When it comes to shopping for a new guitar, there’s so many different makes and models out there, that it can be really hard to decide which you should actually go for, or even where to start. It depends on loads of factors, like your music and playing style, the look, feel and sound.
In this guide, I’ll go through 7 super important features that pretty much all guitars made for metal guitarists have, to hopefully narrow down your search for the perfect guitar. So let’s get started!
What to look for in a metal guitar
- Active humbucker pickups
- A fast neck
- Resonant tonewood e.g. mahogany
- Through-neck construction
- A floating bridge
- Low action
- Thick strings
1. Active Humbucker Pickups
One of the most important aspect of your guitar which determines the sound, is the pickups. They are key to creating the perfect tone because they play such a vital role in your electric guitar’s ability to produce sound.
Pickups are made of a core material, wrapped in coils of wire to form magnets. There are three main types of pickups: single-coil P90 and humbuckers.
Humbucker pickups produce the warmest and darkest tone, that’s why they’re commonly used for heavier genres like metal. They are also much better and handling high gain as they consist of two magnets, compared to P90 and single coil pickups which only have the one magnet.
Single coil pickups suffer from a humming noise when you crank up the gain, which is why they’re not that commonly seen on heavy metal guitars. Humbuckers, are designed to cancel out this humming. Check out this post on the main pickup types to learn more.
Active vs. Passive Pickups
In addition to these main structures, there are also two categories that pickups can be split into: active and passive.
Passive pickups are the most common type. They don’t need a battery, unlike active pickups. Passive pickups have more coil winds, so naturally sound louder and more powerful. However, this relationship of increasing the number of coils, to increasing the power of the pickup, only works up to a certain point. Past this point, the treble will become too weak. This causes the tone to sound less sharp, and more muffled, especially when you crank the gain up.
Active pickups are different. They use a battery to boost the power of the pickup, rather than increasing the number of coils. Hence, active pickups have fewer coil winds, but still have a lot of power. This allows you to get a crisper sound when using high gain.
Hence, most metal guitars have active humbucker pickups because they have a warm and dark tone which handles gain really well without sounding muffled and weak.
2. Fast Neck
Another super important feature on metal guitars, is the neck. Metal guitarists often using shredding techniques, and need to switch between power chords without being limited by a slow neck. So what do I mean by a “fast neck”. Well, the following features are really important.
- The width of the neck should be thin.
- The profile of the neck is usually a U or D shape.
- A satin finish is preferred over a gloss finish to stop you sticking to the back of the neck.
- Wide or “jumbo” frets, make it easier to shred because you have more room between the higher frets. Usually this comes with having a longer scale length.
These are the most important features to look for when it comes to the neck shape and profile, to be able to play quick metal riffs. Although, some guitarists prefer thicker necks, with different shapes, and think “thin necks” just don’t seem substantial enough. It’s all personal preference when it comes to what feels quick to play on, so make sure you try a few different neck sizes and shapes!
3. Resonant Tonewood
Another important aspect of an electric guitar, is the tonewood. The kind of wood your guitar is constructed from, really affects the tone produced. This isn’t quite as significant with electric guitars compared to acoustics, but it is still something you should consider when choosing a guitar for metal playing.
Generally, metal guitarists are looking for a dark and thick tone to suit this heavier genre of music. That’s why a lot of guitars designed for metal players are made from mahogany. It’s one of the heaviest woods used for guitars and is best known for having a warm and mellow tone that favours low-end frequencies. It’s also well recognised for having great sustain and resonance. Take a look at this post on electric guitar tone woods to learn more.
4. Through-Neck Construction
This is less of an essential feature on metal guitars, but it’s still found quite commonly on electric guitars designed with the metal enthusiast in mind. There are three main types of neck construction: bolt-on, set-neck and neck-through, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
- Bolt-on necks simply use screws to fix the neck and body of the guitar in place. They’re cheap, and make it easy to replace the neck if it gets damaged. But they have the least resonant tone.
- Set-neck constructions are when the guitar body and neck are glued into each other. They usually look cleaner than bolt-on necks, and have better resonance, however, they’re more expensive and make it hard to replace the neck if damaged.
- Through-neck constructions refer to when the guitar body and neck are made from one continuous piece of wood. They have the best resonance, but are the most expensive and make it impossible to replace the neck if damaged.
There are two main reasons why through-neck constructions are commonly used on metal guitars.
- They offer a more resonant tone which helps to increase the sustain.
- They are the cleanest construction design, and don’t have any heel or obstruction behind the neck which increases fret access.
5. A Floating Bridge
Another component you’ll commonly find on guitars designed for metal music, is a floating bridge. There are two main types of bridges on a guitar, both have the main function of acting as an end point for the strings on the guitar’s body.
