Heavy metal gained popularity in the early 70s and has transformed into various genres since then. Heavy metal guitarists are generally known for their “in your face” guitar solos and heavy distortion. There are so many insanely skilled metal guitarists out there that compiling this list was very difficult and took a lot of thought to narrow down the best of the best. But without further ado, here are the best 25 metal guitarists of all time!
25 best metal guitarists of all time
Here is my ultimate list of the 25 best metal guitarists to ever rock the stage!
25. Vivian Campbell | Dio/Def Leppard
Vivian Campbell has an impressive resume as a heavy metal guitarist. He started out as the lead guitarist for Dio in 1982 and immediately showed the world he could melt faces. He eventually replaced the late Steve Clark as the lead guitarist for Def Leppard in 1992. He is known for his fast, shredding guitar solos.
Best riff: Guitar solo from “Rainbow in the Dark”
Rainbow in the Dark is Dio’s biggest hit, and Vivian Campbell’s guitar solo solidifies the song as one of the great 80s heavy metal songs.
24. James Hetfield | Metallica
James Hetfield may be Metallica’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, but he is by no means an inferior player. He is known for his driving, down-picking rhythmic riffs, strong power chords, and precise chord progressions.
Best riff: All riffs in “Master of Puppets”
Master of Puppets was one of the first Metallica songs I listened to. The riffs in this song are perfectly manicured, and the song is an excellent example of what heavy metal should sound like.
23. Kerry King | Slayer
Kerry King was a pioneer of thrash metal. He specializes in intense, fast playing style, head-banging rhythm parts, and speedy shredding guitar solos. His playing has influenced bands like Pantera, Cannibal Corpse, and Slipknot.
Best riff: Solo from “Born on Fire”
King’s solo in this song is mouth-watering. The ascending tapping riff mixed with the heavy distortion and perfectly placed bends makes for a top-notch guitar solo.
22. Synyster Gates | Avenged Sevenfold
Synyster Gates trained in jazz and classical guitar, which you can hear in his riffs and solos. He has precision in his playing that is unmatched in the metal genre. Avenged Sevenfold’s music is technical, catchy, and overall impressive, thanks to Gates’s guitar playing.
Best riff: Solo from “Afterlife”
I love this solo. Gates has unique control over his guitar and is able to deliver an exciting distorted sound without compromising the annunciation of the notes.
21. Angus Young | ACDC
ACDC was one of the pioneers of heavy metal, and Angus Young and his iconic Gibson SG have brought us some of the most classic guitar riffs of all time.
Best riff: Main riff of “Thunderstruck”
What a classic tune. Young’s one-handed shredding riff may not be the most technically complex, but it will eternally be a heavy metal staple.
20. Marty Friedman | Megadeth
Marty Friedman joined Megadeth in 1990 and recorded on their iconic album “Rust in Peace.” His style quickly became an iconic part of the Megadeth sound. He is a master of the arpeggio and shredding.
Best riff: Solo from “Tornado of Souls”
I’d put this as one of the best guitar solos of all time. The arpeggios, bending, and tapping are all perfectly placed.
19. Mick Mars | Motley Crue
Mick Mars may be a heavy metal guitarist, but he is deeply influenced by blues guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. His riffs are characteristic of their driving distortion and rhythmic feel.
Best riff: Riffs from “Dr. Feelgood”
Mick Mars’s riffs in this song are sure to get you tapping your foot and headbanging. The solo is also a crowd-pleaser with the classic screaming licks iconic of the 80s.
18. Tom Morello | Rage Against The Machine
Tom Morello has a unique guitar playing style that consists of heavy use of effects, feedback, tapping, and dives. He describes himself as a “DJ” guitarist because of the creative sound effects he uses in his playing.
Best riff: Main riff of “Know Your Enemy”
This is a prime example of Tom Morello delivering a perfect guitar riff. The mix between the heavily reverbed intro riff and the clear-cut distorted main riff gives “Know Your Enemy” a lot of character.
17. Adam Jones | Tool
Jones has a progressive metal style and is inspired by grunge and alternative music. He frequently plays in drop tunings using the low string for a droning effect. Jones has a unique sound that is easily recognizable.
Best riff: Main riff from “Lateralus”
Don’t let the slow build-up in “Lateralus” make you think that it is not a technical song. Go ahead and try and figure out the time signature. The song is in 9-8-7, meaning there is one measure of 9/8, one of 8/8, and one of 7/8.
