Updated by Bobby
Updated on February 2nd, 2022
Updated information for the Ibanez Iron Label, APEX series, and Gibson Les Paul Studio to reflect minor changes in parts and availability. Also updated product photos, checked product links for accuracy and made minor changes to article formatting/copy.
Not every guitar is built for speed.
A lot of them are. But how do you know where to find them and which ones will work for you? They all seem to differ between brand and model, where some are designed for speed and lead guitar work, while others might have very different job descriptions.
This post simply focuses on the fast electric guitars.
I've dug out some of the top guitars for shredding, on the market, that are most ideal for the metal genre and speed-focused styles.
Best Guitars for Shredding (top 6 picks)
Ibanez Iron Label RG
Gibson Les Paul Studio
ESP LTD Kirk Hammett Signature
Ibanez JEM77 Steve Vai Signature
Ibanez APEX (Korn Signature)
Fender Jim Root Signature Telecaster
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Watch the article in video form that focuses on just the bullet points and highlights for quick browsing:
1. Ibanez Iron label RG Electric Guitar Series
IDEAL FOR: Lead guitarists, those who prefer a non-tremolo bridge, metal, rock, progressive rock, alternative, low and open tuning fans
In years past, this guitar has come in a six and seven string version. Depending on where you look, the seven string is still available. There's also a floating and non-floating tremolo version. All of these are part of the Iron Label series.
The Iron Label series is one of the best guitars for shredding or playing just about any kind of heavy music. The black RG pictured above gets a spot for a few noteworthy features.
Features of the Ibanez RGIB21
The Ibanez RGIB21 is entirely designed for metal. And while there’s some simplicity that we can all appreciate, the features list is pretty extensive. First note is the neck-through design.
This means that the neck is basically an extension of the core in the guitar’s body, meaning that they’re one component.
Here’s what the actual construction looks like:
Some players don’t prefer the neck-thru design (as opposed to the bolt-on option) because it’s harder to fix or replace the neck if there’s any warping or damage.
So, there is some subjectivity involved with this feature but, I would contend (based on my own experience) that the tone and sustain you get from the neck-thru design is superior to that of a neck that has been simply bolted onto the guitar's body.
The debate exists, but unless you’re worried about changing out the neck at some point (which I wouldn’t be) this should be viewed as a positive feature.
The Ibanez RGIB21 comes in at 1.771" of thickness at the first fret (the nut width).
Here are the rest of the dimensions:
- Scale length: 28"
- Radius: 15.7"
This neck is designed for speed and comfortable playing.
Whether or not you’re playing guitar solos all the time, the metal guitarist in you will benefit from the added flexibility of the Nitro Baritone neck. The neck is still a little thicker than what you might be used to if you’re familiar with Ibanez Wizard necks.
But it’s not a major difference and should still be considered a thin and playable neck design.
Ibanez treats us to EMG brand pickups, this time with two active Alnico magnets, the EMG 60 at the neck and the EMG 81 at the bridge.
The three-way pickup selector offers the expected tonal difference between the two pickups, as depicted in the following diagram diagram:
The pickups sound fantastic, both with a distorted and clean signal.
They produce an extremely warm and heavy tone that adds a nice “chunk” to lower-fret power chords. It’s also able to break through and add a little bite on the higher notes.
Locking tuners are also included via the Gotoh Magnum Lock machine heads - more specifically, the Gotoh MG-T machine heads.
You can see from the following picture how these tuners lock the strings in place via a double-threaded screw (note that this is an older diagram and may be currently outdated).
It’s not the flashiest of features, but still a major bonus for an already excellent guitar. Ibanez goes the extra mile here by taking into consideration the type of player that would gravitate to the RGIB21 and buys a premium part from another company to make sure the instrument stays in tune.
They deserve major props for that, because most of us wouldn’t have noticed if this guitar didn’t have name brand locking tuners.
The Ibanez RGIB21 accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s a monster of a metal guitar and is entirely well-suited for that line of work, with features that go above and beyond the call of duty. It’s an ideal shredding guitar.
2. Gibson Les Paul Studio Electric Guitar
IDEAL FOR: Lead guitarists, metal, hard rock, classic rock, rhythm players and those who need a good metal guitar with versatility
Some might view the Gibson Les Paul as a more vintage and classic rock-leaning guitar, but the Les Paul’s presence in metal has been undeniable during the past few decades and continues today.
