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 superstrat 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.
Decades later, heavy metal musicians are armed with de-tuned 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 attitude?
Here are a few of the best metal guitars I've stumbled over during my 30 years as a guitarist. They're made by the top guitar brands in the world, and I’ve tried to present a nice cross section of guitar styles. So, no matter what kind of music you’re into you should find a guitar that’s right for you.
Of course this is only a guideline, based on my own experiences and preferences. You may have a lot of searching ahead of you before you find the perfect guitar, and I encourage you to do your own research before making a decision.
Also note that these are not starter guitars. There are some excellent beginner metal guitars out there, but these are instruments aimed at advanced guitarists.
ESP LTD EC-1000
If you are a fan of the single-cutaway, Les Paul-style but you need something a little hotter and meaner than the typical Les Paul, consider the ESP LTD EC-1000. While it looks traditional at first glance, the EC-1000 has a modern feel and a fast neck.
There are a bunch of versions of this guitar, but my favorite and the one I always recommend is the EC-1000T/CTM. It has a mahogany body and a set mahogany neck with a 22-fret ebony fingerboard, Tonepros tune-o-matic bridge and 24.75-inch scale length, all of which seems pretty familiar so far.
But the neck is a thin U shape, and the pickups are a hot EMG 60/81 set, making this a great guitar for extreme metal and shred. It feels fast and slick while at the same time not compromising the vibe and aesthetic of a traditional single-cut guitar.
I still love Les Pauls, and as you’ll see in a bit I still recommend them for heavy music, but due to a couple of changes over the past year or so I would go with the EC-1000 as a pure metal guitar.
You might also consider the EC-401, a similar guitar that’s a bit more affordable, or the EC-256, which is one of the best metal guitars for under $500.
Guitar World checks out the EC-1000:
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 mayhem, and they have a range of incredible guitars. But personally, my favorite is the Hellraiser.
The Hellraiser features a mahogany body in the classic Schecter "C" shape, which not only looks amazing 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 pickups are an active EMG 81TW/89 set. These are hot, high-output pickups with plenty of sizzle, and they are perfect for metal.
Schecter is a brand known for making great guitars. The Hellraiser sounds incredible, and has the look for extreme music.
I prefer the Hellraiser with the fixed bridge. I really like the sustain you get with the Tune-o-matic and string-through build. However, you also have the option of a Floyd Rose, which makes the guitar a little more shred-tastic, if that’s what you’re into. The choice is yours.
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 my top choice is the King V. 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 a mahogany body with a thru-body maple neck for amazing sustain. Twenty-four frets on an ebony fingerboard give you all the room you need for soloing.
What I really like are the pickups. The Pro Series King V comes with a Seymour Duncan JB in the bridge position, and ’59 at the neck. These are more moderate-output pickups than King V models in years past, and I really like this combination. In my opinion, it’s a bit of a fallacy that you need super-high-output pickups for metal. They work well, but a high-gain amp combined with warmer, more articulate pickups can sound fantastic too.
Jackson is one of the most revered names in metal history, and models like the Pro Series are meant for experienced players. However, their JS Series instruments are some of the top affordable metal guitars out there.
Charvel Pro Mod So-Cal and San Dimas
If you survived the ‘80s like I did you’re well acquainted with the Charvel superstrat design. Well, over the past decade or so it has come storming back.
There are two models that have my attention in recent times: The Pro Mod So Cal and the Pro Mod San Dimas. The San Dimas is a classic of sorts, the epitome of the superstrat. This is the guitar you want if you are into ‘80s style hard rock and metal.
However, I’ve been eyeing the Charvel So Cal for a while, and it is a strong contender for my next guitar purchase. As a metal guitarist, I tend to walk the line between shred, old-school thrash and more modern extreme sounds. With hot Seymour Duncan Distortion pickups I think the So Cal is a better choice for me.
On the other hand, the San Dimas has the JB/’59 pickup set, and as you know I don’t mind lower-output pickups for metal.
Both guitars feel and play amazing, and either are a great choice. So, stay tuned. Who knows what I’ll do. More importantly, which will you choose?
