Metal is a specific style of music that demands high-intensity playing and a powerful tone. It is very hard to actually achieve a decent heavy sound using any old guitar and amp. Extremely high gain pickups and fast picking are a must, therefore models such as Stratocasters simply will not suffice.
So which are the best metal guitars? That’s the purpose of this article.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Metal Guitars on the Market
- ESP 6 String LTD EC-256
- Ibanez RGA Series RGA42FM
- Jackson KVT Pro Series King V
- Schecter Hellraiser C-7 Floyd Rose
- Ibanez Iron Label RGD Series RGDIX7MPB 7-String
- PRS Wood Library Custom 24
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Ok, let’s get started.
- Characteristics of a Metal Guitar
- Product Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Metal Guitars
- So, Which Should I Choose?
Characteristics of a Metal Guitar
When it comes to body shape, a metal guitar’s body and neck should be balanced in a way that ensures it sits at a comfortable angle across your body for appropriate hand positioning across the fingerboard. This can be a problem if you purchase an odd-shaped instrument, such as a V or Star shaped one. If you’re going to perform live, it should always be light and comfortable enough for you to stand and play for long periods of time. It’s also crucial to consider the build. For gigging, it needs to be armored like a tank to maintain the sustain and harmonics, not to mention survive the touring and live shows, which could involve maniacs stage diving and headbanging!
A wide variety of woods are used to construct the main bulk of a guitar. Some common types include ash, maple, and mahogany which are the heaviest, whereas lighter woods include alder, poplar, and basswood. To maintain maximum sustain, a balance between light and heavy wood is often used. If the wood is too heavy and dense, the important vibrations responsible for producing sound can become muffled – on the other hand, very light wood may not be dense enough to sustain well.
The type of wood used in the body and neck will therefore significantly affect your overall tone, resonance, and sustain. To achieve a chunky, dark, well sustainable metal tone, you want to invest in one made from mahogany and basswood, along with pickups that are hot enough to send a powerful signal to the amp.
For a heavy metal tone, high-output “hot” pickups are essential. There are two types: passive and active. Active ones produce a louder sound with more tone variation, which is excellent but occasionally hard to set correctly. They can also be worse at attenuating when going from high to low volumes in comparison to passive ones.
The most widely used ‘hot’ pup has got to be the humbucker, which produces a signature aggressive and powerful sound. You can use a single coil pickup to play metal, but if you don’t have at least a decent humbucker, you’re missing one of the crucial bits of hardware responsible for the sonic fury of a good metal track.
Neck / Action
For accuracy, while playing technical riffs, thinner and flatter necks are your friend. As well as this, the neck should have low action to allow for fast-paced shredding. Along with accuracy, neck build also affects stability and tone. For extra stability, it’s worth investing in a guitar with a three-piece or reinforced neck, rather than a one-piece or neck-through design, where the neck is glued through the whole length of the guitar.
It’s also worth considering that one-piece necks can sustain for longer than bolt-on or set-in necks, due to them being a single piece of wood and therefore resonating sound vibrations more consistently.
Variations among tone knobs and pickups are endless. We’ve already gone over the best types of general pickup for metal sounds; however, a guitar with bass, middle and treble knobs along with pickup selectors will give you way more control over your sound.
Pedals can also help you produce some cool effects. For example, reverb, distortion, phasers, and delay are often used by metal guitarists.
Bridge and Tuning Hardware
The two main types of bridge used are known as ‘fixed’ and ‘tremolo.’ Fixed bridges provide greater tuning stability, and are much less confusing for beginners, but locking tremolo bridges are the best for metal. Tremolo bridges let you raise and lower the pitch of all the strings simultaneously (using a whammy bar), so you can perform huge bends or dive bombs which are a staple in most metal riffs.
Looks aren’t everything, but of course, some guitar shapes are heavily associated with this genre of music. In extreme death and black metal, your ax should ideally resemble some form of medieval weapon, terrifying monster or industrial machinery. At the bare minimum, it needs at least one end sharp enough to eviscerate your enemies with! Some more standard bodied, famous models include Dave Mustaine’s Dean VMNT and James Hetfield’s Gibson Explorer. Remember that if you want to solo, single or double cutaways will allow more convenient access to high notes.
For those of you that haven’t heard of the term scale length, it refers to the distance between bridge and nut. Guitars have different scale lengths, for example, a 24.75-inch scale you’d find on a Les Paul (and most Les Paul Copies) allows for easier playability and deeper low-end tones. On the other hand, 25.5-inch scales (you’d find on a Strat or Telecaster) allow for a more responsive, bright, chime-like sound.
Many modern metal guitarists use 7-string or 8-string guitars to reach a greater range of notes; the extra low-end allows for a heavy, deep bass sound.
Baritone guitars have a longer scale length than standard models and are also popular. Keep in mind that more strings and extended note ranges, the more you’ll need a wider neck and longer scale lengths, making it trickier to play. For that reason, extended-range models are tough for people with small hands to master.
