The arms race to build the ultimate electric guitar for playing heavy metal shows no signs of abating. It may never cease. So long as there are long-hairs cranking up the gain in the service of rock ’n’ roll’s extremist wing, there will be weaponized instruments for them to play. If you're keen to open the pit and unleash all hell on your audience, these are the best metal guitars to let loose with.
Heavy metal guitars are notable for many different reasons. Some might have edges sharp enough to cut steel, while others are available only in blinding neon colors. That said, you'll find others in our best metal guitars round-up that look a little more understated, preferring to save any 'attack' purely for your ears.
Then there are metal guitars with one extra string, two extra strings, reverse headstocks, locking tuners and floating tremolos. There are a few things that all of the best metal guitars all have in common: playability, precision and power.
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What are the best metal guitars right now?
If we are playing the patched-demin jacket percentages and looking at how many styles we can cover with one instrument, we’d take the Jackson Pro Series Dinky DK2 Ash. The combination of the lightweight ash body, the sand-blasted finish with radioactive green flourish is super-cool, while the classic passive humbucker pairing, Jackson playability, and the Floyd Rose 1000 Series tremolo seals the deal.
That said, the ESP LTD EC-1000VA is a close second in this best metal guitars round-up. Its Fishman Fluence Modern humbuckers and switching makes it hugely versatile, with enough power to handle whatever ungodly riff you can dream up.
What makes the best metal guitar?
That’s a good question. You can pretty much play heavy metal on any electric guitar, even if you have to get creative. John Baizley and Gina Gleason of Baroness have proved that you can do heavy tones on guitars with single-coil pickups.
Also, it depends very much on what sort of metal you want to play; a cheap Strat copy can sound amazing for black metal so long as you can dial in enough gain and keep the feedback from squawking too much.
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Our list of best metal guitars has options that are ideal for all styles, from ‘80s commercial steel to underground doom and death metal. Not all of them are pointy but some get extra marks for sharp headstocks and cutaways. Bonus points are awarded for shapes. But the first thing we’d say to look for is the pickups.
High-output humbuckers will do the job nicely, because you are going to need to have plenty of gain and harmonics, ideally without any noise. Pickup manufacturers such as DiMarzio, EMG, Seymour Duncan and Bare Knuckle have a wide range of humbuckers that are fit for metal of all styles. Many of the best metal guitars will have something from them.
Secondly, we are looking for a guitar that’s going to perform well, that’s super-playable and comfortable - most will look for something that’s built to shred, but at the very least it has got to be able to handle a riff. Here we are looking for fat jumbo frets to reward a light touch and bending, with a set of locking tuners highly desirable.
Those playing a down-tuned style - say progressive djent or death metal - might need a 7-string guitar (or even 8-string) to do the devil’s work. And then there’s the question of a Floyd Rose double-locking tremolo system; if playing a harmonic squeal and divebombing it into the abyss is crucial to your sound, you are going to need one.
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Unveiled at NAMM 2020, this DK2 is on-trend for sand-blasted finishes on swamp ash bodies, with its Green Glow making it look like it was spec’d for Alec Holland or the Toxic Avenger.
The Dinky is a perennial go-to for metal. Its body shape came over from Charvel in the early ‘90s. Smaller and lighter, it fast became a favorite with shredders, and anyone looking for a high-performance Super Strat, and they don’t come any more high-performance than this.
Everything about it is geared for speed. The neck has a hand-rubbed satin finish, and the 12"-16" compound radius ebony fingerboard is ideal for riffing down low or woodshedding up top.
This will handle a wide variety of metal styles, with a classic pairing of direct-mounted Seymour Duncan JB and ’59 humbuckers in the bridge and neck positions respectively. The 5-way switching allows some split single-coil tones, while the Floyd Rose 1000 Series double-locking tremolo will happily accommodate your whammy-bar acrobatics.
With Fishman’s Modern Fluence humbuckers, ESP/LTD’s flagship singlecut can perform metal of all eras. The switching is all very state-of-the-art, with push/pull coil-split for singlecoil tones and enough firepower to add serious weight to your riffs.
The Tune-O-Matic bridge offers a fuss-free performance, plenty of sustain and a solid platform for your punishing right-hand attack, but we wouldn’t want you to think of this only for rhythm.
The thin-U neck is an exceptional profile for lightning leads, with the extra-jumbo frets and 13.8” radius offering an easy ride up to the top-end of the fretboard, where you’ll find a neatly sculpted heel. Oh, and the finish is incredible. It’s called Violet Andromeda and looks different depending on how the light hits it.
There have been countless versions of Jackson’s über-pointy Randy Rhoads V over the years but this X Series Rhoads - new for 2020 - might just skewer the dragon in terms of value and on-message style.
It’s black-on-black, with a reverse six-in-line headstock for added metal points. You could pay $30-odd bucks more and get one with Neon Pink or Neon Green bevels if you need some color. It’s a super-aggressive silhouette but has been around long enough to be a classic.
But the key here is its playability; not great while seated, awesome standing up. It is typically shreddable with the dual active pickups from Seymour Duncan providing a super-hot performance that will deliver the goods big-style. And there’s a Floyd.
Ibanez’s RG series was launched in 1987 and with sharp horns, thoughtful body contouring, and being a testing ground for the super-svelte Wizard neck profiles, it fast cemented itself as one of the world’s favorite S-styles.
