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The 11 best metal guitars 2020: the ultimate machines for heavy riffing at any budget

The 11 best metal guitars 2020: the ultimate machines for heavy riffing at any budget
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Buying a guitar online

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Concerned about buying a guitar online without playing it first? You needn’t be. Online music instrument retailers like Thomann, Guitar Center and Sweetwater offer hassle-free returns as standard, so you can purchase a guitar, play it in the comfort and privacy of your home and, if it’s not for you, send it back with ease. Check the specific returns policy for your chosen retailer before you purchase.

How pointy and evil-looking the headstock is is just one of many factors you should consider when hunting down the best metal guitar for you.

For starters, you'll need a guitar that’s built to deliver effortless playability for when it's time to lay down rapid-fire thrash riffs and blazing solos. As such, your new guitar needs a low action and a comfortable neck.

The pickups installed in the guitar should be a major consideration, too. You'll definitely need a high-output bridge humbucker for the tight palm-muted distorted tones that heavy metal demands.

Other factors to consider include the bridge system? Should you opt for 7 or 8 strings, or a low-tuned baritone? And, of course, you have the aesthetics to think about: exactly how metal are you prepared to go?

With this guide to the best guitars for metal, we’re on-hand to answer all these questions and more! What's more, our useful price comparison software has found the latest and best prices on our favourite models.

With Black Friday on the horizon, it could be worth holding off on picking up a new shred-ready metal guitar until the Black Friday guitar deals and Black Friday music deals start emerging. We'll be reporting on the best offers right through to Black Friday itself.

Best metal guitars: buying advice

You don’t necessarily need a metal-specific instrument to create heavy sounds – guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Dave Murray are known for conjuring truly gargantuan tones out of a Strat – but if you’re going to be living mainly on the high gain channel, it often makes sense to use something designed with that in mind. 

Naturally you will want to articulate your palm muting and tremolo picking as best you can, with enough low-end to intensify the overall heaviness of your riffs. But you will also want a razor-sharp clarity in the upper mids and highs to help your leads and melodies come to life, to ring with full resonance. Perhaps most importantly of all, you will need an instrument that offers effortless playability, which is why most guitars for metal come with low action, flat fingerboard radius and thinner necks – very much designed to speed you up rather than slow you down.

The next consideration should be the pickups fitted into the guitar (want to know more? Check out our guide to electric guitar pickups). Most metal guitarists prefer a higher output, with the EMG active designs favoured by Zakk Wylde and James Hetfield being among the best-sellers for this kind of usage. But those needing more classic rock and clean tones may prefer a hot passive pickup for extra versatility. Both Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio have long been associated with rock and metal sounds and in more recent years we’ve seen acoustic giant Fishman step into the market with their Fluence range – a bold reinvention of the electric guitar pickup, arguably the most revolutionary of its kind.

You might also want to have a look at the bridge system – there’s no point in having a whammy bar if you’re not going to use it. A lot of rhythm guitarists will gravitate towards the rugged dependability of a hardtail, while lead players may prefer the extended expression that comes with a vintage vibrato or a double-locking Floyd Rose system that’s designed to take abuse and hold steady. 

Those who play in lower tunings usually fall into two camps – guitars with an additional string or two, or baritone six-strings which features a longer scale neck for better tension in lower tunings. And then of course there are the aesthetics typical to metal guitars: pointy bodies, reverse headstocks, all-black finishes and beyond. The only question is how metal are you prepared to go?

Here’s our round-up of the best guitars for playing every style of metal around right now, from signature shredders and classic reissues, to 7-string bargains. It’s a tough pick but the PRS SE Mark Holcomb might very well be our front-runner due to its precision playability, defined metal tones and slick look. But rest assured, whichever you choose, one of this brutal lot is sure to handle the heaviest riffs you can play.

