Metal, as a category, has a wide-reaching scope. The countless subgenres and styles birth equally diverse requirements for gear – but there are common factors across the world of metal-focused electric guitars that go beyond ‘spiky’ and ‘black’. Let’s dive into how to choose the best metal guitar for you.
What to look for in a metal guitar
Whether you’re looking to dive into metal guitars for the first time or freshen up a long-used touring rig, you’ll need to consider some key factors. Pickups are a good place to start. Humbuckers are incredibly common in heavy-leaning guitars as their 60 cycle hum-cancelling nature and beefier outputs pair well with high gain. The humbuckers fitted in metal guitars tend to put out hotter signals than most; while the underwound ‘PAF’ tone may be desirable for blues or rock, plugged into a high-gain amp, their lack of compression and low-end thump could lead to a flabby and undefined sound.
Not all metal calls for the tight low-end needed for percussive chugs. Some old-school heavy metal guitar tones edge towards the realms of classic rock. Similarly, some extreme genres employ enough fuzz and distortion that pickup character isn’t as important. If your heavy aesthetic is leaning towards the ‘vintage,’ you might even consider a guitar with high-output single-coils. Tony Iommi’s early sound was defined by the midrange roar of his P-90-equipped ‘Monkey’ SG.
Neck profile is also important to consider. Are you likely to embark on sweeping journeys all the way up to the 24th fret every night? Then a slim neck profile and comfortable join would be ideal. If you’re setting up your guitar for tunings like A standard, then a chunkier neck might make playing enormous riffs easier. Plus, the extra stability provided by a thicker neck might hold better with heavier gauge strings.
Speaking of tunings, scale length is also something to take into consideration, and is mostly a stylistic choice. The two most common scale lengths across standard electric guitars are 24.75 inches and 25.5 inches – ‘Gibson’ and ‘Fender respectively.
Some sources might tell you that as soon as you hit B standard or lower, you’re better off playing a baritone (often around 30 inches). After all, B standard is the ‘standard tuning’ for many baritones. But metal bands have been tuning absurdly low on shorter scale guitars for decades without issue; it’s just a different sound.
A longer scale length allows you to continue using thinner strings for lower tunings, which gives off a ‘snappier’ tone that’s less likely to bend out of tune with hard picking. This makes them ideal for fast-paced, percussive playing in the lower registers. Conversely, a guitar with a shorter scale-length can achieve similar tension with thicker strings, and, playing wide-stretching chords remains easy.
The ‘looser’ feel and sound of a Gibson-scale guitar tuned low won’t always be the best for aggressive chugging, but is characteristic of genres like doom, sludge and stoner metal, as well as some subgenres of death metal and alternative metal.
For all of the nuts-and-bolts you need to consider, the most important one is this: will it do what you need it to do? So let’s get into the list.
The best metal guitars in 2020 at a glance:
- Jackson Pro Series Rob Caggiano Signature Shadowcaster
- Charvel Pro-Mod DK22 SSS 2PT CM
- Manson Meta Series MBM-1
- Solar Guitars Canibalismo V1
- Jackson kvxmg King V Satin Black
- Epiphone Inspired by Gibson Flying V
- Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster
- ESP TE-417
- Chapman ML1 Baritone
- Strandberg Boden Fusion Black
- Charvel Pro-Mod Joe Duplantier San Dimas Style 2
- Ibanez RGR652AHBF
- Gibson 70s Explorer
- Dunable Yeti
- EVH Wolfgang Standard
Jackson Pro Series Rob Caggiano Signature Shadowcaster
+ Versatile switching
+ Shred-friendly neck
– Aesthetics could turn some off
A signature model for Volbeat guitarist Rob Caggiano, who’s also a former member of Big Four inductee Anthrax. Based off a Jackson Outcaster, the offset provides a much more heavy take on the shape. Fitted with two DiMarzio pickups – a Rob Caggiano signature in the bridge and an Air Norton DP193 in the neck – there’s certainly enough muscle here for punchy riffing. But, thanks to the super-slim maple neck and the compound 12 to 16-inch radius, speedy leads and extreme bends are happily achieved here.
