Find the right electric guitar for grinding out those extreme heavy metal tones.
No matter the player or the budget, the guitar you choose to play says a lot about you and your style. While it’s true that you can play the same notes on any guitar, and that the sound ultimately comes from the player, it’s also true that certain guitars lend themselves to certain styles better than others. If you want to play country on a Jackson, or punk rock on a PRS, feel free.There are no hard-and-fast rules. But if you’re looking for just the right guitar to play metal, then read on to find out what makes a great metal guitar and take a look at a few proven favorites.
Before Diving In
When choosing the right guitar for your brand of metal, the first thing to consider is budget. With any guitar purchase, you’re generally going to get what you pay for. That said, modern manufacturing techniques have brought a whole new range of low-cost instruments to market. While they may lack some of the deluxe appointments and refined electronics of more costly models, they’re capable of sonic mayhem. Of course, if your budget and musical aims are a little more serious, there is a vast selection of moderately priced to premium guitars that are battle-hardened to stand up to even the most brutal players.
A First Look
In general, some specs and designs are better suited for playing metal than others. One common unifying preference is for humbucker pickups. Sure, single coils have their place in metal, but the majority of metal players want a thick, beefy tone that is best achieved with humbuckers. Humbuckers also eliminate most of the noisy hum associated with single-coils. For a more thorough explanation, check out the Pickups and Electronics discussion in our Electric Guitar Buying Guide.
Elements to consider
Here’s a brief overview of the most important elements that come into play when choosing a guitar for metal.
- Pickups. Humbuckers for hotter output and thicker, beefier sound. Active pickups offer even higher gain options, and more overall control. Passive pickups operate without batteries and can still offer a wide range of scorching metal tones.
- Tonewoods. Mahogany is excellent for metal, with its deep, rich, resonant tones. Basswood is a more cost-friendly option, offering great deep sounds and balanced resonance.
- Scale Length. 24.75-inch scale for easier playability and deeper fundamentals. 25.5-inch for tighter response and shimmery, chime-y response. Extended-range guitars have longer scales—making them more difficult for players with small hands.
- Playability.Thinner necks and flatter neck radiuses offer some players more accuracy for technical playing.
- Electronics. Options are endless. More pickups and more knobs offer more control over your sound. Aside from tone and volume, options also include EQ, phase switching, coil tapping, and kill switches.
- Bridge and Tuning Hardware. The two main distinctions here are fixed vs. tremolo bridges. A fixed bridge offers more tuning stability, and less potential confusion for beginning players. Tremolo-equipped bridges are fixed to the body with springs to adjust string tension. This allows players to raise and lower the pitch of all strings at once with a tremolo arm, sometimes referred to as a “whammy bar.” This allows that extreme bending, often called dive bombing, beloved by hard-rocking metal guitarists. Some tremolo bridge systems include locking tuners for increased tuning stability.
- Cosmetics. The look of your guitar won’t affect its sound or playability. However, some shapes are more closely associated with metal guitars. Some edgier profiles include the Dean VMNT Dave Mustaine V and the Gibson Explorer. Many great options can be also be found in guitars with more standard body shapes. Those with single or double cutaways allow easier access to higher notes—important in lead playing.
- Extended Range. Many modern metal guitarists play 7-string and 8-string guitars that offer the greater range of notes common in more extreme metal guitar styles. Baritone guitars are also popular, and make playing in lower tunings possible on a 6-string. Keep in mind that more strings and extended note ranges mean a wider neck and/or longer scale lengths.
Weapons of choice: Top brands and models for metal guitarists
Next, we’ll look at a sampling of metal-ready guitars that have earned high marks with pros and Musician’s Friend customers alike.
Ibanez has a long history of building guitars specifically for metal and shred guitarists. Their thin, flat necks offer players greater precision for technical work. Pickups are selected and voiced for punch and clarity–perfect for metal. In addition, some models offer fixed or floating-bridge options.
The RGD7 Prestige Uppercut offers premium playability and extended range to cover more sonic territory.
This 7-string beast has a 26.5 inch scale–perfect for accurately intonating down-tuned heavier-gauge strings. A pair of matched Bare Knuckle Aftermath pickups, hand wound in the UK, deliver huge rhythm chunk and spleen-tingling bass response. The swift ebony fretboard on a two-octave Wizard 7 neck is a shredder’s delight.
The Ibanez GRX20 is an excellent, budget-friendly choice for entry-level rock and metal players.
For the new metal player looking for an affordable first axe, the GRX20 offers serious shredding on a tight budget. Featuring a slim, fast neck and Ibanez Powersound humbuckers, the GRX20 has a FAT6 tremolo bridge for note-bending fun.
Schecter got its start making aftermarket guitar parts. The next logical step was building entire guitars and basses. Marquee rock and metal players like Robin Zander (Cheap Trick), Nikki Sixx and The Cure’s Robert Smith soon embraced Schecter axes. Today, Schecter counts some of metal’s biggest acts among its endorsers. The company’s robust lineup of 6-, 7- and 8-string guitars are available in a range of prices that target everybody from newbies to working pros.
Omen Extreme 6-FR
One of our top-sellers in its price range, the Omen Extreme FR combines traditional appointments with easy playability and massive sonic output.
Under its eye-popping carved maple top, the Omen Extreme 6-FR houses dual humbuckers with coil tapping for a broad tonal palette. The Floyd Rose locking tuning system offers tuning stability—even when you get into serious dive bombing.
The Schecter Banshee Elite-8 features the extended range of eight strings and the versatility of coil-tapped humbuckers that go from beefy to stinging with the flip of a switch.