The best metal guitars right now

Best metal guitars: PRS SE Mark Holcomb

(Image credit: PRS)

1. PRS SE Mark Holcomb

The Periphery guitarist’s signature is one hell of a beast

Price: $899/£899/€1,068 | Body: Beveled Maple Top with Quilted Maple Veneer, Mahogany Back | Neck: Maple with satin finish | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Ebony | Frets: 24 | Pickups: Mark Holcomb Seymour Duncan Alpha and Omega humbuckers | Controls: Volume and push/pull tone controls with 3-way blade pickup switch | Hardware: Plate Style (String-Through) bridge, black chrome hardware | Left-handed: No | Finish: Holcomb Burst

Incredible value
Stunning custom finish
Capable of a lot more than djent

While there is certainly no shortage of metal players who have been seen with a PRS in their hands, it would be fair to say the brand is more associated with vintage class and PAF-style pickups than anything too modern. Which is exactly why this signature was such a welcome addition to their collection, bringing more metallic power to the PRS catalogue without straying too far from what they’re famous for. 

Firstly you’ll notice the signature Mark Holcomb pickups made by Seymour Duncan bring plenty of ceramic roar, with a considerable increase in output compared to most PRS models. That said, this set is still passive and can also be split by pulling out the tone knob – which means you’re getting a whole host of tones out of just two humbuckers.

And though these models ship tuned to Drop C, with a Fender-style 25.5” scale length they work just as well in standard – unlike baritone guitars, which are made with longer scale lengths to facilitate thicker strings at lower tunings. If you’re looking for a PRS that can chug with the best of them and still retain the versatility the brand built its name on, this guitar might just be it.

Read the full PRS SE Mark Holcomb review

Best metal guitars: LTD EC-1000 EverTune

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2. LTD EC-1000 EverTune

The best guitar for metal players who want to stay in tune

Price: $1,199/£999/€999 | Body: Mahogany with maple cap | Neck: 3-piece mahogany | Scale: 24.75" | Fingerboard: Ebony | Frets: 24 | Pickups: Seymour Duncan JB humbucker, Seymour Duncan Jazz humbucker (EMG 81/60 reviewed) | Controls: 2x volume, tone, 3-way selector switch | Hardware: EverTune bridge, Grover tuners | Left-handed: Yes (without EverTune) | Finish: See Thru Black, Dark Brown Sunburst

EverTune bridge ensures constant tuning
Classic metal tones
Unobtrusive bridge design
EverTune is complex to get to grips with initially

The EC-1000ET is an all-mahogany single-cut loaded with an set of EMG 81 and 60 active humbuckers, a comfortably modern neck and a high level of construction quality. 

Its key selling point, however, is a fitted EverTune bridge – unlike other tuning systems, it doesn't tune your guitar for you or offer altered tunings. Instead, once set and tuned, it simply aims to stay there, thanks to a series of tension-calibrated springs and levers. We tried everything we could to knock it out of whack: huge, three-step bends, wildly exaggerated string stretching... we even put the guitar into a freezer. It came back perfectly in tune every single time.  

What's more, a guitar that's perfectly tuned and intonated up and down the neck seems to play much more musically. We're not aware of any tone compromises, either. The EC sounds as full and aggressive as ever, with the more mellow tones of the neck EMG being pleasantly rounded, and all bereft of any metallic spring clank. If never going out of tune is important to you, this is one of the best guitars for metal going.

Read the full LTD EC-1000 EverTune review

Best metal guitars: Jackson JS32T Rhoads

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3. Jackson JS32T Rhoads

This affordable Randy Rhoads V is a total victory

Price: $349/£274/€299 | Body: Basswood | Neck: Maple | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 24 | Pickups: 2x high-output Jackson humbuckers | Controls: Volume, tone, 3-way selector switch | Hardware: Adjustable string-through-body compensated bridge | Left-handed: No | Finish: White with Black Bevels, Satin Black

Pickups sound snappy, with plenty of definition
Affordable
Satin finish neck is a delight to play
Just trying to play it while seated...

The Jackson Rhoads V-style is about as pointy as guitars get, and Jackson hasn't made any health-and-safety concessions with the JS32T: it can still pierce skin if deployed with sufficient force. 

The Rhoads is a sharp player, too. The tune-o-matic-style bridge makes low action a cinch, and the almost waxy feel of the satin neck finish is a dream to speed up and down. The high-output own-brand humbuckers offer plenty of snap and presence, providing the definition to handle distorted playing of all styles. 

