Metal is, and has always been one of the more popular genres around. Even when Metal isn’t supported by Rock radio, Metal artists continue to sell tickets, merch, and albums alongside top 40 genres like pop, rock, and country. So, alongside this continued success is a long list of guitar companies, all with new models, all vying for young aspiring metal guitarists. At Equipboard, we’re going to help you cut through the noise and find the option that is the best guitar for metal for you and your shredding needs.
Active versus Passive Pickups
This is one of the most overlooked, but important sections. The pickups of a guitar are like the microphone for a singer; they’re one of the most important parts, and a bad one can ruin the sound of a very good performance.
Now, there is a very simple definition of each type of pickup. Active pickups are powered by a battery, and passive pickups are not powered by a battery. However, over the years, active pickups have become a staple of metal music, a big reason being that they tend to be able to get a high level of compression, as well as output, that passive pickups have a hard time achieving. Because of the high level of output and compression, players are able to get closer to that huge chuggy palm muting sound that they hear on their favorite records. Also, since active pickups are battery powered, they have less noise then passive pickups.
However passive pickups tend to sound more organic, depending on the magnet used. Generally speaking, if you’re recording, it is best to use passive pickups, since they’re overall less compressed. A good middle ground is to find a passive pickup that is wound really hot, so that you still get the overdrive and low end response that a metal guitar player would want. Bare Knuckle pickups sell a few models like this, as do Seymour Duncan and Dimarzio. If you can get one of these models, you can get the fullness of an active pickup, but without the overbearing compression, and upper mid fizz that is commonly associated with some, but not all, Active Pickups.
Floyd Rose Tremolo Systems
Floyd Rose setups are another staple of metal guitar. A Floyd Rose is a locking vibrato arm, or in layman’s terms, a bar that lets us raise or lower the pitch of a note by pushing the bar down, or pulling it up. The upsides of a Floyd rose system is that they tend to come with a locking nut, which means that you can use your whammy bar to your heart’s content without the guitar going out of tune, which isn’t the case with traditional whammy bar setups. To add to this, a Floyd Rose setup has a bit of wood carved out underneath the bridge, so that you can pull the whammy bar up and down, allowing you to raise, as well as lower the pitch of the notes you are playing. So, if you’re a fan of players like Dimebag Derrel, or Kerry King, a Floyd Rose setup would be great because it would allow you to do the divebombs (rapidly lowering then raising the pitch with a whammy bar) that those players have both become known for.
However, the main disadvantage is that string changes are rather complex, also, tuning the guitar is a little harder and some people strongly dislike having to tune the guitar with the small pegs located at the bridge. Also, if you break a string on a Floyd Rose guitar, the overall tuning goes out a lot, moreso then with a fixed bridge guitar.
So, the main thing you need to ask yourself is how interested are you in the styles of metal that use a Floyd rose heavily? It is a risk versus reward question. Yes, there are a few risks associated with a Floyd Rose system, but, if you’re super into that type of playing, then the reward of being able to mimic that style would be worth the potential risks.
Although there are many different wood choices for a good metal guitar, the two most commonly seen choices are Mahogany and Basswood; Basswood being the more cost effective version of Mahogany in the eyes of many manufacturers. The reason why we see Mahogany in so many metal guitars is that it tends to have a strong bass response, but still with bitey highs, especially when paired with a maple top, which is why it is a great wood choice for metal. Mahogany also has a very strong sustain, which makes it great for heavy sounding chords, and solos.
For fret board and neck woods, the best choices are Ebony for the fret board, and Maple for necks. The reason for both is that they are very fast feeling, allowing you to playing difficult runs and patterns with ease. Rosewood is also very popular and an excellent choice for aggressive tones.
Lastly, it is important to think about the fret board radius. The two main types are straight radius, and compound radius. Straight radius has a consistent fret board curvature down the entire neck, whereas compound radius is rounder by the nut, and has a flatter radius as it gets closer to the end of the neck. A compound radius is preferred by most metal players, because the flatter radius makes fast runs easier to play.
Examples of Features for Metal Guitars at Different Price Points
Budget (<$500) Metal Guitars
Jackson JS22 Dinky: These are great budget guitars for the beginner player who is looking to achieve the tone of the metal albums that they listen to, but at a low price point. It has a Basswood body, which is a great tone wood choice for people who love the tone of mahogany, but at a more affordable price. As well as two fat sounding passive humbuckers, and a tremolo system, this is the perfect starter guitar for an aspiring metal player.
