The heavy side of music always reveals an embarrassment of guitar riches every year, and the mix of returning heroes and rising stars was especially strong in 2023. Here, we present 15 of our varied highlights…
Metallica released arguably their finest album since the 90s
It doesn’t get much bigger than this. The metal giants released their eleventh studio album back in April, with lead single Lux Æterna stealing headlines for its renewed sense of charisma and sonic urgency. After what some might call a bit of a creative slump going from 2003’s St. Anger, 2008’s Death Magnetic and the critically panned Lou Reed collaboration that shortly followed, many would agree seeing Metallica firing on all cylinders once again is a joy to behold.
Speaking to this writer back in February, guitarist Kirk Hammett explained how he used “Greeny and my ESP Mummy guitar for everything, going back and forth between the two” which were fed into a Fractal Axe-Fx via his Solo Dallas Schaffer Replica Ex Tower, with a Tube Screamer and signature Dunlop KH95 Cry Baby wah in front for the leads. The guitarist also launched the Epiphone version of his Greeny guitar, perhaps most notable for its Gibson-style open-book headstock.
- "If it gets mushy at all, he's out" – Metallica producer Greg Fidelman confirms James Hetfield used a very specific blend of four amps together in the studio for the 72 Seasons album
Bruce Dickinson and Roy Z go for glory
Almost 20 years on from last record Tyranny Of Souls, Bruce Dickinson will be spending much of next year focussing on new solo album The Mandrake Project, set for release in early March. The first taste arrived at the end of 2023 in the form of lead single Afterglow Of Ragnarok, which was notable for its detuned heaviness and melodic darkness – with some truly incredible work from long-time collaborator, guitarist and producer Roy Z.
But that doesn’t mean Iron Maiden are taking a year off – far from it, in fact, given how their 2024 tour schedule includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan, North America and South America. Bruce almighty!
Nita Strauss shreds harder than ever
Though she enlisted an all-star cast for second solo album The Call Of The Void – including a scorching collaboration with Marty Friedman on grand finale Surfacing – it’s Nita Strauss who remains the star of the show throughout its 14 tracks.
Speaking to this writer back in May, she explained how some of the faster sweep-picked lines were inspired by Swedish maestro Yngwie Malmsteen. “I picked a lot of that from Yngwie, probably when I was learning his Rising Force solo.
"I can do the three and five-string sweeps in different positions, but there’s something extra cool about those little two-string ones. They’re so easy to throw in and very playable live too, which is key. It’s easy to sit in the studio and do these gigantic stretches but it’s different when you’ve got to go on tour and play that shit!”
Marty Friedman rejoins Megadeth on stage… twice!
Marty Friedman parted ways with Dave Mustaine and Megadeth 23 years ago and they’ve rarely crossed paths since. That all changed this year with the guitarist rejoining his old band on stage at Tokyo’s Budokan arena in February. European fans were also treated some thrash history in the making when Friedman ended up performing a handful of classic songs with the thrash titans at German festival Wacken Open Air.
In other Megadeth news, Mustaine unveiled new models through Epiphone and Kramer, and Wintersun’s Teemu Mäntysaari was hired to fill in on parts of their world tour while current guitarist Kiko Loureiro tended to a family emergency. Then in November, Loureiro announced his departure from the band with Mäntysaari being confirmed as successor.
- “When I finished the solo to this one, Mustaine came into the studio, listened to it once, turned around and, without saying a word, shook my hand" – the story of Megadeth's Tornado Of Souls
Katatonia continue going from strength to strength
It’s no secret the Stockholm metal quintet have been on quite a creative roll over the last decade, but that didn’t stop this year’s twelfth album Sky Void Of Stars from dizzying fans across the world.