While the neck is a bolt-on, this means the airy inner- and outer-coil parallel positions achieved with the five-way selector switch are sure to remain free of muddiness, and in terms of upper fret access, the lower bout gives plenty of room to play all 24 of them. The neck, topped with an ebony fretboard, completes a 25.5-inch scale length. At the bridge end, there’s no tremolo – but there is a palm-mute-friendly tune-o-matic bridge and tailpiece combo.
While it’s not aimed at the ‘extreme’ end of any particular style, its versatile switching and understated looks make it a great choice for a metal player who needs options.
Price £919/$1,249.99 Build Mahogany body, bolt-on maple neck with 12-16” compound radius ebony fingerboard, 24 jumbo frets, black plastic nut Hardware Jackson Sealed Die-Cast Locking tuners, tune-o-matic-style adjustable bridge with anchored tailpiece Electronics DiMarzio Rob Caggiano Signature (bridge), DiMarzio Air Norton DP193 (neck) humbucking pickups, 5-way blade pickup selector, volume and tone control Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
Charvel Pro-Mod DK22 SSS 2PT CM
+ Speedy, shredder’s neck
+ Versatile pickup arrangement
– 80s-focused superstrat stylings not for every genre of metal
While the SSS in the model’s name might spark some consternation, the bridge position of this Hot-Rodded S-type is loaded with a single-coil-sized blade humbucker, so a full sound is still an option here. The middle and neck single-coils also provide some great contrast for glassy clean passages or, paired with some drive, immediately catapult you into the tones of 80s shred.
Speaking of shred, the heel joint here is an extremely scalloped one, providing easy access to all 22 frets. These sit atop a 12-16-inch compound-radius board, meaning chords aren’t impossible in the lower registers but bending up past the 12th fret is a breeze.
The tremolo fitted in this unit is a Stratocaster-style Gotoh 510 unit, which provides ample dive bombing depth without the finicky aspects of a full-blown floating double-locking Floyd Rose.
Like Rob Caggiano’s Jackson, this isn’t the most extremely crushingly brutal guitar design out there, but since it covers you from Iron Maiden to Joe Satriani, it’s an open door into the world of classic shred and heavy metal.
Price £1,009 / $1,438 Build Alder body, bolt-on graphite-reinforced caramelised maple neck with hand-rubbed satin urethane finish, 12-16” radius caramelised maple fingerboard, pearloid dot inlays, Luminlay side dots, 22 jumbo frets Hardware Charvel die-cast locking tuners, Gotoh Custom 510 two-point vibrato bridge Electronics Seymour Duncan Custom Hot Rails Strat SHR-1B humbucker (Bridge), Flat Strat SSL-6 single-coil (middle), Flat Strat SSL-6 RWRP single-coil (neck), 5-way blade pickup selector, 500k EVH Bourns low-friction volume control and no-load tone control Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
Manson Meta Series MBM-1
+ Barebones but still spec’d with the heavy player in mind
+ Killswitch allows for some interesting extreme sounds
– Might be too “rock” for some metal players
This stripped-back T-style isn’t packed with features – and that’s precisely its selling point. Two humbuckers, a single-cutaway, a supremely comfortable neck and a wallet-friendly price tag all combine to make an inviting guitar for any player. For heavy-minded players, the 12-16-inch compound radius lends itself to easy soloing, and the tune-o-matic bridge is perfect for palm muting. The pickups’ output level lands squarely in the middle of vintage and contemporary, meaning boosted high-gain tones are likely to retain clarity and clean tones don’t sink into swampy mud.
The 3-way switch is a large toggle, but luckily isn’t on the top horn, so you’re left with easy access to the fretboard for any tapping parts. Taking its place is a killswitch, which can be used for a variety of interesting tricks, getting you to any point on the Tom Morello – Code Orange spectrum of arresting, glitchy sounds.
Price £569/$699 Build Basswood body, bolt-on maple neck, 12-16” compound radius Indian laurel fingerboard with 22 medium-jumbo frets and synthetic nut Hardware Staggered locking tuners, tune-o-matic bridge and stoptail Electronics 2x Manson humbuckers, master volume and tone, 3-way pickup selector switch, kill button Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
Solar V1.6 Canibalismo
+ Choice of number of strings
+ Evertune bridge means extreme tuning stability
– Extreme looks not for everyone
Solar Guitars’ V1.6 now comes in an Artist version, titled the Canibalismo. An unashamedly modern take on the V, its bloody finish and extreme spikes immediately let you know that this is a guitar that means business. In the specs department, the guitar walks the heavy walk as well as it talks the heavy metal talk. With high-output Duncan Solar humbuckers, a set-through neck and an extreme degree of fretboard access – even for a V – it’s a great contender for a barebones riff workhorse. To that end, there’s also an Evertune bridge, which means that even on extremely lengthy sessions, the guitar’s tuning should stay stock still.
