Metal is a demanding genre for guitar players, requiring extended playing techniques and lots of picking stamina. Of course, this can vary depending on the type of metal sub-genre that you listen to as some styles are more difficult to master than others. But generally-speaking, metal guitarists need high-performance gear that can keep up with them!
In this extensive guide, we’ve compiled and recommended some fantastic gear to help you improve your playing and craft the perfect metal sound. From multi-scale guitars to tube screamer pedals and even the best plectrums - we’ve covered all of the bases.
Sound Like Ultimate Metal Rig on Andertons T.V.
There are hundreds of guitar brands out there, but a select few are particularly synonymous with metal. The likes of Jackson, Ibanez, ESP, Chapman and Schecter are renowned for their modern instrument designs; taking conventional shapes and outfitting them with high-output pickups, slim necks and forward-thinking hardware appointments - or even creating completely original and outlandish shapes! Use the icons above to click through to each of the aforementioned brands.
Jackson vs. Schecter vs. Ibanez on Andertons T.V.
Sometimes - 6 strings just isn’t enough! For a lot of modern metal styles, 7, 8 and 9 string guitars are regularly employed as they give players access to much lower notes and can therefore achieve “heavier” sounds. There are other benefits to these instruments too, and they’ve become far more popular and accepted in recent years with musicians who are keen to push the envelope. Key proponents of these guitars include Steve Vai, John Petrucci (Dream Theater), Tosin Abasi (Animals As Leaders) and the game-changing guitarists from Korn, Periphery and Meshuggah.
If you’re unfamiliar with these extended range guitars, don’t fret! 7, 8 and 9 string guitars might seem intimidating at first, but it doesn’t take too long to get accustomed to their extra strings and become proficient on them. If you’re making the jump from a 6-string guitar though, it’s recommended to start with a 7-string before moving onto an 8 or 9-string guitar.
What’s the Difference Between 7, 8 and 9 String Guitars?
Apart from their amounts of strings, there are some key differences between these extended range guitars - notably their tunings:
- A 7 string guitar adheres to the same tuning of a typical 6 string guitar, but has an additional low B string.
7 string guitar tuning: B-E-A-D-G-B-E
- An 8 string guitar follows the standard tuning of a 7 string instrument, but has an even lower F# string added; getting within striking distance of a standard-tuned bass guitar.
8 string guitar tuning: F#-B-E-A-D-G-B-E
- A 9 string guitar boasts the same tuning configuration of an 8 string, but has a thunderously-low C# string too. This takes a 9 string guitar’s tuning below that of a typical 4-string bass.
9 string guitar tuning: C#-F#-B-E-A-D-G-B-E
The scale lengths of 7, 8 and 9 string guitars may also vary. A lot of 7 string guitars will follow the customary 25.5” scale of their 6 string counterparts, but may extend to 26.5” in order to provide more tension for their low B strings - preventing a muddy sound. 8 string guitars will almost always have scale lengths that exceed 26.5”, extending to as much as 28”. With strings that are tuned even lower than those on a 7 string guitar, this extra tension is vital. The same applies to 9 string guitars.Shop All 7, 8 & 9 String Guitars!
The guitar industry is sometimes criticised for its lack of innovation, with the early ‘50s electric guitar designs established by Fender and Gibson still considered as the benchmark. However, metal-centric guitarists are far more welcoming of new technologies and tweaks that can assist them in pushing the musical boundaries. And modern multi-scale guitars have definitely become a go-to choice for the most forward-thinking of players, popularised by brands like Strandberg, Kiesel, Dingwall, Ibanez, ESP and Jackson.
Multi-scale guitars are physically distinctive for their angled fingerboards, which is why they are sometimes referred to as “fanned fret” guitars. They are designed to ultimately offer more even tension across their strings for greater playing comfort and tone, with each of their string lengths optimised and of a contrasting scale. For example, a longer scale on the lower strings ensures greater tension for improved note definition, while a shorter and more conventional scale on the higher strings can allow you to bend and apply vibrato more easily for leads. A conventional multi-scale guitar’s scale will typically vary from 25.5” to 26.5”, but 7 and 8 string versions can boast longer lengths to compensate for their lower-tuned strings that require more tension.
As we’ve explained, a multi-scale guitar’s variable string lengths causes its frets to fan out - but this is actually a very ergonomic feature! Following the natural shape of your fretting hand, fanned frets can offer a better playing experience and they don’t take too long to become accustomed to.Shop All Multi-Scale Guitars!
When it comes to guitar tone, nothing is more important than an amplifier. Although certain guitars and pickups have a distinctive “sound”, it is ultimately an amp that contributes the most in creating your fundamental tone. Finding a guitar amplifier that is appropriate for your favourite style is therefore essential, and if you’re into metal - a high-gain amp is an absolute must!
If you’re unsure what “high-gain” means, it basically describes an amplifier that can achieve searing, saturated distorted sounds suitable for heavier genres. These types of guitar amps rose to prominence in the ‘80s as players sought new ways to form more extreme tones, with the likes of Marshall and Mesa/Boogie producing amplifiers with dedicated high-gain channels and others later following the trend.