Much like fellow Stockholm group Opeth – who they briefly shared a singer with during the mid-'90s – Katatonia have slowly but surely gravitated away from the metallic extremes they emerged from, in their case embracing colder atmospherics, electronic influences and futurist soundscapes alongside the heavy riffing provided by founding guitarist Anders Nyström and Roger Öjersson, who took over from current Ghost guitarist Per Eriksson in 2016. Led by early singles Atrium and Austerity, this January release was undoubtedly a standout for those in search of experimental charms and mournful melodies.
Paul Gilbert salutes a heavy metal legend
Before getting back on the road with Mr. Big, American virtuoso Paul Gilbert decided to pay tribute to one of the greatest metal vocalists of all-time – the inimitable Ronnie James Dio, who sadly passed away in 2010. To celebrate the man’s work across groups as highly revered as Black Sabbath, Rainbow and the Dio solo band, 12 key tracks were chosen for interpretation in instrumental form.
Using his guitar and occasionally a slide to mimic a voice that commanded the world, it’s clear just how much time Gilbert spent on making each phrase sound like his Ibanez was serenading the listener, ‘singing’ the immortal vocal lines made famous on tracks like Neon Knights, Long Live Rock ‘N’ Roll and Holy Diver, as well as replicating the timeless leads famously executed by Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore and Vivian Campbell on the original recordings. All in all, it was a masterclass in excellence.
- “That was what drew me to the guitar in the first place”: Paul Gilbert reminds us to pay attention to vibrato – because it is part of the language of the instrument
Avenged Sevenfold melt minds and throw curveballs with album number eight
While 2016’s The Stage showed the Californian modern metal heroes introducing more progressive ideas and concepts into their sound, few could have predicted just how brilliantly left-field this year’s eight album, titled Life Is But A Dream…, would turn out to be.
Of course, a player like Synyster Gates will undoubtedly sound impressive on any album, but hearing the Schecter endorsee gun through an array of tech-metal, flamenco and 80s shred ideas with such flair this time round served as a firm reminder of why he’s easily one of the most technically accomplished, tasteful and deeply admired talents of his generation.
- Avenged Sevenfold's Synyster Gates on contemporary guitar music: "When I check in I don't see anything where I'm going, 'I'm missing out on this piece of technical wizardry'"
Steel Panther get digital
There are those who thought the joke may have gotten a bit old by now, but Steel Panther laughed off any notion of a sell-by date with this year’s six full-length On The Prowl. And while it only takes a quick glance at the track titles to see that they’re still very much having fun parodying the hedonistic sleaze of glam rock giants like Mötley Crüe, Poison and W.A.S.P. the quartet were also able to find more serious means of communication, such as their love-letter to the year 1987 on a track of the same name.
Speaking with this writer back in January, guitarist Satchel explained how “for leads, a lot of the time it wasn’t a real amp – there’s no need – so I used the Neural DSP [Archetype] Gojira plug-in. But I like to commit to sounds, too. I still use the second and third versions of the 5150s. They've been on every record, particularly for rhythms.”
Code Orange broaden their horizons on The Above
One of the most universally admired heavy acts to arise over the last decade, Code Orange are synonymous with wall-conquering noises driven by intense abject brutality. That said, fifth studio album The Above also marked them experimenting with more moody atmospherics, using less extreme sounds to contrast against their trademark bleakness and industrial edge.
They also enlisted the services of Smashing Pumpkins singer/guitarist Billy Corgan for the track Take Shape, the second single released in support of the new album. Speaking to this writer about the gear on the new album, Reba Meyers said “I just went with stuff that felt good in my hands. I don’t want to go to a studio and say, ‘Hey, what’s your nicest guitar?’ and use it for the record because that won’t help me at all. That’s not my vibe. I’d rather play a guitar that sounds a little shittier or isn’t set up perfectly, but at least I know it inside out. And actually, sometimes bad gear can give you a good idea!”
Wolfgang Van Halen adds more strings to his bow
Writing and recording everything himself, just as he did on the Mammoth WVH 2021 debut, Wolfgang Van Halen clearly has no shortage of creative wind in his sails. But, as always, it’s the quality of the music overall that seats him as one of the rising stars of hard rock and heavy metal.
