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The best metal guitars 2020: Get ready to shred with our essential list

The best metal guitars 2020: Get ready to shred with our essential list
(Image credit: Future)

Heavy metal isn’t just a genre of music – it’s a way of life. So, when you invest in a guitar to play the heaviest, most life-affirming form of sonic expressions, you need something that can channel the raging riffs you hold inside and translate them into an unholy roar that will send shivers down your listeners’ spines. In short, you need the best guitar for metal.

And that is exactly what we’re setting out to achieve with this round-up. We’ve drawn the curtains, donned our favourite indecipherable band logo t-shirt and tracked down the best metal guitars available today, whether your tastes lean towards NWOBHM, death metal or progressive metal and beyond. So, get those horns up and let’s dive in.

The pick of the bunch

What is the best metal guitar right now?

If you believe metal peaked in the 80s, then look no further than the Flying V that Gibson has recently reissued the classic 70s-spec V, which gets you a similar vibe to the coveted weapons wielded by the likes of Judas Priest, Metallica and Michael Schenker, with ultimate metal cred.

For the modern metal connoisseur, the Ibanez Iron Label RGIB21 might be more your cup of molten metal tea. Designed to be played as a low-tuned baritone, it’ll get you into seriously heavy territory without having to retrain your fingers for a seven-string.

Buying guide

Best metal guitars: what to look for

The sound of metal is predicated on gain... and lots of it. Of course, a lot of this is down to the amp, but getting the right spec for your guitar is crucial. To that end, you want to be looking at a guitar with a bridge humbucker, preferably one that delivers a high output to send an amp into a frenzy of distortion.

The very highest-output pickups are often active designs, which utilise built-in preamps to deliver the highest signal with the utmost clarity. More traditional metal guitar designs tend to employ lower-output humbuckers, which work great for more retro tones, but not so much for today’s precision-engineered tech-metal genres.

If you’re playing thrash or more technical styles, speed is also the name of the game, so you don’t want a guitar that you have to fight to get the best results. The best metal guitars tend to feature slim necks with flatter radii. This basically means the curvature of the neck is flat across the board, making for easier solos at the top of the fretboard. It’s important that a neck is comfortable while playing extreme riffs and leads to avoid hand fatigue, too.

Then, of course, there are extended-range guitars – seven-strings and eight-strings. These types of guitars are the gatekeepers to metal’s most guttural tones, and the bedrock upon which djent was built. If that’s the kind of music that floats your progressive boat, you’ll need to target these kinds of guitars, which have an additional learning curve if you’re used to a regular ol’ six-string.

For this reason, baritone guitars have seen a surge in popularity in recent years: they’re tuned B to B as opposed to a regular guitar’s E to E tuning, but without the hassle of reprogramming your brain to accommodate that extra seventh string.


The best metal guitars you can buy right now

(Image credit: Gibson)

1. Gibson ’70s Flying V

The quintessential metal guitar shape in all its ’70s glory

Price: £1,250/$1,999 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Mahogany (Slim Taper profile) | Scale: 24.75" | Fretboard: Rosewood | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2 ’70s Tribute humbuckers | Controls: 2 volumes, 2 tones, 3-way pickup selector switch | Hardware: Tune-O-Matic bridge, aluminium stopbar tailpiece, Grover Rotomatic tuners | Finish: Classic White

Classic look
Old-school metal tones
Difficult to play sitting down
Not for contemporary styles

If old-school metal is your bag, guitars don’t come much more iconic than the Flying V – and Gibson’s latest take on the format is true to the form used by some of your favorite OG metallers.

Gibson has kitted this beauty out with a Classic White finish, along with a pair of humbuckers that capture the tone of the V’s hard-rocking ’70s era. Add in the Slim Taper neck profile and bound rosewood fretboard, and it’s a cinch to speed up and down this one.

Okay, it’s still not the easier guitar to play sitting down, but given the V is practically the guitar equivalent of the ‘horns’ hand gesture, it doesn’t get more metal than this.

(Image credit: ESP)

2. ESP LTD M-Black Metal

The guitar of choice for extreme metal styles

Price: £999/$949 | Body: Alder | Neck: 3-piece maple | Scale: 25.5" | Fretboard: Ebony | Frets: 24 | Pickups: Seymour Duncan Blackened Black Winter | Controls: Volume | Hardware: Floyd Rose 1000 Series tremolo, Grover tuners | Finish: Black Satin

Ultra-heavy tones
Brutal look
Floyd Rose tremolo is a lot of fun
Not for cleaner playing

If you like your metal extreme and uncompromising, this none-more-black offering from LTD should scratch that particular itch.

The Black Metal series deals exclusively in heavy tones, courtesy of Seymour Duncan’s ‘Blackened’ Black Winter pickup. There are no other distractions here: just a single volume knob, a Floyd Rose 1000 tremolo for those all-important pterodactyl wails and a terrifyingly playable three-piece maple neck with 24 frets and an Extra Thin U profile.

LTD offers the same pickup and aesthetic configuration across a range of models, too, so you should have no problem finding the right Black Metal guitar for you.

(Image credit: Schecter)

3. Schecter C-1 FR S Apocalypse

Infinite sustain, killer playability and heavy tones at a great price

Price: £1,149/$1,189 | Body: Swamp ash | Neck: Maple/padauk multi-ply w/ carbon fiber reinforcement rods | Scale: 25.5" | Fretboard: Ebony | Frets: 24 | Pickups: Sustainiac (neck), Schecter USA Apocalypse-VI (bridge) | Controls: Volume, tone, intensity, 3-way pickup selector, Sustainiac on/off switch, 3-way Sustainiac mode switch | Hardware: Floyd Rose 1500 Series tremolo, Grover tuners | Finish: Rusty Grey, Red Reign, Purple Reign

 Incredible spec for the money
Hugely playable
Infinite sustain!
Look may be a little too much

Schecter is known for its colossal range of metal and shred-orientated axes, but does anything scream metal more than the Apocalypse line-up? We don’t think so.

