If you’ve ever heard a Hendrix tune, rocked out to Metallica or pogoed to the Sex Pistols, you’ve at least heard a metal guitar.
Sure, the acts listed above are old-timey references; music has gotten so much more diverse, hasn’t it? But would you believe that today’s music still draws on the influence of those big names and others?
The metal guitar came about at a time of great social upheaval, when youths on both sides of the pond and all across Europe were rebelling against the niceness of their parents’ musical tastes.
The loud, screeching – almost discordant sounds made by this guitar and amplified to over 100 decibels seemed, in many ways, to reflect the simmering anger of the times, giving it license to spill over in concert arenas and in the streets.
They were exciting, invigorating times, fraught with danger and exploration, all done to the tune of a metal guitar.
Come with us now as we explore this instrument of chaos, this weapon of liberation… this guitar that stands for all of the anger of a generation – and how it has changed its tune over time.
The History of the Metal Guitar
It all started during the Big Band era (1933-47).
As orchestras grew, adding ever more trumpet players and other brass instruments, the acoustic guitars of the time, the only type of guitar available, were effectively drowned out by the louder instruments.
Prototype electric guitars had already been designed but without much success. Early electric guitars, used in jazz ensembles, were hollow-body archtop acoustic guitars with electric transducers built in.
The first commercially successful amplified guitar was made in 1931; it later became known as a ‘frying pan’.
By the time George Beauchamp, the pioneering manager of the National Guitar Corporation applied for a patent electrical stringed instrument, other manufacturers were designing their own electric guitars.
His patent was issued in 1937, in case you were curious.
While Gibson’s ES-150 1936 model electric guitar, featuring a single-coil, hexagon-shaped ‘bar’ pickup was quite successful, it wasn’t until Les Paul built his solid-body ‘log guitar’ that things really got cooking.
The Gibson Les Paul was introduced in 1952 and music would never be the same again.
The 50s and 60s saw a revolution in music; gone were the big bands, replaced by what became known as popular music.
Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ hit, Move It, is credited as being the first British rock’n’roll hit, American style. If you watch the video closely, you’ll notice something about the two guitars…
We’ll give you a hint: how many strings do they have? And do you know how many strings a flamenco guitar usually has?
The Different Types of Metal Guitar
Naturally, when we say ‘metal guitar’ we mean guitars used for metal music – heavy metal, thrash, speed, grindcore, black, power, death and doom. Those names sound rather ominous but the music is really not so bad.
All of these types of metal music and others not mentioned all rely on the electric guitar. The differences lie in how they are constructed, how many strings they have and the sound effects it can make.
For instance, the solid-body guitar relies on electric pickups and an amplifier to transmit its sound. If you have such a guitar handy, try strumming it without plugging it in; the sound is flat and hollow.
A chambered-body guitar helps achieve a quasi-acoustic tone while still retaining the essential characteristics and sound of an unchambered guitar. Another advantage is that it is often a bit lighter than solid-body guitars.
A semi-acoustic guitar has roughly the same depth as a solid-body guitar but its body is hollow and the electronic pickups are on the body rather than built-in.
Like its fully acoustic counterpart, the semi-acoustic is made from thin sheets of wood. While its acoustic properties are not sufficient for a live concert performance, the guitar player may unplug it and strum it as they would a classical guitar.
If you were playing at an ‘unplugged’ session, you would likely want a full hollow-body guitar. They are considered electric guitars because they have fitted pickups. And, like semi-acoustic guitars, they have f-shaped sound holes.
An electric-acoustic guitar may be outfitted in several different ways: a piezoelectric pickup under the instrument’s bridge or on the bridge mounting plate, or they may have a condenser microphone inside their body.
This type of electric guitar is considered more an acoustic instrument than an electric one because the pickups transmit vibration from the guitar body rather than from the strings.
Metal Guitar’s Technical Aspects
Solid-body guitars are crafted from a solid block of wood while others are constructed more traditionally, with sheets of wood and braces. The chambered-body guitar starts as a solid block of wood but the chambers are cut out during the making of the guitar.
