The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Top Metal Guitars
If you’re thinking about a new guitar, and you play heavy metal, four of the top brand names on your list are probably Jackson, Ibanez, ESP LTD and Schecter. And, you’re probably trying to decide which one will get you the sound you are looking for with the best quality components.
It’s no wonder you are stumped. These four guitar makers are at the top of the heap when it comes to instruments for hard rock and heavy metal. So how do you pick one above the others?
In the interest of saving time, I’ll make this short and sweet.
The correct answer is simple: Go get one of each.
But for most of us, this isn’t practical, and we need to find a way to pick one over the others.
In this article, I’ll choose top instruments from each brand and pit them against each other. We’ll look at construction quality, sound, and different specs, and we’ll see what other people are saying about these guitars. In the end, it is unlikely one guitar is going to blow the others out of the water, but you ought to have a better idea about which one is right for you.
To be honest, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this whole thing. In the ‘80s I would have sworn by Ibanez to the end. In the ‘90s my allegiance shifted briefly to Jackson. When Schecter arrived on the scene I was blown away with their quality and attention to detail. And, recently I’ve been checking out some ESP LTD guitars that I’ve been super-impressed with.
These are four of the best guitar brands for metal. I don’t know where this process will take us, and I have a feeling I’m going to learn something here too. So let’s get to our metal guitar shootout!
Metal Guitar Shootout Rules
Like any good grudge match, we’re going to have to come up with some rules to make things fair. Remember, we’re comparing guitar brands here, not necessarily the guitars themselves. I’m going to present the guitars that best represent each brand, which meet certain criteria, and see how they stack up against each other.
Even if you are considering a totally different style of guitar, these comparisons should still serve as a reference point.
Remember, too, that while I’ll be presenting specs, facts, and details, some of what you’ll read is based on my own opinion. I’ve been around the block a time or two over the past 30 years when it comes to metal guitars, and I have experience with each of these brands.
Here are the three rules for the shootout:
- Guitars must be comparable in cost. I’ll be looking at instruments around the $1000 price range, give or take a couple of hundred bucks. I think this is a range that allows manufacturers to put their best ideas forward without cutting too many corners.
- Guitars must be of “traditional” design. These companies make some great metal-looking, pointy-shaped guitars, but trying to compare unique designs doesn’t help us much. Here we’ll compare guitars with basic double or single-cut designs.
- Guitars must have a whammy bar. This is just to ensure a level playing field. Of course, whether you ultimately choose a guitar with a tremolo or fixed bridge is up to you, but in this price range, I think what type of tremolo bridge a company offers says a lot about overall quality. Plus, this is metal. You need a whammy bar.
Easy enough? On to the gear!
Jackson Pro Series Dinky
The Jackson Pro Series is a line of high-quality guitars for serious musicians. You might be wondering why I chose the Dinky here instead of the Soloist. While the Soloist is certainly the big dog of the Jackson lineup, the Dinky really struck me as having a more versatile array of options, and perhaps a better overall chance of matching up with the other guitars in this review.
With an alder body, the Dinky lives up to its super-strat heritage. You may be expecting to see basswood or even mahogany here, but Jackson’s use of alder tells me they are going for a classic hard rock vibe with this guitar, not the dark, resonant tones of more modern metal. I like it.
A one-piece maple neck with a choice of rosewood or maple 24-fret fingerboard is fast and flat, perfect for shredding. Indeed, this is shaping up to be a guitar made for the classic metal head, and the pickup choice brings it home. Direct-mounted Seymour Duncan humbuckers, a JB at the bridge and ’59 at the neck, are a high-quality choice here that will handle anything from ‘80s glam metal to modern thrash.
The bridge is a Floyd Rose FRT-O2000. The pickups are controlled via a 5-way switch, and the Pro Dinky features black hardware.
- What I like: This is a guitar made for classic metal. From the tonewoods to the pickups, the Pro Series Dinky harkens back to the style of guitar that put Jackson on the map. For old-school metal guys like me who grew up on everything from Dokken to Iron Maiden to early Metallica, this guitar is a thing of beauty.
