The best guitar for metal is never the guitar alone, but a combination of the pickup, strings, and of course the amp and effects used as well. Today we explore all of these topics, explaining their importance in achieving your aggressive tone, and offering our recommendations for the best in each category and each budget range...
Click here to jump straight to the reviews!
Metal music has become among the most popular genres in the past few decades. On top of that, we have seen all kinds of new variations and sub-genres hitting the scene, offering a much more diverse selection.
If you are just starting to play guitar and you are absolutely sure that you want to play metal, you are probably wondering what kind of gear to get.
Well, there are guitars and accessories that fare much better for metal music over other styles.
This is the topic we'll be dealing with today. The goal of this guide will be to explain what gear you should have and how that selection can impact your tone.
We will start with guitars and amplifiers, being that they are the most important components. Afterward, we'll move into other stuff such as strings, picks, and more.
By the time we are done here, you should have a pretty good understanding of what setup you need to get in order to cover your goals. With that said, let's dig right in.
The very first thing we have to get out of the way is the fact that 'metal guitar' is a very broad term. If we look at the history of metal, you will see super popular bands such as Iron Maiden playing some of the most legendary tunes out there on a Strat. Let's be honest here, Stratocasters are probably the last guitars that come to mind in this context.
Metal is a very fluid genre of music that takes all kinds of guitars and guitar tones. However, there are still some general unwritten rules when it comes to these guitars. That is exactly what we are going to touch upon next.
There are several factors that you want to have aligned in order to get a proper metal tone. It is all about the components and how they work together. Let's start with the basics and make our way over to less important stuff.
Most guitar players will tell you this. A proper metal guitar has to have a humbucker pickup in the bridge position at the very least. You can get away with a single coil at the neck, but bridge absolutely has to be a humbucker. This pickup is what gives you the most "oomph" and chug.
Now, there exists both passive and active pickups. Both platforms have their pros and cons. For example, active pickups are going to give you more power on the source but will lack definition. On the other hand, passive pickups are low powered but allow you to express yourself much more subtly.
An active pickup is going to be more expensive, but if you can afford it, definitely go for it. Metal is about volume and definition, not subtlety. Even melodic metal won't reach down to the depths of delicate distinction of sound that would push you towards a passive pickup.
The neck is basically a matter of taste and personal preference. Some guitar players like a thick neck with some meat on it, while others like it flat. Generally, thinner necks allow for faster playing and thus better for shredding.
Thicker necks will be slower but offer a bit more grip. Choosing between the two is a matter of your intended playing style, and possibly if you're playing rhythm guitar or lead.
Those who are going to focus on solos, for the most part, will definitely benefit from a thinner neck. Your scales will simply flow faster and you will get better articulation across the fretboard. Rhythm players can do with both.
Hardware is something you definitely want to look into. When we say hardware, we mean the bridge and tuners. One thing you will often see on 'guitars for metal' are tremolo systems, most commonly a version of the Floyd Rose tremolo.
Here's the deal. Unless you're an experienced guitar player with a big budget, it's best to stay away from those.
A Floyd Rose bridge on its own is extremely hard to tune up properly. While that is definitely something you can learn, you will find it quite annoying when your strings snap. Each time you change the strings, you will have to fight the tremolo. This is definitely not good during a live performance where you don't have several other guitars set up off stage and a roadie to bring it to you real fast.
Another thing to keep in mind is that most affordable guitars won't feature a genuine Floyd Rose, but rather one of its licensed copies. Due to the complexity of the system, having precisely machined and properly working components with a Floyd Rose is essential.
Otherwise, you are in for a ride that never ends. It can be done and you can learn the peculiarities of a knock-off, but it's better to start with the real deal if you're going that direction.
With that said, a tremolo bridge (the various types are explained quickly here by Dawsons) is pretty important for some of the divebombs and other effects common in metal music.
The bottom line is this: If you want a simple setup that is reliable and easy to maintain, go with a fixed bridge. If you absolutely need a tremolo, be prepared to either drop some serious money on one, or deal with a cheaper model.
With tuners, things are pretty much straight forward. We are looking for tuners that will retain your tuning even with insane amounts of string bends and other stuff.
Locking tuners are your best bet. These lock into place and prevent slipping to keep the string from losing its key. Again, this is a feature usually found in higher end models.
