How to Choose a Guitar for Metal
Metal Guitar Buying Guide
Heavy metal is a demanding music genre. While mainstream society paints metal players as bunch of screaming maniacs, bashing away at their guitars with little intent aside from making as much noise as possible, the truth is that the best guitarists spend years honing their chops. If you don’t have the tone, speed, precision and skill you just aren’t going to make it as a metal guitarist.
You know that. That’s why you spend so much time locked away practicing your guitar. You also know you need the right instrument for the job, and that’s why you’re here.
There are many factors to consider when choosing a guitar for metal, including brand and which subgenre of metal you play. In this article, I’ll break down all of the components on the guitar you need to consider, so you can make the best choice for your situation.
I could just point you to my article on the best guitars for metal, where I’ve lined up my top picks. However, those are the guitars that I like best. The intent of this article is to help you think about the aspects of an electric guitar that you feel are most important so you can find the guitar that you like best.
There is a lot to think about, so let’s get to it!
How Much Should You Spend?
Let’s start with your budget level. While I can’t tell you how to set your personal budget, I can offer some practical advice on what to think about.
If you are just starting out there are some excellent metal guitars for beginners out there, and I suggest looking at those around the $200 mark. At this price you won’t find pro-level appointments and quality, but you can find instruments that are good enough to get your started, and even take your through your intermediate phase. Combined with a decent starter amp they make a solid first setup for an aspiring metalhead.
For serious beginners who are into metal I suggest checking the guitars in Jackson’s JS Series. Jackson is a big name in metal, and through the JS lineup they build affordable versions of their classic instruments for newbies and players on a budget.
On the other end of the spectrum there are guitarists who are looking for pro-level instruments. You can spend thousands if you really want to, but I don’t think it’s necessary. There are amazing instruments out there for under a grand, and some great metal guitars under $500 that are more than good enough for the stage and studio.
So, if you are at the point where you take your playing seriously I think you can do really well in the $500-$1000 range. Remember: It’s all about your skills and attitude, and if you don’t want to mortgage your house to afford a guitar you don’t have to. Great players make average guitars sound great!
Guitar Body Shapes
When some people think of heavy metal they imagine crazy, pointy guitars that look like they could be used for self defense should things get out of control at a gig.
There are certainly many of those in the metal world, and if that’s what you want there is nothing wrong with it.
Some of the most legendary pointy guitars in metal history include:
- Gibson Flying V
- Gibson Explorer
- Jackson Rhoads
- Jackson King V
- Dean ML
- B.C. Rich Warlock
- Charvel Star
- Ibanez Destroyer
However, some guitarists prefer to go a more traditional route. Many prefer single-cutaway body guitars like the Gibson Les Paul, or Les Paul alternatives like the ESP LTD EC-1000. These guitars often feature mahogany bodies and necks, lending to a deep, dark tone that’s perfect for metal.
Double-cutaway guitars such as the Gibson SG and PRS Custom 24 feature those same metal-friendly tonewoods with a different body style. Both of these guitars are great choices for heavy music.
Another common double-cutaway guitar is the Fender Stratocaster. The Strat is sometimes used in classic metal, but more often players opt for superstrats. A superstrat is a hot-rodded, Strat-style guitars, and examples of superstrats include:
- Charvel So Cal
- Charvel San Dimas
- Ibanez RG
- Ibanez S
- Jackson Soloist
- Jackson Dinky
Of course you can also upgrade a Fender Stratocaster yourself. A stock Stratocaster is one of the best guitars for rock, but to make it metal worthy think about upgrades such as hotter pickups a double-locking tremolo.
Ultimately, the shape of your guitar is a matter of personal preference. However, when choosing, you may also wish to consider other applications for which you intend to use your guitar. For example, if you also wish to perform jazz or blues you may opt for an instrument with a more traditional body style.
The Jackson King V
Tonewoods are among the most debated aspects of electric guitar design. Some people feel they make a big difference when it comes to tone, where others disagree, insisting it really doesn’t matter what a guitar is made from.
In my opinion, it does matter which wood a body of a guitar is made from, and each species affects your sound in different ways. That said, these days many guitar companies are using alternative tonewoods to cut down on costs and comply with import regulations. There is nothing wrong with that, and I wouldn’t let it be a deciding factor when it comes to choosing a guitar for metal.
Here are a few of the most common woods you'll encounter:
- Mahogany: Warm and resonant tone, and a good choice for metal players looking for deep, guttural tones. The Gibson Les Paul is an example of a guitar that employs a mahogany body.
- Alder: A brighter tonewood with moderate resonance. Good for shredders and classic metal players. The Fender Stratocaster is an example of a guitar with an alder body.
- Basswood: Warm and resonant; not quite as articulate as mahogany. An example of a guitar built with a basswood body is the Ibanez RG.
Remember that these are only examples. Guitarists in every subgenre of metal have relied on each of these tonewoods to get their sound.
Guitar necks can be made from any of the tonewoods mentioned above, though mahogany and maple are the most common. Les Paul-style guitars usually feature mahogany necks, and Strat-style guitars typically have maple necks.
Aside from wood, there are a few more things to think about when it comes to necks. One is scale length. This is the distance from the nut to the bridge in inches. Six-string, standard electric guitars typically fall into one of three categories:
- Gibson scale length = 24.75”
- Fender scale length = 25.5”
- PRS scale length = 25”
Scale length influences the feel of the strings. A guitar with a shorter scale length will feel a bit more loose, and a longer scale length a bit tighter. It also has an impact on tone, with shorter sounding a bit warmer and bassier, and longer a bit brighter and twangier.
