There’s a myriad of sub-genres when it comes to metal but they’ve all got one thing in common - awesome guitars. Whether you have to have a guitar tuned low enough to djent properly, or you want a super-specced shred machine, the best metal guitars will all ensure your riffs stay hefty and your lead guitar work flies off the fretboard.
Metal guitars tend to share a few of the same features. Fast guitar necks are a must for lightning-fast solos and complicated riffing. They typically feature high output pickups - usually humbuckers - to ensure a big guitar tone as well as the ability to deal with high gain and lastly, a certain look that can range from all-black-everything to spiky neon green.
What makes a metal guitar though? Well, you might fancy a baritone for some low-down riffing that still retains six strings, or maybe a seven or eight-string extended-range monster for when you really want to annoy your bassist. Or you can just go to classic thrash metal territory and opt for a regularly tuned guitar with a unique shape to let everyone at your next show know exactly what they’re in for.
We’ve gone through a huge range of guitars to put together this guide for you and having played in heavy bands for over twenty years, you can trust that we know a thing or two about what makes a proper metal guitar. If you’re a first-time buyer, head to our buying advice section to get some more info, otherwise, keep scrolling to see our top picks.
Best metal guitars: Guitar World's choice
If you want a professional-level metal guitar, we think you’ll find it hard to do better than the ESP LTD EC-1000. It’s a staple at metal and hardcore shows the world over thanks to its powerful Fishman pickups, fast-playing thin ‘U’ neck profile, and hefty mahogany body that adds loads of body and sustain. A modern classic.
Looking for something on a budget? The Ibanez RGA42FM is a proper workhorse that doesn’t cost the earth, coming with the Japanese manufacturer's classic rapid-playing neck and a set of Quantum humbuckers. The contoured double cutaway design not only looks eye-catching but offers unrivaled upper fret access.
Is it an extended-range guitar? Is it a baritone? Well, the ESP LTD Stephen Carpenter SC-607 is kind of both. Incorporating an extra 7th string with a 27-inch baritone neck, this guitar is ready-made to djent. A push-pull control means that despite being weighted towards hard riffing, it’ll do lovely clean work too.
Best metal guitars: Product guide
With Fishman’s Modern Fluence humbuckers, ESP/LTD’s flagship single cut can perform metal of all eras. The switching is all very state-of-the-art, with push/pull coil-split for single-coil 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 providing us an easy ride up to the top end of the fretboard during testing, 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.
Read the full ESP LTD EC-1000 review
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.
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 toward 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.
This is Harley Benton’s take on one of the quintessential metal guitars. The body shape is pointy enough to get you noticed, but not so much that you pose a risk to your band members when on stage. Available in black or white, it’s a timeless look that screams metal.
It’s fitted with pickups that can be heard on various metal records over the years – EMGs. The EMG81 is a classic bridge pickup and offers punchy, clear, and defined tones that sound great paired with distortion. The EMG61 in the neck position is a little smoother and works really well on clean tones, or for solos. The controls are super simple and won’t get in your way – one volume and one tone.
Harley Benton is known for offering players great value for money, and this is no exception. It’s one of the best metal guitars you can get at this price point, especially with these pickups.
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.
Read the full Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster V4 review
Epiphone’s Prophecy range of guitars drags classic designs kicking and screaming into the 21st century - and scream they do. The Prophecy Flying V is, simply put, a total monster. Specs-wise, it’s overflowing with high-end accouterments, from the asymmetrical neck profile to the sophisticated Fishman Fluence custom-voiced humbuckers.
You’ll notice the push-pull volume and tone pots don’t have the standard ‘coil-split’ function of most other guitars. That’s thanks to the Fluence humbuckers being just that bit cleverer than most, toggling between a high-output modern humbucker and a classic Burstbucker/PAF-style voicing. In terms of metal, this guitar can cover virtually any style you can throw at it - we discovered during our testing that it can do beautiful cleans, too.
To be fair, we’d have liked the option of a Prophecy model with a pair of passive humbuckers like Epiphone has done with past models, but we really can’t complain. You get a lot for your money with this Flying V.
View the full Epiphone Prophecy Flying V review
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. We found during testing that while it's not great while seated, it's 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.
Once upon a time, it would cost you the GDP of a G7 country to be able to afford an eight-string electric, and here we are - and now 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.
When playing the Omen-8, we found that the neck is welcoming, and with a set of high-ratio 15:1 Schecter tuners, the Omen-8 is pretty darn stable too. The weight feels okay, too. And the build quality and finish are 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 we found, during testing, that the 12-16” fingerboard radius across its more recent 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.
Read the full Charvel Pro-Mod Joe Duplantier San Dimas Style 2 review
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 made it very hard for us to put down during our testing.
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.
ESP's long-standing collaboration with the Deftones' Steph 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.
During testing, we loved the neck-through construction and thin U-profile on the three-piece maple neck. No fret markers either - which looks stealthy and epic. Embrace the minimalism, fret a chord, and brace for impact...
A rather unsuspecting option for the best metal guitar, but it works. The soapbar pickups might not dish out the same sort of saturation as a pair of active humbuckers, but they’ve got a really nice growl and mid-range bump that helps them cut through a mix. They distort nicely, plus they cover a range of different tones. If you’re one for bringing in clean breaks and intros, then this guitar is ideal.
The 27” scale helps cater for the B to B tuning as standard and really helps deliver some wall-rumbling low end. It’s great for serving up big, mean-sounding riffs. Plus, with Squier’s great build quality and affordable pricing, you get a lot for your money. The Tele is also a classic body shape and is easy to play in any situation!
