Characterized by loud beats, screeching vocals, and distorted guitars, heavy metal has been around since the 1960s and made a huge impact on the music world.
The guitar players of heavy metal groups have a variety of styles and techniques that make them all unique. They are known for pushing the boundaries of musical creativity and often receive praise from critics, but it’s their passion for music that keeps us coming back to listen again and again.
Join us as we explore the careers of 15 of the most famous heavy metal guitar players in history. Let’s get started.
1. Eddie Van Halen
If you talk about heavy metal guitarists, the topic would not be complete without Eddie Van Halen. The multi-instrumentalist—he also played the keyboard and drums—was one of the men behind the heavy metal band Van Halen.
Though he did not create it, Eddie popularized the use of tapping on the guitar. With both hands on the fretboard, this technique allowed him to make the rapid-fast arpeggios he was well-known for. At one point, he used a type of device that allowed him to flip the guitar so he could tap it like a piano.
In his last decade, Eddie had several health issues—throat and lung cancer among them. His battle with ill health ended in 2020 when he passed away due to a stroke. Shortly after, Eddie’s son Wolfgang announced the end of Van Halen the band.
2. Tony Iommi
Co-founder and lead guitarists of Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, is probably one of the most iconic heavy metal guitarist in history. This is because the band is one of the pioneers of the genre.
Before making Black Sabbath, Iommi worked at a sheet metal factory. Due to an accidental at work, he lost the tips of some of the fingers on his right hand, yet this did not stop the left-handed musician from playing the guitar.
Not having the patience to learn to play right-hand guitar, Iommi created homemade prosthesis to fit on the tipless fingers so he could continue playing and was soon a guitar legend.
Iommi’s dark sound with Black Sabbath has influenced other heavy metal bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax.
3. Dimebag Darrell
If you’re a fan of the Pantera, then you must be familiar with the name Dimebag Darrell. Darrell is one of the co-founders of Pantera, who formed the band in 1981.
Though Darrell and the group started off as a glam metal band, their sound eventually transformed to the heavy metal they’re best known for. They created hits like “Planet Caravan,” “Cat Scratch Fever,” and “Revolution Is My Name.”
Darrell’s playing style is one of the most influential in heavy metal music due to his pinch harmonics, shredding solos, and energetic stage presence. Sadly, in 2004, the guitarist was shot and killed on stage by a crazed fan. He was only 38 years old.
4. Glenn Tipton
In 1974, English guitarist Glenn Tipton joined Judas Priest. His songwriting skills and guitar playing would help the heavy metal band sound more metal and lead them to greatness. After Tipton joined, the group’s albums started to chart and eventually reached commercial success with the 1980 British Steel.
During the 1990s, Judas Priest went on a break, and at this time, Tipton began delving into a solo career, releasing the album Baptizm of Fire soon after. When the group returned, he was right there with them.
Early in 2018, however, Tipton announced his retirement from the group after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His work was not forgotten, as in 2022, Tipton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the rest of Judas Priest.
5. Ritchie Blackmore
British rock guitarist and songwriter Ritchie Blackmore was born in 1945. During the 1960s and 1970s, Blackmore became a prominent name in the British rock music scene as one of the members of Deep Purple and was the group’s lead guitarist until 1974, after which he went on to found the band Rainbow.
Aside from being an innovative guitar player, Blackmore is also known for his classical music training and his use of folk and Renaissance music in Rainbow’s songs, while still retaining the heavy metal riffs he’s known for.
Blackmore has been named one of the greatest guitar players of all time by both Rolling Stone and Guitar World. In 2016, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame together with the other members of Deep Purple.
6. Kirk Hammett
In 1983, Kirk Lee Hammett received an invite to join Metallica after they let go of Dave Mustaine from the band. From then on, he proved to the world his iconic guitar skills.
Kirk is known for his guitar work on songs including “Master of Puppets,” “One,” “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” and many more.
Classical music influences Hammett’s guitar playing, which gives his solos a unique sound. He also utilizes tapping and whammy bar abuse techniques, which make his solos even more interesting.
He, along with Metallica, became one of the most successful bands ever, selling over 125 million albums worldwide and winning 8 Grammy Awards.
7. Chuck Schuldiner
New York native Chuck Schuldiner was one of the death metal pioneers, also known as the Godfather of Death Metal. The bands he grew up listening to, such as Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate, had a significant influence on the style of his riffs.
In 1983, Schuldiner formed Death, the band that helped pioneer extreme metal. He was known for his highly technical playing, combined with mystical lyrics.
Although he had to stop touring after being diagnosed with brain cancer in 1999, Schuldiner continued to be active in music before his passing. He died on December 13, 2001, due to the disease.
8. Adrian Smith
English guitarist Adrian Smith is internationally known for his appearances in Iron Maiden, with whom he played guitar from 1981 to 1990 before taking a hiatus.
During this time, he formed The Untouchables, which later changed to Psycho Motel, recording two albums with them. In 1999, Smith rejoined Iron Maiden.