The good thing is that even your average tuners will be pretty decent these days. If you decide that you want something better, you can always upgrade at a very reasonable price after the fact.
Now let's move on to the fun part...
We'll look at guitars first and then work our way down through amplifiers, strings, and pickups. For every section we'll provide the best options in each budget range so everyone can get the most bang for their buck.
Note: Each image and text link leads to Amazon.com where you can read additional user reviews, find specific technical detail listings, see additional body finishes, and make your purchase.
Now that we know what makes a decent metal guitar, let's check out some of the better performing options on the market. We will visit the high-end, mid-range, and affordable segments, in that order, picking one guitar from each of these.
If you're thinking of getting into metal, you probably know who Kirk Hammett is. Metallica has shaped a huge number of modern metal bands, thus spawning a whole variety of alternative genres. ESP has been working with both Kirk and James on developing guitars that fit their particular profile. One such instrument that really takes the cake is Kirk's Signature KH-2.
This is going to be your high-end metal guitar that has everything you could ever need. We are talking Super Strat body that's comfortable and light, a set of EMG 81/60 active pickups, original Floyd Rose bridge with a locking nut system and more.
Sure, you can get a very similar setup for a lot less money. However, consider this. ESP has really dialed in this puppy to a point where it is a high speed, low drag machine all without you needing to put one together piece by piece and have it set up by a professional guitar tech.
Everything about this guitar is it's aligned to perfection. The tone is versatile and about as close as you will ever get to that Metallica sound. Best of all, once it is time to get off the distortion and hit those clean notes, the KH-2 will transition right in. All in all, this ESP is a shortcut way to a good metal guitar for those who have the means of financing one.
There's no talking about guitars for metal without mentioning at least one Schecter. Coincidentally, it is extremely hard to pick a model from their lineup without robbing a different one from much-needed attention.
Even so, this Schecter Hellraiser C-1 is a great representative for our purposes, although Schecter is one of those brands who specializes in metal oriented instruments. So peek at others too, but this is our pick, in any of the three or four finish colors (the black cherry option is pretty handsome).
The Hellraiser C-1 is a mid-range guitar that packs a whole lot of heat for the money. The build quality is supreme, with an ominous finish that will keep you coming back. Schecter also uses a modified Super Strat body shape, but this time it a design unique to them, which is always a cool bonus.
When it comes to electronics, we've got a set of EMG 81/89 active humbuckers. This combo is another evolution of the many-times-proven 81/85 setup. Even so, Hellraiser C-1 is a very simple guitar to maintain and use. There's no complicated hardware to be seen, just a standard Tune-o-Matic bridge (a godsend for people who want to play and not tinker all the time).
The tone is really what makes this model so popular. There is so much girth once you kick off a riff. It's crisp but hot and incredibly meaty. The hardware is inherently active, but feels like a high-end passive setup at times. The C-1 is one of those guitars that is sometimes hard to define, but the fact is it delivers one of the best tones in the industry. You simply can't go wrong with this one.
For our budget readers out there, Ibanez has always been the patron saint of those low on cash but high on hope. You could more or less take any of their affordable models and be done with it and have an axe to carry you for years or ever forever. However, if given a choice, the Ibanez RG421 best fits this mold. With cheaper guitars, you want them to be as simple as possible.
That is exactly what RG421 does. It has a fixed bridge design that features the classic Wizard III neck and a high sustain mahogany body. The included pickups belong to their affordable passive series but are also among the most versatile in their class.
You won't find too many flashy, aesthetic details such as binding or similar frills. No, this guitar was built to offer an optimal performance on a budget with a sleek, but not gaudy, paint job.
Those who have played the older Ibanez RG series will know exactly what type of tone to expect. It is fairly neutral out of the box, but you would be surprised just how far you can push it with an EQ pedal. One thing you won't experience is a hollow palm mute.
This thing chugs, that's a fact. The RG421 is the type of 'starter' guitar you will spend quite a bit of time with before you grow beyond it. But even a veteran will shred these.
The only real issue with it are the tuners. They are not the greatest, that's simply the way it is. You shouldn't experience too much deviation in tuning unless you really go heavy on those string bends. Checking the key from time to time is highly recommended as well (no matter the guitar). Other than that, you can easily take this thing to a practice session as well as the stage.
