Best Metal Guitar: Top Guitars for Hard Rock and Heavy Metal

Updated on June 19, 2018
Guitar Gopher profile image

Guitar Gopher is a guitarist and bassist with over 30 years of experience as a musician.

The best guitars for modern metal, thrash, shred, classic metal and hard rock.
The best guitars for modern metal, thrash, shred, classic metal and hard rock.

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 Hellraiser

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 Hellraiser C-1 Electric Guitar (Gloss Black)
Schecter Hellraiser C-1 Electric Guitar (Gloss Black)

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.

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.

Moderate-output pickups can sound fantastic through high-gain amps like the Peavey 6505.
Moderate-output pickups can sound fantastic through high-gain amps like the Peavey 6505.

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.

Dean ML

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.

For hard rock and shred I prefer a one-piece maple neck and fingerboard.
For hard rock and shred I prefer a one-piece maple neck and fingerboard.

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.

Your Opinion on the Best Guitar for Metal

Which is the best of the best?

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    • Guitar Gopher profile imageAUTHOR

      Guitar Gopher 

      8 months ago

      @BLAKTORX - That's a personal preference kind of thing. I'd probably go with the ESP LTD because I prefer the superstrat design. Then again 20 years ago I probably would have chosen the BC Rich. It's a classic metal look. I'd suggest playing them both if you can and taking it from there.

    • profile image

      BLAKTORX 

      8 months ago

      im confused between the bc rich warlock double locking tremolo and the esp ltd m100fm.which is a better metal guitar??

    • profile image

      Will 

      10 months ago

      I just bought a Les Paul Studio used for $475 :)

    • profile image

      ramone 

      23 months ago

      You forgot the Jackson's Warrior.

    • Guitar Gopher profile imageAUTHOR

      Guitar Gopher 

      3 years ago

      Hi Jayson. Les Pauls are among my favorite guitars for metal and the Epi version will do just fine. The PlusTop with the ProBuckers will sound richer and more articulate than the standard plain top. Both guitars have mahogany bodies and necks like the Gibson version. All in all, a very good choice for a mid-level guitar for metal. The MG10 is a great little practice amp and I don't think you'll have any trouble there either. Of course you're going to want to upgrade to something bigger eventually. Good luck. I think you'll be happy. \m/

    • profile image

      Jayson 

      3 years ago

      Hey, there! I have a question regarding guitar choice. I don't have the money right now, because I don't have a job yet. Oh, the woes of being younger than sixteen....NOT! Anyway, I'm thinking I'm going to get an Epiphone Les Paul, and I was wondering first, just exactly how well it plays heavy metal, and if it would work well with my "Marshall MG10CF" Amp. Any answers?

    • profile image

      nick 

      3 years ago

      I've been trying and the weird thing is, is that they only do that tuning on acoustic songs. All the rest is in e standard.

    • Guitar Gopher profile imageAUTHOR

      Guitar Gopher 

      3 years ago

      That's interesting nick. If I am getting you right the strings are: BADGDE. I don't mess around with odd tuning much except to tune down in full steps. I have a couple of guesses but don't want to mess you up any further. Hopefully somebody will know for sure. You might want to research whatever band wrote the song you learned and see what kind of tuning they use.

    • profile image

      nick 

      3 years ago

      Hey, so I know this is a guitar gear deal but I just learned a song in the strangest tuning I've ever heard of. It's sounds good, but have no idea what the tuning is called. You go drop b on the low e and the everything else is tuned to drop d except the b is tuned up to d. Does anyone know what this tuning is called?

    • profile image

      nick 

      3 years ago

      Hey darketh, it all depends on your personal preference. I myself have an Ibanez rgt42 and it is a killer choice and in my opinion maybe the best metal guitar you can get foe under $900. Plays great in drop tunings however I keep hearing people on cranking up the distortion. This is why you need the correct setup to avoid too much Cuz with a group you will just be drowned out. I recommend a good boost pedal or toggle. Last but not least... I can't say too much for some on the lineup but I also have a gibson sg standard limited edition and although has a great clean/blues tone it's also killer for metal and is a highly chosen axe over the years by many big names for the thin neck make easy shredding. Also a through body single piece or a fixed neck will make all the difference. Avoid bolt on if you're into metallic.

    • Guitar Gopher profile imageAUTHOR

      Guitar Gopher 

      3 years ago

      The RG is a classic metal guitar series in general. It was hard for me to pick one model for this lineup, but I especially like the Iron Label RG and S guitars from Ibanez.

    • profile image

      Darketh 

      3 years ago

      What about the Ibanez RG series? I've tried one out on C Standard with high distortion and it sounded great.

    • Guitar Gopher profile imageAUTHOR

      Guitar Gopher 

      3 years ago

      I think it's a great choice, Yazan. I hope you love it!

    • profile image

      Yazan 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for the advice, I couldn't find a good deal for the Hellraiser 'cause as you said it's a bit over my price range, but I've found a great offer on the ESP LTD V-401FM STBLK, here check it out:

      http://www.espguitars.com/products/9804-v-401fm-st...

      what do you think of it?

    • Guitar Gopher profile imageAUTHOR

      Guitar Gopher 

      3 years ago

      Hi Yazan. Looks like 600 euros equates to a bit under $700 right now. You have a lot of great options in that price range. I'd look hard at Schecter guitars for the kind of music you are into. The Hellraiser might be a bit over your price range, but the Damien series is something to consider. There are even some 7-strings in your budget, though I wouldn't really recommend a 7-string for a beginner. Good luck!

    • profile image

      Yazan 

      3 years ago

      Hey guys, thanks for the great article.

      I'm not sure if I should be asking this question here but I hope that someone would help me choose the guitar that suits me.

      I'm a beginner, I don't know much about guitars but I love metal music, heavy metal and symphonic metal are my favorites. I like bands such as Epica, Evanescence, BFMV, Haggard, Dimmu Borgir, Metallica, Linkin Park...

      I'd like to play solos and try to play songs like _Your Betrayal - BFMV_ for example!

      I have a budget around 600€ ...

      please, can anyone help me choose a guitar?

    • Guitar Gopher profile imageAUTHOR

      Guitar Gopher 

      3 years ago

      Hi Kevin. Thanks for your input. Certainly this article focuses on guitars that look like they fit the metal genre, but there is more to it than that, and more than just going to the local music store and finding a guitar with humbuckers that feels good. Tonewoods are important, as are the pickups and quality of components. These guitars were chosen with those things in mind.

    • profile image

      Kevin Kthulumaki 

      3 years ago

      Seems to me like all of these guitars (Except the Schecter) were chosen for nothing more than their appearance. What about playability? All these EXTREME shaped guitars. are annoying to hold, and generally uncomfortable to play, and their pointy little bodies do nothing good for the sound. You can just go to your local music store, try out a few guitars, don't worry about the brand, just find one in your price range that feels and sounds good. You can easily find a decent metal machine for under 400 bucks. Just make sure it's got humbuckers that can handle the amount of distortion you use, take it home, and start exercising them fingers.

    • Guitar Gopher profile imageAUTHOR

      Guitar Gopher 

      4 years ago

      According to Jackson's website, the X Series King V has a basswood body and the Pro Series has an Alder body. But you're right: The image didn't match with the text, and I've updated to hopefully eliminate any confusion.

      Thanks for the heads up!

    • profile image

      Ognjen 

      4 years ago

      Jackson King V has Alder body, not Basswood.

    • profile image

      dan 

      4 years ago

      Dime dean

    working

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