Dial in a Marshall-y distortion and bust out Crazy Train, and we dare you to stop grinning: the JS32T just nails that sound. It's also cheaper than rival Vs, plays like a dream, delivers classic tones and even functions as a weapon off stage. A winner.

Read the full Jackson JS32T Rhoads review

Best metal guitars: Fender Dave Murray Stratocaster

(Image credit: Fender)

4. Fender Dave Murray Stratocaster

This hot-rodded classic is perhaps the archetypal SuperStrat

Price: $1,024/£889/€999 | Body: Alder | Neck: Maple | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 21 | Pickups: 2x Seymour Duncan Hot Rails for Strat SHR-1B (bridge, neck), 1x Seymour Duncan JB Jr SJBJ-1N | Controls: Volume, 2x tone, 5-way selector switch | Hardware: Floyd Rose double-locking tremolo | Left-handed: No | Finish: Sunburst

Rock-solid Floyd Rose tremolo system
Versatile set of sounds
Iconic Iron Maiden tones
Better suited to more classic sounds

Murray's Strat has an air of refinement; a sober, classy aesthetic complementing a nuanced, classic rock tone. But make no mistake: with two Seymour Duncan Hot Rails stacked humbuckers in neck and bridge, and a JB Jr in the middle, there's plenty of firepower on offer. 

Given that Iron Maiden's increasingly progressive sound makes all sorts of demands on Murray's gear, we're not surprised by the harmonically rich bark of the bridge 'bucker through an all-valve head, lending a fiery heat and squeal to solos. That said, it also has some unexpected sweet spots when the signal is just pushed to breaking point. 

Ultimately, the Dave Murray Stratocaster is one of the best options at this price for metal, with plenty of crunch and scream and a top quality vibrato, arguably trumping Murray's US-built signature model (retailing at more than twice the price) with regards functionality and versatility – if not outright quality.

Read the full Fender Dave Murray Stratocaster review

Best metal guitars: Ibanez RG550

(Image credit: Ibanez)

5. Ibanez RG550

One of the best shred guitars of all time returns

Price: $999/£899/€999 | Body: Basswood | Neck: 5-piece maple/walnut | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Maple | Frets: 24 | Pickups: Ibanez V8 humbucker (bridge), S1 single coil (middle), V7 neck humbucker | Controls: Volume, tone, 5-way selector | Hardware: Edge locking vibrato | Left-handed: Yes | Finish: Desert Sun Yellow, Road Flare Red, Purple Neon, White

Tonally versatile
Astoundingly speedy playability
A faithful reboot of one of shred and metal's most iconic guitars
Not for players who prefer thicker necks
The finishes won't be for everyone!

Introduced in 1987 and discontinued in 1994, the Ibanez RG550 remains the childhood sweetheart of many players. Designed as a mass-appeal version of Steve Vai’s famous JEM777 model, it had character in abundance. For this reboot, Ibanez has skilfully managed to extract the very essence of what was so popular about the original RG550 and piece it back together in a way that enhances its legacy. 

The Japanese-made 2018 vintage is, essentially, a masterclass in everything that is good about shred and metal guitars. The neck feels lithe – your hand glides, rather than simply moving – while the Edge vibrato is rock-solid and the overall craftsmanship is exemplary. 

Tonally, the RG550 covers a lot of bases. It always did, despite its pointy appearance, meaning you could comfortably stray into all kinds of genres without too much fuss. The US-designed V7 bridge humbucker delivers the razor-sharp riff platform you’d hope it would, while the V8 neck ’pup offers a hint of compression at higher gain settings, which levels lead lines nicely.

Read the full Ibanez RG550 review

Best metal guitars: Gibson Explorer B-2

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6. Gibson Explorer B-2

Seek and destroy in style…

Price: $1,399/£1,099 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Mahogany | Scale: 24.75" | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2 x Gibson Dirty Fingers + | Controls: Volume, Tone, 3-way toggle | Hardware: Nashville Tune-O-Matic bridge, Grover Mini Rotomatics tuners | Left-handed: No | Finish: Satin Ebony

As black as it gets
High output ceramic pickups
Might feel big for some players

If you’ve spent as much time watching footage of ‘80s Metallica as us, you’ll have no doubt already witnessed just how destructive a Gibson Explorer can be. And though James Hetfield has released signature models produced by other companies, the Explorer will always be associated with Metallica at their world-beating best.