- What I don’t like: Cutting corners on the bridge is a big pet peeve of mine with guitars in this price range. While I’d rather see a Floyd Rose Original here, the Floyd Rose FRT-O2000 isn’t a bad choice.
- What other people are saying: While reviews of this guitar are overwhelmingly positive, the two complaints I read the most are about the bridge and pickups. I agree with the bridge issues, but I can only assume the people who don’t like the pickups prefer the sound of something more modern, and maybe active. If EMGs are your thing, you may be disappointed with the passive Duncans.
Hear the Jackson Pro Series Dinky
Along with Jackson, Ibanez has long been regarded as the best guitar brand for metal on the planet. They transformed themselves from a guitar company that made some great copy instruments in the ‘70s, to a leader in the hard rock guitar world by the early ‘80s.
The RG is the flagship of the Ibanez lineup, with models ranging from pro-quality and costing thousands of dollars, to those made for beginners. Here’s we’ll look at the RG655, a solid guitar in the middle of the RG roster.
A basswood body is typical of the RG template. It’s a tonewood that brings some warmth and woodiness without the cost and weight of mahogany and works well in a guitar like this. The neck is a Super Wizard HP 5-piece maple/walnut assembly with a 24-fret maple fingerboard.
While maple is a bright tonewood that will add some pop, it will be rounded out by the presence of the walnut. It’s also worth noting that several RG models come with maple tops, though I suspect it is for aesthetic purposes.
So far we see a picture of a typical metal/hard rock guitar, with tonewoods we’d except on an instrument in this price range. But with Ibanez, the details are where things get interesting.
Where other companies rely on specialty gear makers for their hardware and electronics, Ibanez uses equipment made especially for their guitars, usually by them.
The bridge is an Ibanez Edge. This is a high-quality and innovative design developed and improved upon by Ibanez themselves over the years. The humbuckers are an Ibanez V7 and V8 with an S1 single-coil between them.
- What I like: I like the bridge. Ibanez hardware is always top-notch. I love the neck.
- What I don’t like: I'm not so much a fan of single-coil middle pickup common on RGs. On Strats, it's a great idea, but on a guitar built for shred, I've never had a use for it.
- What other people are saying: Being an Ibanez, the hot pickups and fast neck get a lot of positive remarks. This guitar has proven to be among the most popular in the Ibanez lineup in recent years. Also, check out the Iron Label Series!
The Ibanez Genesis Collection
ESP LTD EC-1000FR
I can remember back when owning an ESP guitar meant you were probably already a rock star. When they came out with the more accessible ESP LTD lineup I wasn’t all that impressed. As a veteran guitarist, it seemed like these were instruments aimed at junior-high kids, with odd shapes and even odder colors. Maybe they were at the time, but these days they are putting out some guitars that definitely have my attention. The EC-1000 is one such guitar.
Mahogany body with a maple top, set mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard. It’s pretty obvious the EC-1000 is going for a Les Paul-like vibe here, and it is a great alternative to the Gibson Les Paul. While this tonewood combination will achieve a similar resonant growl to a Gibson Les Paul, the EC-1000 takes things several steps further into the realm of sonic metal mayhem.
Let's look at the pickups. A set of active EMG active pickups will provide the high-output modern sounds many players are looking for in today’s metal. If you expect to tune down a step or more this guitar is a great option.
Moving on to the hardware, a Floyd Rose bridge brings more versatility to the sound than with a typical LP-style guitar. The binding and block inlays look really classy.
- What I like: The EC-1000 is a beautiful guitar, modeled after the ESP Eclipse. If I were looking for a Les Paul-style guitar and played in a metal band, this guitar would get serious consideration even before I looked at Gibson.
- What I don’t like: I don’t like the Floyd Rose! I’d much rather see a tune-o-matic bridge on a guitar like this. But I made the rules, didn’t I?
- What other people are saying: In many reviews, people compare the EC-1000 to a more expensive Les Paul, often with a great deal of hyperbole. Honestly, it’s not going to sound like a $2500 Les Paul Standard, but I do believe it is a great guitar for the money. The most common negative comment is fret buzz, which I suspect would be eliminated with a proper setup.