Today, you’ll struggle to find a guitar amp that can’t deliver a high-gain sound! A sign of what a contemporary amplifier should be, distorted guitar sounds have become the modern norm and the market is now filled with high-gain amp options to choose from. Whether you go down the affordable digital route, or prefer the spellbinding sounds of traditional valve amplifiers and convincing modellers - you’re practically spoilt for choice!
PRS MT15 Mark Tremonti Amp on Andertons T.V.
The overdrive pedal market is oversaturated with options, and it can become incredibly confusing when shopping for one. Fortunately, there is a type of overdrive pedal that is synonymous with metal guitarists - the iconic Ibanez Tube Screamer!
Introduced in the late ‘70s, this classic circuit is immensely popular for its ability to push the front-end of an amplifier into saturation. Possessing unique EQ characteristics too, a Tube Screamer pedal typically shelves any flabby low-end from an amp and boosts its mid-range for extra clarity and focus. Because of these qualities, Tube Screamer pedals are renowned for interacting well with distorted high-gain guitar amplifiers - “tightening” their sound.
While Ibanez currently boasts an entire lineup of Tube Screamer overdrive pedals, it’s worth mentioning that there are practically dozens of pedal companies out there that have cloned the circuit and offer tweaked versions of it. Horizon Devices (founded by Periphery guitarist Misha Mansoor) produces the popular Precision Drive, which is designed specifically for use with high-gain amps and tips its hat to the classic Tube Screamer formula.
Blindfold Tube Screamer Challenge on Andertons T.V.
It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole when discussing guitar pickups. As the most critical part of an electric guitar, at least tonally, the sound of a pickup is very important and with many different types available - they’re highly-subjective! Humbuckers vs. single-coils, low-output vs. high-output; the list goes on.
However, the passive vs. active pickup argument is by far the most contentious. And generally, it is active pickups that are most closely-tied with metal. Requiring batteries in order to work, active guitar pickups can turn off some people straight away. But you’ll find that their immense output, high sustain and low noise floor perfectly suits metal styles and guitarists who are accustomed to using high-gain amp sounds.Shop All Active Pickups!
Active pickups were innovated by EMG in the ‘80s, and they remain arguably the biggest manufacturer of them to this day. Their pickup designs follow the typical wrapped wire magnet philosophy established in the ‘50s, but feature far less coils to ensure quiet operation. Their low natural output is then compensated for via a battery-powered preamp, which boosts their signal to a normal level.
EMG’s most renowned pickups include the 81, 85 and 60 humbuckers, with Metallica’s James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett among their earliest proponents. Hundreds of other high-profile metal artists like Jim Root (Slipknot), Gary Holt (Slayer, Exodus) and Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society) use various EMG models too - so you know they’re good!Shop EMG Pickups!
EMG has dominated the active pickup market for over 30 years, but Fishman’s recently-released Fluence pickups have really caught on. Acclaimed for their clarity, quietness and multi-voice functions; Fishman Fluence pickups have taken the industry by storm with the likes of Devin Townsend, Tosin Abasi (Animals As Leaders) and Stephen Carpenter (Deftones) jumping onboard, as well as multiple guitar brands fitting Fishman’s pickups in their production models.
Although Fishmans require batteries, they are engineered in a completely different way to EMGs or passive pickups. Rather than employing a traditional wire-wrapped magnet, Fluence pickups are made using modern circuit board manufacturing processes and feature a layered pickup core with multiple coils. They are therefore made with more consistency and are less prone to interference - essential when using distorted tones.
Fishman vs. EMG Blindfold Pickup Challenge on Andertons T.V.
Unbeknownst to some; a guitar pick is incredibly important when it comes to tone, feel and technique. And if you’re a metal player, some riffs and solos are difficult to master unless you have a plectrum that helps you to play at your best. Dunlop guitar picks are considered the industry standard, but a couple of their plectrum designs are particularly popular with metal players - the ‘Jazz III’ and ‘Flow’.
Dunlop’s Jazz III is a true metal staple, despite its deceiving name. Used by thousands of guitarists all over the world, the Jazz III is known for its small size and ergonomically-contoured edges that allow for ultimate playing precision. The petite Jazz III pick is therefore associated with shredders who adore its controllable feel.
However, Dunlop’s recently-released Flow series of plectrums is picking up (pardon the pun) pace with players. Similarly-shaped to the Jazz III but with a more conventional size, the Flow pick offers an incredibly smooth and friction-free feel that glides beautifully over a guitar’s strings - ultimately letting you play faster and more accurately. These qualities can be attributed to the Dunlop Flow pick’s uniform bevel, sharp tip and low-profile grip.Shop All Dunlop Guitar Picks!
Want To Learn More?
For more information on the topics mentioned in this guide, check out our related articles:
- Guide to 7, 8 & 9 String Guitars
- Ultimate Guide to Guitar Pickups
- Active vs. Passive Pickups – What Are Their Differences?
- Fishman Fluence vs. Bare Knuckle vs. EMG Guitar Pickups
- Headless Guitars: Why Are They So Popular?