Modern amplifiers are extremely forgiving when it comes to playing metal. In most cases, all you really need to do is slap on a good gain pedal and you're good to go. While this definitely makes things easier for those just getting into this genre, it masks the true idea behind an actual metal amp.
Building a tone is so much more than taking your MetalZone out and plugging it into the signal chain. That will give you distortion, but one that is nowhere near as satisfying as the one you dial in a carefully chosen amplifier.
To begin with, we won't mention any modeling amplifiers. There are some great ones out there, but today we are focusing a very niche segment of the market that focuses on its own sound versus emulating a ton of others. You know what they say about the jack of all trades and master of none...
We metal players are mainly on the hunt for a more hard-hitting tube tone. There are only two types of amps that come to mind for this: either a Peavey 6505 series, or a rectifier of some sorts. Since we can assume that most of our readers don't have access to unlimited funds, we also need to make these amps attainable. Here's what we've got for you.
The success of the original Peavey 6505 is known to any guitar player who is even a little interested in amplification. That head has been dubbed the quintessential metal amp for decades now. Its only issue is its high dollar price tag. Fortunately for us, tube amps are no longer costly and are much more attainable.
Peavey has made a great move by releasing this 6505MH model, which is essentially a smaller version of the original 6505 (and less expensive). It is a 20 Watt unit, but trust us when we say that it packs more than enough heat. In essence, Peavey just took the design that was proven to work and shrunk it (MH meaning Mini Head).
Once you pop the lid, you will see a set of two EL84 tubes in the power stage, as well as three 12AX7 tubes in the preamp stage. Truth be told, swapping the stock tubes for something a bit beefier and high-end makes for a nice, eventual upgrade path if you want to improve your tone later without committing to a whole new amp.
The Peavey 6505MH is still a relatively new amp, and everyone is seeing that it's exceeding all of our expectations.
This one might come in as a shock to a few people out there, but our rectifier pick is definitely going to be Bugera's TriRec Infinium. Bugera's reputation has been far from stellar when it comes to higher end gear, that's no secret. However, this amplifier is something completely different. They have managed to achieve a level of performance that is hardly ever seen in this particular price range.
During your journey as a guitar player, you have probably heard of the famous Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier. This amp is a living legend that is hardly going to be dethroned any time soon, but its main flaw is its price. We are talking multiple thousands of dollars for the head alone. If you have the money, stop reading right here and go get yourself one of those...
The truth is that not everyone has that kind of money to spend on music. This is where models like the Bugera TriRec Infinium come in. This amp has managed to reach a level that is fairly close to the Dual Recto at a fraction of the price. It's still not on the same plane of existence, but let's put it this way.
The TriRec here gives you much more tone for the money than the Dual Rectifier. It's a matter of value because you haven't reached the level of diminishing returns yet.
What we're trying to say it's actually terrifyingly good, which is why we have put it on this list. It comes packed with an assortment of five 12AX7 tubes, four 6L6 tubes in the power stage and two 5U4 tubes lined up next to the silicon diodes. All of that combined gives you that unique Recto tone.
You have three channels to choose from, each with its own set of controls that include a three-band EQ, presence, gain, and volume. Again, you can really benefit from swapping the stock tubes for an aftermarket set later on when you want a change in your upgrade path. The only issue here is that with so many tubes, it becomes a costly operation. At the end of the day, Bugera has a true winner with this amp.
One of the most overlooked components on any metal guitar is the strings department. People quickly forget how much of a difference a good set of strings can make. Aside from the fact that you should change them often, metal music in general calls for a bit more consideration when it comes to choosing a perfect set of strings.
There are two things you want to determine first. How beefy do you want your guitar to sound and how much flex do you need in your strings? More often than not, guitar players who prefer metal will go with a thicker gauge of strings. These simply pack a bit more punch, which adds to the whole aggressive tone theme.
On the other hand, if you like to hit those solos often, you will definitely appreciate a thinner set over a thick one. What we are going to show you next are two great sets of strings, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
Ernie Ball is one of the oldest and most popular brands of guitar strings in the world, especially for rock, metal, and other more aggressive genres out there. Their Skinny Top Heavy Bottom Nickel Wound Set is what you call a hybrid set. What they have done is basically take light gauge high E through G strings, and mixed them with the E, A, D from a heavy gauge set.
