(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.
You should change the post title to “Top Metal Guitarists…,” or otherwise I’ll have to tediously explain to you why Julian Bream and Wes Montgomery destroy all these guys. 🙂
That’s actually a change worth making — and I’ve made it.
Excellent list, love all these players!
Christian Muenzner anyone?
Christian Muenzner will forever be a stale scale runner living in Muhammed Suicmez’s shadow. I’ve NEVER liked his lead work. Ever. His riffs aren’t exactly great either.
Oh man, I love Muenzer, his lead playing is absolutely phenomenal to my ears. Now, if we could only get Muhammad to release another album…
I just can’t get into his playing dude. I find it absurdly boring.
Bill Steer, Dave Mustaine, Chuck Schuldiner, Sammy Duett (I’ve probably misspelled all of these names, but you know what I mean)
Bill Steer is… okay.
Dave Mustaine has always lived in the shadow of his co-guitarists.
Schuldiner was a genius composer, but he has a lot of riffs that were simply filler for the sake of the composition. They worked for the song, but some of those riffs he wrote weren’t particularly killer or well… anything. He was also in my opinion living in the shadow of his co-guitarists in the lead department a lot of the time.
What About Tobin Abasi Of Animal As Leaders.
I’m not a guitarist myself, so I might not be an entierly similar minded dork 😉
I enjoyed the reading, ‘thou.
I fully agree on the point of necessary riffs. I’v never been into meaningless shred/guitar masturbation myself. It might be technically awesome, but ther’s no “songs” there. I enjoyed Nevermore, but it was not until I heard Zero Order Phase that I really saw how greately Jeff Loomis managed to merge the worlds of the songwriters and the super guitarists, and make it one functional entity.
What do you think of improvisionists vs perfectionists, by the way? In my early metal days I was a big fan of Adrian Smith og Iron Maiden. He would play everything exactly the same way on stage as on the albums. Note by note. Even the solos. I still find those parts of the Live After Death (and other) videos rather impressive.
Adrian Smith is a very impressive live player. It’s incredible how well the Maiden guitarists work together with such different styles.
In my top list, I would also include Kris Norris and Peter Lyse Karmack.
Really? No muhammed suicmez?
Fail list is fail.
This list is invalid without dimebag Darrel being number 1
I personally would’ve picked Valeo(Vesania, Sammath Naur) Vogg(decapitated) or Anton Svedin(soreption) as superior to a lot of guitarists out there.
What do you think of Paul Ryan (Origin)? Him and John Petrucci are my all time faves!!
Paul Ryan has the riff gift for sure. Although I think that’s his particular specialty.
I’ve never been a Dream Theater guy, although Petrucci wrote fantastic stuff on “Train of Thought”. That particular record actually has some of my favorite solos as well.
Brian Hopp of Cephalic Carnage is a bad mofo!!
Thoughts on Pat O’Brien?
Pat O’Brien is a monster who I envy greatly.
good post! let’s see, a few picks off the top of my head:
Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman
Mark Morton and Willie Adler
i know, pretty safe choices and fairly mainstream 🙂
Sheer speed ridiculocity – Rusty Cooly, ugh. Most fun to watch – Michael Angelo. Can’t say I actually enjoy listening to them play. They don’t compose music, they master practice routines. But then you’ve got the style factor to consider. I find Kevin Hufnagel from Gorguts(new)/Dysrythmia to have an absolutely baked style that I think is just great. Paul Gilbert from Severed Savior has lain down some of the craziest lines in all metal guitaring, and has a fresh soloing style. The interlude track Intervallo Del Tradimento off Servile Insurrection is pure guitar eargasm. Spanish style. However it’s shameful that Tosin Abasi isn’t on this list and I’m pretty sure everyone knows it. Loomis is weaksauce compared to the first AAL. He’s got metal and classical chops like mad. Riffs, leads, cleans, tapping, all that shit.
any list of best metal guitarists not prominently featuring luc lemay (gorguts, negativa) and dennis d’amour (voivod) is not worthy of my approval
oh yeah and takafumi from gridlink has mad chops
Not sure if Jon Levasseur crossed your mind on for this list, but I don’t know of another death metal guitarist that can fit a groove (not in a “groove metal” sense) into brutal and intricate riffing the way that he does. His soloing is always in perfect context within a song as in it’s not something that’s tacked on during the “solo goes here” portion of that track, but always accentuates or brings to a climax the essence of what the song is as a whole.
The only other death metal dude that I put on near his level is Terrance Hobbs (whose mini shout out in this posting was appreciated), but Levasseur gets the edge on him for keeping things fresh with his progression throughout his career, where that’s comparitively less apparent in Hobbs’ work (IMO). I’ll give Gallagher another go here though as well.
