Best Metal Guitar: Top Guitars for Hard Rock and Heavy Metal
How to Choose the Best Metal Guitar
Some people think any guitar will do for metal as long as your amp is set to ten with the distortion blazing. The fact is that quality matters when choosing the best metal guitar, just as much as any other genre of music.
It’s not all about pointy shapes either, though there are some decent-sounding guitars out there that can also serve well in self-defense. When choosing a guitar for metal, it’s more important to look at the construction of the instrument. The materials used in the body and neck play a huge part in determining tone, resonance, and sustain, and the hardware and electronics need to be top-notch.
Back in the '80s it was all about the super-Strat sound. These were guitars with alder or ash bodies, and usually one-piece maple necks. They sounded bright and snappy, great for shredding, and worked well with the mid-range, British-type overdrive those bands employed.
Nowadays, heavy metal musicians are armed with detuned guitars and high-gain amplifiers capable of crumbling a small house with one chord. Dark, thick, resonant tone is the key to the modern metal sound. The tonewoods we look to are mahogany and basswood, and we need hot pickups to send a strong signal to the amp. And, of course, our guitars need to be built like tanks to get the sustain and harmonic character we need.
There are a lot of guitars out there that look like they might make the cut, but until you look closer you never know. From extreme death metal, to thrash, to shred, if you want to succeed as a metal guitarist you need the right tool for the job. Which guitars can really pull off great sound and metal attitude?
Here are a few of the best metal guitars I've stumbled over during my 30 years as a guitarist. They're quality instruments from some of the best brand names in the guitar world. Of course this is only a guideline. You may have a lot of searching ahead of you before you find the perfect metal guitar, but at least you’ll have a solid starting point.
Gibson Les Paul
My top pick is the Gibson Les Paul. You can go for the Standard model if you feel the need, but my favorite is the Les Paul Studio T. It's got all the great sound and power you find in a Les Paul for a more wallet-friendly price.
The Studio also looks metal. It's got a slick yet simple vibe, and under the hood you'll find a mahogany body with a maple cap and a mahogany neck. Mahogany is a dark, resonant tonewood, and provides a deep, rich sound perfect for detuned, high-gain metal. This is what we want when we're looking to craft some bone-crushing tone.
You'll also find the Studio equipped with a set of Gibson 490R and 498T pickups. These are a touch hotter than the BurstBucker Pros, and again a great choice for metal. The stop-bar tailpiece means solid tuning stability, if you can survive without a whammy bar. Pair it up with a Peavey 6505, tune it down a step or two, and you’ve got an awesome metal machine,
While my choice would be the Les Paul, you might also consider the Gibson SG, another guitar that reeks of metal attitude. More importantly, with its deep, resonant tone, it puts out some incredible sounds. Like the LP Studio, the Standard SG is pretty reasonably priced for a legendary guitar. Plus, it comes equipped with devil horns!
If both the Studio and SG are a little too pricey for your budget, I encourage you to check out Epiphone guitars. They're owned by Gibson, and they make affordable versions of Gibson classics. For the money they are tough to beat.
Jackson King V
Jackson is the brand name most people think of first when it comes to heavy metal guitar. The problem is that Jackson makes so many great guitars it's almost impossible to choose one above the others. The Soloist has been a favorite of shredders for a generation or longer, and the Dinky is right behind it. The Rhoades has a legendary history behind it spawned by one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived, and the Kelly has carved out a niche for itself as a shred machine.
But there is something about the look of the King V that screams metal, and something about the sound that just plain screams. The Pro Series King V has an nato body. Nato is a tonewood with similar qualities as mahogany, and it has become increasingly popular in recent years. Add in a pair of Duncan Distortion pickups, and the King V not only looks amazing, but has the guts to back it up. Twenty-four frets on an ebony fingerboard give you all the room you need for soloing, and the through-body neck allows for great sustain.
It's hard to decide on a favorite Jackson guitar for metal, which may be why most guitar players have so many of them. But the King V is at the top of my list for metal attitude and sound.
Jackson Guitars Are Made for Metal
Ibanez is one of the top names in the world of heavy metal. Going back a few decades, the Ibanez Destroyer stood at the top of the mountain when it came to metal and hard rock tone. In fact, it is a little-known legend that Eddie Van Halen used an Ibanez Destroyer for some of the tracks on Van Halen’s debut album. That thick, crunchy tone wasn’t all Frankenstrat.
But metal has changed a lot in 35 years, and so has Ibanez. You can still find guitars like the Destroyer and the Iceman in the Ibanez lineup, but in recent history the two guitars Ibanez has become best known for in the world of heavy metal are the RG and the S. From extreme metal to shred, both of these guitar models will help you melt the brains of anyone within a 200-foot radius of your amp.
As if it wasn’t tough enough to choose one Ibanez model above the others for heavy metal, a couple of years back they unveiled their Iron Label Series. These are Ibanez guitars with appointments suited for hardcore metal, and for Ibanez that’s saying something.
So how do you choose the right Ibanez guitar for metal? Here are a couple of articles that can help.
Best Ibanez Models for Metal
- Best Ibanez Guitar for Metal and Rock
Compare the best Ibanez guitars, top choices for metal and rock guitar players around the world, and decide which is right for you.
- Ibanez RG vs. S Series
Learn the difference between the Ibanez RG and S Series and decide which guitar is better for you and your music.
Ibanez Iron Label S Series
Schecter Hellraiser C-1 FR
Schecter makes some really great guitars for the metal crowd, with appointments you wouldn't expect in guitars in their price range. Every year they seem to up the bar when it comes to features, finishes and sounds, but they remain reasonably-priced instruments within the range of most serious players.
