I do not intend this to be any kind of definitive list. Eassentially it’s a list of my non-guitar-player opinion of the best metal guitarists. To me, a great metal guitar player needs a high level of technical skill, but also the ability to transform that skill into interesting riffs, solos and elements. There may be better, more technically-skilled players out there, but in my opinion, these guys I’ve listed write the best music. Feel free to sound off with your dissenting opinions and your own favorites in the comments. (Every comment on the blog this week goes in the draw to win a free six month membership to Guitar Master Class)
Iommi’s distinct rhythm style – invented because he’d lost the tips of his right middle and ring fingers – is one of the defining moments in metal history. Only wanting to use his remaining fingers for the majority of fretting, he focused on the minor pentatonic scale and the classic root and tuned down … and kept tuning down. Black Sabbath’s signature deep, thundering guitar was born.
I’ve been honoured to see Iommi play twice with Heaven and Hell, and even after 40+ years on stage, he’s still plays with a style all of his own. Check out Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), Black Sabbath (1970) and Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven and Hell (2010) for some Iommi classics.
OK, so he’s given up metal for his folk rock band Blackmore’s Night, but that doesn’t make Ritchie Blackmore any less of a metal guitar god. King of classically-influenced solos, blues scales and sexy, layered grooves, Ritchie has inspired thousands of fans around the world to pick up the guitar. Check out Deep Purple’s Who Do We Think We Are (1973), Rainbow’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (1975), and Blackmore’s Night Under a Violet Moon (1999) to see Ritchie at his best.
Trey Azagthoth (Morbid Angel)
Founder of Morbid Angel, Trey quickly set the band apart with his technical riffs and structures, his wailing, signature guitar solos and his skilful use of the whammy bar and other effects.Citing Mozart and Eddie Van Halen as his primary influences, Trey gives a classical bent to modern death metal. For some of his best solos, check out Blessed are the Sick (1991), Domination (1995), and Covenant (1993 – one of the best selling death metal albums of all time).
Chuck Schuldiner (Death, Control Denied)
Often referred to as the “Stepmother of death metal,” Chuck founded the band Death in 1983, and his unique progressive style fuses death metal with his many outside influences (jazz, classical, and the bands Sortilège and Watchtower are cited as influences). Check out the albums Individual Thought Patterns (1993), Symbolic (1995) and The Sound of Perserverence (1998).
Jason Becker (David Lee Roth, Cacophony)
A modern day Paginini, Jason Becker is one of the greatest virtuoso guitarists in metal history. At age 16, he joined Marty Friedman in Cacophany, produced two f()cking incredible speed metal albums and started doing solo work in 1989 after Cacophany broke up. If you want shredding, Jason Becker is one of the best there is – often using arpeggio, sweep picking and tapping to produce sweeping shred solos. Check out his albums Perspective (1995), Dragon’s Kiss (1998 – with Marty Friedman) and Cacophany’s Speed Metal Symphony (1987) for some epicness.
While working with David Lee Roth, Becker developed Lou Gehrig’s Disease and was given only 3-5 years to live. Despite losing the ability to play guitar, walk and even speak by 1996, Becker is still composing music via a computer and communicating using his eyes in a system developed by his father.
Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)
Founder of progressive death metal band Opeth, Mikael is famous for his progressive style and ability to fuse death metal riffs with haunting acoustic passages. It’s no surprise that his influences include Ritchie Blackmore, Porcupine Tree, Katatonia and jazz. Listen to Blackwater Park (2001) – what I personally consider one of the few perfect metal albums, as well as Still Life (1999), and the new album Heritage (2011) if you like your progressive with a little less death metal.
Jeff Waters (Annihilator)
Founder of Annihilator – the biggest selling Canadian metal band of all time – Jeff Waters is also commonly referred to as “the most underrated guitarist of all time.” Annihilator are one of my personal thrash loves, and that’s mostly thanks to Jeff’s melodic, balsy style and epic thrashy solos. Check out Alison Hell (1989) and Never, Neverland (1990) for two of the best thrash metal albums you might never have heard.
The 2007 release Metal not only features some staggeringly awesome Waters virtuosity, but appearances from other metal guitar greats like Alexi Laiho, Danko Jones, Michael Arnott, William Adler and Jeff Loomis.