Hear the LTD EC-1000T/CTM (Non-FR)
Schecter Hellraiser C-1 FR
In every review where I talk about Schecter guitars I rant and rave about what great quality they are for the price. This is always the first thing I think of, and every Schecter guitar or bass I have ever played struck me as an instrument that ought to cost more than the price tag said.
There are a few Schecter models that could have stood in for this shootout, but the Hellraiser is a model with some varied options and designs, including a cool Solo 6 body style that compares favorably to the EC-1000 above. But we’re going to look at a more basic Hellraiser, the C-1 that started it all.
While this is a guitar built for the dark tones of modern metal, it has some flexibility to it too. The active EMG 81tw/89R pickup set has a coil tap through push/pull volume knobs, making for a wider array of possible sounds.
The Floyd Rose is again a 1000 model, but overall the hardware here is high quality. (Note: Schecter’s website says the bridge is a Floyd Rose 1000, but some sources, possibly earlier models, claim it has an FR Original. As always, check the details before you buy!) The binding and Goth inlays on the fretboard look great too.
- What I like: I love the look of Schecter C-1 style guitars. They’re both classy and modern and have a great feel about them.
- What I don’t like: Like the Jackson, this guitar would be even better with a Floyd Rose Original bridge. In fact, I’d probably go with the tune-o-matic and string-through-body option here.
- What other people are saying: I have to tell you, I had trouble digging up legitimate negative comments about this guitar. The worst I could find was a few complaints of lack of sustain, which is common in guitars with floating tremolos.
The Schecter Hellraiser Series
The Winner is . . .
Is it even possible to pick a winner out of that? Well, we can try. Let’s start by handing out some awards.
- Best Guitar for Classic Metal: The Jackson Pro Dinky. With the Seymour Duncan pickups and alder body, this thing just screams classic hard rock and metal. Jackson certainly has some guitars in their lineup that will please the detuned modern metal crowd, but when I think of Jackson I think of the glory days of metal, hard rock and thrash. This, in my opinion, is what Jackson does best.
- Best Guitar for Modern Metal: The ESP/LTD EC-1000. With the combination of mahogany tonewoods and hot active pickups, this guitar is made to be detuned and plugged into a high-gain amp. ESP started out making custom guitars back in the days of glam metal and thrash, and you can still find some of that influence in the LTD lineup, but this appears to be a company with its focus set on the now and the future.
- Best Guitar for Shred: The Ibanez RG has always has been one of the best guitars for shredders. Probably always will be. The neck is where it is at with this guitar, and there are few out there faster than Ibanez. That said, Ibanez is also the guitar company that made the 7-string what it is today. They have some pretty hardcore models that work well in today’s metal climate of 7, 8 and 27-string guitar.
- Best All-Around Metal Guitar: Schecter Hellraiser. Yeah, with the look and construction of most Schecter guitars it’s easy to see they’re going for a modern-metal vibe. However, with the coil taps and different options available the Hellraiser series is one of the most versatile guitar models out there. Schecter is not a guitar brand I think of for classic metal or shredding and not even the first company I think of for modern metal. But they are a guitar company that does everything well, and they probably build the best quality instruments in this price range.
So, who is the overall winner? I’m an old-school metal guy who grew up in the ‘80s. I’d probably go with Jackson by a very narrow margin. But I think it's worth mentioning that, in the videos above, my winner for classic metal is being demoed by a modern metal guy, and my winner for modern metal is being played by a classic metal guy! These guitars are all incredible, and every one of them is metal through and through.
But what’s important is what you would choose. What kind of metal do you play? What are you trying to accomplish? Which guitar brand will best meet your needs?
I hope this article got you a little closer to answering those questions!
Kings of Metal!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
André Fontes on December 28, 2019:
I'm a huge fan of 90s Japanese Jacksons, they're plentiful, go for low prices and up until 92-94, they wouldn't cheap out in the corners, they used branded LFR bridges, nice pickups, good woods, those older ones even had real mother of pearl inlays, not plastic repros which is unimaginable in anything but the highest-end instruments these days. Since Fender took over, they're mostly a fill-in for the metal field, which Fender was never successful in their many attempts. The MIM Pro models just aren't on par with their old models, mainly when you can get a MIJ second-hand for less than half the price.