16. Jim Root | Slipknot
Jim Root is a very versatile guitarist that helped shape Slipknot’s sound. His playing is a mix of low-end riffing and power chords, as well as insanely fast, face-melting guitar solos. He uses very technical riffs, progressions, and scales to form a unique style.
Best riff: Solo from “Welcome”
This insanely technical solo is speedy, but the notes are placed with purpose, which I think is rare with guitar solos like this one. Metal guitarists often arpeggiate just for the sake of sounding cool, without really thinking about the notes they are playing. This is not the case with Jim Root.
15. Chuck Schuldiner | Death
The late Chuck Schuldiner was the godfather of death metal. His guitar playing and style opened the door for the entire genre. He is known for his minor harmonic arpeggios, deep heavy riffs, and thought-out guitar solos.
Best riff: Intro riff from “ The Philosopher”
By no means is the intro to “The Philosopher” Schuldiner’s most complex guitar riff, but the arpeggio works very well in the song and is a great way to lead in a heavy death metal song.
14. John Petrucci | Dream Theater
John Petrucci is an extremely technical guitar player. He uses perfectly placed artificial harmonics to play in the song’s key and complicated muting techniques. He has expert precision and has very accurate rhythm. His long guitar solos are enjoyable and incredibly skilled.
Best riff: Solo from “Learning To Live”
This solo is jazzy with a fusion-like feel. As Petrucci riffs on the complex chord progression, he shows off his music theory knowledge and ear for music without compromising the music’s overall sound.
13. Adrian Smith | Iron Maiden
Adrian Smith helped lay the foundation for modern heavy metal guitar playing. He integrated his blues background with techniques like arpeggios and tapping to form the iconic Maiden sound. He is very melodic with his playing, and although it is heavily distorted, I find Iron Maiden riffs very relaxing.
Best riff: Main riff from “Wasted Years”
The staccato tremolo from the beginning of this song is a classic Adrian Smith riff.
12. Buckethead | Buckethead
Buckethead is extremely versatile and has played many different music styles. While he has been a solo instrumentalist for most of his career, he has also shared the stage with other musical groups. His music spans decades, and his guitar playing features complex riffing techniques and variations on melodies that cease to bore listeners.
Best riff: Beginning to end of “Soothsayer”
This song is a master piece. Even if you aren’t a huge Buckethead fan, you have to admit that his guitar playing is stunning in the song.
11. Zakk Wylde | Black Label Society/Ozzy Osbourne
Zakk Wylde plays loud and proud and prefers to play naturally rather than using classic metal guitarist techniques such as whammy bars, tapping, or sweeping. Wylde has a very successful guitar-playing career and even has filled in for the legendary “Dimebag” Darryl recently as Pantera reunited.
Best riff: Solo from “Miracle Man”
Absolutely zero complaints with Zakk Wylde’s SCREAMING guitar licks in this song. Love it.
10. Dave Mustaine | Megadeth
Dave Mustaine was actually the original lead guitarist for Metallica, but he was kicked out of the band before they recorded their first album, “Kill Em All.” He then went on to form thrash metal Megadeth. He is a very skilled guitar player who has written almost all of Megadeth’s popular catalog. He is considered one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time. His fast, complex riffs and technical picking set him apart from others in the thrash metal genre.
Best riff: Main riff from “Last Rites/Loved To Deth”
Dave Mustaine once said this riff is one of the riffs he is the proudest of. He said, “That’s one of my favorites because it’s really difficult to play, and it’s got a really cool funky rhythm pattern to it.”
9. Kirk Hammet | Metallica
Kirk Hammet has been the lead guitarist of Metallica since 1983. He plays fast and powerfully, and Metallica’s music would not be the same without him as their long-time guitarist. He is influenced by blues rock which you can see if you break down the theory of his solos. He uses lots of minor pentatonic and harmonic minor scales.
Best riff: Solo from “One”
“One” is a classic Metallica ballad that has become timeless. Kirk Hammet’s solo at the end of the song is face-melting and a great way to close out the awesome song.
8. Jeff Hanneman | Slayer
Hanneman’s guitar playing was critical in defining Slayer as a band. He is recognized as one of the best technical heavy metal guitarists of all time. His solos are ridiculously fast, and his shreds were unmatched. He and Kerry King were the primary songwriters of Slayer until Hanneman’s death in 2013.