The pickups, so-called because they pick up the strings’ vibrations can be placed either at the bridge, the neck or both.
The bridge itself may be fixed to the guitar’s body or spring-loaded. The latter construction permits the addition of a device known by several names: vibrato bar, tremolo bar or, more slangily, a whammy bar. Players can distort the notes or chords by activating it.
The neck of the guitar may be attached in three different ways: set-in, neck-through or bolt-on.
The last is rather easy to visualise but neck-through is more difficult to imagine. With this type of mounting, the neck becomes the raised core of the body, extending down the length of the guitar.
Set-in necks are glued to the body, a bit like the traditional guitar.
Strings for Electric Guitarists
Whereas a classical guitar generally has room on the fretboard and peghead for only 6 strings, the diagonal arrangement of a metal guitar’s peghead affords adding an extra string.
Acoustic guitars generally do not accommodate a seventh string; except for Brazilian and Russian guitars, seven-string acoustics are not the norm.
The reason for the seventh string is to increase the range of playing; it adds a lower B without sacrificing the treble notes. In some cases, the added string may add to the treble range, while keeping the bass range of a six-string.
Tuning a metal guitar, whether it has six strings or seven, works much the same way as a regular guitar; the guitar player simply incorporates a lower B, resulting in B1-E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4. If yours is a six-string, simply omit the B1.
Naturally, there are other ways to tune this guitar; for instance, a seven-string jazz guitarist might prefer dropped-A tuning (A1-E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4); metal musicians opt for this tuning because it makes it easier to play power chords.
This final tidbit might be stating the obvious: you cannot buy a pack of six strings and a random seventh. If you have a seven-string guitar, you must shop for a 7-pack of strings.
Famous Metal Guitarists
As we mentioned at the start of this article, the electric guitar revolutionised music and gave birth to new types of music. Today, the typical metal band – no matter which type generally has not one but two guitarists: a rhythm and a lead.
The lead guitarist is often the focus of the band. It is the lead who gets the guitar solos, plays the catchy riffs and comes up with the best licks.
Some of the best metal guitarists of all time include (but are not limited to):
- Randy Rhoads (Quiet Riot, Ozzy Ozbourne)
- Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
- Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
- Slash (Guns’n’Roses)
- Ace Frehley (Kiss)
- Yngwie Malmsteen
- Dave Mustaine (Megadeth)
- Brian May (Queen)
- Jeff Beck
- Vivian Campbell (Def Leppard)
Of course, there are many, many other great guitarists out there who play all types of guitar; if we’ve missed your fav, won’t you let us know in the comments below?
Metal Guitar Lessons
The late 50s to the mid-90s was a great time to be in love with music.
New genres were established seemingly every day; there probably wasn’t a teenager alive who didn’t at least flirt with the idea of forming or joining a band.
That may even hold true today, in spite of electronic music now being the vogue.
Still, there is substantial value in being more than a Guitar Hero; the feel and warmth of a genuine musical instrument, cradled close to the body drives guitar players to want to go beyond the latest software release.
If indeed you intend to wow audiences with your guitar licks and fingerpicking, you’re going to have to learn how to play the guitar.
You will have to learn the pentatonic scale and chord progressions, learn to play arpeggios and pick up on strumming patterns.
While it is true that you could learn a lot from online guitar lessons – those video tutorials on YouTube, they would not necessarily serve you well because they cannot provide you with any feedback.
How will you know what you’re doing right or wrong if you don’t have a guitar instructor to guide you?
The best way to learn guitar playing and all of its aspects including how to read tablature is to find a qualified instructor and, if you were hoping for private guitar lessons, your search is already halfway done!
Superprof has hundreds of guitar instructors all over the UK. Whether you need guitar lessons for beginners – gotta learn those fundamentals before any guitar tricks, or electric guitar lessons, Superprof has guitar instruction for you.
There are even Superprof guitar tutors to learn the rock guitar...