This achieves two rather important things. You get all of the aggressiveness of a thicker gauge for your rhythm riffs while retaining the softness on the strings you will most likely bend often. The other thing has to do with practical value.
With this set, you don’t have to butcher two different sets in order to make the one that works. All in all, you can’t really go wrong with Ernie Balls and this "best of both worlds" option.
Dunlop’s heavy core string set is something you would get if you just want to go all out thick across the fretboard. In other words, it is a heavy set with a rather heavy core. These have a mighty tone that will saturate the mix with heavy hitting distortion. The main downside here is that you will have to get used to such a thicker gauge and adapt your playing style accordingly.
Heavy gauge strings really need to be done right in order to provide the advertised performance without doing damage to your guitar. With thicker strings, you are putting more strain on the neck, which is something to be weary of.
Fortunately, Dunlop has their A game on all of the time, so there’s nothing to worry about as long as you slacken the strings before storing the guitar (like you always should regardless of the brand or thickness). Go with this set if you want to really drive that guitar hard.
By now, we have already established that humbuckers are the go-to type of pickups for metal. However, trying to find the very best set is really hard to do. Everyone’s taste is going to be different.
What works for you might not work for the next person's taste, and so on. With that said, we have selected two proven sets for you to consider.
The first logical question that comes to mind is why even change pickups on your guitar? It only takes a minute or two of research to figure out that swapping pickups is among the most common upgrades done on electric guitars.
In most cases, it will improve the tone. How significant this improvement is going to be will depend on a number of factors.
Active pickups are far more popular with the modding crowd because they minimize the effects of tonewood and other components. You could probably stick a set of active humbuckers to a plank and get a fairly decent performance. All jokes aside, going active gives you more versatility.
Passive pickups are going to be influenced more by the tonewood of your guitar and other components. However, they sound more genuine and organic.
Figuring out which one you like better is something you'll have to do on your own. Volume won't be an issue here since you're nearly guaranteed to be pushing the gain for distortion anyways.
Let's look at our choices for active pickups and then passive pickups as well.
What we have here is a combination that has been in use for decades and still remains one of the most popular sets out there. The whole Zakk Wylde designation shouldn't be something to focus on. This EMG 81/85 set is a combo that would be on the first page of the Metal Guitar Bible if there ever was one.
This is an active set you can just pop into your guitar with a varying amount of modding necessary. However, the payout is well worth the effort. The EMG 81/85 set gives you all the posture in the lower end, great mids, and a lot of sparkling highs to work with. You will be able to dial in a wide range of tones using both the onboard controls and those on your amp.
The only real downside here is the cost. For the price of this set, you can get a whole new guitar. On a similar note, if you plan on buying a low-end model and then sticking these in, you are far better off just buying a better guitar, to begin with. But this makes a great upgrade for an already great guitar, and one that can be moved from one to the next as you go.
Seymour Duncan's Invaders are among the best-balanced passive aftermarket pickups you can get. There's no modding necessary to get these into your guitar, while the resulting tone is absolutely going to blow your mind. Seymour Duncan has a talent for creating and producing awesome sounding passive pickups.
What makes these good for metal is the fact that Seymour Duncan took them pretty low. What we mean by that is they've extended the low end. They have dug down to a level where no ordinary passive pickup reaches. On top of that, these are pretty hot for a passive set. They are nowhere near as hot as active pickups in this regard, but they still offer far more heat than you'd expect for a passive option.
Finding the best guitar for metal will take some time and research. The models and accessories we have shown you today offer a sure-fire way of achieving a great metal tone with low risk involved.
One great way to figure out what you like is to check out what your favorite band is using. That will give you a good idea where you are and where you need to be when it comes to selecting guitars.
Hopefully today we have managed to clear up some questions you might have had about guitars and various gear for metal. Keep in mind that we have only scratched the surface on this topic and that almost everything concerning your "regular" best electric guitars applies here, providing another avenue of investigation.
There is so much information out there which every metal guitarist needs to know, but the info in this guide is a great starting point. Browse the site if you want more as we're continually going for more depth and breadth. Happy shredding!
|Mixing & Mastering||Gear Reviews|
|Music Theory||Gigs & Live Performance|
|Beat Production||Studio Recording|
|Careers & Marketing||Guitar Guru|