- Fixed bridges: there are three main types: tune-o-matic, hard-tail and wrap-around.
- Floating bridges: there are two main types: Fender tremolo and Floyd Rose Tremolo.
Fixed bridges, are also known as hard-tail bridges. They’re uncomplicated and easy to maintain and make it easy to change the strings.
Floating bridges, have an additional component to fixed bridges, the tremolo arm. This is a bar which is attached to the bridge. If you push it down or pull it up, it changes the pitch of the strings to introduce a vibrato effect, which is commonly used in metal music.
When it comes to the two main types of floating bridges, the Fender and the Floyd Rose, you’ll often see the latter on metal guitars. Here’s the difference.
- Fender Tremolo: this is well-known as the first true floating bridge. The strings pass through the body and are locked on the bridge.
- Floyd Rose Bridge: this is an adaptation of the Fender Tremolo. It is a double locking system instead of a single locking system which means it stays in tune better.
6. Low Action
Next on the list, is a low action. The action of a guitar simply refers to the distance between the strings, and the top of the frets. The lower the action, the less distance you have to press to fret the string. Higher actions require you to press more, which makes it a bit harder to play.
Most metal guitarists are looking for a low action, because they move around the fret board very quickly, so don’t want to have to keep pressing the strings down hard as it’ll slow them down.
Most guitars made for metal music, come with a low action. If your guitar doesn’t have a low enough action, you can adjust it. However, unless your a professional or experienced luthier, you shouldn’t try this yourself or you could permanently damage your guitar. Here’s what adjustments a pro may make to alter the action.
- Truss rod: this refers to the metal bar which runs inside the neck of a guitar. It can be adjusted which causes the neck of your guitar to straighten or bend. A slight bend is normal in a guitar neck.
- Bridge height: this can be lowered or raise to decrease or increase the action respectively.
- Nut height: this refers to the part of your guitar where the headstock and fretboard meet. Each string has a slot in the nut which can be adjusted to lower or raise the action.
7. Thick Strings
Finally, another feature that most metal guitars have, is thick strings. The thickness of a guitars strings, is also known as the gauge. Thicker strings produce a heavier and darker sound than thinner strings. Here’s how.
Higher gauge (thicker) strings are more tense than thinner strings, hence, they contain more energy. When you pluck a string, it vibrates. The length of time it vibrates for, refers to the amount of energy it has. So the more energy, the longer the vibrations take to disperse. This creates a longer and more sustained notes. Thicker strings are also louder for the same reason.
This is why a lot of metal guitars have fairly thick strings because they produce a heavier and darker tone.
However, you don’t want to have strings that are too thick though. The thicker the strings, the harder it is to fret them, which can slow you down when playing. Not what you want when you’re shredding.
So you need to choose a balance. The good thing is though, that you can always swap your strings and increase or decrease the gauge. But keep in mind that this isn’t the most simple process. Your guitar will need setting up again so it sounds correct and stays in tune properly.
Take a look at this post on the 4 ways strings affect a guitar’s tone to learn more about this topic.
Best Metal Guitars
Now you know all the main features that metal guitars have, you’re probably wondering who the best manufacturers are. Here’s a quick rundown of the main brands that specialise in make guitars for heavy metal enthusiasts.
Ibanez are a huge electric guitar brand that manufacture models for a range of different styles, but they’re probably best known for producing guitars geared for metal players. They’re probably best known for their RG series and JEM series which are played by loads of pro guitarists. They manufacture models for all price points, from entry-level, to custom shop.
Jackson guitars are well known for being amazing for metal. The entire brand is geared towards metal guitarists, so it’s no surprise they produce some of the best models out there. The Soloist and Dinky are two very well known metal guitars, that cater to a range of different price points.
This brand has been making waves for decades and is recognised as one of the best brands for metal guitars. They’re a Japanese manufacturer that mainly produce mid-high end metal guitars. The EC-line is probably the most well known and has a Les-Paul type shape, offering something a bit different from the classic superstrat designs commonly associated with metal guitars.
This is another highly-regarded metal guitar manufacturer that produces primarily mid-high end electric guitars. Their most recognised model is the Hellraiser which comes in 6, 7 and 8 string variations with a long scale-length, jumbo frets and loaded EMG pickups.
If you’re looking for a great price, then check out Guitar Center. When purchasing my electric guitar, I tried it in store but then ordered it online because the price and colour options were better. Don’t be afraid to purchase a guitar online, as long as you pick a well-renowned shop like Guitar Center, then you’ll be completely fine.
So there you go! That’s what makes a guitar sound good for heavy metal! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful: