(TheMadIsraeli decided to make this list of the people he judges to be the top metal guitarists of all time, with sample music. Comments are welcome, as always.)
I decided to take a much needed break from NCS activities, mainly due to the fact I had shit I had to do, and stuff I wanted to do. Stuff and shit has pretty much dominated my life for the last couple weeks, but now it’s time to get back to doing this shit.
First thing on my list? Well, the name of the post should tell you everything. My top guitar players of all time is a pretty specific calculated list, with some choices that may turn out to surprise people. I’ve played guitar for 15 years now, and have gone through my share of temporary idols, but these are the guys who’ve stuck with me. Being able to shred and having ridiculous skill is not a sufficient qualifier for this list. At the end of the day, while you’ll find almost all my choices are excellent shredders, riffs at the end of the day will matter more.
A lot of people of the more shred persuasion, like Rusty Cooley for example, can write all the cool solos they want, but he for example can’t write a riff to save his life. That perfect balance between riff and virtuosity in the lead department has always been something that’s very rarely accomplished. I think probably for awhile, Yngwie Malmsteen was the only guy in that department who knew how to write good overall SONGS that exhibited technical prowess combined with memorable moments and recognizable style all at once.
I value riffs more than solo-crafting ability for the obvious reason, that it’s what you mostly hear in metal; especially metal with vocals. Those riffs have to tell a story, convey a definite idea, one that contrasts with or enhances the solos when they crop up. And those solos? They have to be fucking mini voyages through the cosmos. They can’t be just sheer displays of technical skill. You get people like Rusty Cooley or a lot of other solo shredders, and it’s becoming even worse in the djent market with all these pseudo-sloppy fusion guys coming out of the woodwork who just follow by rote basic fusion melodic progressions or simply execute solos that their songs could’ve well done without. Half-assed fusion influence is probably the worst offender in modern metal guitar playing right now.
As is usually the case with my lists, order doesn’t signify better or worse here.
Michael Romeo of Symphony X
If I were to sit here and talk in terms of objectively fantastic metal guitar players, Michael Romeo would be tied with Loomis. From the very beginnings of Symphony X, even the pre-Russel Allen days, this guy has been cranking out killer riffs with calculated precision, commanding the elements with his (to be redundant) commanding sense of phrasing, melodic choices steeped heavily in Baroque tradition, and a wild sense of thrash metal abandon. I’ve always viewed Romeo as Yngwie Malmsteen 2.0, in that he took Yngwie’s style and magnified it exponentially. Every Romeo riff is like the gnashing snarls of a wolf, no doubt assisted by his wolf’s-fang guitar tone that sounds like no others. His thrash-does-power-metal style of guitar playing has always hooked me, with some of my favorite guitar sections in music of all time.
It would be a crime, though, for me to neglect Romeo’s shred skills. His solos, throughout the ENTIRE Symphony X catalogue, are some of my all-time favorites. Yeah, you might take beef with his preference for neo-classical leanings, which I can’t argue have been done to death, but Romeo “gets” it. The way he often interplays the rhythm guitar under his solos is sophisticated in a way a lot of guys aim for but just don’t accomplish. When a Romeo solo section comes up, you feel like you’re listening to something someone from the Baroque era wrote, directly translated into a metal context. It’s fucking sublime.
Some good introductory examples of Romeo at his best.
Jeff Loomis, formerly of Nevermore
I have to admit I harbor a tad bit of resentment at how much of a fad Loomis has become as of late. Lots of people have been jumping on the bandwagon who didn’t appreciate his time spent in Nevermore, who were in my opinion one of the most important bands of the last twenty years. I’ve loved Nevermore for a LONG time, and Jeff Loomis was a huge reason. He WAS Nevermore.
But the fact is, Loomis deserves every accolade he gets, and I love every single thing he’s ever touched. His soloing style, while his own, is very diverse in the melodies he uses, and his phrasing and note choices are fucking godlike in a way I don’t understand. Every note that Loomis plays has a purpose, a destiny, a reason for being allowed to exist, and you FEEL that level of intent he puts into his playing. It’s fascinating to hear his combination of neo-classical, bluesy, and purely dissonant stylings and how he makes it work. No man should be able to put this much feel and this much skill and craftsmanship into a guitar solo at the same time.
He also has written some of the heaviest riffs I’ve ever heard. Listening to a Nevermore song, or his solo output, when the shred isn’t happening — it feels like you’re being run over by a two-ton steam roller over and over again, or you’re being choked to death by a demonically agile serpent. He’s always kind of stuck to those two modes, another thing that’s trademark Loomis. His sense of dissonance, as well as his understanding of what I’m going to term “musical weight” when it comes to guitar is un-fucking-paralleled.
Alex Skolnick of Testament
Not a lot of guitarists from thrash metal’s heyday really stuck with me all that much, in terms of being a complete-package guitar player. I could name off a fuck ton of guys who knew how to write riffs for sure, but the soloing department always lacked. Skolnick has always had both going for him, and while he wasn’t the sole composer for Testament, his contributions were on par with his rhythm counterpart Eric Peterson (who may have written some of the highest quality riffing in that time period) and his odd synthesis of jazz phrasing combined with traditional melodic concepts have stuck with me.
