The best metal guitarists of all time
1. Tony Iommi
The legendary Black Sabbath guitarist spoke to TG’s Paul Elliott and explained how he learned to play with missing fingertips, how he writes the heaviest riffs known to man, and why ‘widdly’ guitar leaves him cold
Django Reinhardt Saved My Life
“When I had my factory accident and I cut the ends of my fingers off, I thought, that’s it. I was at home moping about, thinking, ‘I can’t play anymore’. I was devastated. And the manager of the factory came to see me.
“He said, ‘I’ve got an EP here I want to play for you, it’s by Django Reinhardt, can you listen to it?’ I said, ‘No, no, I don’t want to listen to any music.’ He said, ‘Please, just let me play it.’ And he played it and I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great.’ And then he told me the story about Django Reinhardt losing his fingers. And it really did encourage me.
“I thought, ‘God, somebody’s done it, and it really got me on my feet to start playing again and trying to work out how to play gypsy-style jazz. He was a great player. Him and Stéphane Grappelli were really good. And really, Django was so important to me.”
Playing By Ear
“I would have liked to have not chopped the ends of my fingers off! It became a burden. Some people say it helped me invent the kind of music I play, but I don’t know whether it did. It’s just something I’ve had to deal with. I had to learn to live with it.
“It affects your playing style – you can’t feel the strings, you have to do it by ear. And there are certain chords I can’t play. Right at the beginning I was told by doctors to stop playing. But I believed I could do it, and I did. They told me, ‘You won’t be playing guitar.’ I proved them wrong!”
The Art of the Riff
“I’m always writing. I don’t really do anything else. The studio room I write in at home, it’s dark, it could be day or night in there, you don’t know. And I’m always putting ideas down, not even thinking that this could be for Sabbath or whatever. I just get them down.
“A good riff is a good riff, and you use it accordingly. And with most riffs, they just come out. Even now, I can usually come up with a few riffs in an hour. But I don’t overdo it. It has to feel right.”
Eddie Van Halen
“When Sabbath went on tour in 1978 and took Van Halen with us, I think that was the nail in the coffin for us. Van Halen were so full of energy and we were falling to pieces. It was difficult for us, the band was going through a funny stage and it felt like the end. But I liked having Van Halen with us. Eddie became a great friend of mine on that tour. I used to get together with him every night in my room or his.”
Blues and Jazz
“With Sabbath, we were very much blues-based when we started, and when we talked to Rick Rubin about him producing the 13 album, he spoke about going back to those blues roots. He was trying to capture that moment again of how we’d done stuff and how I’d played. And I went more with that approach on that album. There were also some jazz influences in places.
“On one track, Zeitgeist, I did a jazzy solo. I like jazz guitar players, and I liked to play some jazzy things in the early days when we first started. So it’s sort of bluesy-jazzy. And there was a track that was just a blues jam... called Blues Jam. The title sort of gives it away, really!
“We had the basic riff, an idea of what we were going to do, but then it became a jam on that riff, then into a jammed solo, then we’d nod to each other where to go. We enjoy a bit of nodding... And that’s how that song was, with no tight-ups with drums or anything. It was a jam and we made it into a song.”
It's All About Feel
“In the past, when Sabbath played with bands like Yes, technically they were all great. We weren’t technically great, but we had something that we built up together, we made a sound that was great. Metallica have that. They sound like a band. They’ve got a great attitude, and they love what they do.
“But with other bands, when you hear all this widdly guitar stuff, it doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t have that feel. I’m old fashioned. For me, it has to have feel.”
2. Dimebag Darrell
Darrell Lance Abbott laid the groove, screamed the blues and changed heavy metal forever.
Dimebag’s ferocious lead technique was a full-frontal assault that drew as heavily on blues as heavy metal. His penchant for the lead work of rock and metal giants such as Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads was combined with his own unique take on the humble pentatonic scale.