Mid Level ($500 - $1,500) Metal Guitars
ESP E-11 Eclipse DB: This guitar is perfect for a player who is serious about their playing, but doesn’t want to spend over two grand on a high end guitar. The Eclipse is a Les Paul shaped guitar that gives great bang for the buck. It has a Mahogany Body with a maple top, and a Mahogany neck with an Ebony Fingerboard. This quality tone wood is a large part of where your money goes when purchasing a guitar at this price point. These guitars also have two Active EMG’s for pickups, which is very appealing to a metal player.
High End ($1,500+) Metal Guitars
Prestige Guitars Heritage Custom Deluxe MC: This guitar is a top of the line instrument for metal/ Hard Rock players. It has all of the same wood choices that the ESP has, bringing similar tonal characteristics, but the main difference at this price point is in the quality of the wood and the setup. Prestige hand picks all of their woods, a lot of it even comes local to them, which allows them to make sure that every piece of wood they get is exceptional, which with boutique brands, is a large part of what you pay for. Also, their guitars are all meticulously setup, which is something that larger companies cannot afford to do. It also has a metallic silver finish, which gives it the metal look, and Seymour Duncan pickups, which is the other main difference between this and the ESP. This guitar would be very good for a recording metal guitarist, because, since the pickups are passive, they’re a little less compressed then most active pickups. Plus, it has a roller bridge, which reduces string breakage.
Top 10 Metal Guitars
Now that you know some common features of guitars that are particularly well suited to the metal genre, we will highlight our favorites here at Equipboard given our experience and the dozens of guitars we tried out that lend themselves well to shredding. These guitars were handpicked by us and backed up with excellent reviews from the community and all of them come from quality manufacturers with excellent reputations. Also, while we had to narrow down our choices to a top 10 list, there are many excellent guitars out there for aspiring guitarists. This is a great place to start. In summary, while we know metal is all about playing the music and screaming tones and attitude, we think these guitars are a great way to get in the game or upgrade your axe!
LTD by ESP EC-256 BLK Solid Body Electric Guitar
You may recognize the shape of the EC series by LTD and ESP. That is because it is based on Gibson's famous Les Paul shape. In fact, ESP as a brand was built as a custom shop that attracted players who used Gibson and Fender products. Eventually, they started manufacturing their own guitars.
The body is mahogany with a maple top capping it off. The mahogany neck with a rosewood fingerboard is attached through set-neck construction, so you get sustain for days, as you would expect from this body style. The 24.75" scale length neck ends with a 42mm standard nut, which did its job and intonation is not an issue. The hardware is solid and comes from in house ESP for the tuners and it utilizes a Tune-o-Matic bridge and tailpiece.
One thing that could be improved is this guitar does not come with a case, which is unfortunate. It is nothing that picking up a gig bag can't remedy, but at this price point, it would have been a nice touch for ESP to include. Having said that, if we had to choose, we would rather that money be invested into quality components for the guitar, which seems to be the route ESP has taken.
The controls on the guitar are simple, with a 3 way toggle to select between between the ESP designed LH-150 pickup set. The three knobs at your disposal are a bridge volume, neck volume and a master tone with push-pull coil-split.
All in, this is a fantastic place to start exploring your needs for a metal guitar.
Epiphone Explorer Goth
The Explorer shape is iconic, and we don't use that word lightly. Gibson introduced the Explorer in 1958. This Goth version comes loaded with the sought after Alnico Classic humbucker pickups to provide a great tone. We personally love these pickups, but explorers also come from the factory with EMGs if that is more your speed in the 1984 Explorer model. This particular version of the explorer also looks wicked. Gothic details like the "XII" twelfth fret marker on the rosewood fretboard, blacked out chrome hardware, and matte black finish make this beast perfect for metal fans.
The LockTone Tune-O-Matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece give the guitar sustain for days and are high quality components for this price range. The master tone control features an innovative integrated killswitch/tone pot for strobe effects.
This guitar is purpose built to deliver crushing riffs. Coming from a trusted brand like Epiphone, this is a great guitar is you're looking for a guitar that will work for beginners and advanced players alike. All in, this beast excels at all things metal rhythm guitar.
Jackson JS22-7 Dinky
Sometimes, 6 strings just isn't enough. This 7 string guitar from Jackson is well regarded as a terrific guitar that rocks hard and is very attainable.
The seven-string features an arch-top basswood body, bolt-on maple neck, 16"-radius rosewood fingerboard with 24 jumbo frets and "piranha" inlays, 26.5" scale length, dual high-output Jackson humbucking pickups, single volume and tone controls, direct-mount hard-tail bridge, and die-cast tuners.
Epiphone SG Special
Even though the SG Special is the most affordable SG in the line-up, it still features Epiphone's patented LockTone Tune-o-Matic bridge and StopBar tailpiece for increased sustain and easy string changing. The master volume and master tone controls each feature full-size 500K potentiometers along with Epiphone's rugged all-metal 3-way toggle pickup selector switch for long-lasting, dependable performance.
