Few genres of music are as inextricably linked with the guitar as hard rock and heavy metal. Be it the atmospheric drone of doom metal, the hyper-kinetic speed of thrash, the hook-driven licks of hair metal, or the technical wizardry of progressive, the sound in large part determines the sub-genre of metal to which a song belongs. Picking thirteen great metal guitarists from almost half a century of output is no easy task, but these guitarists stand above the rest based on influence, innovation, and pure guitar mastery.
13. Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society)
Zakk Wylde made his name as the guitarist for heavy metal god Ozzy Osbourne. Influenced heavily by Osbourne's original guitarist Randy Rhoads, Wylde proved himself more than worthy of replicating Rhoads' licks, as well as creating his own. Wylde's huge personality and signature bullseye guitar made him a fan favorite and those fans were happy to travel with him when Wylde formed his own band Black Label Society. Wylde's guitar style mixes technicality with a melodic blues-rock foundation.
12. Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King (Slayer)
As a member of thrash metal's “big four”, Slayer is a band so guitar heavy that it's impossible to separate their two lead guitarists from each other on any list of greats. The two bounced solos off each other so effortlessly that it was sometimes difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. Both employ a speed meets technicality driving style that gave Slayer its trademark onslaught sound. Unfortunately, Hanneman died in 2013 of liver failure, and the outpouring of love and tribute from his fellow artists showed just how instrumental he was in launching the careers of many of the next generation of heavy metal axe slingers.
11. Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden)
While Adrian Smith has not been present for the entire run of Iron Maiden, he was there for both its most fertile periods, from their initial album success in the '80s and early '90s to their emergence as one of the few true arena-level heavy metal headliners in the '00s. One of three guitarists in Iron Maiden, Smith stands out from his fellow six-stringers Dave Murray and Janick Gers due both to his skill as a soloist but also as a songwriter, co-writing two of Maiden's biggest hits “22 Acacia Avenue” and “The Prisoner.”
10. Chuck Schuldiner (Death)
When you have been dubbed “the godfather of death metal” your influence in the heavy metal community is assured. Death, formed in 1983, helped pave the way for much of what was to become death metal and its guitarist and vocalist Chuck Schuldiner was a large part of that trailblazing career. Until his death from cancer in 2001, Schuldiner continued to innovate, refusing to live safely inside the death metal box he helped build, introducing melodic solos and odd time signatures into a genre that valued speed and volume overall.
9. Adam Jones (Tool)
Tool's mad genius frontman Maynard James Keenan has always mixed so many styles that it's impossible to put the band into one, or even a half dozen, musical genres. In guitarist Adam Jones, Keenan found his perfect musical partner. Jones' riffs are always in service of the song, bouncing from crunchy alt-metal riffs to melodic progressive notes to funk rock, sometimes within the same tune. Jones has been recognized by both critics and peers, as well as scoring Grammy awards with Tool.
8. Marty Friedman (Megadeth)
While Megadeth vocalist and founding guitarist Dave Mustaine gets much of the press for Megadeth's success, the guitarist responsible for the band's most commercially and critically successful period was Marty Friedman. Friedman joined Megadeth in 1990, just in time to record the band's commercial breakthrough Rust in Peace and stayed with the band until 2000. Friedman's solos on songs like “Hangar 18” and “Symphony of Destruction” have become part of metal lore. Since leaving Megadeth, Friedman has shown even more range as a guitarist, moving to Japan and splitting his solo work between instrumental speed metal albums and work that blends hard rock riffs with J-pop sounds.
7. Slash (Guns N' Roses)
With his huge bush of black hair, sunglasses, and top hat, and Les Paul guitar, Slash is one of the most instantly recognizable faces in hard rock, someone who is known even by people who don't like metal music. It doesn't hurt that his band Guns N' Roses is one of the best selling bands in any genre, with their debut Appetite for Destruction selling over 30 million copies alone. Slash's melodic blues-based solos on Guns N' Roses hits like “Sweet Child O' Mine” and “November Rain” are regularly listed among the greatest guitar solos of all time. When not with Guns N' Roses, Slash has performed with his own solo band as well as supergroup Velvet Revolver.
6. Michael Schenker (Scorpions, UFO, MSG)
While Michael Schenker may be one of the least recognizable names on this list to the general public, that isn't the case among his fellow guitarists. As an early member of Scorpions, and later with UFO and his own Michael Schenker Group, Schenker has been name-checked as a major influence on some of metal's biggest names, including Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica, Alex Skolnick, and all of Iron Maiden (who regularly use UFO's “Doctor Doctor” as the lead in to their shows).
5. Alex Skolnick (Testament)
While never quite commercially successful enough to be considered one of thrash metal's “Big Four,” Testament is easily at the top of the second tier of thrash metal innovators, in large part due to the presence of the most technically sound guitarist of any thrash band, Alex Skolnick. An accomplished master of multiple genres, Skolnick can deliver the blistering solos needed for Testament songs like “Practice What You Preach,” melodic progressive rock with Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and also a knack for jazz with his own band Alex Skolnick Trio. Skolnick is widely acknowledged as one of the fastest guitarists in the world.
4. Dimebag Darrell Abbott (Pantera)
Pantera's mix of heavy metal with large doses of Southern rock swagger made them one of the most unique sounding bands of the '80s and '90s, effectively inventing the sub-genre groove metal. At the forefront of that innovation was guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott. Abbott's wide-ranging influences, which included Ace Frehley, Randy Rhoads, and Eddie Van Halen, all came together in a sound that was unmistakably Dime. When Pantera broke up, Abbott and his brother Vinnie Paul formed DamagePlan. Abbott's career was cut tragically short in 2004 when he was killed on stage by a gunman.
3. John Petrucci (Dream Theater)
If this list were based purely on technical skill, there would be a good case for making Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci #1. A founding member of the progressive rock titans, Petrucci's dazzling solos have been a hallmark of Dream Theater's long run as a commercially successful act. So good is Petrucci's playing, that he is regularly listed high on “greatest guitarist” countdowns regardless of genre. Petrucci is also one of Dream Theater's primary lyricists. When not performing in Dream Theater, Petrucci has experimented with jazz alongside Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, as well as improvisational jam with supergroup Liquid Tension Experiment.
2. Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne)
While Randy Rhoads' career as a solo guitarist was just a few years long due to his untimely death in a plane crash at age 25, his influence is nearly unmatched among metal guitarists. After helping form Quiet Riot, Rhoads came to prominence as the guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne's first solo band, where his blend of traditional heavy metal techniques and classical guitar brought him instant recognition. Practically every guitarist on this list who came along after 1982 lists Randy Rhoads as a major influence on their style.
1. Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
Simply put, without Tony Iommi and Black Sabbath, there would be no heavy metal. The English guitarist was a founding, and sole constant, member of heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath in 1969. Iommi's down-tuned funereal drone helped set the menacing tone for heavy metal for decades to come. Ironically, Iommi's signature sound came from a physical handicap. He lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand at age 17, which led to many of the innovations that put him at the top of this list. He has been listed as a favorite by artists like Gene Simmons, Brian May of Queen, and Eddie Van Halen.