Adam Jones of Tool, Billy Howerdel of A Perfect Circle, Tom Morello, and a number of other prolific hard rock players have relied on Gibson Les Pauls throughout their careers.
The Les Paul should not be limited to the lighter side of rock and roll.
It’s versatility is such that it can handle an almost limitless range of genres and styles, which has been the driving force of its longstanding popularity. The Studio Les Paul makes our list primarily because of its price point. Compared to other Les Paul models, the Studio is basic and not as flashy as more expensive options like the Gibson Les Paul Custom.
Nevertheless, it’s a real Gibson (not Epiphone) Les Paul and entirely affordable.
What makes it good for shredding? Let’s look at some features.
If you’ve ever held a Les Paul you’ll notice they feel dense and heavier than most guitars.
While the newer versions of the Studio Les Paul have what they call "modern weight relief" they're still made of dense mahogany with a carved maple top and a slight contour (more expensive models have an “enhanced contour”). This gives it a lot of sustain and that classic Les Paul “ring” you get with solos and higher notes.
Whenever you have a "top" piece of wood on an electric guitar, that's a good thing.
Gibson has also slimmed down the neck a little more than a traditional Les Paul to make speed more achievable.
Here are the measurements of the 2021 model:
- Nut width: 1.69"
- End of board width: 2.26"
This makes for a fairly thin neck, even beating out some of the measurements of the Ibanez necks we've seen.
The Les Paul Studio uses a 490R and 498T pickup at the neck and bridge position, which are both made in-house by Gibson.
It should be pointed out that these pickups are made by Gibson but they’re not “stock.” Gibson actually sells these outright and are themselves a reputable manufacturer of pickups and guitar parts that folks buy as upgrades for other guitars.
So, don’t assume the same thing you would about the Ibanez stock pickups.
The Gibson brand humbuckers are the real deal and a major selling point for the Les Paul Studio.
As with most Gibson Les Pauls, you get two tone and volume knobs, one for each pickup, which makes a surprisingly helpful difference when switching between the two. This configuration effectively gives you kill-switch capability since you can cut the volume of one pickup all the way down, then use the pickup selector to switch back and forth.
A pick-guard and faded vintage finish complete the look. Without knowing that it was a studio model, there’s little chance that anybody could tell the difference between this and the more expensive Gibson Les Pauls.
With the pickups and Gibson’s historical reputation, we're getting one of the strongest metal guitars available.
It's great guitar that Gibson has kept fairly affordable, which should catch the eye of budget guitar buyers who want to get the Gibson name tag but, didn’t think they could afford it. We like the simplicity and will take the tone and body design all day long.
3. ESP LTD KH602 Kirk Hammett Signature Guitar
IDEAL FOR: Lead guitarists, metal, hard rock, classic rock, rhythm players, and Metallica fans
Kirk Hammett’s signature ESP LTD boasts a solid Alder body and a neck-thru design, which together gives this guitar a lot of thick, low-end and sustain.
If you want metal tone, Alder is a good tonewood option since it’s expensive and tends to exaggerate the low-end frequencies. The extra sustain comes from the neck-thru design.
Even if you're not a huge Metallica fan (I’m really not) the foundations of this instrument could still be ideal for you, especially if you want a good shredding guitar that can also handle the lows of rhythm play. It’s kind of a cross between the thickness of a PRS and the speed of an Ibanez S Series model.
Let's start with the EMG pickups.
The neck pickup is an EMG 60, while the bridge pickup is an EMG 81. The EMG 60 uses ceramic magnets and is recommended for the neck position since it tends to produce a fatter tone with aperture coils that are positioned closely together.
You can’t really see the position of the coils since the pickup is completely encased but, just be aware that this does make a difference in your tone.
The EMG 81 boasts similar specs, with close pickup aperture and ceramic magnets. Though, I would speculate that the magnets used in the 81 are simply more powerful since it’s said to be suited for the bridge position with more intense highs and more of a natural “searing" quality.
The 81/60 combo is considered one of EMG’s more versatile pickup sets.
Floyd Rose & Other Features
The licensed Floyd Rose tremolo system is included along with locking tuners, all with black hardware that matches the color of the guitar’s finish.
Combined with the charcoal gray EMGs this makes for a menacing and metal look. Other notable perks include two volume knobs (one for each pickup), a tone knob, and a three-way pickup selector.
