Legendary Guitars of Metal: Musicians and Their Beloved Axes, Part 1

From aggressive designs to powerful tones, discover the legendary guitars that became the heartbeat of metal music.

In the electrifying realm of metal, the synergy between a musician and their guitar forms the backbone of every legendary riff and solo. These powerhouse instruments, renowned for their unique designs and thunderous tones amplified by distortion, have found their true masters in the adept hands of prolific musicians such as Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Randy Rhoads who collaborated with Ozzy Osbourne, and the legendary Steve Vai, among others.

From the bold aesthetics of the Warlock to the aggressive stance of the Gibson Flying V, these guitars have been the wingman to the rockstars that wield them, carving out anthems that resound powerfully within the metal community.

The Gibson Flying V: Where Innovation Meets Aggression

Kirk Hammett and the Gibson Flying V guitar
Kirk Hammett (Metallica)

In the metal world, the Gibson Flying V stands as a titan, revered not only for its distinct V-shaped body but also for the aggressive and resonant sounds it can produce. First gracing the stage in 1958, this guitar was Gibson’s endeavour to bring a futuristic edge to their line, and it indeed turned heads and caught the attention of many artists in the genre.

Initially crafted with a Korina wood body, the Flying V transitioned to encompass other materials such as mahogany in later models. Its set neck construction only adds to its allure, offering enhanced sustain and resonance that truly lets the guitar’s powerful voice shine. Adorned with a rosewood or ebony fretboard and fortified with humbucking pickups renowned for their warm tone and reduced noise, it has become a staple in the arsenals of metal and rock guitarists.

Among the eminent musicians entranced by its bold aesthetics and powerful sounds are Kirk Hammett of Metallica and Michael Schenker from UFO and Scorpions. Hammett, particularly in the early days of Metallica, harnessed the aggressive sound of the Flying V to complement his vigorous playing style. Schenker, on the other hand, often wielded a white Flying V, utilizing it to craft melodious lines that showcase the instrument’s versatility.

The Jackson Rhoads: Crafting Aggressive Tones Since 1980

Alexi Laiho and the Jackson Rhoads guitar
Alexi Laiho (Children of Bodom)

The Jackson Rhoads, a masterful blend of innovation and power, has carved its niche in the metal community, striking a chord with musicians seeking a guitar with not only a formidable presence but also a sound that packs a punch. This iconic guitar birthed from the collaboration between Randy Rhoads and Grover Jackson in 1980, quickly became a beacon of aggressive sound and sleek design in the metal genre.

With its offset V-shape, it takes the classic Flying V design a notch higher, offering an aesthetic that is as aggressive as the sounds it produces. Crafted meticulously to meet the stringent demands of metal guitarists, it offers a fast neck and high-output pickups, promising a sound that can dominate any stage. The sharp and aggressive tones it emits have made it a sought-after choice for metal and hard rock enthusiasts.

At its core, the Jackson Rhoads houses a maple neck coupled with a rosewood or ebony fretboard, and its body is commonly sculpted from alder or mahogany. The compound-radius fretboard it harbours facilitates comfortable chording while allowing for speedy lead playing. Equipped with high-output pickups, it is capable of delivering powerful and aggressive tones that resonate well with the metal genre. Adding to its allure is the Floyd Rose tremolo system, which grants artists the freedom to explore extreme vibrato and pitch effects without the worry of detuning.

Among its revered users are Randy Rhoads, the mastermind behind its creation, who wielded it skillfully during his stint with Ozzy Osbourne, Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom, known for his bold custom models adorned with custom inlays, and Phil Demmel, who favoured the Jackson Rhoads during his tenure with Machine Head.

B.C. Rich Warlock: Bold Design and Powerful Sound

Kerry King and B.C. Rich Warlock guitar
Kerry King (Slayer)

In the early 1980s, B.C. Rich introduced the world to a guitar that would soon become synonymous with the brute force and raw power of metal music – the Warlock. This guitar, with its distinctive and bold design, mirrored the aggressive nature of the genre, quickly cementing its place as a staple in the metal arena.

With a body that seems to channel the ferocity of an arrowhead or a stylized “W”, the Warlock makes a bold statement even before a note is played. Its angular structure is not just for show, as it backs up its fierce appearance with a sound that can only be described as heavy and aggressive, perfect for the frantic pace of metal genres.

The Warlock’s inception saw it crafted with a maple neck and a rosewood fretboard, but as it evolved, various kinds of wood like mahogany and alder have been incorporated into its design, broadening its tonal palette. One of its standout features is its neck-through construction, which provides better sustain and resonance, a critical aspect in the world of metal music. The smooth playing experience is enhanced by the rosewood or ebony fretboard, paired with high-output pickups that are capable of delivering tones that are both powerful and aggressive.