If you’re looking for a constant B-string presence in your life, then there’s also a similarly-spec’d 7-string version available.
Price £1,125/ $1,199 Build Swamp ash body with set-through maple neck, topped with an ebony fretboard and 24 super jumbo stainless steel frets Hardware Evertune bridge, Solar 18: 1 locking machine heads Electronics 2 Duncan Solar Humbuckers, 3-way toggle, volume control Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
Jackson KVXMG King V
+ Double-locking Floyd Rose for extreme solos
+ Full-access neck thanks to V shape
– Active pickups aren’t for everyone
Love a modern V but can’t imagine life without a trem bar? Luckily Jackson’s KVXMG has you covered. Alongside the recessed double-locking Floyd Rose, it’s loaded with the tried-and-tested pairing of an EMG 81 and EMG 85 in the bridge and neck respectively.
The maple neck is set-through the poplar body, a combination of tonewoods that leads to a bright yet sustaining tone, perfectly offsetting the aggressive nature of the active pickups.
Price £649 Build Poplar body with set-through, scarf-jointed maple neck, 24 Jumbo Frets and a 12”-16” radius Hardware Recessed Floyd Rose Special tremolo, Jackson Sealed Die-Cast tuners Electronics Set of EMG 81/85 humbuckers, 3-way blade selector, volume & tone control. Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
Epiphone Inspired by Gibson Flying V
+ Classic heavy metal stylings
+ OId-school pickups mean more dynamics
– “Chunkier” design not for all genres
Looking for a V-shape but don’t fancy the extreme stylings of Solar or Jackson’s more modern takes on the shape? Luckily for you, Epiphone’s huge Inspired By Gibson launch last NAMM included a relaunch of a straight-ahead Flying V, complete with ‘PAF’-voiced Epiphone Probuckers. These pickups match the more traditional stylings of the Flying V, offering an articulate old-school humbucker tone.
While the guitar itself won’t push an amp too hard thanks to the low-output of the Probuckers, the guitar is affordable enough to justify a set of aftermarket pickups. Alternatively, if it’s the old-school looks you’re going for then the Probuckers will give off a more restrained sound to match.
Other features include 1958-style Flying V knob arrangement, as well as a mahogany body and neck, topped with an Indian Laurel fretboard.
Price £599 / $599 Build Mahogany body with set mahogany neck, 22-fret Indian Laurel fretboard Hardware: Epiphone Vintage Deluxe 18:1 ratio machine heads, Graph Tech NuBone nut Electronics 2 Epiphone ProBuckers, two volume controls, master tone control Scale Length 24.75” / 628.65mm
Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster
+ Minimalistic stylings
+ Open-coil EMGs balance aggression and articulation
– Not great if you’re attached to your tone knob
Depending on your preferences, the minimalistic, aggressive stylings of Jim Root’s latest Jazzmaster signature might be a complete turn-off. However, with open-coil zebra EMG pickups, a satin white finish and satin black hardware, it might be a slice of understated perfection for some. Root’s work in Slipknot has seen his band remain at the forefront of modern metal for decades now, in which time he’s refined his guitar tastes down to the bare essentials.
For example, the Jim Root Jazzmaster only comes with a volume knob and pickup selector as controls. If your approach to guitar tone is ‘set it and forget it’, and requires a fast-playing neck and high-output off the bat, then this might be the guitar for you.
