January 20, 2011

Metalheads 101: What Is a Metalhead?

Metalheads 101, Tr00 Metal Life

Last week, in Metalheads 101, we talked about what IS metal music, and boy howdy did it incite some discussion! Genre classifications fascinate me, as it’s essentially a label given to a type of music in order to help record companies market, and yet, it’s impossible to talk to any kind of music lover without realising that genres invoke quite strong emotional and intellectual responses. Why would this be?

Becuase, all to often, music is about so much more than just what a band sounds like … for many of us, music is part of life, part of who we are. We defend our beliefs about music with as much venom and as we would defend our families or lovers.

Who are the champions of metal? Why that would be you, us. We the metalheads.

What is a Metalhead?

The short answer: a metalhead is someone who listens to metal.

The long answer: a metalhead is someone who considers her or herself part of the metal subculture.

I know many people who listen to a few metal bands amongst their other musical interests, and don’t consider themselves metalheads. I myself don’t listen exclusively to metal. In fact, if I added up every album I owned, one might find only 40-50% of them would be metal albums. The rest are classical and modern composers, folk music, goth and post-punk, various genres involving the word “rock” and european pop music.

And yet, I’m a metalhead. I’m not a goth, I’m not part of the “folk” scene. I’m a metalhead, and damn proud of that fact.

“Metal” isn’t just a word to describe a particular type of music, but a subculture. And with that subculture comes all the other non-musical things associated with metal.

What IS a subculture? Well, there are different definitions depending on what particular school of academia you subscribe to. Socialogy, anthropology, psychology and modern historians (and probably many others I’m not familiar with) have their own definitions and schools of thought on subcultures and how to study them. I studied anthropology, so my views are colored by that experience.

Subculture: a group of people with a culture which differentiates from the larger group from which they also belong. Studying subcultures means studying music, clothing, activities and other symbols adopted by the subculture and how these are interpreted both by the subculture and by the dominant culture.

A subculture forms a series of “rules” and codes of conduct that both regulate behaviour within the subculture and provide a refernece point for recruiting new members. Commonality of dress, speech, behaviour, moral codes, interest and social activities foster a strong sense of community, which is how a subculture thrives. Along with this comes a strong rejection or competition against other subcultures.

When you decide you want to be a metalhead, you become part of a community of people all over the world who not only like metal, but agree that other people liking metal are the kind of people they would like to hang out with. Metal is a huge community – a “global tribe”, Sam Dunn calls it in Global Metal – and metalheads can recognise each other across racial, cultural, geographical and language barriars. If I walk past a metalhead on the streets of Brazil, or Syria, or London, he knows I’m a metalhead and I know he’s a metalhead and we can nod approvingly at each other and it’s all good.

So, how does one become a metalhead?

Listen to Metal

First and most important, you have to listen to metal. It doesn’t matter what kind of metal, or if your definition of metal is different from my definition of metal. But I advocate listening to a wide range of bands from various genres – we’ll be talking more about this in weeks to come. If you do nothing else on this list, but you know and love metal music from the bottom of your heart, then you can call yourself a metalhead.

If you do everything else on this list, and you don’t listen to metal, you’re a poser. That’s a fact. Metalheads tend to frown on posers. Do you want thousands of long-haired viking men and metal wenches frowning at you?

I think not.

Don’t be a poser.

Join the Community

Next, you need to find some other metalheads to hang out with. There’s no point being part of a subculture if you’re drinking by yourself in your basement. The best place to start looking for other metalheads is your local scene. We tend to congregate around local bars and clubs for gigs on the weekends – that’s a good place to start. Anthropologists call these places “subcultural spaces” – places recognised, owned, managed and policed by a subcultural community.

You’ll probably recognise the metalheads immediately, as they’ll no doubt be wearing metal shirts depicting their favorite bands. One of the best and simplest ways of starting a conversation is to simply spot someone wearing the shirt of your favorite band and say. “Nice shirt. What’s your favorite <insert band here> album?” See Making Friends with Metalheads for a few more tips.

Subcultural spaces can be online too – on blogs like Steff Metal, or discussion forums like Metal Alliance. Sometims the people on these forums know each other in real life, sometimes they’re spread all across the world and only talk online.

