s Dragon’s Blood! No contest. I think that it looks like the kind of design that Slayer’s Kerry King might draw on a napkin after an extended session of chocolate tasting, and that an excessive fan, who happens to know a good luthier, might present him with.
But, alas, there are other things to consider besides body shape and color alone.
The majority of heavy metal guitarists play a solid body instrument designed with ergonomics in mind. Eddie van Halen’s Super-Strats and Ibanez Destroyers, Angus Young’s Gibson SG, or Matt Heafy‘s Epiphone Les Paul Custom, are all surprisingly light guitars. You’ll want to easily maneuver your instruments when playing time-defying guitar solos, or running around the stage for two hours every night.
The hollow-body and semi-hollow body guitars offer more resonance. They also tend to feedback, are larger, and tend to be associated with genres like rockabilly. Are these the best metal guitars? Not for your typical overdriven guitar riffs. Still, some have found a use for them. Check out Izzy Stradlin’s Gretsch played rhythm tracks on Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction.
Still, with all things equal, I would opt for a guitar that looks like a mythological sword when playing metal guitar. Audiences will appreciate that you would some effort into it.
Frequent questions asked about metal guitar
In closing, I’ll take on the unenviable task of asking a few of the internet’s most searched questions regarding what the best metal guitar is, and why people like heavy metal to begin with. Imagine something asking something like that.
When looking for a beginner metal song to learn, you are looking for something that requires a low level of competence. You are, also looking for something that will impress your friends who may not be metalheads. They’ve surely heard of AC/DC, or Metallica though.
Opt for a simple to master AC/DC riff like Back in black, or Hard as a rock. Angus Young’s playing is great for developing lead guitar prowess but helps develop your rhythmic sensibilities also. You can’t go beating Kirk Hammett’s Enter Sandman, or, even Jerry Cantrell’s Man in the box either.
When you’ve graduated past these rifftastic possibilities, feel free to branch out. Pantera’s Cowboys from hell is bound to get your listeners’ blood pumping. And, Megadeth’s Hangar 18 will make them want to put down the Guitar Hero joystick.
If those don’t even present a challenge, move to the advanced level with Randy Rhoads’ Mister Crowley, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Trilogy Suite Op: 5, or Steve Vai’s For the love of God. You’ve just progressed to the level of expert guitarist. You probably could have become a NASA scientist with all the effort that you put into this.
Electric and acoustic guitars can be used both for playing lead, or rhythm. Technically, the bass guitar is a separate instrument created to emphasize lower register notes. It usually features four or five strings, although string behemoths like this do exist.
In typical heavy metal songs, the bass guitar tends to drift slightly into the background. This, however, doesn’t mean that playing it doesn’t require an excellent skill. Nor, does it mean that bass players don’t end up creating great bands.
The regular guitar, however, is a more versatile instrument. It was created to be able to produce both low and high register tones. At its finest, it can be made to sound like a small orchestra. It’s easy to carry around and has been favored by songwriters for many decades.
Besides, if you’re starting a band with your friends, and YOU are the one with the worst metal guitar-playing chops, you will end up playing bass. It’s in the laws of nature.
Fear! They fear the sound of crashing drums, banshee howls, and the best metal guitar sounds that could power a rocket off to space. Also, believe it or not, some folks are averse to music fans wearing leather and denim jackets, and shouting the names of their favorite bands in full voice.
Actually, in spite of its reputation, heavy metal music can be highly therapeutic. Research has conclusively shown that heavy metal music can improve mental health. Furthermore, exploring your creativity with music is guaranteed to have a positive effect on your general well-being.
I’ve talked to you about the best guitar for metal. I’ve told you about the instrument’s power to soothe the soul, raise the spirit, and inspire your fellow metalheads to bang their heads in unison. We’ve comforted ourselves with stories of Randy Rhoads, Tony Iommi, and Dimebag Darrell.
What’s left to do now? Go out, or stay online if you prefer, and buy the best metal guitar to help you to power into the same reservoir of creativity. Your rock music peers need you!