Read more: Electric guitars with a Floyd Rose
Like the Studio Les Paul, the two volume knobs effectively gift you kill-switch capabilities by simply lowering the volume of one pickup and rocking the selector back and forth. Having the skull and crossbones as inlays might be good or bad depending on your tastes.
I don’t like them but, it’s not enough to deter my enthusiasm about the rest of the guitar.
The KH-602 is all metal, incurring cost only for features that would benefit the shredders and metal heads among us. Unless you’re concerned about what might be considered limited versatility, there aren’t any major drawbacks to this instrument, especially in the context of metal. If you like Hammett’s tone, chances are you’re going to love this guitar.
Second Tier (Honorable Mentions)
To expand on our list of shred-friendly metal guitars, I'm adding an "honorable mentions" section that gives you some additional recommendations. With a few exceptions, the price points and targeted features are the same as the aforementioned guitars.
Here's what we'll cover:
Guitars in the Second Tier
- Ibanez JEM77P (Steve Vai Signature)
- Ibanez APEX30 (Korn Signature)
- Fender Telecaster Jim Root Signature
The pickups you’ll want to look for are primarily from the following three brands:
4. Ibanez JEM77P Steve Vai Signature
Yes, it’s expensive.
But, you’re getting a lot of guitar.
DiMarzio pickups, the Edge Zero tremolo system, and a neck profile that’s built for speed make Steve Vai’s signature model an easy inclusion.
The measurements include:
- Radius: 15.7"
- Scale length: 25.5"
- Nut width: 1.693"
The Dimarzio pickups are actually two different models.
- DiMarzio Gravity Storm (H) Neck Pickup (Passive/Alnico)
- DiMarzio Evolution (S) Mid Pickup (Passive/Alnico)
- DiMarzio Gravity Storm (H) Bridge Pickup (Passive/Alnico)
The DiMarzio Gravity Storm has a mid to heavy tone profile that’s both sharp and thick. It’s also a Steve Vai signature piece, getting its name from a song on The Story of Light album.
The bridge and the neck version have slightly different tone profiles, though both use an Alnico magnet.
The Edge Zero floating tremolo is a serviceable alternative to the Floyd Rose and not much cheaper if you compare the two. It's basically the in-house Ibanez take on a Floyd Rose locking tremolo system.
Other perks are an included hardshell case and the “Tree of Life” fret inlays.
It’s an ideal guitar for the metal lead player or speedster.
- DiMarzio Pickups
- Hardshell Case Included
- Edge Zero Tremolo System
5. Ibanez APEX200 and APEX20 7-String
Ibanez has made multiple versions of James Shaffer's APEX signature, where the most recent version is the APEX30. In years past the APEX200 was the “full” version of the instrument, with DiMarzio pickups, a solid Alder body, and the Edge 7 tremolo system.
You can still find the APEX200 on Reverb.
In contrast, the APEX30 is somewhat cheaper, retailing at $1600 compared to the $2600 you needed for the APEX200.
Whenever you have a pricing discrepancy like that it’s often clear where the manufacturer is cutting costs. In some cases, the losses that come with the cheaper guitar are acceptable and in others it’s not.
In this case both guitars give you good value at their allotted price points.
The APEX30 surprises by keeping the DiMarzio Blaze humbucker set. However the Alder body gets traded out for Nyatoh and the Edge tremolo system is removed in favor of an EverTune bridge.
And while there are certainly changes within the series, we still really like the APEX30 for those (likely many of you) who don’t want to spend $2600 on a 7-string.
Besides, it’s not as if $1600 is “cheap.”
- DiMarzio Pickups
- Three-Piece Maple Neck
- EverTune bridge hardware
- Top Maple piece is an underrated upgrade
6. Fender Telecaster Jim Root Signature
Jim Root helped Fender design this Telecaster to his specifications, making it one of the only "metal" Fender guitars on the market.
But, it’s a great option all the same.
EMG pickups are the main attraction and primarily responsible for this guitar’s ability to handle thick strings, low tunings, and Root’s heavy playing style.
The controls take the less-is-more approach with only a volume knob and pickup selector.
At $1500 retail you’ve got to be a minimalist for this guitar to be truly appealing, since you’re going without any kind of tremolo or locking system. Some might also consider the lack of a tone knob to be a negative.
It’s just not a flashy or visibly feature-rich guitar.