The more you hang out with metalheads, the more you integrate yourself into the community and become part of the subculture.

Dress Metal

Anyone can spot a metalhead – they’re the dude or dudette wearing the metal shirt.


metal concert

The metal shirt. The simple, no fuss way metalheads recognise other metalheads the world over. If you pass someone wearing a Testament shirt in the street, it’s a fair bet they’re a fan of the band and a metalhead too.
Not everyone wants to wear metal shirts, however, and there are some people out there who wear them for fashion reasons rather than actually loving the band. Looking at the rest of their emsemble or asking them about their favorite album tends to sort them out quick quick.

There are good metal shirts and crap metal shirts. Generally, you’re not supposed to wear a tour shirt from a tour you never saw. You also shoutd try and avoid buying “knock-off” shirts. We metalheads like to support the bands we love – and many bands make most of their living through merchandise, so we try to buy official.

Aside from the metal shirt, there are other items of clothing and aesthetic choices often worn by metalheads that you could adopt should you so choose. A metal shirt looks best when paired with well-fitted black jeans. Those jeans might be held up with a spiked or bullet belt. The shoe of choice is the boot – comfortable, functional, and imperative for smashing your way to the front of a mosh pit.

In years cone by, the essential item in every metalhead’s wardrobe was a jean jacket or vest, lovingly adorned with band patches brought at various concerts and hand-sewn into place. I’m seeing less of these in recent years, but if you wanted one, they’re still AWESOME. True metalheads always ALWAYS buy and sew the patches themselves (or get their mum to sew them on) and new buy pre-made patched jackets. That reeks of poser-dom.

To keep the rain off, metalheads like a good, long, un-fussy black or brown coat, or a black hoodie featuring the logo of their favorite band. I’ve noticed in Europe a lot more men are adopting the wearing of kilts, which suits me just fine as kilts are kinda hot.

Jewelry is minimal, especially compared to goths and punks, but every piece says something special. A metalhead might wear a Thor’s hammer, or a single leather wrist cuff, or a skull ring. If you ask him or her about their jewelry, you’ll likely receive a long and entertaining story about how they acquired it or how much it means to them.


Hair is usually long, on women and men. Men who don’t grow their hair long tend to shave it off or very short. People who need to keep their hair tidy for work might have very “normal” haircuts, but they miss out one windmilling, which kind of sucks for them. Metalheads don’t tend to go in for any complex styling – a comb in the morning to keep the tangles out, and a hairtie around the wrist does the trick for most of us.

Being Metal

Now that you listen to metal, look metal and have made a few metal acquaintences, you might like to learn a little more about how to BE metal.

The biggest metal rite of passage, after buying your first metal CD, is attending your first metal concert. You’ll notice many specific metalhead behaviours. these often vary from band to band and genre to genre, and it will take you awhile to become familiar with them. It’s all part of the fun (yes, this will be another article).

Mostly, you’ll notice a lot of people throwing the horns. You should throw the horns, too. But make sure you do it correctly – none of this thumb-out nonesense. As far as I’m aware, it doesn’t matter which way around your horns happen to be, as long as your thumb isn’t out and you’re not Miley Cyrus.

Apart from going to concerts, metalheads also have metal hobbies.

Hobbies metalheads might be interested in: history, horror films, artillery, carving musical instruments, wild animals, photography, graphic design, fashion, archaeology, vikings, politics, knitting, writing, conspiracy theories, pagan religions, painting, tattoos, wargaming, JRR Tolkien, drinking, swearing, computer games, swordfighting, tramping, rock climbing, playing any kind of instrument (yes, even the tuba), kittens, more drinking, and needlepoint.

Now, any of these hobbies / interests on their own are not necessarily metal, but when a metalhead chooses one, they have a tendancy to make it metal. Like Boo Davis and Quiltsryche. Or me and this blog. Also, there are certian things that seem to particularly interest metalheads – for example, most metalheads I know love horror films and studying various historical periods. A lot of metalheads seem to love re-enactment and martial arts. These are by no means rules, just observations based on my mates here in NZ, my travels and the awesome metalheads I’ve met through this blog.