Product Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Metal Guitars
ESP 6 String LTD EC-256
The LTD EC-256 is a super mean, but very reasonably priced guitar. As a Les Paul Copy it’s comfortable enough to play most musical styles. Although it does look like a metal guitar, its aesthetic would suit most other rock bands too. Additionally, the EC-256’s neck is secured at several points along the body and headstock for extra stability and peace of mind while traveling and performing.
For its price, it’s pretty nice to play. The set-neck allows you to reach the highest frets quickly and comfortably, while the mahogany body sustains well and produces a rich tone. The EC-256 also features a smooth rosewood fingerboard, 22 extra-jumbo frets, and meaty LH-150 passive pups, for a dark and heavy sound.
Because it has such versatile looks and enough tone control to play genres like blues, rock, and metal, it’s suitable for both complete beginners and intermediate level that want to play a variety of styles live.
- Price – Very good value for money, made to resemble higher-quality ESP models at an affordable cost
- Good playability – Thin neck and jumbo frets allow for fast, smooth playing and easy bends
- Versatility – Simple enough to be played in other styles of music such as blues and hard rock
- May not look nasty enough for your band – If you want your six-string to resemble an evil weapon that will destroy the world, this isn’t for you.
- String action set high – Usually comes with a rather high standard action, you may have to take it into a shop for adjusting (metal guitarists generally prefer low action).
Ibanez RGA Series RGA42FM
Compared to most guitars for this style, the Ibanez RGA is a brighter option, available in either an electric blue or burnt orange – this might be a welcome change from the standard black metal finish.
For its price, the RGA does a good job representing Ibanez as a leading brand in this space and allows you to play with speed and expressive aggression. Its thin neck, jumbo frets, low action strings and easy access to the 24th fret make it easy to play fast thrash riffs. Additionally, its passive Quantum Humbucker pickups produce a reasonably decent high gain output, and the five-way pickup selector allows for a versatile selection of tones. Be warned though; the neck position can sound very squeaky and tinny.
Due to its price and ability to produce a variety of sounds, it’s best suited for beginners looking to experiment with their sound and style. Although you could play a gig with it, its high-end treble sound is not great, so you’d be better investing in a more expensive quality guitar model.
- Reasonable price – Good quality Humbucker pickups and mahogany body at a low price.
- Great for beginners – Simple controls and a fixed bridge to keep you in tune, without the confusion of adjusting a floating bridge.
- Good playability – The Ibanez RGA’s thin neck, jumbo frets and low action allow you to play riffs fast and accurately.
- Restricted tone control – Only one tone and volume control knob is fairly unusual (most will have at least a treble and bass dial).
- Tinny sound – The neck pickup selection produces a squeaky tone, which isn’t so nice… although this may be a good thing if you’re looking to create some nasty black metal!
- Not so grim-looking – May not be evil-looking enough to fit in at a death or extreme metal gig.
Jackson KVT Pro Series King V
The Jackson KVT is cool and stylish. It’s V shape makes an impact, and the dark sunburst effect adds a sort of old school death/thrash metal vibe. As well as good looks, it has a mahogany body for rich tone, as well as a strong, graphite-reinforced, single-piece maple neck which runs through its body. As a nice finishing touch, the fast neck is hand-rubbed with oil for an extra smoother finish.
The Jackson KVT is very capable of being played at speed thanks to the neck’s compound radius, ebony fingerboard, and jumbo frets. The ebony fingerboard also helps it produce brighter tones, making it great for lead guitarists wanting to deliver punchy, stand out solos.
It also features passive Seymour Duncan (JB bridge/’59 neck) humbucker pickups, which produce a powerful, brutal punch, with retained note definition. There’s also one dial and a three-way pickup selector switch for basic control, as well as a set bridge for easy restringing.
Because it has excellent sounding Seymour Duncan pups and a quality ebony fingerboard, it is gig-worthy, but probably more suited to people who aren’t too picky about tone as there isn’t a massive amount of variation available.
- High quality – Extra smooth and punchy ebony fingerboard along with quality pickups allow it to be played at high speed and produce a fierce tone.
- Killer aesthetic – It looks amazing and will suit most thrash and death metal bands.
- Durable – The graphite-reinforced, single-piece fretboard ensures it will withstand tough times.
- Shape – Some people may not feel comfortable playing a V-shaped model. It’s worth mentioning that it’s harder to practice sitting down with this shape too!
- Lack of control – No treble, bass or middle control knobs available, meaning a specific sound is harder to define.
- Case sold separately – This isn’t usually an issue, but due to its specific shape, it’s sometimes hard to find the correct case and can be expensive to buy one.
Schecter Hellraiser C-7 Floyd Rose
The Schecter Hellraiser is designed for those hungry for extreme tones. It’s oxblood red body with gothic style cross inlays, give it a creepy, but classy vibe, making it acceptable in most styles of metal band.
It offers so much control it’s hard to know where to start. Firstly, it ships with active EMG 81-7 humbucker (bridge) and Sustainiac pickups (neck) for extra mean gain with bright, clear highs. To control all this power there is 1 x tone control dial, 1 x volume dial, a 3-way pickup selector switch, a 2-way Sustainiac switch (on / off) and a 3-way Sustainiac mode switch (fundamental / mix / harmonic). The Sustainiac switches mean you can produce really amazing harmonic tones with hardly any effort, and with so much sustain that they will haunt your audience forever.