Just about everybody who was anybody in metal played a Charvel guitar back in the ‘80s. It’s good to see Charvel reclaim their spot as one of the top guitars for shredders, and among the biggest players on the metal scene.
Ibanez RG and S Series Guitars
Ibanez is one of the top names in the world of heavy music. 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 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 music, and for Ibanez that’s saying something.
I've been really impressed with the made-in-Japan Genesis Series over the past years or so, the RG550 in particular.
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.
Gibson Les Paul
You might be surprised that I consider Gibson among the top guitar brands for metal, but I love the Les Paul for heavy music. You can go for the Standard model if you feel the need, but my favorite is the Les Paul Studio. 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 de-tuned, high-gain metal. This is what we want when we're looking to craft some bone-crushing tone.
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 for metal. They're owned by Gibson, and they make affordable versions of Gibson classics. For the money they are tough to beat.
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 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 MK3 series Warlock and Warbeast feature hot pickups, a mahogany body for powerful resonance, and a bolt-on maple neck. The rosewood fretboard allows notes to ring crisp, and of course you get the obligatory double-locking tremolo.
Impress your friends and scare your neighbors. The Warlock and Warbeast are true metal monsters that live up to their names.
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.
What Makes a Good Metal Guitar?
How did these guitars make this list? Over more than three decades what makes a guitar good, or not, has been burned into my brain. After a while, you just kind of know. When a new guitar comes out, you take a look at the specs, try to get a hold of it and play it if you can, and see what you think.
Here are some of the things I think about:
- Tonewoods: I love mahogany, and you’ll see it in many of my choices above. It’s a warm, deep-sounding tonewood that really brings out the low end. A mahogany body and neck, as you’ll see with the ESP LTD EC-1000, for example, is a great combination for extreme music. However, for ‘80s-era hard rock or shred, I have to say I prefer alder. Alder is a little brighter, and typically used in Stratocasters and superstrats like the Charvel San Dimas and So Cal.
- Body style: I grew up playing v-style guitars so they do have a special place in my heart, which may account for why I think so highly of the Jackson King V, Warlock and ML. However, I don’t think a wild body shape is a prerequisite for a solid metal guitar. Double-cut and single-cut designs are good too, and in many cases much less unwieldy to play.
- Neck: As I said, mahogany on mahogany is a strong choice for modern extreme music, but a maple neck can add a little more snap and punch to a guitar’s sound, and I prefer them for classic metal and hard rock.
- Fingerboard: In my opinion it is worth your time to understand the different guitar fretboards. I own guitars with ebony, rosewood and maple fingerboards, and I prefer different woods for different styles. For most heavy music I like a rosewood fingerboard, but for hard rock and shred I much prefer a one-piece maple neck and fingerboard as on Strats and the Charvel guitars above.
- Pickups: I talked about this before, but it’s worth saying again. Yes, hot, screaming, active pickups are outstanding for heavy music. They push your amp harder and have a lot of sizzle. However, lower-output pickups, as on a Les Paul or something like a Duncan JB, have a warmth and clarity those active pickups tend to miss. With a high-gain amp or distortion pedal they can sound amazing.
- Bridge: Do you really need a Floyd Rose to play metal? Actually, don’t answer that. I’ve been asking myself that question for thirty years and I still don’t know. On one hand, of course you don’t need one. Hard-tail bridges are easy to work with and they usually have really good sustain. But, if you consider yourself a shredder, you’ll probably want a whammy bar. If you walk the line between genres, it’s a toss up.
- About 7-String Guitars: You’ll notice I didn’t include any here, but that’s not because I don’t like them. I have a separate article on 7-string guitars for metal. As for whether or not you really need one, I think it depends on what style you play.
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. You already know I think the Les Paul is sonically amazing for high-gain music. The ESP Eclipse, the big brother of the EC-1000, is another great option. Both are, in my opinion, among the top Les Paul alternatives out there.
Of course Jackson and Ibanez are two great options. In addition to the King V, Jackson puts forward many other great instruments as well. The Ibanez RG and S series are guitars you can count on.
If you are into shred, I think it is tough to beat Charvel. Their superstrats made the ‘80s, and they’re back, baby.
As a 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.