Stepping into the spotlight with the Warlock are notable artists like Kerry King of Slayer, whose custom models adorned with tribal or graphic finishes have become legendary, and Mick Thomson from Slipknot, who in the band’s nascent days wielded the Warlock to complement their heavy sound, showcasing the guitar’s capability to deliver thunderous performances.

ESP Explorer: The New Age Icon of Metal Music

James Hetfield and ESP Explorer guitar
James Hetfield (Metallica)

In the late 1980s, the metal genre witnessed the arrival of a guitar that would soon carve its niche as a cornerstone of the metal soundscape – the ESP Explorer. A modern incarnation of the classic Explorer design, the ESP EX series brought with it a fresh and aggressive stance that resonated well with metal enthusiasts. Its sharp and angular body not only added a contemporary flair but also embodied the intense and heavy tone that has become synonymous with metal music.

The ESP Explorer has been a favourite among metal rhythm guitarists, owing to its remarkable sustain and the heavy, thick tones it delivers, making it a staple in the genre. Crafted predominantly with a mahogany body and neck, the guitar promises not just durability but also contributes to its famed heavy tone and sustain. The inclusion of a rosewood or ebony fretboard further elevates the playing experience, offering a rich tonal complexity that’s hard to match.

One of the standout features of the ESP Explorer is its thin “U” shaped neck, which allows for comfortable and rapid playability, a necessary trait for the swift finger movements that metal music often demands. This guitar is often outfitted with high-output pickups like the EMG 81/60, renowned for their aggressive tone and compatibility with high-gain setups. Complementing this setup is a Tune-O-Matic bridge and tailpiece that not only adds to the sustain but also ensures tuning stability, allowing for seamless performances.

The ESP Explorer has found staunch proponents in artists like James Hetfield of Metallica, who has even graced several signature models including the ESP Snakebyte. Another notable aficionado is Max Cavalera, known for his stints with Soulfly and Sepultura, where the ESP Explorer became a crucial part of his arsenal, amplifying the heavy sounds that these bands are renowned for.

The Ibanez RG Series: Where Speed Meets Power

Dino Cazares and the Ibanez RG Series guitar
Dino Cazares (Fear Factory)

In the late 80s, the world of metal music welcomed a new powerhouse into its fold – the Ibanez RG series. Introduced in 1987, this series quickly became a staple in the metal genre, especially recognized for its sleek, contoured body and pronounced sharp horns, explicitly designed to meet the rigorous demands of a metal guitarist. The RG series stands as a beacon of innovation, seamlessly blending aesthetics with functionality, a characteristic that resonates perfectly with the metal community.

The guitar has carved a niche for itself, particularly admired for its thin and flat neck, famously referred to as the “Wizard” neck. This feature facilitates fast and intricate playing, a vital necessity in the fast-paced world of metal music. Complementing this is a potent set of pickups, often sourced from DiMarzio or Ibanez’s in-house range, capable of delivering a sound that’s both powerful and aggressive, cutting through even the densest of mixes with a bright and assertive tone.

Further enhancing its allure are its rosewood or maple fretboards, equipped with jumbo frets that ease note bending and facilitate swift playing styles. A distinguishing feature of many models within this series is the inclusion of the Ibanez Edge tremolo system, a remarkable addition that allows for extreme uses of the whammy bar without detuning, promising a stable and exhilarating performance each time.

The RG series has found fervent admirers among legends of the metal world. Steve Vai, a long-time user, has even embraced his own signature model, the Ibanez JEM, which draws heavily from the RG series. Similarly, Joe Satriani has lent his name to the JS series, which shares many features with the RG series. Other notable aficionados include Mick Thomson of Slipknot, renowned for his preference for the RG8 model, an 8-string guitar, and Dino Cazares of Fear Factory, who frequently opts for the 7-string models of the series, adding a formidable presence to their heavy soundscapes.

Metal’s Revered Axes: A Closure to the Tale of Legendary Guitars

The guitars we’ve journeyed through in this feature – the Gibson Flying V, Jackson Rhoads, Warlock, ESP Explorer, and the Ibanez RG series – have not only echoed the visceral energy of metal but have also become icons in their own right. Each of these masterpieces, with their unique designs and powerful sound, have found their match in the hands of legendary musicians, fostering anthems that resonate profoundly within the metal community.

As we bid adieu to these titans that have graced numerous stages and fostered countless iconic moments in metal history, we invite you to join us in the continuation of this musical odyssey. Ready your senses to venture further into the realm of iconic guitars in the metal scene in our next installment, where we uncover more guitars that have sculpted the soul-stirring narratives of metal music. A world where craftsmanship meets legacy awaits.