Although favouring extreme techniques such as wide, aggressive vibrato, whammy bar antics and huge squealing harmonics, Dimebag was always in control of his sound; no mean feat when dealing with large amounts of distortion and boosted treble.
He initially favoured tuning to an ‘in between’ point roughly 0.6 of a semitone below standard tuning. Later on, he used D standard (DGCFAD) and drop C (CGCFAD), which allowed wider bends and more aggressive vibrato in his lead playing. We’ve opted for DGCFAD for our licks.
Dimebag’s squeals are usually pitched according to the key, so learning the harmonic positions is vital. The natural harmonic in bar 1 and the first pinched harmonic in bar 3 should be the same pitch. The whammy bar bend into bar 2 is a three-semitone dip.
3. Randy Rhoads
Classical harmonies – the core of Rhoads’ sound
As Ozzy Osbourne’s original solo sideman, Randy Rhoads helped the Prince Of Darkness reinvent himself in his first two post-Sabbath albums. Opting for his well-known white 1974 Les Paul Custom, Randy plugged into Marshall 1959 amps, supercharging his tone with an MXR Distortion Plus pedal.
Rhoads came from a classical guitar background and loved the sound of diminished arpeggios and scale runs. Use the right fingers and this diminished 7th arpeggio is much easier to play. Use the wrong fingers and, well, you know...
4. James Hetfield
The Metallica frontman on his riffing technique
“When I pick up the guitar, I want to be the drummer. I’ve always loved playing drums, so it’s kind of what I’m doing on the guitar. I love syncopation – just unique drumbeats – so I’ve always incorporated that in [my playing]. The percussiveness and the downpicking, that’s something that just came through competition, really. ‘Hey, these guys are fast; I’m going to be faster!’
“Goofy guy stuff like that, but at the end of the day it has its own sound. It’s like hitting a drum; it really is. There have obviously been influences that have shaped it somewhat. Listening to Scorpions... [Rudolph Schenker], I like that – he’s just the rhythm guy. He’s not trying to be everything and he’s the best at what he did. At the time, he was really percussive in a way.”
Metal lord James Hetfield’s down-picking technique is the stuff of legend! Get some of the Metallica man’s magic down with this riff that’s designed to hone your down-picking and palm muting. Make sure to momentarily release your palm-mutes where indicated in the tab.
5. Mark Tremonti
The gear at the heart of Alter Bridge’s most recent album, Walk The Sky
“My PRS MT15 was front and centre with the Cornford RK100 – which is like my go-to magical amp – in there too. Our producer Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette told me early on, ‘You have to bring in that Cornford every time!’ I think there might have been a little bit of Rectifier, though to be honest I think we hardly used it. For my cleans, I used a Fender Twin along with my signature, maybe a little bit of Victory V40 too.
“As for pedals, the pink T-Rex Octavius is my favourite octave. Other than that, I’m still using my signature wah, which is probably my favourite pedal of all time. I might use a Uni-Vibe here and there. Of course, delay is on everything... My effects loop has a G-Lab delay in there.
“I’ve probably gone through 10 different delay pedals over the years – every time I heard something was good, I would try to check it out. The G-Lab was the last one I bought and I haven’t looked at anything else since, because it does exactly what I need.”
6. Dave Mustaine
Mr Mustaine's relentless right hand is the stuff of legend, and led Megadeth to the zenith of thrash.
Of course, he's shared the stage with some of the best guitar players in the world - among them, Marty Friedman and Kiko Loureiro - but Mustaine is the six-string constant, the beating heart of a metal institution, and an undeniable riff machine.
7. Zakk Wylde
In 2016, Zakk told TG about his approach to chords on Lay Me Down and Lost Prayer from Book Of Shadows II
“I remember my old guitar teacher showed me Jimi’s chord voicings – there are certain inversions you can do where you have little hammer-ons and trills off of the chord itself. You bar with your index finger and use the other ones to do all the different bits.
“It’s similar to the chords Jimi used on The Wind Cries Mary or his version of Like A Rolling Stone. And if you remember the Pride And Glory song Machine Gun Man, that was in the vein of Jimi as well. Whenever I hear chords like that, I know instantly it’s come from him!”