You can find the RG at all prices but the stripped-down model is very financially accessible. It has a speedy Wizard III maple neck, measuring just 19mm thick at the first fret and only 21mm at the 12th.
Okay, it doesn’t have a Floyd Rose tremolo, the hard-tail format is a good stable platform, ideal for aspiring shredders who don’t yet want to worry about spending time adjusting their bridge. The 5-way blade selector offers a wide sweep of humbucker and split-coil tones.
Some might pick up the V and play some Waterloo Sunset but we look at this excellent Chinese-built Epiphone and prefer to imagine what fun it would be to stick this through a Dallas Rangemaster and a Marshall Super Lead and go for it.
There are a pair of ProBucker humbuckers in the neck and bridge positions. These are wound in the USA, use the same 18 percent nickel-silver alloy for its bases and covers as was used at the Gibson Kalamazoo factory back in the day, have 4-conductor lead wire and are wax potted to kill microphonic squeal and hum.
CTS electronics are used under the hood, there is a set of Kluson-style Vintage Deluxe tuners and it’s just a real high-quality V for a price that is totally accessible. The slim-taper neck will accommodate riffers and shredders alike.
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Jim Root has always liked to take a classic Fender design and gear it up for war. What he has done with his new Jazzmaster is like taking an old station-wagon and fitting a surface-to-air missile launcher on the hood.
Here we’re dealing with a non-traditional and heavier weighted mahogany body. The controls have been pared down to the essentials, including a three-way blade switch choosing between his active EMG Daemonum pickups or both, with only a master volume and no tone.
The result is a guitar that is Jazzmaster in profile only, a retro-profiled offset with a voice that has a more solid low-end, with bright mids and highs that really begin to sing once the gain is past two o’clock.
Once upon a time it would cost you the GDP of a G8 country to be able to afford an eight-string electric, and here we are in 2020 and you’ll get some change out of 500 dollars. Schecter has really taken to the extended-range market, and while you won’t mistake the Omen-8 for one of their high-end models it is a helluva lot of guitar for the price.
The neck is welcoming. With a set of high-ratio 15:1 Schecter tuners, the Omen-8 is pretty darn stable. The weight feels okay, too. And the build quality and finish is what you might expect from Schecter.
While you might want active pickups on an eight-string, just to keep the hum down while turning string vibration into a buzzsaw, these overwound passive humbuckers (kind of reminiscent of the underrated EMG-HZ) have heaps of gnarly output.
The evolution of the Gojira riff-master’s signature San Dimas Style 2 continues apace, and this one, unveiled at NAMM 2020, is the classiest-looking yet. The black guard is nice, too, especially if you have moseyed on over here from using a ‘50s Telecaster and want to tune down and bang some heads.
The playability is incredible. Charvel is the original hot-rodder, and the 12-16” fingerboard radius across its 2020 models is supremely comfortable for fretting chords and sweeping up arpeggios alike. There is a Charvel Speed Shape profile that’s joined to the body with a four-bolt heel.
But it’s the pickups that have got us really sold on this. Duplantier’s signature DiMarzio is the hotter of the two, perfect for articulating down-tuned riffs that are saturated in gain, while the PAF 36th Anniversary shoots for the Holy Grail of ’59 Les Paul tones.
If you are looking for one of the best affordable metal guitars and want to avoid anything too necro- and pointed, then the updated EVH Wolfgang Standard Series is a pretty safe bet. It can cover a variety of styles, but of course, with Mr Van Halen’s initials on the headstock you can be sure it plays nice and quick.
Here we’ve got a basswood body and a bolt-on roasted maple neck, an en vogue 12”-16” compound radius fingerboard, and ultimately there is something ergonomically slight and welcoming about the Wolfgang that makes it hard to put down.
It has an EVH-branded Floyd Rose Special double-locking tremolo for hitting harmonics and divebombing them, and two moderately hot Wolfgang humbuckers that should stand the topsy-turvy world of metal.
With an urban camo and Dimebag silhouette finish, its almost star-shaped profile and V-shaped headstock, the Dime O Flage edition of Dean's classic ML model is not for the faint-hearted.It was created for the same sort of buzzsaw tones that its most-famous patron used to deal in.
With a high-ouput passive Seymour Duncan Dimebucker in the bridge, the ML Dime O Flage is a seriously aggressive guitar, but it can do more classic metal and hard rock tones, too, so when Friday night comes and you want to jam some Van Halen and KISS covers this will have your back.
The Floyd Rose Special will be essential if you want to emulate Dimebag's harmonic squeals, but so too the set-neck construction, which gives the ML a very respectable sustain.
ESP's long-standing collaboration with the Deftones' Stef Carpenter has produced some of the most cutting-edge designs in metal guitars. Carpenter would probably resist the term "metal guitar" because his sound is so much more, but this SC-607 might just be the best option for down-tuned riffers.
There's no neck pickup, instead the two SRC Fluence Humbuckers are in bridge and middle positions. They both have push-pull functions to switch up their voicings between active and passive.
We love the neck-through construction, with a three-piece maple neck in a thin U-profile set through an ample but smartly contoured mahogany S-style body. No fret-markers either. Embrace the minimalism, fret a chord, brace for impact...