Honestly, it's hard to pick the best metal guitar out of the Schecter lineup. This is a company devoted to sonic metal mayhem, and they have a range of incredible guitars. But one that seems to be edging out the other in popularity is the Hellraiser, and the Hellraiser FR is a particularly intriguing beast.
The Hellraiser features a mahogany body is in the classic Schecter "C" shape, which is not only visually appealing but makes for a solid tonal base. Combined with the mahogany neck, it provides that full, deep sound we want in modern metal tone.
The Hellraiser also comes in a fixed-bridge model, but the addition of the Floyd Rose makes the guitar a little more shred-tastic, if that’s what you’re into. The C-1 FR features an EMG active pickups set, a nice addition to an already great guitar.
The Schecter Hellraiser is an amazing guitar that would do the job in any genre, but it especially shines in hard rock and heavy metal.
Hear the Schecter Hellraiser
Dean ML 79
The Dean ML design was popular in the late '70s and early '80s, but as the wave of shred overtook the world and super-strat designs became more desirable, big guitars like the ML weren't seen around as much.
All that would change when a kid from Texas showed up in a band called Pantera in the early 1990s, wielding a Dean ML he'd won in a guitar contest. "Dimebag" Darrell Abbot and Pantera would become famous, and soon the ML was back in the spotlight in the hands of one of the greatest metal guitarists of a generation.
The only problem was Dean guitars went out of production briefly, so Dime set about buying up all the old MLs he could. Today, Dean is going stronger than ever, and boasts not only several ML and Dime signature models, but new artist models from great players like Dave Mustaine of Megadeth and Michael Amott of Arch Enemy.
The ML design is built for resonance and sustain. The sheer mass of the mahogany body with the set mahogany neck lends to a deep sound, and the maple top helps to bring out the highs. Although MLs are available with Floyd Rose tremolos, the original design featured a though-body string setup for amazing sustain.
There is a reason the Dean ML rose again as the weapon of choice for one of the best metal guitarists who ever lived.
Charvel Desolation Star DST
This guitar looks unique today, but if you survived the ‘80s you’re well acquainted with the Charvel Star body shape. Well, it’s back! This thing just reeks of metal defiance, and it has guts to back it up.
If you don’t know Charvel, you know they were one of the top guitars for shredders, and biggest players on the metal scene years ago. They disappeared off the radar for a bit, but for the past decade they’ve been undergoing a resurgence as a subsidiary of Fender. Just about everybody who was anybody in metal played a Charvel guitar back in the ‘80s. It’s good to see the brand getting strong again.
The Desolation Star is not just a cool body style; it has some appointments that present great sonic character. A mahogany body and through-body maple neck with rosewood fingerboard makes for a nice combination of resonance and snap without sacrificing sustain. A Floyd Rose tremolo system serves as the bridge, and for pickups we have a set of EMG 81/85s. The Star is also available in fixed-bridge models, and designs with flame maple tops.
No doubt you’ll stand out carrying this thing onto the stage. It may be an unusual look today, but the Star is a tried and true classic design with modern updates. If you’re looking for the best metal guitar, this is a great choice.
Hear the Charvel Desolation Star DST
B.C. Rich Warlock
B.C. Rich guitars have been synonymous with metal for over thirty years. From Mick Mars of Motley Crue, to Lita Ford, to Chuck Schuldiner of Death, to Kerry King of Slayer today, B.C. Rich shaped the sound of hard rock, death metal, and thrash. There are many great designs in the B.C. Rich lineup: famous guitars like the Mockingbird, Bich, Virgo, Ironbird, Virgin, and of course the epitome of the metal axe, the Warlock.
The Warlock has stood the test of time, and it's a classic in its own right. But today there is another guitar that takes the Warlock design a step further, and B.C. Rich calls it the Warbeast.
The NJ Deluxe series Warlock features hot EMG pickups, a mahogany body for powerful resonance, and neck-through maple neck design for great sustain. The ebony fretboard allows notes to ring crisp, and of course you get the obligatory Floyd Rose tremolo. The mother-of-pearl binding really sets the look of this guitar apart from your typical pointy-guitar design, and adds a nice touch of class to this snarling beasty.
Impress your friends and scare your neighbors. The Warlock is a true metal monster that lives up to its name.
Choose Your Weapon
A discussion of the best metal guitar wouldn’t be complete without talking about some of the classic instruments out there.
Gibson has their Flying V and Explorer, and both are great guitars for metal. You already know I think the Les Paul is sonically amazing for high-gain metal. The ESP Eclipse is another great option, as is its little cousin the LTD EC-1000. Both are, in my opinion, among the top Les Paul alternatives out there.
Of course Jackson and Ibanez are two great players on the metal scene. In addition to the King V, Jackson puts forward many other great options for the metal guitar player. The Ibanez RG and S series are guitars you can count on.
As a metal guitar player you have a lot of choices, but remember it’s not just about the look of the guitar. Always consider the electronics, components, and most of all the wood the instrument is made out of when making your decision. Good luck, and I hope this review helped you track down the best metal guitar for your needs.
Your Opinion on the Best Guitar for Metal
Which is the best of the best?
Read More About the Top Metal Guitars
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- Best Heavy Metal Guitar Under $300
If you’re looking for the best heavy metal guitar under $300, you have great options from brands like Jackson, Dean, Schecter and B.C. Rich.
- Best Metal Guitar Under $500
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