For today's standards, Ibanez offers IMO the best and most versatile range for the genre. They've continually improved their designs, such as the access heel, and while you still have the classic JEM, RG and Saber models, they have all sorts of set-neck and neck-though guitars, fanned frets all sorts of passive and active pups (including Fishman Fluence's). They've remained current and aware of what new players want instead of relying on just what was sought after in the 80s and 90s, it's one of those brands that will always have an instrument for your budget and preferences.
LTD only gets good when you pay for the top stuff and even now they've moved the 1000 production to Indonesia and cut stuff such as the ebony fretboard; little innovation, too, been following their social media and their advertising seems to be based on new fancy finishes of questionable taste for the most part.
Finally, I can't speak much for Schecter, never got into their instruments. I've considered one of those set-neck models, but I just can't get over their unique aesthetics with overly aggressive looks and whatnot. Can't speak for the quality or features as I've never tried one out, though.
Wrath730 on June 02, 2019:
I love My C1. It was a little odd to get use to at first with the thicker neck profile but she plays great. Well that and the fact I got one in mint condition for $350 plays a big part of it. If i had paid the $1000 it retails for i think i would be disappointed. I would strongly suggest to anyone looking for a modern metal guitar buy the ec1000 deluxe fluence (fishman fluence modern pups) before you buy a hellraiser. IMO the fishmans are superior to the emgs and the deluxe is almost as beauiful as the hellraiser. Plus you get the abalone outline around the fretboard as well as ebony compared to the rosewood of the C1. Now with all that being said, in all honesty I must say my ltd m400 sounds better but i think thats because i really love the Seymour duncan JB's. There is just something special about those pups that i cant explain.
Dan on May 23, 2019:
The C1 i owned had the worst feel ever. I have a Schecter Blackjack matte black and feel wise is one of the nicest Ive ever played. Personally I wish all companies would stop with gloss necks. Matte or Satin is sooooo much better if you need to get up and down the neck quickly and smoothly.
Aceflick on January 12, 2019:
Made in Japan Jackson's are the best , those Chinese guitars made today they are not worth buying them crap.
James E P on January 10, 2019:
Interesting review, and you bring up a lot of good points. I guess my only issue with it is that the LTD you picked is nothing like the other three, which kind of invalidates the brand quality comparison.
First of all, it has a shorter scale at 24.75, so it will feel different than the 25.5 scale of the others. This is also what the "fret-buzz" relates to. On a 24.75 scaled guitar, you have to beef up the gauges of the strings. If you normally play with .010 on a 25.5, you would use a .011 set on a 24.75, and so on. Otherwise the tension of the string will be floppier in comparison, and thus create a fret-buzz. This, in itself, makes the guitar feel different, even with the correct string gauge compensated for.
Also, a shorter scale guitar makes you cram your fingers a bit more, stealing some of the space you need for shred runs. Great, if you have small hands, but not ideal otherwise.
The LTD MH-series would be closer in design and function to the other models you reviewed. The EC-1000 is a great guitar, and definitely offers a different spin on a traditional Les Paul concept, but when comparing brand qualities, LTD got the short end of the stick in this review. The LTD MH 1000 owns the other three in quality, versatility and sound.
Guitar Gopher (author) on November 12, 2018:
@Fido - Certainly disappointing to hear about your experiences with Ibanez. I've always really liked them. The hardware on my '85 Ibanez PR1660 is still in pretty good shape.
I don't think you can go wrong with Schecter, though. I have one of the earlier Omens and it's a great guitar for the money.
Fido Llama on November 11, 2018:
I just wore out another Ibanez RG after just two years! The bridge rusted, even while trying to maintain it, and basically their guitars just don’t last! I even had the pink 25th Anniversary RG when it came out and gigged it got a year. The saddles on the Edge bridge wore out and were gonna cost $100’s to replace. I got a Schecter omen with there own active Humbuckers and it destroys every Ibanez I’ve ever had! I’m a total Schecter convert. The neck is just as good as an Ibanez but with beautiful cross inlays and a heel at the headstock. Most importantly for me a tunomatic bridge built to last. I’ve played in metal bands for many years and I can’t see how a Schecter can be bettered in any price range.