It also features a Floyd Rose bridge which lets you produce dive bombs and huge bends that work well with the Sustaniac pickup selection. Additionally, it has jumbo frets, a thin, C shaped neck and a sleek rosewood fretboard for fast and effortless shredding. It’s seven strings allow you to produce extra meaty low-end growls too.
The Hellraiser has so much to offer that unfortunately, it makes it way too complicated for novice guitarists. Floyd Rose bridges can be difficult to tune correctly and dive bombs/pinch harmonics are techniques that only more intermediate to advanced players tend to master. If you are comfortable with these techniques, this guitar is the one to take your performance to other evil realms of existence.
- Tone control – Has a great pickup selection and variety of controls that give you a lot of variety.
- Extra strings – The additional 7th string gives you a really meaty low-end tone.
- Quality construction – The mahogany body and three-piece neck will provide extra stability to withstand traveling.
- Complicated design – The Floyd Rose, extra strings and different tone options may be too confusing for some players to use.
- Requires batteries – The active pickups need 2 x 9v batteries, which is a bit of hassle.
- Price – Very expensive, but comes with really cool features.
Ibanez Iron Label RGD Series RGDIX7MPB 7-String
The first thing you notice about the seven-string Ibanez Iron Label, is it’s strange, Neptunian body color and offset top, which some will undoubtedly love and others hate. At a glance, this guitar seems to suit sci-fi thrash or modern prog-metal genres.
It’s sold at a pretty good, mid-range price considering the modern, down-tuned, heavy sound it produces. It’s beefy, low-end sound is producible thanks to it’s 26.5″ scale length and extra 7th string. The longer scale length means that the frets are slightly more spaced out and able to produce brighter tones that can cut through a wall of sound during solos.
It’s DiMarzio Fusion Edge humbuckers sound similar to that of Seymour Duncan Alpha/Omega models in that they pierce through sound well. The neck pup produces great mid-range tone, whilst the bridge pickup is dynamic and packs a punch.
The Iron Label is also pretty durable due to it’s locking machine heads, solid, low-profile Gibraltar bridge, and sturdy three-piece maple neck. The latter means this guitar can stay in tune well and withstand being bashed around whilst traveling to gigs.
The Iron Label is best suited to players that have prior experience due to its 7th string which requires some extra skill to play. The bright mids (not to mention it’s aesthetic) make it more appropriate in thrash or melodic metal bands.
- Price – Good quality punchy sound, with a tone that can cut through a mix for a decent, midrange price.
- Wild aesthetic – Looks unique and will grab the audience’s attention.
- Extra low-end range – The additional 7th string means it can easily play lower tunings.
- Lack of control – No dials available at all on the body, only a pickup switch and volume knob to control the sound.
- Design – Bright colors may not suit all genres, especially not black metal.
- Requires some expertise to play – The 7th string is a cool addition if you’re an experienced player, but will confuse novices.
PRS Wood Library Custom 24
On the more expensive side of the spectrum is the iconic PRS Custom 24. The tasteful bird inlays and flame charcoal finish give this guitar a unique look that can still fit in with most metal genres.
The Custom 24 features a dive bomb worthy, Gen III tremolo system and PRS 85/15 humbucker pickups for a beefy but clear sound. It also features a volume/tone control dial and a 5-way pickup selector switch, for a relatively simple level of variation considering the price.
The hand-selected mahogany wood which makes up the body and neck produces a full, low-end resonance and the Brazilian rosewood fingerboard adds warmth to the overall tone. Interestingly, this means the Custom 24 actually sounds great playing classic rock and blues, as well as metal.
Because it features a tremolo bridge system, it’s not suitable for beginners – these bridges make restringing and tuning quite tricky. The PRS Custom is, therefore, best for more advanced players wanting to play various genres.
- High quality – Hand-selected mahogany makes up the body and neck.
- Versatile – Also great for blues and classic rock riffs.
- Tremolo bridge and hot humbucker pups allow for extreme dive bombs and screaming solos.
- Price – Very expensive, you can buy mid-range guitars that are of similar quality.
- Less control than some – Depending on your preference, it doesn’t have a huge amount of control available in the form of treble, bass and middle dials.
- Complex – The tremolo bridge is cool, but novices may find it hard to use – definitely not for beginners.
So, Which Should I Choose?
All of the guitars mentioned above have their benefits; however, if I had to recommend one for beginners it would be the ESP 6 String LTD EC-256. This guitar is excellent value considering the high quality, mahogany body wood and ESP pickups it has to offer, not to mention it isn’t an awkward shape or too overly complicated to use.
Out of the high-end models, the Schecter Hellraiser is the best guitar for advanced players. Not only does it look pretty mean and creepy, but it also features a Floyd Rose bridge for dive bombs and extremely hot active pickups for meaty but bright tones that rip through walls of sound nicely. The Sustainic pickup will also create a really evil addition to your sound, in that you can create crazy harmonic notes easily – which is always a good thing when playing metal!