Gus G (Dream Evil, Firewind)
Another accomplished shredder, Gus G has been laying down epic shred solos of doom in various metal bands since the age of 16, including Arch Enemy, Dream Evil and Old Man’s Child. His band Firewind is his most successful project to date, and the albums Between Heaven and Hell (2002), Forged by Fire (2005) and Burning Earth (2003) show off his shredding and melodic riffs. His style – classic power metal – creates simple rhythms using power chords and open string runs, and he’s a huge fan of the triplet.
I could not write a list of the most epic metal guitarists of all time without delving into the more extreme genres, and when it comes to black metal, Insahn stands out to me as being one of the best. Famed as one of the founding members of Emperor, Insahn now works on his solo releases, which incorporate orchestral, avant garde elements alongside his black metal roots. Check out Emperor’s In the Nightshade Eclipse (1994) and Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demons (2001 – composed by Insahn), Peccatum’s (his project with his wife) Lost in Reverie (2004), and 2010’s solo effort, After, which I consider one of the top ten releases of 2010.
Alex Skolnick (Testament, Trans Siberian Orchestra, Savatage)
A student of Steve Vai, Alex Skolnick rejoined bay area thrashers Testament in 2008 for Formation of Damnation, after a series of diverse musical projects (Savatage, Trans Siberian Orchestra, the Westminster Dog Show, a few pieces with Lamb of God, and his jazz trio the Alex Skolnick Trio).
One of my favorite pieces of his is the solo in “Atman” for the Rodrigo y Gabriela album 11:11. Also check of Testament’s Souls of Black (1990) and Savatage’s Handful of Pain (1994).
John Petrucci (Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Exp)
Although I’m not the world’s biggest Dreamtheater fan, I can give respect where respect is deserved, and John Petrucci is undoubtedly one of the best guitarists playing today. He loves the seven string guitar, has a remarkable picking technique at high speed, and creating sweeping solos that tell a story.
Check out his work on Images and Words (1992), Liquid Tension Experiment (1998) and Train of Thought (2003), and prepare to be amazed.
Michael Amott (Arch Enemy, Carcass, Spiritual Beggars)
Master of pentatonics and one of the most multi-faceted extreme metal guitarists out there, Michael Arnott has been big in underground circles since the release of the early Carnage demos. Now lending his skills to melodic death metal band Arch Enemy, Michael’s deeply melodic style has created fans all around the world. Check out Carcass’ Heartwork (1993), Spiritual Beggars Another Way to Shine (1996) and Arch Enemy’s Anthems of Rebellion (2003).
Dave Mustaine (Megadeth, ex-Metallica)
Metallica may the most successful thrash metal band in the world, but Megadeth are the best. Dave Mustaine manages to combine imaginative, melodic riffs with that crunching heaviness that makes thrash so great. Even Metallica’s first two albums, Kill ‘Em All (1982) and Ride the Lightning (1984 – IMO the greatest thrash record of all time) wouldn’t be what they were without Dave’s influence.
To see Mustaine at his best, check out Countdown to Extinction (1992), Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying (1986), and Rust In Peace (1990).
Zakk Wylde (Ozzy, Black Label Society)
What can I say about Zack? He once poured a jug of beer over my head and apologized profusely for it afterward, saying he “thought I looked like I could use a drink”. He makes playing incredibly complex solos look easy, and he’s got the nicest smile. Check out Black Label Society’s Stronger than Death (2000) and The Blessed Hellride (2003) to hear some of the greatest solos from one of the world’s favorite guitarists.
Glen Tipton and K. K Downing (Judas Priest)
These two go together – they play off each other in such an effortless way that as a unit they are a force to be reckoned with. These two practically INVENTED dual axe attacks. When albums like Sad Wings of Destiny (1976) and Stained Class (1978) came out, they blew the whole fucking world away. There simply wasn’t anyone playing with their frantic intensity at the time … and some might argue there hasn’t been anyone since.
James Hatfield (Metallica)
Whether you love or hate them, you can’t argue that early Metallica albums are some of the best metal has to offer. And James Hetfield, founding member and major musical force, is probably one of the best rhythm guitarists in all of metal. No, he doesn’t produce the shred solos, but his signature down-picking style and ability to push a song into unspeakably heavyiness make him a definite metal guitar god.
Check out Kill ‘Em All (1983) and Ride the Lightning (1984) and you’ll hear what I’m talking about.
I know I have missed out heaps of great guitarists – so feel free to add yours into the comments, and I’ll try to update the list later.
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