The electric guitar has been a cornerstone for metal music since the very beginning, Over the decades, guitarists have continued to develop new techniques to push the envelope of what's possible in the heavy, melodic and technical aspects of the genre we love today with riffs, solos, licks, tone and more.
And just like anything else, there are some people who have poured their lives into their instrument to rise above the rest as masters of their craft.
In no particular order, here are 20 of the very best guitarists to have ever picked up the axe in metal:
Dimebag Darrell (Pantera, Damageplan)
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Easily one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of all time, Dimebag Darrell's work in both Pantera and Damageplan is regarded as some of the most iconic in all of heavy music. The dude knew how to write unforgettable riffs and unbelievable wailing solos, having never taken formal guitar lessons either.
Dimebag was infamously shot and killed on stage during a Damageplan show in 2004, but his legacy will live on forever.
Jeff Hanneman (Slayer)
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Another legendary guitarist we lost too soon was Slayer's Jeff Hanneman, who composed both music and lyrics on every Slayer album until he passed away in 2013 from alcohol-related cirrhosis, which was exacerbated by what was rumoured to be a spider bite.
Hanneman wrote some of the most iconic tracks in metal history, including 'Raining Blood', 'Angel Of Death' and 'South Of Heaven' to name a few, and his influence on heavy music in general can't be ignored.
Herman Li (DragonForce)
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Power metal is all about the guitars, and Herman Li is an absolute monster on the riffstick. Many guitarists use DragonForce's 'Through The Fire And Flames' as a point of aspiration when first starting out, and many don't ever come close; extremely quick tapping, sweep picking, difficult scale runs and some serious whammy bar abuse around make DragonForce's songs incredibly hard to replicate.
Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell)
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The Godfather Of Metal himself lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers in an industrial accident while on the job at the age of 17, but Tony found ways to create some of the best riffs of all time. Using homemade thimbles for his fingers and tuning down to make it easier to bend strings (it also sounded way heavier), Iommi's illustrious career has seen him in the ranks of Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell (Dio) and Jethro Tull.
We're willing to bet that Tony has influenced a lot of other guitarists on this list, and maybe even inspired them to pick up the axe in the first place. All hail the Riff Lord!
Tosin Abasi (Animals As Leaders)
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All three members of Animals As Leaders are virtuosos in their own right, but Tosin Abasi is at the forefront of a new generation of shredders taking things to the next level. Like any true student looking to push the boundaries of their craft, Tosin has put in the work to develop techniques of his own. The most famous of these is the bass slapping-esque "thumping", but he's more recently coined a new technique called "selective picking", which guitarists are now clamoring to learn.
Abasi's sickening level of creativity, skill and musicality is always an absolute joy to watch and listen to.
Muhammed Suimez (Necrophagist)
German Turk guitarist Muhammed Suimez changed the game when Necrophagist dropped their debut album in 1999 - all recorded by Muhammed himself (except for programmed drums), the guitar work at the time was unbelievably advanced, and Muhammed played it all live while doing vocals at the same time.
When you pick up a love for death metal at the age of 12, and draw influence from classical composers like Beethoven, you're bound to write some pretty insane stuff.
Bands like Archspire and Infant Annihilator have since taken extreme metal to new heights, but it's insane to think that Necrophagist's debut album is over 20 years old and still holds up by today's standards.
Misha "Bulb" Mansoor (Periphery)
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Before Periphery released their self-titled debut album in 2010, the band can be traced back to 2005 when founder and guitarist Misha "Bulb" Mansoor began to upload videos from his bedroom of his music onto Meshuggah and John Petrucci message boards, and people really started to take notice of his virtuosic talent.
While Meshuggah are usually credited as the originators of the technical and low-tuned sound, it wasn't until Misha started to use the word 'djent' to describe the chugging and bending guitar tone that it caught on to become an entire genre over the following years.
The mastermind of an entire movement? Yeah, he deserves a spot.
Chuck Schuldiner (Death)
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Death are one of the most legendary metal bands of all time, and guitarist/lead vocalist Chuck Schuldiner was its single constant force amidst frequent member rotations. His lack of musical theory training resulted in an improvisational style that would see him "make" up his own scales (which turned out to be real scales anyway), and use odd fingering positions on the fretboard while shredding up a storm.
Chuck tragically succumbed to brain cancer in 2001 at the age of 34, and the band called it quits without him. He left behind some of the best guitar tones, riffs and metal songs you will ever hear; their final album The Sound of Perseverance is widely-regarded as one of the best death metal albums in existence.
John Petrucci (Dream Theater)
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John Petrucci is virtually unmatched in the world of progressive metal, with an astounding sense of melody, versatility and some of the quickest and most precise guitar work that has ever been seen.
Anyone who's familiar with Petrucci's work with Dream Theater proves that there are levels to this, and you just aren't on his. But of course, practicing 6 hours a day from the age of 12 and then studying at the Berklee College of Music will yield some pretty impressive results.
John's long reign at the top has influenced countless other unreal guitarists like Paul Waggoner (Between The Buried And Me) and Tosin Abasi, who in turn have influenced Petrucci right back!
James Hetfield/Kirk Hammett (Metallica)
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We had to include both Metallica guitarists for the strengths each of them bring to the band's sound; Hetfield's a rock-solid rhythm guitarist with a piston of a down-picking right hand, while Kirk's flashier soloing adds a flavour and depth to the guitar work overall.