When you start accidentally turning all your hobbies into “metal” hobbies, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re a metalhead.

The most important part of “being metal” is adopting a suitable metal philosophy on life. There are no hard rules on this, so it’s basically up to you to choose a life philosophy and moral code that you can somehow justify through metal songs. Common themes are “standing up for what is right”, “being brave”, “not taking shit from no one”, “not being afraid to be yourself”, and “the Christian scum must die.” (Project Hate – amazing band, terrible lyrics)

Contribute to Metal

After you’ve been a metalhead for a little while, you might start feeling the urge to “give back” to the community. This is a common trait of people who committ to subcultures, as they tend to feel a strong attachment to the community. Most metalheads play some part in their subculture, whether it’s playing in a band, running a bar, promoting gigs, writing reviews and articles for magazines or blogs, making a zine, helping with sound at a show or stamping people at the door.

Believe in Metal

And lastly, when you get to the point that metal permeates everything you do, when you metal sums up who you are and what you believe in, when you can’t imagine a world without metal …

Then, then you are a metalhead.


  • Do you consider yourself a metalhead? Why/Why not?
  • What, if anything, would you like to do to be more of a metalhead or become more involved with the metal scene?
  • What do you think makes a person a metalhead as opposed to a music fan or a poser?

33 Comments on “Metalheads 101: What Is a Metalhead?

November 17, 2015 at 9:27 pm

I do hope you still check the comments, considering the article is 4 years old now. I absolutely love this – I’ve been a rabid Metalhead for over 18 years now and I couldn’t add or modify a single thing. But I do have one question – do you differentiate between a metal fan and a Metalhead?

I ask because I feel like there is a certain distinction myself. I run a few metal forums and groups on Facebook, and have posed this very question with mixed results. I do think there is a line personally – metal fans listen to the music and participate in the culture, whereas Metalheads immerse themselves in the culture. I’ve heard them (my definition of Metalheads) referred to by different names (i.e. lifers), but in every forum where I have posted this question there is an invariable recognition that there are varying degrees of dedication to the music and lifestyle – and most of the time people agree with my classifications if not with the terminology.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s better to be a fan or a head – I feel like they’re both integral parts of the culture. And there are varying degrees of metal fans – casual to dedicated. But occasionally there are people who really don’t listen to much else, or participate in much else. People who become so ingrained in the culture itself that it becomes integrally tied to their identity. And I feel like that particular breed of people are the ones who own the title of Metalhead. Thoughts?

November 25, 2015 at 5:43 pm

@grulog – thanks for commenting. I do check old comments but sometimes it takes me a few days to reply. I definitely agree with you that there are different degrees of dedication/obsession within the wider spectrum of metal. I know within my own group of friends – all of whom call themselves metalloids – there are varying degrees of interest in, for example, discovering new bands or getting familiar with a wide range of metal. Some people love to analyse music on a deep level, others just love to headband. Some people dress “metal” every day and every opportunity, other dress pretty normally. There are people who listen to ONLY metal and people who enjoy a huge range of music.

I see where you’re coming from, but I personally think it’s better for people to be able to choose their own identifiers. If someone identifies as a metalhead, then I think that’s great and I would hate to act as a gatekeeper of that term. After all, such a huge part of the music is about destroying gatekeepers. There’s enough room in the subculture for all levels of participation, do you know what I mean?

November 26, 2015 at 7:51 pm

@Steff – no problem, thanks for writing such a great blog! and I do know where you’re coming from. i agree, and don’t consider myself a gatekeeper or anything similar. I guess a big part of where I’m coming from is that chances are – nobody who became a fan of the music after 2000 has ever had to endure the same levels of societal condemnation a lot of the old guard had to face.

I mean, I personally have been arrested for walking down the street while wearing metal t-shirts. that’s something you wouldn’t be too surprised at in the mid to late 90’s, especially in small towns. but nowadays that would be unheard of. or having to talk to your friends, go to shows, or go to the record store (and pray) to find new bands. or the concept of tape trading. I dunno, maybe I’m just turning into one of those old dudes who talks about how much more metal everything was back in his day.


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