Price £1,049 / $1,499.99 Build Mahogany body with bolt-on 22-fret maple neck, Hardware Fender string-through hardtail with Strat-style saddles, Fender Deluxe Staggered Cast/Sealed Locking tuners Electronics 2 EMG Jim Root Signature Daemonum Open-Coil Active Humbuckers, volume control, 3-way blade selector Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
+ Mashup of classic T-style with modern metal ideas
+ Satin neck finish for easy fast playing
– Some might find its aesthetic characterless
Like Jazzmasters, T-Style guitars have had something of a comeback in metal, so why not go all out. About as far from a butterscotch Tele as you can imagine, the TE-417 is a monstrous set-neck seven-string, complete with two active EMG pickups and a hardtail bridge with individual saddles. Compensating for its size along the direction of the forests, the three-piece maple neck sports a thin U shape, which combined with its satin finish means it’ll lap up fast playing. A 25.5-inch scale also strikes a balance between tension and familiarity, especially if you’re shifting over to the world of 7-strings from more traditional Fender-scale guitars. For added comfort, there’s a forearm carve on the top of the body, and the cutaway gives ample room to access all 24 frets.
Price £849 / $749 Build Mahogany body with set-through maple neck, 24 frets and a rosewood fretboard Hardware ESP string-through hardtail, Grover tuners Electronics EMG-707 (neck) EMG-81-7 (bridge), volume & tone controls, 3-way blade selector Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
Chapman ML1 Baritone
+ Fully featured modern S-type, especially for the price
+ Fast satin neck
– Baritone scale means wider chords are tricky
Due to the wide range of genres baritone electrics are used for, they sometimes come fitted with a restrained feature-set. While a Danelectro baritone might get you down to the tuning you’re looking for, Lipstick single-coils don’t really scream ‘progressive death metal.’ Well, maybe they could, but in any case, for a more traditionally ‘heavy’-spec’d baritone, Chapman Guitars offers its S-type ML-1 model in a baritone version, complete with two humbuckers voiced for baritone tunings, as well as a deep lower cutaway for easy access to all 24 frets. The ash veneer atop the body, finished in natural grey, gives it a bare-bones, tasteful look.
Other specs include a six-saddle one-piece hardtail bridge for stability and miles of intonation room – especially important if you plan on changing up the guitar’s tuning any further.
This particular baritone runs in at 711mm (28 inches), and so doesn’t make the full stretch to 30-inches that some do – providing a balance between string tension and hand-stretching.
Price £519 / $579 Build Alder body with as veneer, bolt-on maple neck and 24-fret ebony fretboard Hardware Chapman Locking tuners, string-through hard-tail bridge Electronics 2 Chapman Zerø Sonorous humbuckers, volume & tone controls, 3-way blade selector Scale Length 711mm / 28”
Strandberg Boden Metal 6 Black
+ Multi-scale construction great for both rhythm and lead
+ Unique looks
– Headless multi-scales mightn’t be your cup of tea
Eye-catching looks aside, the .strandberg Boden Metal 6 is a great choice for those looking for a modern metal workhorse. The multi-scale fretboard means that the lower-tuned strings are at a longer scale than your higher-tuned strings – meaning leads are slinky and easy, while rhythm parts don’t get flabby. Some also prefer the feel of a multi-scale fretboard, with the fanned nature of the frets matching the spread of fingers. If six strings aren’t enough, it’s also offered in seven- and eight-string variants, with more dramatic scale length changes to match.
Electronics wise, there’s a Fishman Fluence Modern Alnico in the neck and a Fishman Fluence Modern Ceramic in the bridge, for a blend of more smooth and cutting tones respectively. And, as they’re Fluence pickups, they can be split for single-coil tones and changed to a secondary voice thanks to two push-pull pots.
It’s certainly not a guitar for everyone, but its feature set is truly impressive, and to some, it’s as beautiful as a ‘59 burst.
Price £1,869 / $1,995 Build Basswood body with maple top, roasted maple neck reinforced with carbon fibre and topped with an ebony fretboard and 24 frets Hardware Strandberg adjustable headless bridge, Fishman Fluence Modern Ceramic (bridge) Electronics Fishman Fluence Modern Alnico (neck) Scale Length Long Scale: 25.5” Short Scale: 25”
Charvel Pro-Mod Joe Duplantier San Dimas Style 2
+ Tasteful aesthetic
+ Mahogany neck means a more solid bolt-on tone
– No tone knob
Gojira frontman Joe Duplantier teamed up with Charvel to create perhaps the most restrained metal signature guitar out there. With natural wood grain on full display through a satin finish, the mahogany body is loaded with two vastly different humbuckers in the bridge and neck. One is Duplantier’s signature DiMarzio Fortitude, while the other is a DiMarzio PAF 36th Anniversary – meaning if for some reason you do find yourself on the neck pickup, it offers an open, clear sound, while the bridge position will let you gallop and chug to your heart’s content. The mahogany neck provides a solid sound and feel, but as it’s a bolt-on, there’s still some snap and clarity. If you’re planning on some upper-fret pyrotechnics, there’s a sculpted neck heel and a compound 12-16-inch radius.