That said, it does its job extremely well and could be the perfect fit for a metal head who wants a more straightforward solution.
- EMG Pickups
- Mahogany Body
- Thin Fretboard Design
How You Can Narrow Your Search
To help narrow your search, you can look at the following categories:
- Shred-friendly features (Neck size, pickups, manufacturers intended market, etc.)
- Reputation (Do metal pros use it? Does the community love it?)
- Quality (Hardware, pickups, tonewood?)
Your task when buying a guitar is to get these four categories to harmonize. It’s not just about finding the cheapest or most expensive guitar.
Instead you need:
- A price that fits within your budget.
- Features that fit your ideal guitarist’s profile
- Reputation that assures your purchase.
- Quality that justifies the price tag.
Now, can an article like this one do all this for you?
But it can help narrow your search and help you get a better feel for what to look for. It can increase the odds that you’ll make a good guitar purchase. And it can also save you from spending $1000 (or more) and ending up with something you don’t like.
Guitars for Shredding: What to Look For
What exactly do we need to look for in a metal or shredding guitar? I’m going to give you the three most important categories to focus on:
- Brand & Style
- Fretboard Design
Among the typical guitar quality indicators, these are the three that stand out and have a uniquely significant impact on how well a guitar is suited for metal and speed.
Why, you ask?
Because a good metal guitar should accomplish the following:
- It should look and feel the part.
- It should accommodate fast playing.
- It should be capable of a thick, heavy and modern distorted tones.
We want to look for guitars that are most likely to accomplish these three things. This is where we put our energy and how we determined which guitars would make this list and what models should be on your radar.
What about price?
Now that we’ve covered features, what about our price point?
As I mentioned, it’s always assumed that you have a budget and that you can’t go out and spend $10000 on a guitar.
But I don’t know your budget.
Moreover, most people have varying amounts of money they can - or are willing to - spend on a new guitar. We’ve narrowed to a price range that I believe gives you the best combination of high quality and low cost, usually between $750 and $1800.
Now I know for a lot of people that price is high.
If that’s the case, I’d encourage you to still browse the list with an eye for features and quality markers that you might want to seek out, should you drop to a lower price range.
Read more: Best cheap electric guitars
Plenty of Options Out There
Don’t assume these picks are the only good options.
I’m not in any way inferring that these are “the” best or the end-all when it comes to great metal guitars.
What I am trying to do is provide some direction and show you what I believe (based on research) are some of the most ideal options available to you that fit the established descriptions.
In other words, there are plenty of great guitars out there.
And if you don’t like my picks, there’s nothing saying you can’t find something better if you look elsewhere.
You can take the specs we’ve established and look for something else.
Though most issues that might arise with modern and metal guitar designs could arise with any guitar, there are a couple shopping pitfalls I’d like to point out that can be somewhat unique to this brand of electric guitar.
I believe the prudent buyer would do well to be aware of these issues and plan accordingly.
The Marketing of Cheap Metal Guitars
Young metal music fans and musicians are a common marketing target and thus, often bombarded with cheap, almost toy-like instruments that are made to look the part of metal (often with a bizarre body design) but that have little or no redeemable value.
Some of these guitars are appropriately marketed for kids who need a cheaper “starter” option, so I don’t want to drag down particular brands and models if that's their angle.
Just be aware that these cheaper options are out there and know what quality indicators to look for, so as to filter them out of your prospect pool.
We want to land real instruments, not toys.
Going Too Low
Low cost is a good thing, but you can get too low when buying a guitar.
It’s really difficult for me to advise serious guitar players to spend less than $500 on an electric guitar, because the quality drop is so significant.
Even when you’re dealing in the $600 - $800 range there can be problems.
Look out for the following shortcuts if you go cheaper:
- Cheaper tonewood (laminated parts).
- Stock pickups with no brand name.
- Cheap hardware (bridge, tuners, etc.).
You can’t always prevent all of them, but just decide which cost-cutting techniques you’ll put up with and which ones you’ll actively try to avoid.
If you want to expand your search we’d advise looking at the following brands, none of which have been previously mentioned, here:
- DBZ Guitars
- Kiesel Guitars
- B.C. Rich
Kiesel is primarily a custom shop and makes excellent guitars in reasonable price ranges.
The other three companies have product lines that are a bit more accessible.
All four are known for their heavy metal proclivity.