Guitar Gopher (author) on September 06, 2018:
@mshadows: I think the same advice applies to males and females when first starting out. Here's an article on electric guitars for beginners that you might find helpful:
mshadows on September 05, 2018:
Which do you recommend for a female learning?
Harrison Wolf Crutcher on June 03, 2018:
I think for diverse guitars Ibanez has made a bunch of ones like the Animals as Leaders guitars and some of their other new ones. IDK about Jackson, but the Misha Mansoor Jackson is one that has very good cleans. Some guitars are not really diverse and I have no preference when it comes to many guitar companies but I have not played a Schecter or PRS I was satisfied with.
Guitar Gopher (author) on March 07, 2018:
@Victor - I'm really impressed with the JS-Series Jacksons. Been thinking of grabbing a Rhoads at some point. Good luck getting the GL -I always loved Lynch's guitars.
Victor on March 06, 2018:
I actually own an ESP-LTD ET-1000 the ET stands for evertune bridge and the guitar is phenomenal I really love it, however I also own a Jackson Dinky Arch Top JS32 Natural Oil Finish and love this guitar for shredding a little better even though I find myself playing the ESP-LTD more often. I love them both.
I think the Schecter seems a little flat sounding compared to the Jackson and I've never really liked the feel of the Ibanez. I think I will be buying next an ESP-GL GL200SBT George Lynch Signature Sunburst Tiger
Heph333 on February 03, 2018:
After years of owning only LPs and Strats, I just got a string - through Hellraiser & haven't touched tge others since. I absolutely love it. I did swap the 81 out of the bridge for another 89. The 81 was a bit sterile & I like the tone of the 89 better.
Guitar Gopher (author) on October 12, 2017:
@Metalhead: I'd consider the Jackson Soloist and Dinky, and the Ibanez RG and S Series. Schecter has a style called the Sun Valley Super Shredder you'll want to check out, and I'd also check out the Charvel Pro Mod Series.
Metalhead on October 11, 2017:
IF a like 80 glam metal wich shud a go for?
Guitar Gopher (author) on August 07, 2017:
@rich - There is nothing wrong with licensed FR models, and they will stay in tune fine if the guitar is set up properly. I just have come to prefer the Original on guitars I've owned over the years.
rich on August 07, 2017:
hi, Floyd Rose FRT-O2000 is not good? wont stay in tune? can you elaborate further pls. Many thanks.
Todd on June 28, 2017:
After trying a bunch of Jackson and Ibanez guitars (for metal), I am not pleased so far for guitars under $1000. If someone wants to write about guitars best for metal, he might as well just throw away the price range limitation and discuss which guitar is best for current metal. I don't know what that guitar is, but it's very likely well above $1000. As much as guitar production has improved (better fretboard quality control) from factories in Indonesia, it is still difficult to get what you want in a guitar without buying a custom guitar or changing parts on a standard model.
Guitar Gopher (author) on June 20, 2017:
@ Chris: My Floyd criticisms are mainly due to the choice of gear on some of these guitars. I remember a time when you could get a FR Original on guitars in this price range. And you're right - if you intend to get a guitar without a Floyd, this article probably won't help you. I do have many others that would, though.
Chris on June 18, 2017:
You insist they all must have a floyd rose for the shootout, and then most of your criticisms are regarding the floyd rose. Not very helpful for people who won't be getting a guitar with a floyd rose.
Armando on June 04, 2017:
These are all great choices but the Ibanez is the superior choice imo of the ones shown here. The Ibanez prestige is handmade in Japan while the others are assembly line models. Nothing wrong with an assembly line model, but the quality of a handmade instrument is 2nd to none and Ibanez does a great job at this and is one of if not the cheapest handmade guitars on the market (I suspect because they have no custom shop).
Dennis Lehigh on April 16, 2017:
Sorry - if you don't have BC Rich in a metal guitar shootout it just doesn't cut it. My Ironbird with Kahler trem will smoke the bejesus out of all 4 of those.
Gerald Christ on July 16, 2016:
Seems like your written already had his mind made up lol I wouldn't choose any of these guitars.