The SG Special features solid nickel hardware and is available in both Cherry and Ebony finishes. To top it all off, Epiphone has added a patented combination Tone/Killpot control. Turn it, and it works like a regular tone control. Push it in, and you have a momentary "Kill" switch which mutes all output for crazy Buckethead-like effects.
B.C. Rich Warlock with Widow Headstock Guitar
Looking at this guitar, you know it is meant for one thing, and one thing only; Metal. B.C. Rich's Warlock was introduced in 1981, and it is still a staple for high output kick ass metal.
The shape is very memorable, and comes with 2 hot humbuckers for screaming notes. The maple neck is bolted on to the body, and features diecast tuners. The 25.5" scale neck also has a rosewood whith white pearloid dot inlays. This is a 24 fret guitar that allows easy access to the upper registry for ripping solos.
There controls are straightforward; 1 volume, 1 three-way toggle selector switch, and 1 tone knob. The glossy black paint is called Onyx, which really contrasts against the chrome hardware and looks great on this shape of guitar. The bridge and tailpiece is a wrap-around style that is adjustable.
Dean Razorback Dimebag Lone Star
If you're a metal fan, you definitely know who Dimebag Darrell is and what impact he had on the genre and music as a whole. As you would expect from a guitar with Pantera guitarist's name on it, it has a Floyd Rose Special to dive bomb like a boss. The pickups are both DMTs, very much catered to heavy metal.
The guitar comes with a "Lite Leer" case, which is somewhere on the spectrum between a gig bag and hardshell, which does the job very well for this price point. It will unquestionably get your axe to the gig and home again. Out of the box, this is an excellent option to get the aggressive tones you need to rock your face off. Dean delivers.
Squier by Fender Jim Root Telecaser
A Telecaster style guitar isn't normally associated with hard rock, much less metal. However, this isn't a standard Tele. This is Jim Root's, of Slipknot and Stone Sour, Tele. That means it features a lightning fast slim neck, more aggressive pickups, and an awesome matte finish that cuts through the noise to present a no nonsense guitar.
Ibanez Iron Label RG Series RGIR20BE with Tremolo
Ibanez's super Strats, the RG series, has been a staple of metal players worldwide for decades. Ibanez has pretty much perfected the RG for progressive rock and metal players with a very comfortable and fast fretboard. The guitar is very balanced in terms of weight and comfortable to play sitting or standing. The pickups sound great and the craftsmanship of Ibanez doesn't disappoint. This guitar, or most in the RG range really, is a great guitar for metal players.
Schecter Guitar Research Omen 6
Schecter has really put a stake in the ground in the guitar world around the metal genre. The company specializes almost exclusively in hard hitting metal guitars and they are well renowned as a company that makes a quality product. Schecter produces signature models for Synyster Gates of Avenged Sevenfold, Jeff Loomis, and Dan Donegan of Disturbed. Safe to say, they know a thing or two about producing very solid metal instruments.
It was hard to narrow down the Schecters we wanted to include on this list, but in the end, the Omen 6 won out.Here's why:
It is simple. This guitar is a six string hardtail that was built to be very playable, and it achieves that mission. The maple neck is very fast and this guitar was clearly built with speed in mind with a thin C shape. The basswood body feels well crafted in that the finishing is excellent and the shape is ergonomic. The rosewood fretboard radius is 14", and the pearloid inlays and black chrome hardware add style points and character.
The stock pickups on this guitar are good, if not great. If you wanted a brand name like Duncans or EMGs, this guitar would cost twice as much. Schecter did a very good job with the pair of its own Diamond Plus pickups it used for this guitar. We are big fans, but even if you are not, the pickups are easy to switch out if you desire.
Long story short, this is a fantastic guitar for what is widely considered an entry level point.
Jackson RR1 Randy Rhoads
Randy Rhoads is one of the world's best players to ever pick up a six string, and he left an amazing legacy of shred. This flying V design comes with a amazing degree of craftsmanship. It features a neck-through body construction which fives the guitar phenomenal sustain. This axe is equipped with Seymour Duncan SH2 and TB4 humbuckers, so you know you're getting a high quality hot sound straight from the factory. Further, you're getting a genuine Floyd Rose original double locking trem system.
The ebony fretboard has sharkfin shaped inlays and a maple neck runs through the alder body. This is a grail guitar for many metal guitarists and for good reason. It was co-designed by a legend and has a functional shape that allows scorching leads with easy access to all parts of the neck. If you're looking for a premium option with choice components, this legendary guitar might be the one.