Best metal guitars: Buying advice
Picking the best metal guitar for you will mean asking yourself some questions, to figure out what you need from it. Whilst you don’t necessarily need any particular type of guitar to play metal, there are some features to look out for that will help you on your way.
Do I need a specific metal guitar to play metal?
Contrary to popular belief, no - you do not need a specific metal guitar to play metal. Having a guitar that's up to the job definitely helps you achieve the crazy gain tones you're after, but you don't need any specific type of guitar to do this. Sometimes, single-coil pickups sound killer in a metal setting. It's all about experimenting with tones and seeing what you like.
But, for that super-heavy, drowning-in-gain tones you’re after, one of the best metal guitars is designed specifically to make your life easier. The hardware, electronics, necks, fingerboards, and bodies are all built specifically to draw out the best metal tones possible from that guitar - and who doesn’t want a purpose-built shred machine?
What are the best brands for metal guitars?
Most guitar brands make instruments specced out for metal, but there are definitely a few firm favorites that you’ll see onstage more often than others. ESP, Schecter, Ibanez, and Jackson are the ones that spring immediately to mind. Playing metal demands a lot from your instrument and these brands all make some epic high-output axes that will play fast and let you get heavy.
So why don’t big brands like Fender and Gibson make metal guitars? We reckon it’s because they both own sub-brands where they can better market axes catered towards the metal player. Fender owns Jackson and Charvel, who both make loads of extreme, pointy-shaped guitars, whereas Gibson has both Epiphone and Kramer where they can manufacture instruments for metal.
Are 7-string or 8-string guitars better for metal music?
It all depends on what you want to play really. If you’re into more traditional forms of metal like thrash, heavy metal, power metal, or hair metal then a six-string instrument will likely do the job for you. You can tune it down if you want to get heavier, but it’s not a must-have as you’ll likely be playing closer to standard tuning.
If you’re into more modern metalcore, djent, or progressive metal, then an extended-range 7-string guitar or 8-string guitar is definitely the way to go. It gives you that super low end and these guitars usually feature longer scale lengths to deal with lower tunings. You also get the ‘regular’ range of a guitar, but it will take some getting used to thanks to the extra string.
If you’d like to keep the playability of a regular six-string but still want to tune low, then you should have a look at the best baritone guitars. These guitars feature a longer scale but keep the six strings, so you can still play open chords as you would on a regular guitar, but in a much lower tuning.
Which pickups do I need in my metal guitar?
High-output humbuckers will do the job nicely because you are going to need to have plenty of gain and harmonic excitement to get those really crazy tones. Pickup manufacturers such as EMG specialize in active pickups, which are powered by one or more 9V batteries in your guitar - meaning that their output is sky high, and their tone is highly precise - making them some of the best pickups for metal.
Companies such as DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, and Bare Knuckle specialize in passive pickups, which have a slightly lower output and don’t need any extra power sources to operate. They often sound a little more organic and classic, but still create enough noise to boil blood. Many of the best metal guitars will be equipped with something from these manufacturers.
What is the difference between active and passive pickups?
A lot of guitars on this list will feature active pickups, due to the association between metal and high-gain tones. Active pickups require an outside power source (usually a 9V battery) and tend to compress your sound more, great for complex riffing played really fast. Active pickups are also very quiet, which is again useful when playing with high gain.
On a passive pickup if you roll down your volume knob, you’ll find that you get less overdrive and a warmer tone as the high frequencies are rolled off - provided it’s not fitted with a treble bleed kit. For some guitarists, this is a desirable trait, as it allows you to warm up your guitar sound without going over to your amplifier. Active pickups don’t do this however, they tend to retain pretty much the same frequencies through the whole range of the volume knob.
Us guitarists aren’t great at change, and even though from a technical standpoint an active pickup is better, a lot of ‘tone purists’ don’t like active pickups because they aren’t as reactive. It’s best you try both out for yourself and see what you like, but players like Dave Gilmour and Steve Lukather both have guitars with active pickups, so they can’t be all that bad!
What is the best tuning for metal?
A lot of metal features down-tuning. Regular tuning is E-E which is fine for some metal players, however, some like to tune one, or all six of their strings lower. A slightly longer scale length can help with tuning stability if you’re tuning way down to around C or B. Baritone guitars can be a good option as they have a much longer scale length – usually around 27”, and have a regular tuning of B-B.
Some of the best metal guitars have more strings. 7 and even 8-string guitars provide a much wider frequency range. You’ve still got the high end with your top strings, allowing you more space to solo but when you need that earth-shattering low end, you’ve got it at your disposal with an additional low string.
Does guitar body shape matter?
Believe it or not, there’s no law that states all metal should be played on a pointy guitar. Of course, a guitar that can double as a weapon adds to the metal aesthetic but, they don’t always make for comfortable instruments when you’re sat down. So, if you do a lot of your riff writing at home, sat down before you take it to the rehearsal room, then you might want to look for something with a body shape that allows for that.
Sometimes though, simplicity can do the job; a black guitar with a standard body shape can be just as metal as a pointy V – it’s all down to the player!
Should I choose a hardtail or locking trem?
When looking at a range of metal guitars, you again need to think about which styles of metal you want to play, and your overall playing style.
Are you a rhythm guitarist who needs something super solid and reliable? If that’s the case, a hardtail is probably the bridge to go for, as the strings won’t be able to slip out of tune as easily as they would if you had a tremolo. Either a string-thru or tune-o-matic style bridge setup would work best for you.
If you’re more of a lead player who loves doing dive-bombs and crazy trem-based effects, then something with a locking Floyd-Rose style tremolo system should be your go-to. A locking trem stops your strings from slipping out of tune, by – you guessed it – locking the strings at the nut.
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