Best riff: Solo from “Seasons in the Abyss”
This guitar solo is SUPER technical and is a great representation of Jeff Hanneman’s shredding. He loved to incorporate tapping sequences in the middle of a pentatonic riff.
7. Ritchie Blackmore | Deep Purple/Rainbow
Ritchie Blackmore was one of the most foundational guitarists for heavy metal music. Without Deep Purple and Ritchie Blackmore, you would never have had Metallica or Iron Maiden. Blackmore was a classically trained guitarist, which you can definitely hear in his playing. He didn’t just jam out on a blues scale, he had extensive music theory knowledge that he expressed in his solos.
Best riff: Solo from “Stargazer”
One of the best guitar solos of all time, in my opinion. Incredibly precise, exciting, and dynamic. He doesn’t shred for the sake of shredding. Ritchie Blackmore always played guitar with purpose.
6. Jimmy Page | Led Zeppelin
Jimmy Page was another godfather of heavy metal and one of the best guitarists of all time. Led Zeppelin was one of the bands that bridged hard rock to heavy metal, and Page’s playing style was a huge help with that. He had a blues background and was influenced by guitarists such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Page is a technical player that constantly experiments with his sound.
Best riff: Main riff from “Black Dog”
It is difficult to choose the best Jimmy Page riff because there are just so many good ones. “Black Dog” is an excellent example of how Page’s ability to write a simple driving guitar part that could carry a song.
5. Dimebag Darrell | Pantera
“Dimebag” Darrell was influenced by early metal bands such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Van Halen. He was an inventive metal guitarist who incorporated many harmonics, unique picking styles, and scales. Like many guitarists on this list, he is considered a revolutionary metal guitarist who changed music with his playing. He was tragically murdered in the middle of a concert in 2004, and is widely recognized as one of the best metal guitarists of all time.
Best riff: Chorus riff and solo from “Cemetary Gates”
This is my favorite Pantera song, mainly thanks to Darrel’s sexy riffing. The solo is also killer in this song.
4. Dave Murray | Iron Maiden
Dave Murray and Adrian Smith are phenomenal guitar players who helped make Iron Maiden the household name it is today. But Dave Murray, in my opinion, is the better player. His fast tremolo playing, impressive licks, and control over his tone make him one of the best guitar players ever.
Best riff: Solo from “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”
It isn’t even an argument that this is one of Iron Maiden’s best songs. Dave Murray’s solo tells a story and really showcases his skill.
3. Eddie Van Halen | Van Halen
Van Halen was influenced by blues and hard rock guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Ritchie Blackmore. His guitar playing transcended genericization, and he was constantly evolving and improving. He is considered one of the most innovative guitar players of all time. He was a highly technical guitar player, but due to his blues background, he also had a passionate groove in his playing that made him stand out from other metal guitarists.
Best riff: Intro riff from “Panama”
This driving riff is more impressive than it may sound. Eddie Van Halen incorporated harmonics and dives into this riff that is iconic to his style.
2. Tony Iommi | Black Sabbath
Tony Iommi’s work with Black Sabbath is generally considered the first example of heavy metal music. Like many innovative guitar players of his generation, he was heavily influenced by early blues and rock guitarists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Jimi Hendrix. His riffing, soloing, and experimentation helped bring Black Sabbath fame and influenced many metal guitarists.
Best riff: Main riff and solo from “Paranoid”
Everything from the down-picking verses to the heavily distorted solos and riffs makes this one of the best metal songs of all time.
And finally, the best metal guitarist of all time is…
1. Randy Rhoads | Quiet Riot/Ozzy Osbourne
Randy Roads tragically died in a plane crash in 1982 when he was only 25 years old. He popularized two-handed tapping and dive bombs and was an incredibly experimental metal guitarist. He lived a breathed lead guitar and is remembered as one of the most influential metal guitarists ever. He created his own distinct style that changed the metal guitar-playing game forever. His playing can be compared to that of Eddie Van Halen. Ozzy Osbourne has repeatedly stated that Rhoads is the best guitar player he has ever worked with.
Best riff: Solo from “Crazy Train”
Listening to Randy Rhoads’ isolated track from “Crazy Train” is a great way to see just how iconic of a guitar player he was.
If there is a guitarist, you think I am missing or if you have any questions about your musical ventures. feel free to reach out to me! Always happy to help!