8. Adrian Smith
The Maiden man advises you to think melodically
“I wouldn’t consider myself a virtuoso that can just reel off stuff at the drop of a hat. I have to work at it a bit, obviously. But I suppose my brain is wired up quite musically because I started off life singing more than playing guitar, so I do have quite a melodic sense.
“I try to get that in my playing. And I hear young guitarists now who are just incredible technically, but they could do with a little reining-in and melody. If there’s a little bit of flash in there, so much the better, but that’s the way I approach it.”
It’s all too easy to burn up the fretboard with your fieriest licks and neglect the melodic side of soloing. To sound tuneful, we’ve used a couple of long held notes with vibrato added to make them really sing. And, though our lick is mainly minor pentatonic based, we’ve added the 9th interval F# note so we don’t sound too formulaic.
9. Synyster Gates
The Avenged Sevenfold wizard on scales...
“My dad always said you can create your own weather. You can create your own root notes and superimpose more progressions over them to get this major/minor tonality with layers of key changes. I love John Williams, Mr Bungle, Danny Elfman, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, classical cats and then jazz guys like Allan Holdsworth. Obviously you can’t always be crazy, but it’s about tension and resolution.
“When you decipher what’s happening, there’s whole tone and augmented shit all over the place. I got into a lot of that stuff on the records. You need to have some theory and understand what the fuck you’re doing. Invent your own scales if you want. If it’s something you’ve never heard before, all the better. It will always lead to something.”
Use this scale to play in the style of one of Synyster’s heroes, Danny Elfman, with his theme tune from The Simpsons.
10. Glenn Tipton & KK Downing
The Judas Priest pair on their pioneering twin-guitar partnership
Glenn Tipton: “We’ve got very different styles and quite different sounds, really, but that’s what helps to create the band’s guitar character. I think if you both have the same sound, one would cancel out the other.
“If you’ve both got the same style it’s useful when you come to do fast harmonies together, but the fact that we’ve got different styles that work together creates a very strong character. We’re very lucky in that sense.”
KK Downing: “To have all these different combinations of things you could do, like trade off solos, why should one guitar player do all the solos? Glenn might do the solo in the middle of the song but then I might do the solo on the outro.
“Of course, [when] you’ve got two different players with different techniques and sounds, it adds a massive dimension to a band. If I go to see a band like Slayer, it’s energising when you see two players.”
Jeff Hanneman & Kerry King
Together they set the bar for speed and brutality in riffing. King’s dissonant, chaotic solos match Slayer’s songs perfectly.
While others imitated Eddie, Nuno took his ideas to new places. His devastating syncopation gave Extreme funk where their peers had none.
Every American rocker’s childhood hero, Ace gave Kiss an endless supply of repurposed Chuck Berry licks. And he could FLY.
One of the few truly innovative post-Korn nu metallers, his Limp Bizkit work used tapping, whammy and 7-strings creatively.
The Dokken man mastered playing ‘wrong’ notes the right way in a metal context. His sideways vibrato was much imitated.
With one of the most devoted fanbases on earth, few musicians have produced a back catalogue so varied, creative or extreme.
Mikael Akerfeldt & Fredrick Åkesson
It’s rare to find chops and melody together in such abundance as on Opeth’s albums. Their tone and vibrato are killer.
Jim Root & Mick Thomson
Nu metal albums used computer editing to place every note millisecond perfect, but the Slipknot pair have the tightness to reproduce it live.
Munky & Head
The first band to realise 7-string guitars’ metal potential, Korn ushered in the sound of the 90s.
Brent Hinds & Bill Kelliher
As well as making terrifying rhythms sound easy, the Mastodon duo bring classic rock tone and licks to metal.
Fredrick Thordendal & Mårten Hagström
The djent innovators revolutionised ideas of how heavy it’s possible to be, with rhythms so complex many fans still don’t understand them.