I already know what you’re going to say.
“How can you make a list of the best metal guitarists of all time without so-and-so?”
Or “Why did so-and-so make the list? He’s barely average.”
And that’s all great.
I love to hear feedback. But please, keep it civil.
And I’m always happy to add good suggestions to the list. Just let me know in a comment below.
Now let’s get to the actual list. Keep reading for my list of the best heavy metal guitar players in history.
Best Metal Guitarists Of All Time
The following guitarists are the ones I chose as the best ever. As mentioned, I know not everyone will agree and I am happy to hear suggestions. Ideally, without wishing a violent death upon me.
Iron Maiden is, without any doubt, one of the most influential metal bands of all time. And the longest-lasting lineup features three guitar players. Although he is not the longest-running guitarist, and certainly not the original one either, Adrian Smith helped change the game in modern metal music.
With obvious blues rock roots, Smith added something new into the band’s work. With his lead parts, he shows incredible phrasing, while his approach to playing riffs added more elements than just the straightforward chugging.
Speaking of chugging, Metallica frontman James Hetfield is the absolute master of it. Firstly, there’s his incredible ability to come up with some of the finest and most innovative riffs in the genre. And he plays those riffs with some of the most insane downpicking that impresses guitar players and guitar fans of all different genres.
This is all combined with his incredible ability to sing rhythmically challenging vocal lines at the same time as he plays his guitar. It should come as no surprise that Hetfield also features in our list of the best rhythm guitarists of all time.
Teaming up with James in Metallica is Kirk Hammett. Together, they’ve created and performed some of the finest metal songs in history.
In addition to complementing Hetfield’s work, Kirk has some of the most memorable lead parts, not just in metal but modern music as a whole. His most exciting stuff comes on Metallica’s …And Justice for All record, as well as Metallica’s self-titled album, also known as the so-called Black Album.
To put it simply, Zakk Wylde is an absolute beast. The uncompromised riffage combined with pinch harmonics and no-compromise pentatonic solos is what made his work so popular.
On top of that, he adds super aggressive vibratos, which is what makes his works with Ozzy Osbourne and Black Label Society so memorable.
Although Randy wasn’t your usual metal guy, his writing and performing skills were just something else. In his early 20s, he was able to pull off things that no other guitar player was doing.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that he helped reinvent the instrument in the 1970s and the 1980s. Well, that’s what you get when a classical guitarist embarks on a heavy metal journey.
The 1980s brought so many impressive virtuosic players that we often refer to as shredders. However, Marty Friedman took this concept much further.
Instead of focusing just on speed for the sake of it, he made every note count. This is especially noticeable with his work in Megadeth, particularly in his legendary lead part in Tornado of Souls, which (to the surprise of no one) made our list of the best heavy metal guitar solos.
Where the 1960s and 1970s psychedelic-infused proto-metal bands stopped, Matt Pike took over with his work in Sleep and High on Fire. It’s his massive and incredibly filthy tone, paired with his very determined and no-nonsense playing, that made such a difference. His music combines classic early metal with thrash and death subgenres, all while retaining old-school bluesy elements in there.
You won’t ever find a guitar player like Brent Hinds. He’s one of the most creative guys in metal, and his work is all over the place, and yet so perfect at the same time.
He’s the key component of Mastodon’s works. Interestingly enough, he started out in country music, which you can also hear quite often in his choice of notes.
If there ever was a perfect shredder in metal, then it just has to be Kiko Loureiro. Overall, he is one of the most diverse and skilled guitar players of all time.
There’s so much dedication and precision behind every single note that he writes or plays. A lot of guitar players went through Megadeth, and all of them were mind-blowing. But Kiko is on another level.
Speaking of Megadeth, the band’s founder, leader, and frontman, Dave Mustaine, is one of the most influential and skilled guitar players in the genre. Although he mostly focuses on the rhythm side of things, Mustaine is an all-around incredible musician, capable of writing and performing some of the most impressive stuff in metal.
There’s no need to go on about the massive impact that Judas Priest made. What’s important to mention here is the fact that Glenn Tipton played a crucial role in the band’s style and sound. While there are plenty of guitar players from the 1970s and the 1980s who impacted metal music, Tipton’s works are somewhat overlooked. And unrightfully so.
While the focus was often on Kerry King, it’s Jeff Hanneman who came up with some of Slayer’s greatest works. It was his uncompromised approach to metal that made a massive change within the genre. And while he might not be praised for being one of the most skilled lead players, you won’t be able to find a guitarist who has come up with the kind of stuff that Hanneman did.
Dimebag Darrell’s tragic passing was not only a loss for metal fans, but the whole world of music as well. In the early 1990s, Pantera brought in exactly what was needed to revive rock ‘n’ roll. What we ended up calling “groove metal” was a game-changer back in the day.
And Dimebag’s guitar works, paired with his brother’s insane drumming, were something that people had never heard at that point. Famously he was also well-known for his use of solid-state amps instead of tube-driven ones.
Without Tony Iommi, we wouldn’t have this list at all. It was his works from the early 1970s that started it all. Deeply rooted in blues, Iommi’s riffs were incredibly sinister, and the lead parts retained the British blues’ expressiveness. He may not have made our list of the best blues guitar players, but that’s because he belongs on this list and the list of great blues guitarists is stacked.
As time went on, both he and Black Sabbath evolved. The eras changed. He went through different stylistic changes, but you could always notice that it was Tony Iommi. And his riffs and lead parts were always pushing things forward in metal. He’s an absolute master of the genre.
Best Heavy Metal Guitarists: Final Thoughts
As we reach the end of our list of best metal guitarists of all time one thing is abundantly clear: however you feel about my picks, the impact of these iconic guitarists is undisputed.
Their unparalleled skill, innovation, and raw passion have not only inspired countless musicians, but have also forged a sonic legacy that continues to resonate with fans around the globe.
As we pay homage to the premiere heavy metal guitar players in history, we celebrate their enduring influence and the enduring power of their electrifying artistry.
If you enjoyed this rundown, you might also like our article on the best jazz guitarists ever. And if you plan to one day break into a list such as this one, go ahead and check out our article discussing the best guitar brands for heavy metal music. There are some great ones that actually cost surprisingly little.