The best metal guitarists of all time
1. Tony Iommi
There could be no one else at number one. Tony Iommi created metal from the ground up, taking rock and blues as raw materials, drawing a songwriting logic and atmosphere from early horror cinema, and writing some of the best riffs – and, ergo, the best songs – in metal history. Black Sabbath, the opening track from the band’s eponymous debut, served as the perfect introduction – this was rock’s turn to the dark side. It was doom metal before we had the words to describe it.
And Iommi famously did so through injury, drawing inspiration from Django Reinhardt to overcome a machining accident on his fretting hand. One of his strategies was to use lighter strings, and to tune down, the latter a move that shifted the band’s sound downwards, further away from the heavens.
With a Gibson SG Special, a Dallas Rangemaster and a Laney backline, Iommi changed the course of rock history, riff by riff. Black Sabbath started heavy and turned progressively heavier, arguably finding their range with the breakdown riff of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. But there was light and shade in there, too.
Once Sabbath hooked up with Ronnie James Dio, Iommi would give his writing a metallic polish, a subtle stylistic shift to match Dio’s vocals. His lead playing is underrated; the riffs might land on the grid but there is an unpredictability to Iommi’s solos that belies a jazz sensibility.
2. Dimebag Darrell
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.
3. Randy Rhoads
Randy Rhoads was just 25 when he lost his life in a plane crash in 1982 but he left quite the legacy. He was supremely gifted, book smart but not ostentatiously so, and would deftly introduce the highfalutin grandeur of classical music into popular metal compositions.
He would pioneer the asymmetrical V, working with Grover Jackson on what, posthumously, would become on of the most popular metal guitar designs ever. And more than this, the hot-shot guitarist from Quiet Riot would be the one chiefly responsible for resurrecting Ozzy Osbourne’s career after his acrimonious departure from Black Sabbath. In Rhoads, Osbourne found his white knight.
As Paul Gilbert once said, Rhoads played like he was battling a dragon; Rhoads was slight, and the guitar just looked so big on him. But he would always, somehow, have it under his spell. He made the impossible possible, like when he would gentrify metal for dramatic effect with Revelation (Mother Earth), giving the Prince of Darkness an almost Beethoven-esque epic to work with, to show his range.
In uptempo rockers such as I Don’t Know and the ubiquitous Crazy Train, he would spin pure spectacle from the guitar, then turning on a dime, would imbue tracks such as Suicide Solution and Mr Crowley with fatalistic gravitas. Ozzy was the entertainer par excellence; Rhoads supplied him with the material, the fireworks, the magic.
4. James Hetfield
The doyen of down-picking, the riffmaster supreme, Hetfield is the combustion engine that drives that unstoppable and unlikely phenomenon that is Metallica. Unlikely? Sure it is. Just listen to the ferocity of Hetfield’s tone on Kill ‘Em All, the brittle and hostile atmosphere of …And Justice For All, or the straightforward pummel of Master of Puppets bookends Battery and Damage Inc. None of this suggests ‘stadium rock’, Jimmy Kimmel, superstardom.
Of course, the Black Album inaugurated that chapter of Metallica’s success, and made Hetfield a household name. The through line, however, is unimpeachable songcraft, much of which rests upon Hetfield’s rhythm style. He plays lead on Nothing Else Matters, but you wouldn’t get your people to call his people and ask him to play a guest solo. Hell no, that’s like asking Federer for a round of golf. No, Hetfield is the rhythm king, the G.O.A.T., all riffs and song structure. He’s the engine, but he’s the architect, too.
5. Mark Tremonti
The man, the myth, the Tremonti, the player whose Roman candle lead guitar lights up the Alter Bridge canon… There is an argument to be made that, pound for pound Tremonti is the ultimate all-rounder. Here he is hanging out on the Metal Top 10 when, on another day, he could probably be a rock player, or in an alternate universe, perhaps in the blues.
At least, we can hear all of these elements in his playing, all of these flavors are in the pot, sauced with a high-gain tone that could only be described as boutique. PRS all the way, baby.
With Myles Kennedy, he has formed a sort of creative hive mind, like their cerebella are connected to the cloud, making Alter Bridge a dynamic, box-office proposition, a blue chip premiere metal act who might pin you to the wall with a riff but have the humanity and good grace to lift the soul with some huge melody. Tremonti’s ear is well attuned to both.
6. Dave Mustaine
Irascible, complex, brilliant, there is no one quite like Dave Mustaine. His origin story as a bona-fide metal icon is as though it were scripted by William Goldman. It goes a little something like this; he joins Metallica in ‘82, gets kicked out in ‘83, is not very happy about this, and on occasion over the years he will mention this, but he takes that almighty funk and forms Megadeth – the ultimate state-of-the-art thrash metal band.
Technically audacious, sauced with Mustaine’s sulfurous temperament, Megadeth became a repository for some of thrash, nay, metal’s most enduring anthems, with Rust In Peace (1990) a landmark release.
Megadeth would become a proving ground for metal’s best players, with Mustaine recruiting so well you’d swear his middle name was Randstad. Chris Poland, Marty Friedman, Chris Broderick and his current lieutenant, Kiko Loureiro, are all supremely gifted. But they all play off this Mustaine fellow, whose animalistic lead style typifies his incorrigible nature.
This is the man who relearned the instrument from the start after injury, who wrote and recorded his latest album while receiving treatment from cancer, and when he is on his game his riffing patterns are like a HIMARS strike.
7. Zakk Wylde
Zakk Wylde’s CV as a top-tier practitioner of metal guitar takes some beating. Here’s the guy who burst onto the scene in ‘87, all fresh-faced and often in a bowler hat, heir to Randy Rhoads’ throne as he replaced Jake E Lee as Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, and over the years he has transmogrified into the ursine biker shredder and frontman of Black Label Society, now sitting in for the late Dimebag Darrell as Pantera tour again.
He’s also started his own gear company, Wylde Audio, teaches on his Berzerker Guitar Camp via Riffhard. But what of his playing? Well, a former GW columnist, his leads are lit up with high-gain, throaty wah, and a fierce alternate picking style that suggests he prepares for showtime with a nutritious protein shake laced with hydrocarbons.
8. Adrian Smith
With Iron Maiden’s guitar talent having long formed a trident with Dave Murray and Janick Gers, assessing each player on their own merits almost feels inappropriate when what we are hearing from each is in service to the whole.
But there is a common theme to Iron Maiden records; the best tracks have Adrian Smith all over them, and they make metal guitar a renaissance activity, light on its feet, foregrounding melody above all else. That perhaps comes from Smith starting out as a singer – sometimes it pays for your guitar’s phrasing to take its cues from the human voice.
9. Synyster Gates
Avenged Sevenfold’s success rests upon the cavalier genius of Synyster Gates, a player who draws influences from across the board and applied them to a style that was 100 percent entertainment. John Williams, Mr Bungle, Danny Elfman, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, “classical cats and then jazz guys like Allan Holdsworth” all figure in the mix.
But it’s where he takes those influences; inventing scales to complement those already canonized, having that his expansive guitar vocabulary readily accessible, sometimes on shuffle, just to see what comes loose.
10. Glenn Tipton & KK Downing
You can have the argument over who was the finest guitar duo in the history of heavy metal but after debating of the merits of Hanneman/King, Hetfield/Hammett, Murray/Smith et al, it all comes back to Judas Priest’s Tipton and Downing. None more influential. None more effective.
Their sound was a durable yet precious alloy, hard rock hardened and burnished over years at high volume into an instantly recognizable brand of British Steel, pure total metal.
Also in the running…
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.