Five great guitars to help you get your metal on
The wonderful world of metal is perhaps more complex than its detractors would have you believe. Indeed, metal players would tell you that what sounds like a big load of trashy old noise is, in fact, the brilliant music of a genius (extra kudos if you recognise the quote!) and that the genre is far more nuanced than many people give it credit for. Consider the tonal differences between, say, doom and thrash. One requires the ultimate in low-end power, while the other is based around a surgically treble orientated sound. To find one guitar which excels at all forms of metal is a tall order.
When compiling this list of the best guitars for metal, we reflected on the near-infinite number of genres and sub-genres, and have tried to include something for everyone. You see, the sludge guys won’t get on with the shredders’ guitars, and the extended-range chaps won’t find what they need from a regular six stringer. So while choosing the five best guitars for metal may, on first glance, appear a case of finding five guitars with active pickups and thin necks, the reality is quite different. We can’t conceivably expect to cover everything here, but we hope this list identifies five of the best guitars for metal, no matter what the genre.
When your tone is largely based around large dollops of gain, you’ll need a guitar which can handle this and provide the power and clarity necessary to make your riffs cut through. The Gibson Les Paul needs no introduction, but it’s perhaps worth looking at exactly why it makes such a great guitar for metal. First off, you’ve got that big slab of mahogany for the body, which is ideal for darker, richer tones, while a maple cap ensures there’s enough brightness to balance the tone. Two humbuckers provide the girth you’ll need when pushing an overdriven amp, and the High Performance models featuring the G-Force tuning system will make changing between tunings – even extreme downtunings – a doddle.
The model we’ve chosen for this is the Gibson Les Paul 2016 Standard Traditional, which features Burstbucker Pro pickups and a SlimTaper neck profile, so a bit of the ol’ widdly-widdly isn’t out of the question. You’ll find players of pretty much every sub-genre playing Les Pauls, or variations thereof (and there are plenty of variants), making it one of the most versatile guitars out there for all kinds of heavy music. It’s particularly great for anything riff-based (as opposed solo-based), which covers a lot of metal. Plus, let’s not beat about the bush, they’re just damn cool.
The original Ibanez RG550 is one of the most widely-used guitars in metal. It wasn’t prohibitively expensive to buy, and it offered many players making the step up a solidly built, excellent sounding metal axe. As the archetypal superstrat, the RG550 offered players the familiarity of that famous Strat shape, with features radically changed to accommodate much, much faster playing techniques. A large number of these changes were purely ergonomic; the Wizard neck, a feature of Ibanez guitars over the years, was much thinner than you’d find on, for example, a Les Paul. Sadly the original RG550 is no longer in production, however its spirit lives on in newer models in the Ibanez range.
We’ve chosen the Ibanez RG2550Z, which retains a number of the characteristics and visual stylings of the original RG550. The Wizard neck is still present which, combined with a super flat fingerboard, is perfect for players looking to navigate their way around a fretboard at ever-increasing speeds. The basswood body is extremely lightweight so it doesn’t feel like you’re wrestling a big block of wood. The pickups are high output humbuckers, with a single coil in the middle position for those rare moments when you’re not melting faces.
Metal has changed a lot over the past 15 years. Certain musical characteristics have really come to the fore over that time period, including ultra-heavy, often downtuned guitars, screamed vocals and lots (and lots) of double bass drums. Guitar-wise, many bands seem to favour tones which are ultra saturated yet tight, with little to no dynamic range, which requires guitars capable of delivering crushing gains with ease. For this we’ve chosen the ESP E-II Eclipse, which has gained huge popularity due to its association with heavy music over the past decade or so. Bands such as Deftones, Dillinger Escape Plan and Lamb of God all favour ESP guitars on account of their incredible tone, quality and durability. The Japanese brand, which also produces the LTD range of more wallet-friendly guitars, have an amazing reputation within the genre, and rightly so. The model in question features two EMG active humbuckers for truly next-level lead tones, while the chunky set-thru body and neck are crafted from pure mahogany.
Another metal styling which has gained prominence over the past few years involves the use of extended range guitars, i.e. guitars with more than the traditional six strings. Those of us with a few miles on the clock will remember bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit introducing seven string guitars to a new generation of players, yet more modern musicians like Misha Mansoor from Periphery and Ola Englund of The Haunted have brought them back into the limelight. We’ve chosen the snappily named Ibanez RGDIX7MPB Iron Label for this list; as a seven string monster with two DiMarzio Fusion Edge humbucking pickups at neck and bridge positions it’ll have all the low-end meatiness you could ever want as well as that high gain lead tone you need for standing out – all married up to superb Ibanez staples like the Nitro Wizard-7 three-piece neck.
We’ll end this article with one slightly from the left field. Jim Root, of Slipknot and Stone Sour, departed from traditional metal wisdom when he signed a deal with Fender. You see, Fender do lots of things very, very well but metal usually ain’t one of them. When we all got to see what Jim and Fender had in store though it was more than a pleasant surprise. The full-fat Fender Jim Root successfully brought together standard metal features like EMG pickups, mahogany body and a thin neck, and etched it onto perhaps one of the least metal-friendly guitars ever, the Fender Telecaster (although French behemoths Gojira might have something to say about that…) It shouldn’t have worked, but for some reason it totally did. Since then we’ve had a Jim Root Stratocaster and Jazzmaster, but it’s this great value Squier Jim Root Telecaster we’ve included in this list. It boasts two super chunky humbuckers, perfect for riffing away til your fingers bleed, along with a mahogany body and solitary volume control. At that end of the price scale, there are few guitars which can compete in the metal stakes.
As you can see from the above list, there are huge variances within the so-called ‘metal’ range. There isn’t generally one guitar that will cover every genre, so we hope the list has pointed you in the direction of something which will fit the bill for you. Rock on!