Just like he told Total Guitar in January 2023, this album was the sound of him stretching into new sonic pastures – from Like A Pastime’s Meshuggah-inspired polyrhythmic brilliance to Take A Bow’s extended solo in Bb Dorian, which he explained was performed on his father’s iconic Frankenstein guitar and fed into the original Marshall head and cabinet heard on the early Van Halen albums.
Periphery truly outdo themselves on album number seven
While every fan will have their favourite releases, there’s really no such thing as a bad Periphery record. But on this year’s seventh opus, titled Periphery V: Djent Is Not a Genre, the tech-metal pioneers arguably delivered the album of their career, showing us exactly why they’re the leaders of a movement – while also poking fun at the very notion of djent with the album’s title.
Early singles Wildfire, Zagrus and Atropos dominated metal playlists at the beginning of the year and by the time the album arrived in March, the deep cuts proved to be just as brilliantly mind-boggling. Let’s be honest – guitar trios simply don’t come much finer than Misha Mansoor, Mark Holcomb and Jake Bowen.
Nuno Bettencourt delivers the guitar solo of 2023
The best guitar solos are often the ones that leave everyone speechless, even if they’re not necessarily fans of the band or guitarist in question. Which is why Nuno Bettencourt’s fretwork on Extreme comeback single Rise ended up being continually voted as the best guitar solo of the year – it really didn’t matter who you were or what music you preferred, his mind-boggling runs were impeccable in every single way.
Without making it feel like a checklist of different influences and techniques, Bettencourt was able to compose a solo section that unfolded much like different chapters of the same story – using a D minor pentatonic framework as his base while also adding in major seconds and thirds, flat fives and major sixths in the right places to spice things up. Bravo!
- Nuno Bettencourt interview: “I told the guys, ‘I wanna go for blood on this album.’ I wanted to make it fun with the guitar... to bring joy into it, to bring passion into it”
Skindred almost top the UK album charts
Over the last two decades Skindred have become stalwarts of the European festival circuit and established themselves as one of the most uncontainable live acts rock has ever seen. It would be fair to say, however, that their recorded output has often fallen short of the crowd-conquering energy the Welsh reggae metallers bring to the stage and struggled to live up to their brilliance in terms of commercial impact. That all changed back in August when they found themselves topping the midweek album charts, though narrowly losing out to Irish singer Cian Ducrot by just 150 copies come week’s end.
Still, given the juggernaut grooves of Gimme That Boom and Black Stars, as well as more dancehall-inspired offerings such as L.O.V.E. (Smile Please), This Appointed Love and Mama, it was a massive victory for both the band and metal in general.
The evolution of Enslaved continues to stun
Not too dissimilar to fellow Scandinavians Opeth and Katatonia, Enslaved have been on a journey of intense thematic evolution since their formation in the early 90s. And while singer/bassist Grutle Kjellson is still growling just as hard as he was at the beginning of their career, they’ve become equally as championed by progressive rock fans as they have metal extremists.
Their knack for thinking outside of the box and surprising the listener is key to this – as eloquently demonstrated the wonderful fretwork by Ivar Bjørnson and Arve Isdal on new tracks like Behind The Mirror, Forest Dweller and the brilliantly titled Caravans To The Outer Worlds.
Sophie Lloyd unveils her long-awaited solo debut
It’s been a busy year for British guitarist Sophie Lloyd, who has been touring stadiums around the world with Machine Gun Kelly, releasing more signature gear with Kiesel and still delivering her stunning 'shred' covers of classic songs on YouTube. But the biggest moment in her career thus far arrived in November with the launch of her debut solo album Imposter Syndrome.
The album made headlines for its collaborations with Steel Panther frontman Michael Starr, Trivium’s Matt Heafy, Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale and others – and more importantly she was able to flaunt her talents not only as a world-class shredder, but as a formidable songwriter and creative force in her own right.