The final thing to consider when it comes to guitar necks is how they attach to and interact with the body of the guitar. You’ll see a few different build styles:
- Bolt-on: The neck is literally bolted right to the guitar body, as with a Fender Strat. Guitars built this way tend to have a little more pop to them, but a bit less sustain.
- Set-neck: The neck is set and glued into a pocket of the guitar body, as with a Gibson Les Paul. This type of build typically has good resonance and sustain.
- Neck-through: The neck extends to a block that runs the length of the body, and the two pieces of the guitar body or "wings" are glued to each side, as with a Jackson Soloist. This kind of guitar has outstanding sustain and resonance.
There are several types of guitar fretboards you'll commonly see in the guitar world, each made from a different species of wood. Like the body and neck, the wood a guitar fretboard is made from has an effect on the tone.
- Maple: Bright and crisp with a somewhat more percussive attack.
- Rosewood: Notes ring a little softer and warmer.
- Ebony: Somewhere in between rosewood and maple, with a crisp attack
You’ll also see rosewood alternatives such as pau ferro, due tighter rosewood import restrictions that went into effect a couple of years back.
Metal players should also consider the frets themselves. Jumbo frets are the tallest, widest fretwire available, and make bending notes and leading playing smoother. They are preferred by most metal guitarists, especially shredders.
The fretboard radius is the measurement of the curvature of the fretboard across its width. Some guitars have flatter fingerboards, and some rounder.
The term compound radius describes a fretboard with a rounder measurement at nut and a flatter measurement near the guitar body. This type of fingerboard is often preferred by shredders and metal guitarists.
Pickups for Metal
Pickups are essentially a magnet or magnets wrapped in wire. They create a magnetic field around the strings, and when the strings vibrate they disrupt that field, sending a signal to the guitar’s electronics and ultimately to the amp.
Most metal players choose humbuckers over single-coil pickups. Humbucking pickups were designed decades ago literally to eliminate the hum caused by single-coils pickups. They have a thicker sound compared to single coils, and most players opt for “hot” or high-output humbuckers.
A stronger signal can drive a tube amp harder, as well as improve sustain and harmonics, all of which are generally desirable in heavy music.
You will see two types of humbuckers on guitars built for heavy music: active and passive. Passive pickups are standard output pickups. They can be relatively hot, but they tend to sound more organic than active pickups.
Active pickups utilize a battery to increase the output. They are hot and aggressive, which makes them a great choice for heavy music.
Some players regard passive pickups are more natural sounding, and active as harsh and sterile. However, both types of pickups are used widely in metal to craft some outstanding tones.
ESP EC-1001T With EMG Pickups
There are several different bridge types found on electric guitars. For metal, you should be considering either a hard-tail bridge, or a tremolo bridge (whammy bar).
Hardtail bridges, such as the Tune-o-matic found on Les Pauls, don’t move, and for this reason they are often easier to keep in tune. If you have no interest in guitar tricks or if you consider yourself more of a rhythm player this may be the right choice.
Tremolo bridges, such as those found on a Fender Stratocaster can be manipulated by a tremolo arm, which tightens or slackens the strings causing notes to go sharp or flat. In the hands of a skilled shredder it can be used to create some amazing dive bombs and other guitar tricks. The problem is, this also causes the string to move at the nut and bridge saddle, which can make the guitar go out of tune.
This problem is solved by choosing a guitar with a double-locking tremolo system such as a Floyd Rose. These systems lock the strings at both the nut and bridge so they can’t move when the tremolo arm is engaged. They stay in tune very well, and for that reason, most metal players who want a whammy bar will use an instrument with a double-locking tremolo.
7-String and Extended Range Guitars
Do you need a 7-string guitar to play metal?
Nope. Metal players have used six-string guitars since the dawn of the genre. Some musicians tune their guitar down a full step or more to get a heavier sound. For most metal players a six-stringed guitar gets the job done.
Newbies in particular might want to think twice before opting for a 7-string, as many would do better to concentrate on the fundamentals of learning guitar before making things more complicated. Still, there are some excellent 7-string guitars out there, some made for beginners.
For advanced players it’s really and matter of preference. Extended range guitars not only offer the deep, menacing sounds of lower-pitched open strings, but also the ability to get around the fretboard a little easier.
Guitar Brands for Metal
Some of the top guitar brands for metal include:
- B.C. Rich
Choose Your Metal Guitar
The point of this article was to introduce you to many of the variables you will encounter while trying to choose a guitar for metal. You can play metal on any guitar, but some guitars have certain attributes that make them better choices.
If you need more precise suggestions I can offer a few:
- Beginners: I really like the Jackson JS Series, not only for beginners but for intermediate players on a budget. They're affordable and they look and sound great for the money.
- Classic Metal: For old-school, classic metal it is tough to beat a Les Paul or SG. They have a deep, dark sound that just growls with an overdriven Marshall amp. This is the sound of classic metal and hard rock.
- Thrash: For thrash metal I’d look at something like the Jackson King V or Rhoads. They have the combination of nasty attitude, great sound, and speed you need for that genre.
- Shred: For shredders and ‘80s glam metal players, Charvel is your best bet. I’d consider one of the Pro Mod models, either the San Dimas or the So Cal.
- Power Metal: Modern shredders and power metal guys might check out the Ibanez RG and S Series guitars. These are fast, well-made guitars, from one of the best metal brands in the industry.
- Death metal: If you are into extreme metal, check out the Schecter Hellraiser and some of the guitar in the ESP LTD lineup. That’s the first place I’d look.
Of course this is all dependant on your personal taste and the style if music you intend to play. You can do whatever the heck you want to do! Good luck finding the best metal guitar.