Price £719 / $599.99 Build Mahogany body with bolt-on mahogany neck, Hardware Charvel two-piece tune-o-matic hardtail, Charvel Die-Cast Locking Electronics DiMarzio PAF 36th Anniversary (neck) Joe Duplantier Signature DiMarzio Fortitude (bridge) Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
+ Versatile switching
+ Super slim neck
– You might prefer a bolt-on of this style
Ibanez offers a huge number of heavy-centric guitars at pretty much every price point, but this Prestige RG model is a great example of what the brand does best. A bare-bones dual-humbucker S-type, with 24 frets all easily playable thanks to the extreme depth of the lower bout, sitting on top of a bound Macassar Ebony fretboard. The neck is five-piece maple and walnut, and is more than slinky enough for speedy shredding.
There’s also a five-way blade selector for a wide range of series/parallel/inner/outer combination tones, and a solid Gibraltar Standard II – smooth across the top, even with the action adjustment screws, for comfortable palm-muting.
Price $1,499.99 Build Ash body with bolt-on 24-fret maple & walnut neck, bound ebony fretboard Hardware Gibraltar Standard II Bridge, Gotoh MG-T locking machine heads Electronics 2 DiMarzio Fusion Edge humbuckers Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
Gibson 70s Explorer
+ Classic heavy metal style
+ Shorter scale length good for standard-tuned thrash and similar
– Pickups mightn’t be powerful enough for you
Unveiled at NAMM 2020, this guitar is a revival of one of the earliest “extreme” guitar shapes. It’s a miracle no one’s minds melted into a grey paste when the Explorer and its sibling, the Flying V were unveiled. Up until then, guitars were all swooping curves and soft edges. Gibson‘s reissue of the ‘70s Explorer comes loaded with two open ‘70s tribute humbuckers for raucous tones. The ‘70s was a decade when players really started to dial up the high gain tones, so if you’re looking to pay tribute to modern metal’s forebears, this might be the guitar for you.
Price £1,749 / $1,999 Build Mahogany body with set mahogany neck, rosewood fretboard and 22 frets Hardware:Gibson Aluminum Stop Bar and Nashville Tune-O-Matic hardtail, Gibson machine heads Electronics 2 Gibson burstbuckers, 2 volume controls and master tone Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
+ Many custom options
+ Boutique build quality
Sacha Dunable started building guitars when he couldn’t really find the perfect guitar for his playing in Intronaut – especially given how they often play in drop B – and the result is a line of heavy-minded guitars with myriad custom options, beautiful wood choices and fine attention to detail.
The Yeti itself sports a silhouette almost reminiscent of some bass guitars, and in its core is a dual-pickup tune-o-matic-fitted workhorse. As the custom options are so extensive, Dunable is a go-to place if you’re eyeing a custom guitar from a builder that knows their metal.
Price starts at $2,099 Build Set neck, wood choices depend on custom options Hardware Gibson-style, full specs depend on custom options Electronics Dual humbuckers, master volume, tone Scale Length 25.5”/648mm, baritone custom orders available
EVH Wolfgang Standard
+ Amazing specs for the price
+ Understated looks
– Floyd rose not for everyone
Eddie Van Halen was a relentless innovator who popularised tapping, humbucker-fitted S-types and even an amp design that’s now a staple of modern metal playing. His spirit for innovation is evident in the EVH Wolfgang model, an incredibly affordable guitar for what it’s offering: a dual-locking tremolo, comfortable ergonomics, direct-mount high-output humbuckers, and a selection of quilted tops or even baked maple necks.
A 25.5-inch scale length means you’re also free to use lighter strings for ultra-fast shredding (helped by the compound radius), or tune down without worrying about flabbiness.
Price £419 / $649.99 Build Basswood body with bolt-on 22-fret baked maple neck, Hardware Floyd Rose double-locking tremolo, EVH tuners Electronics 2 EVH Wolfgang humbuckers, 3-way toggle switch, Scale Length 25.5”/648mm
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