This B-2 benefits from the same Dirty Fingers pickups that would have been on Hetfield’s original ‘So What’ and ‘More Beer’ models – though he switched to EMG around the same time as Kirk Hammett in 1987. Though they’re not active like the now-widely popular ‘Het Set’, these ceramic humbuckers are among the hottest Gibson have ever made, with the right kind of sustain and attack for rapid-fire metallic endeavours.

Best metal guitars: Charvel Joe Duplantier Signature Pro-Mod San Dimas Style 2 HH

(Image credit: Charvel)

7. Charvel Joe Duplantier Signature Pro-Mod San Dimas Style 2 HH

A Gojira signature model that oozes class

Price: $599/£480/€511 | Body: Nato | Neck: Nato | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Ebony | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2x Duncan HB-103 humbuckers | Controls: Volume, 3-way selector switch | Hardware: Adjustable tune-o-matic bridge with stopbar tailpiece | Left-handed: No | Finish: Satin White

Stripped-back, to-the-point setup
Tight tones
Excellent playability
Could be too simplistic for some

Joe Duplantier describes his Charvel signature model as “a killing machine with class” (the same could be said of his band, Gojira). This Charvel Joe Duplantier model does something similar: adopting the sophisticated broad strokes of classic guitar design and appropriating a Telecaster headstock for genuine retro kudos to offset a beefed-up, T-style body shape. 

Played clean the Pro-Mod is persuasive with lots of gutsy Americana twang from the bridge pickup, with warmer, woodier cream in the neck – perfect for creepy intros or blues, while cranking up the gain sees the Duplantier in its element. This guitar feels alive, with a compound radius neck and smooth oil finish that are supremely comfortable for chord work or ripping leads. A neatly sculpted heel adds to what is a most accommodating instrument.

Read the full Charvel Joe Duplantier Pro-Mod San Dimas Style 2 HH review

Best metal guitars: ESP LTD SC-607 Baritone

(Image credit: ESP LTD)

8. ESP LTD SC-607 Baritone

Adrenaline galore with the Deftones riff master’s signature

Price: $1,199/£1,379/€1,444 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: 3-piece maple neck-through | Scale: 27" | Fingerboard: Macassar Ebony | Frets: 24 | Pickups: Fishman SC Signature Fluence set | Controls: Volume with push/pull for different voicings, Tone, 3-way lever switch | Hardware: Tonepros Locking TOM w/ String Thru, LTD Locking tuners | Left-handed: No | Finish: Purple Satin

An eye-catching shade of purple
Multiple voicings thanks to the Fishman Fluence pickups
Perfect for down-tuning
Not as usable in regular tuning 

Deftones guitarist Stephen Carpenter actually had two signatures to unveil when NAMM arrived at the beginning of 2020. While the other model, the six-string SC-20, was released in celebration of two decades since his first signature (and in a very fetching sonic blue) – it’s this SC-607 seven-string baritone in Purple Satin that really got our attention.

First of all, it benefits from the guitarist’s signature active Fluence pickups – which feature a second voicing for “more heat” and will ultimately help you get close to those earth-shaking tones he’s known for. With a neck-thru and string thru, you will be guaranteed maximum resonance at lower tunings and dependable stability courtesy of the locking tuners and bridge. All in all, it’s easily one of the best baritones we’ve seen this year…

Best metal guitars: Kramer SM-1

(Image credit: Kramer)

9. Kramer SM-1

An old Kramer classic revisited

Price: $1,049/£949/€1,049 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Mahogany neck through | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Ebony | Frets: 24 | Pickups: 2 x Seymour Duncan Cool Rails, 1 x Seymour Duncan JB | Controls: Volume, Tone, Coil-switch, 5-way blade pickup | Hardware: Floyd Rose 1000 Series tremolo, black die-cast machine heads | Left-handed: No | Finish: Candy Blue, Orange Crush and Maximum Steel

Pointy headstock and pointy headstock inlays
A nice mix of Seymour Duncans
There’s a finish called Maximum Steel!