Alex’s playing has a strange quality of what I’m going to call “agility”. His playing, especially his solos, feel very fluttery and wild and almost all of it has stuck with me, particularly his work on the first three Testament records and these last two. He definitely seems to treat solos as miniature compositions, and thus they’ve always sounded like they had real care paid to them, and I imagine a lot of scrutiny. He’s also a very feel-oriented player, and has had an uncanny sense of control over himself. His ability to be inhumanly tight or to choose not to be tight at all is a talent not a lot of guitarists have. And that includes Loomis and Romeo.
John Gallagher of Dying Fetus
There isn’t a death metal guitarist who has a better grasp on what death metal should and can be than John Gallagher. It was a close call between him and Terrance Hobbs from Suffocation, but in my mind I could only pick one, and Gallagher wins out here (although I’d deem Hobbs the superior overall composer). I don’t think there is a man in the death metal sphere who pumps out as many stellar riffs per second as he does.
Everything about Gallagher is off-kilter, done the Gallagher way and no one else’s. It could definitely be said that there is a Gallagherian way of doing things that is distinctly recognizable, mainly in the perfect fusion of technical death metal, hardcore groove, and grindcore dissonance and speed. A lot of bands do the Gallagher brand of death metal (Fisthammer to give a current example) but no one does it like Gallagher. His brand of dissonance is his own, his brand of groove is his own, his tone is instantly recognizable, and his command of the guitar as an instrument is amazing.
He’s never taken to solos much, mainly because I think he feels they are wasted space when he can simply incorporate riffs that embody the technical principles of a solo, and many a riff of his entails a high-end fill that most other human beings would fucking flail to pull off, like a shit-chucking ape. His guitar playing, in essence, is the most putrid and venomous within the death metal circuit. No one tops this guy at what he does, and I sincerely think he’ll forever be a riff machine until the day he dies.
Per Nilsson of Scar Symmetry
Scar Symmetry, and even Per Nilsson alone, I think were a bit of a surprise to the metal community when they came out swinging with their debut album Symmetric in Design. Their brand of sci-fi melodic death metal with power metal incorporations was among the first of a growing trend, alongside Danish band Mercenary. Scar Symmetry’s debut is good, but it lacks compared to what they would put out later. Per Nilsson became noteworthy to begin with because he virtually made their first record with his solos. Nilsson’s playing style is the sonic equivalent of silk, an almost strictly melodic approach, heavily fusion-influenced, and full of hooks amidst the various guitar acrobatics.
His note choices are uncanny, and his phrasing is godlike and is the main thing that solidifies him on this list for me. You give any other guitarist a set of notes to play at the same tempo as Per Nilsson, and Nilsson will make it tremendously more interesting. This is a guitarist who utilizes the entire repertoire of the nuances available to us (guitarists), and thus everything he plays is more interesting compared to the majority of metal guitarists, period.
Symmetric in Design is mostly carried by good melodies and Nilsson’s soloing, but the band’s very next record would put Nilsson on the map as an overall guitarist. His riffs, while they aren’t spellbinders like those of the other picks on this list, are sickeningly effective and have obscene staying power. He’s influenced an entire wave of guitarists in the melodic death metal circuit, none of them ever really capturing the Nilsson magic. Since Pitch Black Progress, Nilsson has consistently written memorable songs, as well as produced some of my favorite guitar solos ever. He’s not only a skilled virtuoso, he’s also an amazingly astute composer.
Christofer Malmstrom of Darkane
Darkane is my favorite melodic death metal band of all time, and Malmstrom is a huge reason for that. His riffs are un-fucking-touchable, his melodies are staggeringly dark and majestic, and his solos rip the flesh straight off your bones and christen them in liquid gold. Romeo and Loomis are two guitarists who very much love their neo-classical elements, but Malmstrom epitomizes someone who loves both metal and classical music. He comes from a place of perfect balance, of utter neutrality between the two, and it’s resulted in music with the power of a city destroying the earthquake.
For as modern, and quite frankly ahead of its time as Darkane’s music has been Malmstrom’s influences are mostly surprisingly old school and it shows. Take a love for various composers, Pestilence, Death, Testament, SYL, proggy fusion elements and you have a man who produces music that sounds like an epic madhouse of utter insanity. Darkane’s first album “Rusted Angel” is to my knowledge THE most violent album in melodic death metal history and for good reason. His compositions especially back then were tempo change heavy, his riffs displaying uncompromising levels of technicality and viciousness on totally equal playing fields and his solos were gorgeous, abyssal and soul shattering.
I absolutely worshipped the ground Malmstrom walked on for a long time as a guitarist, and while I’ve definitely cooled myself on that one, I still adore everything he and Darkane have done. Of course, Darkane is nothing without him, it is his brain child after all.
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and I’m curious to see what you all have to say about my choices. Some info on what is coming up before I close this out: I’ve got a few reviews coming down the line, the new Stam1na, Conquering Dystopia whenever we get a copy, a few other surprises. I should also mention that poll about “higher criticism” subjects that I ran. Death and Old Man’s Child were the most popular, so those two will be next. The intro to both of those will be coming shortly.
Leave comments. I like dorking out about metal guitarists with similar minded people.