This particular offering is spec’d up to the nines, with big-name hardware from Floyd Rose and Grover, as well as Schecter’s speed-orientated neck, with a 12”-16” compound radius - that means more curvature at the lower end for rhythm work, which flattens out for quicker leads at the dusty end.

Yet this model’s most exciting features lie in its pickups: as well as a Schecter USA Apocalypse-VI bridge humbucker, you get a Sustainiac neck pickup, which gives you access to infinite sustain at the flick of a switch – perfect for those eerie breakdowns.

(Image credit: Ibanez)

4. Ibanez Iron Label RGIB21

One of the best baritone guitars you can buy right now

Price: £710/$799 | Body: Nyatoh | Neck: Maple/purpleheart | Scale: 28" | Fretboard: Jatoba | Frets: 24 | Pickups: EMG 60 humbucker (neck), EMG 81 humbucker (bridge) | Controls: Volume, 3-way pickup selector | Hardware: Gibraltar Standard II bridge, Gotoh MG-5 locking tuners | Finish: Black

Set up for drop-tuning
Active humbuckers
Great playability
Seven string may be better for leads

The Iron Label series is Ibanez’s made-for-metal line, and boasts everything a connoisseur of heavy could want. The latest addition is this menacing baritone model - it comes tuned to BEADF♯B, and features a 28” scale length to cope with the extra muscle.

That gives you heavy, low-tuned tones with the playability of a regular guitar - no need to get your head around a seven-string here. Even better, EMG’s 81/60 active humbucker pairing is onboard for high-output thrills, translating that low-end punch with aplomb. Add in Ibanez’s effortlessly playable neck, and the RGIB21 is a winner.

(Image credit: Epiphone)

5. Epiphone Explorer

Classic metal looks and tones for a bargain price

Price: £480/$599 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Mahogany (Slim Taper profile) | Scale: 24.75” | Fretboard: Laurel | Frets: 22 | Pickups: ProBucker-2 (neck), ProBucker-3 (bridge) | Controls: 2 volumes, 1 tone, 3-way pickup selector | Hardware: LockTone Tune-O-Matic bridge, stopbar tailpiece, Grover Mini 18:1 ratio tuners | Finish: Ebony

Iconic Explorer vibe
Great price
PAF-style tones
Modern styles need higher output

Gibson’s other metal-ready silhouette is available in many guises, but the affordability of the latest Epiphone offering is hard to resist, especially in this suave black finish.

Key to this Explorer’s punishing classic metal tones are Epiphone’s ProBucker humbuckers, which replicate Gibson’s highly sought-after PAF pickups, adding vacuum wax potting to reduce unwanted noise.

Playability is spot-on, too, thanks to a SlimTaper neck profile, combined with top-notch hardware, including a Graph Tech nut, Grover tuners and a LockTone Tune-O-matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece.

(Image credit: Fender)

6. Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster V4

A Slipknot model that tears Fender’s famous offset a new one

Price: £1,049/$1,399 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Maple (Thin C profile) | Scale: 25.5” | Fretboard: Ebony | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2 EMG Jim Root Signature Daemonum active humbuckers | Controls: 1 volume, 3-way pickup selector | Hardware: 6-saddle string-through-body hardtail bridge, locking tuners | Finish: Polar White

Incredible tones
Comfortable and playable
Everything you need
Could be too stripped-back for some

The latest version of the Slipknot riffer’s metal machine doesn’t mess around. It takes Fender’s traditionally alt-rock Jazzmaster body shape, strips out anything unnecessary and includes only what you need to deliver the most devastating tones in modern metal.

A mahogany body offers an increased low-end over Fender’s traditional alder spec, while a flat 12” radius makes for easy playability across the neck. There’s just a single volume knob and hardtail bridge, while Root’s signature EMG Daemonum active humbuckers deliver maximum output and clarity to boot. 

For metal players looking to stand out, this Polar White-finished beast more than fits the bill.

(Image credit: Jackson)

7. Jackson X Series Dinky Arch Top DKAF8 MS

An eight-string shred machine

Price: £720/$699 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Maple | Scale: 26-28” Multi-Scale | Fretboard: Laurel | Frets: 24 | Pickups: 2Jackson 8-string blade humbuckers | Controls: 1 volume, 1 tone, 3-way pickup selector | Hardware: 6 staggered saddle bridge, Jackson tuners | Finish: Stained Mahogany

Comfortable to play
Solid distorted tones
Pickups not best for clean sounds
The neck heel is a little bulky

If you’re serious about getting as heavy as possible and your tastes lie on the more progressive, djentier end of the metal spectrum, you’re likely familiar with eight-string guitars. This Jackson offering is one of the best-value on the market: not only do you get access to that low F♯, but this model is kitted out with the latest innovations in guitar building.

The frets may look strange, but that’s down to the multi-scale fingerboard, which improves tension and intonation - crucial when dealing with eight strings - and trust us, it’s comfortable to play, too. 

The guitar’s blade humbuckers are angled for consistency across the strings, and they deliver a big distorted punch. The cleans aren’t much to write home about, but the guitar’s low cost more than makes up for such concerns.