His style incorporates aspects of both heavy metal and neoclassical guitar playing, and he is known for his trademark “galloping” of heavy metal rhythm riffs and highly melodic guitar solos.
Because of his contributions to heavy metal music, Smith was ranked at #8 on 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists of All Time by Guitar World.
9. Dave Mustaine
American guitarist Dave Mustaine was born in La Mesa, California, in 1961. The heavy metal guitarist and songwriter rose to fame as the co-founder, lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and primary songwriter of Megadeth.
He is also well-known for being one of Metallica’s original guitarists from 1981 to 1983, where he helped write songs for the album Ride the Lightning.
Mustaine’s wide variety of guitar playing styles and his extensive use of vibrato give him a distinctive personal style. His fast alternate picking, tremolo picking, and shredding on the strings has made him iconic and influential to many guitarists who follow him.
10. James Hetfield
Co-founder and frontman of American heavy metal band Metallica, James Hetfield, is also their rhythm guitarist. He formed the band with drummer Lars Ulrich in 1981 and has been active with them since.
Hetfield’s style consists primarily of driving rhythms, played with power chords and palm-muted articulation. Other notable techniques he well-known for are the use of single notes and octave shapes while he plays.
With Metallica, Hetfield has won nine Grammy Awards, and they have sold more than 125 million albums worldwide. Rolling Stone has ranked him #87 on their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
11. John Petrucci
Born in 1967, John Petrucci started playing the guitar when he was still 12, influenced by early heavy metal groups like Black Sabbath and AC/DC.
While in college in 1984, Petrucci and a friend created the progressive metal group known as Dream Theater. Though he’s best associated with this band, the guitarists has had many of side projects over the years.
These include creating guitar instructional videos, writing books on guitar playing, and creating soundtracks for games, among many other ventures.
Petrucci is known for his technical ability. His distinct style of playing heavy metal has led people to call him a virtuoso because of his sweep picking, tapping, and legato.
His accolades include being voted one of the Fastest Guitarists of All Time by Guitar World and a SENA Performers European Award in 2019.
12. Zakk Wylde
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Zakk Wylde can play the piano, but he’s best known to rock the guitar for Ozzy Osbourne, whom he also co-wrote with. Wylde joined Guns N’ Roses for a short time in the 1990s before returning to Osbourne early in the 2000s.
Some of Wylde’s signature guitar techniques include pinch harmonics and heavy vibrato. He is also known for tapping, string skipping, and arpeggios. Another well-known characteristic of this guitarists is his bulls-eye design on his guitars.
Aside from Osbourne and Guns N’ Roses, Wylde was also a touring member of Pantera and had some years as a solo artist in which he dropped two albums, Book of Shadows and Book of Shadows II.
13. Jeff Hanneman
Californian musician and songwriter Jeff Hanneman was the lead guitarist and founding member of Slayer. Along with his fellow bandmates Kerry King and Tom Araya, he created one of the most influential heavy metal bands in history that was active from 1981 to 2019.
Hanneman’s guitar playing on early albums like Show No Mercy helped create thrash metal as we know it today. His solos were often short but fast-paced and featured heavily distorted power chords that became a staple sound for Slayer.
The success of the album Reign in Blood led to Hanneman to being ranked #10 on the Guitar World magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists of All Time.
Sadly, Hanneman passed away in 2013 from liver failure. He was 49 years old at the time of his death.
14. Synyster Gates
As a son of the well-known musician of the 1970s Papa Gates, it’s no surprising that the son, Brian Elwin Haner Jr.—called professionally as Synyster Gates—would also be a musician.
Synyster studied classical guitar in Los Angeles. In 2001, he joined heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold. It is with this band that Synyster let the world know his guitar shredding skills, enough to be named one of the greatest shredders out there.
A great example of his style can be heard in their multi-Platinum 2013 song “Hail to the King,” which Synyster also provides backing vocals. Another song worth listening to is “Nightmare.”
Wanting to help the youth learn more about guitar, Synyster and his father created a guitar school. There, beginners can start their guitar-playing journey, while more advanced players can improve.
15. Marty Friedman
Despite being critical with the label, Marty Friedman is considered one of the greatest guitar shredder of all time. His impov skills are well-known and his picking technique is unique—upward stroke rather than the conventional downward.
Inspired after watching a concert by rock band Kiss, Friedman taught himself to play the guitar. He was soon playing in bands he formed and even dropped a solo album.
In 1990, he joined thrash metal band Megadeth and soon made music history in developing his playing style, using arpeggiated chords to create his well-known blend of Eastern and Western music with metal.
Just as the decade was about to end, Friedman separated from Megadeth and began a solo career, which is still thriving to this day.
Summing Up Our List of the Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists
These heavy metal guitarists are some of the most famous and influential in the genre. While they all have their own individual playing style and techniques that make them unique, they all share one thing: they excel on the guitar.
They are known for pushing the boundaries of musical creativity and technical skill, and they have found success in their respective bands.
From Metallica’s James Hetfield to Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, these famous heavy metal guitarists will continue to inspire future generations with their innovative playing style and ability to push genres forward.