Now owned and operated by Gibson, the new line of Kramers hark back to the brand’s glory years – when some of the most respected names in rock were swearing by their American-made instruments. While many of the relaunched models cater to the more glam end of the rock spectrum, the SM-1s feel more suited to metal in its extremes.

Based on the old Stagemasters, which were introduced in the mid-80s, these are Kramer’s first neck-thru model; the all-mahogany body and neck ensures a lot more low-end punch. There’s a recessed cavity for the Floyd Rose, unlike the Pacer Vintage or Baretta six-strings, which allows for deeper divebombs and higher harmonic screams. And to top it all off, the blend of medium and high-output passive Seymour Duncans – which can be easily split via the switch under the volume knob – makes this a very versatile tool indeed.

Best metal guitars: Schecter Omen-8

(Image credit: Schecter)

10. Schecter Omen-8

An affordable eight-string that delivers

Price: $499/£469/€495 | Body: Basswood | Neck: Maple | Scale: 26.5" | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 24 | Pickups: 2x Schecter Diamond Plus ceramic humbuckers | Controls: 1x volume, 1x tone, 3-way selector switch | Hardware: Custom-8 hardtail bridge | Left-handed: No | Finish: Vintage White, Gloss Black, Walnut Satin

Superb playability
Affordable for an eight-string
Impressive build
Disappointing midrange tones

The Omen-8 is Schecter's most affordable eight-string, and its maple neck and 24-fret rosewood fretboard are highly playable, making it great for eight-string beginners. With a scale length of 26.5 inches – an inch longer than a Stratocaster – you'll find the guitar has increased string tension and therefore should increase the tuning stability of the strings. 

The Omen-8 comes with a .010 string on the top, going down to a meaty .069, and it's intended to be tuned from low to high to: F#, B, E, A, D, G, B, E. Played acoustically, it exhibits a strong, defined tone with plenty of sustain. The longer neck isn't really noticeable, and it's not as thick as you might fear. In fact, it's a pleasure to play. 

When it comes to electronics, the massive passive humbuckers sound heavy, but both are susceptible to noise/interference, so a set of EMGs or Seymour Duncans would surely make a terrific upgrade. With the distortion cranked, the naturally chunky tone comes through despite the less-refined pickups. The Omen-8 has clout where it counts, though, with great playability and a solid build.

Read the full Schecter Omen-8 review

Best metal guitars: Wylde Audio Odin

(Image credit: Wylde Audio)

11. Wylde Audio Odin

Zakk Wylde's hard-rock and metal-focused LP-alike

Price: $1,189/£999 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Maple | Scale: 24.6" | Fingerboard: Ebony | Frets: 22 | Pickups: EMG 81 humbucker, EMG 85 humbucker | Controls: Bridge volume, neck volume, tone | Hardware: Tune-o-matic locking bridge, string-through-body bridge, Grover machineheads | Left-handed: Yes (Grail Bullseye finish only) | Finish: Death Claw Molasses, Grail Crimson Gold Buzz Saw, Grail Genesis Bullseye, Grail Gangrene Bullseye

Great playability
Classic EMG humbucker tones
Divisive appearance

The Odin is a cool twist on Zakk Wylde's beloved Gibson Les Paul format. It's that neck that's got us hooked. In common with the rest of the Wylde bunch, the Odin has a fat-profile neck, like something you'd find on a pre-'59 Gibson Les Paul. It's made from three pieces of maple and that, along with its substantial girth, makes the neck feel rigid. That's great news for tuning stability and tone. 

The active EMG 81 bridge unit is a metal staple, stuffed with ceramic magnets for powerful output and sustain, and the razor-sharp response that you need with high-gain distortion. The 85 neck 'bucker is a bottomless pit of low-end, but in typical EMG style doesn't sound muddy when you kick in the dirt. 

The fat neck and bright attack of the Odin's ebony fingerboard propel riffs and licks through your amp. If metal is your gain, this is one of the best metal guitars for you.

Read the full Wylde Audio Odin review