'Master Of Puppets', 'Blackened', 'For Whom The Bell Tolls'...damn these guys have written some unbelievable riffs in their day. We have to hand it to Megadeth's Dave Mustaine too, but we feel that these two are a little more consistent.
Willie Adler/Mark Morton (Lamb Of God)
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Both Lamb Of God guitarists compliment each other perfectly, with Mark's monstrous riff-writing ability and Willie's unconventional picking style, the two are an irreplaceable essence in the Lamb Of God formula. Willie says of what he offers the band:
"I think my strength lies in really heavy fucking riffs and playing those riffs super-tight; I’m really stoked on my right hand. If you can write a great riff, that’s the memorable moment, not the crazy noodling you did.”
It's super impressive that they're able to sound so heavy while only playing in drop D tuning as well!
Jason Richardson (All That Remains, Chelsea Grin, Born Of Osiris)
Jason Richardson was quick to demonstrate his prodigious skills, joining the deathcore band All Shall Perish as a live member when he was only 17 years old. Since then, he's held permanent positions in Born Of Osiris and Chelsea Grin, and has now replaced the late Oli Herbert as All That Remains' permanent guitarist.
This dude is extremely fast and technical, and his skills have enabled him to carry on a successful solo career as well. Jason grew up listening to John Petrucci and became a freak at his instrument; what will the next generation of guitarists sound like from listening to Jason?
Nita Strauss (The Iron Maidens, Alice Cooper)
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While Nita might not play "metal" as Alice Cooper's permanent guitarist, don't be fooled - she's one hell of a shredder with a very successful solo career of her own.
Her 2018 debut solo album Controlled Chaos is Nita at her full capacity, sweep picking and running her fingers up and down the fretboard at breakneck speed.
Nita's influence on young girls looking to pick up guitar is fantastic, and as she told Billboard, her fans range from 4 years old to those in their 60s or older, and they want to learn about her playing. She feels flattered that she has “made something that can appeal to this many people.”
Brent Hinds/Bill Kelliher (Mastodon)
Mastodon are a great band all-round, but the the riffs you get with these guys are just so good that it's hard to find anything else to fill the void!
Brent Hinds brings a combined influence of country music and bands like Neurosis and Melvins to the table, while Bill Kelliher locks in with dual harmonising leads and brilliant rhythm sections underneath.
The two know how to write incredibly intricate, but catchy, guitar parts that put Mastodon on top of the heap; there isn't one record of theirs that won't want to make you crack a beer and bang your head.
John 5 (Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie)
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John 5 might be one of the more accomplished guitarists out there, enjoying a successful career with David Lee Roth, Marilyn Manson and now Rob Zombie. In addition to countless other guest spots, John has released nine solo guitar albums to date that showcase some serious technical ability.
John has been known to "play so much guitar that it might not even be healthy", and it's that dedication to his craft that has seen him master a multitude of techniques to make him one of the best guitarists around.
Paul Masvidal (Cynic)
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Paul Masvidal co-founded the progressive metal band Cynic way back in 1987, and his refreshing fusion of metal and jazz guitar work along with odd time signatures has had a massive influence on an entire generation of progressive metal guitarists.
Cynic were one of the 90's best kept secrets, with fans relishing the chance to have something so ahead of its time and forward-thinking without having to share them with a mainstream audience.
Dave Davidson (Revocation)
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What do you get when you have a classically-trained guitarist who loves technical death metal? You get Revocation's frontman Dave Davidson, who is heralded as one of modern metal’s elite guitarists. Dave is the driving force behind the band as it continues to evolve and challenge conventional metal norms.
Polyrhythmic riffing, atonal solos and a clear sense of songwriting and musicality, all while delivering ferocious vocals behind the mic - Dave is an absolute weapon.
Mikael kerfeldt (Opeth)
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Mikael kerfeldt might be one of the most diverse guitarists of all time, which has helped cement Opeth as a jewel in the crown of progressive metal.
His lead guitar work carries an incredible power and emotion, stamping soft acoustic passages and ruinous riffs over odd time signatures and winding rhythms for a sound like no other.
kerfeldt is a master of creating worlds and atmospheres with his instrument, and remains one of the best to this day.
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Hevy Devy is legit - from his explosive and frenetic riffage in Strapping Young Lad, to the wide open soundscapes of his solo material, Devin is an undeniable genius with the guitar.
What's more is that he's able to flawlessly pull off his studio material in a live setting, while still maintaining his legendary vocal performances.
Fredrick Thordendal/Mrten Hagström (Meshuggah)
When we're talking about the evolution of heavy music, you simply can't go past Meshuggah. The band are now famous for pioneering a mind-bending mix of heaviness and technicality which remains unmatched today.
Both Fredrick Thordendal and Mrten Hagström play their polymetered parts with robotic precision, locking in with drummer Tomas Haake perfectly as a monolithic force of odd rhythm.
It's not just the playing side of things which is top shelf either; both Fredrick and Mrten know how to squeeze the heaviest tone out of their instruments possible with the use of expensive custom gear and eight-string guitars to boot.
Wes Borland (Limp Bizkit)
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Jeff Loomis (Nevermore, Arch Enemy)
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Jim Root/Mick Thomson (Slipknot)
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Synyster Gates (Avenged Sevenfold)
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Lucas Mann (Rings Of Saturn)
There you have it! Are there any incredible metal guitarists that we missed? Who are your favourite riff lords? Let us know!
Be sure to also check out our list of the greatest drummers in heavy music!