Of all of rock ‘n’ roll’s many styles, metal is the most brutal, with its high volume, broadening textures and pure drama. No matter the exact sub-genre, metal music is held together by a reliance on loud, riffing guitars and, of course, an inspiriting lead guitarist.
In honor of these electrifying players, Gibson.com counts down our Top 10 Metal Guitarists of All Time, showcasing axemen who pack both fantastic soloing and technical percussion, inspiring generations to keep on shredding.
10. George Lynch (Dokken)
With fantastic solos and a high-energy, guitar-wizard style, George Lynch helped drive Dokken towards mainstream rock success, before the original lineup disbanded, leaving Lynch to pursue his own solo fame. Lynch still issues solo albums regularly, and tracks such as “Rattlesnake” (which packs a pretty snazzy hook from Lynch) and smoky blues-rocker “Son or Scary” off 2011’s Kill All Control show creativity and killer shred-work haven’t run dry from this former headbanger.
9. Dave Murray, Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden)
When Iron Maiden came onto the scene, guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith were quickly recognized for their high-speed agility of soloing, sinuous technique and telepathic rhythm work in partnership together. This duo, so it seemed, were true musical soulmates. Adrian Smith left Iron Maiden after 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, altering the band’s musical chemistry and foreshadowing a grim creative drop for a period. But with Smith and Murray both back in toe, Iron Maiden is at their proggiest, and almost every track on 2010’s The Final Frontier has a riff-heavy chorus that leaves its own stamp.
8. Adam Jones (Tool)
Tool had a talent for capturing the choked up angst of ‘90s alternative America and spitting it out in the form of striking metal songs that had something meaningful to say. Much of that knack had to do with guitarist Adam Jones’ winning combination of heavy riffs, technical brilliance and artsy, experimental passages. With Jones’ unorthodox technique and disciplined aggressive attack, Tool proved that underground metal could be intellectual, emotional, vicious and very commercially popular.
7. Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society)
With a musical backstory that includes playing lead guitar for Ozzy and fronting his own heavy metal group Black Label Society, Wylde is certainly one of the most distinguished metal guitarists in the world. As the axeman for Ozzy, each song became a guitar showcase. Blues-inspired hooks, sky-scraping solos and snarling riffing became something of Wylde’s crowd-pleasing stage shows, and his golden guitar still shines bright in Black Label Society.
6. Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
Guitar icon Eddie Van Halen altered what it means to play electric guitar with Van Halen’s 1978 self-titled debut, creating a dazzlingly, lightning-fast technique with meticulous tapping, hammer-ons, pull-offs and wild-sounding effects. It was madly dramatic, and coupled with theatrical singer David Lee Roth, the style brought metal to a new level of performance art. Flying solo, Eddie also backed other artists’ records, everyone from Michael Jackson (on “Beat It”) to Rodger Waters (“Lost Boys Calling”). With Van Halen’s new album reportedly almost finished, Van Halen interest is at a peak, and Eddie, once again, is stealing the spotlight.
5. Dimebag Darrell (Pantera, Damageplan)
The most popular metal band of the first part of the '90s, Pantera cut through ‘80s hair metal to establish their own unmistakable style. That signature sound largely came from guitarist Dimebag Darrell, whose rhythmic attack and hard-hitting sledgehammer tactic proved metal guitar could shred wildly, but still groove. Tragedy struck on December 8 of 2004, when Darell, then 38, was shot and killed by a concertgoer during a club show in Columbus, Ohio. He’ll always be remembered as one of the most significant engineers of modern metal.
4. John Petrucci (Dream Theater)
When Dream Theater’s rank rose in the early ‘90s, six (at times, seven)-stringer John Petrucci was straight away recognized as one of the most technically proficient guitarists in all of contemporary heavy metal. Even as the band makeup has changed, Petrucci’s hard work and constant drive to push have helped take Dream Theater to new heights with their instruments, delivering imaginative, razor sharp progressive metal music.
3. Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne)
With Randy Rhoads on lead guitar, Ozzy Osbourne's debut solo release, 1980's Blizzard of Ozz, had no chance to fail. The record was one of heavy metal’s supreme releases, very much thanks to Rhoads' blistering playing. While other guitarists of the era emulated Eddie Van Halen, Rhoades stepped out on his own, incorporating classic music into his passages. His untimely death in a freak airplane accident in 1982 remains one of metal’s biggest heartbreaks.
2. Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield (Metallica)
Metallica is the definitive metal band, and Flying V man Kirk Hammett certainly helped secure that tag, shaping the band’s sound on 1984's wildly popular Ride the Lightning and 1986's groundbreaking Master of Puppets. As the years went on, Hammett’s playing evolved and shifted from primarily metal to a soul-filled, near-blues style, locked in with James Hetfield’s metal riffs and shout-y vocals.
1. Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
Tony Iommi’s dark, distinct guitar textures in Black Sabbath helped spearhead the heavy metal movement and its signature massive riffing. “Iron Man” “Black Sabbath” and “Paranoid” boast some of the most memorable riffs of all time, with lumbering heavy metal and crushingly heavy choruses. Iommi’s playing is certainly immortalized through the generations of heavy metal bands that have followed.