The Banshee Elite-8 offers precision and performance for metal’s distinguished djentlemen. Its 8-string, 28” scale serves up extended sonic range while an upgraded custom Floyd Rose bridge gives it precise intonation and stability. A pair of USA SuperCharger humbuckers with coil tapping dish out single coil tone at the flip of a switch. Everything about the Banshee Elite says quality, from the maple/walnut neck with carbon reinforcement to the shred-friendly ebony fingerboard and black chrome hardware.
Much like Schecter, ESP began as a parts manufacturer, producing high-end aftermarket gear for guitars in Japan. Their reputation for quality spread and soon they were producing guitars for players like Paige Hamilton of Helmet and James Hetfield of Metallica. Today, they’re known for producing high-quality guitars built for speed and sonic attack. In addition, ESP has a deep roster of metal guitarists currently using its guitars in the studio and onstage.
KH-2 Kirk Hammett Signature
The ESP KH2 Kirk Hammett Signature is built for extreme metal output.
The ESP KH-2 Kirk Hammett Signature guitar will delight fans of classic-era Metallica. Armed with EMG 81/60 active humbuckers, a Floyd Rose locking tuning system with Gotoh tuners, and an extra thin and flat maple neck, the K-2 is exceptionally responsive to picking dynamics and will encourage all your shredding tendencies. Pearl inlay skull and crossbones on the fingerboard are an appropriate touch. This guitar is built to Kirk Hammett’s exacting specs, and it shows.
Brian Baggett demos the KH-2 by cranking out crunchy rhythm licks and huge leads.
The origins of Jackson guitars begin with Charvel’s Guitar Repair, a Southern California shop that became the nexus for the SoCal hard-rock community then ruling the music scene of the late 1970s. Owner Wayne Charvel later sold the burgeoning brand to Grover Jackson whose name then became synonymous with some of the hottest guitars in the realms of metal and hard rock. Things took off after Randy Rhoads collaborated with Jackson designers to come up with a stunningly innovative instrument able to keep up with his phenomenal chops. Many more collaborations and signature instruments have followed. Clean design and pointed, offset headstocks continue to be hallmarks of the brand.
Scott Ian Signature T10000 Soloist
The Jackson Scott Ian T1000 Soloist can handle the most extreme sonic and physical demands of thrash metal.
Built to the specs of the Anthrax thrash-metal maestro, the Jackson Scott Ian Signature Soloist derives its heat from a Seymour Duncan Scott Ian El Diablo bridge pickup and Seymour Duncan '59 Humbucker in the neck. All fittings and cosmetics are worthy of a hard-to-please pro. Shepard Fairey designed the custom fretboard High Boltage inlay work while Ian specified the oiled maple neck topped with an ebony fingerboard. This is one top-flight shredding machine.
JS22 Dinky DKA
The Jackson JS22 Dinky has the fast action of more costly Jacksons and the sonic grit to get those intense metal tones.
An affordable Jackson in the company’s popular Dinky series, the JS22 is will give you plenty of crunch and scream at a very modest price. High-output humbuckers and a fast, compound radius neck give you the sound and speed needed to pull off those nu-metal riffs.
The JS22 Dinky from Jackson takes a back seat to nobody when it comes to fiery tone and fluid playability.
Gibson has been building stringed instruments since the late 19th century and has been a major player in the development of the electric guitar. You’ll find Gibsons in the hands of everyone from blues and folk players to punk and psychedelic guitar heroes. A couple of their electric instruments have become especially associated with metal players.
Gibson 2019 SG Standard
The Gibson SG has huge sonic punch and sleek playability—two essentials for playing metal.
Rumor has it that when Gibson changed the design of the singlecut Les Paul to the doublecut SG, Les himself wasn’t too keen on the decidedly modern batwing look, and asked to have his name removed from the guitar. Since then, the SG has become a favorite among hard rock and classic metal guitarists. Players like Angus Young and Tony Iommi have embraced its menacing tones and sleek playability. Over the years Gibson has continued to tweak the SG design for enhanced playability.
Check out the 2019 Gibson SG Standard.
Epiphone Goth 1958 Explorer
The futuristic profile, blackout cosmetics and friendly price tag have made the Epiphone Goth 1958 Explorer, a top choice of metalists with minor budgets.
Epiphone, maker of Gibson’s budget-friendly line of guitars, incorporates many of the attributes that made their more costly stablemates hot items with metal and hard rock guitarists. The Epiphone Goth 1958 Explorer is a great example. Hot alnico humbuckers and a fast rosewood fingerboard conspire for major rawk tones and fleet-fingered riffage. A great buy.
Though Fender guitars may not be the thing that comes to mind when considering an axe for metal, they shouldn’t be ruled out. Fender’s guitars are extremely versatile and well built. Many metal players deliver sonic mayhem night after night with a Fender in their hands. Our next guitar is great case in point.
Squier Jim Root Telecaster
A pair of humbuckers transform the Squier Jim Root Telecaster from a classic twanger into a serious tool for metal mayhem.
What’s that? Telecasters are country guitars? Tell that to Jim Root of Slipknot or John 5 of Marilyn Manson/Rob Zombie fame. Being versatile workhorses, it’s no surprise to find Telecasters doing their bit in the halls of metal. The Squier Jim Root Tele was designed in consultation with the Slipknot guitarist as a minimalist rockin’ machine capable of generating huge overdriven tones while making a memorably monochromatic visual statement.
Need a Lifeline?
If you still have questions, or need some help choosing the best guitar for your needs and budget, give our friendly Gear Heads a call at 877-880-5907. They’ll help you zero in on your next weapon of aural domination.
Tags: Electric Guitars