No Trey Azagthoth here either, may be he’s not that skilled..has all the good solos and riffs though..
But Abasi could make this list
I enjoyed your list even though the only one who would make mine, if I ever made a list, would be Skolnick. I’d probably have to put Mustaine on top just by virtue of his rhythm playing alone. Megadeth may be a shadow of hat they once were, but the man can write a riff. His soloing is top notch as well.
Music is about opinions and everyone has a different one.Jeff Loomis is probably the top shredder,but songwriting and songs opens the door to many guitarists.George Lynch,Ty Tabor,Michael Schenker,Willie Adler,Jean Dagenais,Jesper Stromblad and the list goes on……
Love me some John Gallagher. Dying Fetus were the first death metal band I ever saw live, on Summer Slaughter a few years back. Funniest part about that is that my mom was with me and my friend being a helicopter parent at that show, so she also got to experience Dying Fetus, as well as a Chris Barnes weed rant or seven during Six Feet Under’s set.
As far as guitarists, their upcoming show has me thinking of Cattle Decapitation. Josh Elmore is a seriously underrated guitarist, especially on the absolute masterpiece that is Monolith of Inhumanity.
I’m no guitarist, but for me Michael Amott has the most identity of the musicians I’ve listened to the most.
Also, whenever I think of riffs (or get asked to choose a riffing album) I always go to “Katharsis” by Pathos. If only they had cut the instrumental (industrial) outro, that album would have been perfect. It’s just riff upon riff upon riff. But all very memorable.
I really like John Gallagher and Dying Fetus a lot, I’ve seen them several times in concert, but I believe Dallas Toler Wade from Nile/Narcotic Wasteland is right up there with him and should be mentioned.
This list needs more Buckethead.
Nevermore with Loomis was great. “The River Dragon Has Come” is all you need to know.
I can’t say I’m really familiar with the others. I’ve heard all of them, but not a lot. I always thought Darkane was a Soilwork knockoff.
Spawn Of Possession.
Finally. An NCS article exclusively for guitarists!
Jason Becker, Tosin Abasi, Luke Jaeger, Rusty Cooley, Michael Romeo, Yngwie Malmsteen, Chris Letchford, Petrucci, Chris Storey, Vishal Singh, Andy James, Rob Jarzombek, Christian Muenzner, Paul Antonio Ortiz,Matt Sotelo, Ralph Santolla, Carl August Tidemann, Per Nilsson, Loomis, and Paul Wardingham
I’d have to make a case for George Lynch. The man could have been revered like Eddie was. He has a sound that few others have. His replacement in Dokken does, but I think that’s more out of necessity than a personal style (I could be wrong), just like Gus G. has to sound like Zakk. The only other guitarist I can think of that sounds like Mr. Scary would be Pier Gonella [Necrodeath, Mastercastle], combining technically proficient shredding, heavy riffs and a healthy dose of melody.
I agree with Mustaine being overlooked, sometimes because of who handled the other guitar. However, Jeff Young doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He was (and still is) and amazing guitarist, but Megadeth wasn’t the right kind of band for him – particularly when it comes to performing live. He had the chops, but not the same attitude, mindset, goal, or whatever it takes to be in that kind of position.
Dime should be considered, but I wouldn’t put him at the top of the metal pile.
To name a few others before I get back to work: Steve Clark, Mick Mars, Chris DeGarmo, Steve Vai, Karl Sanders, Paul Allender
Neither jeff hanneman from slayer, nor the bolt thrower guys, nor obituary guys, nor black sabbath…. but scar symmetry and symphony x…. please stop being 14 years old
Stop being 50.
Maybe the two of you can meet in the middle somewhere. Or, you can recognize that he’s looking for a certain kind of technicality as his criteria, which isn’t really what any of your examples are known for.
Paul Motherfuckin’ Masvidal.
That is all.
YES!!! Masvidal, of course.
And no Thomas Vetterli (aka Tommy T. Baron)?!?! Your list is invalid.
Loomis, Malmstrom and Skolnick – fuck yes. The other guys, less so, but I’m not massive fan of those bands so that’s probably a contributing factor.
In terms of face-melting riffage and ability to shred, I would have added Tommy T. Baron and Bill Steer.
Steer is a riff-writing machine and has knocked out more amazing riffs than any one person has a right to, and his soloing is recognisable and rarely imitated. Tommy T. Baron has got riffs and solos down pat. Even as the technicality was being gradually toned down in later Coroner albums, his solos would still set his fretboard on fire.
I’ll forever miss Nevermore and I do hope that Loomis joins a “proper” band again, but for now I’ll settle for Conquering Dystopia being the real follow up to Zero Order Phase.
In my opinion, Adam Jones should be on this list. He isn’t much of a ‘shredder’ if that’s all that matters to some people, but his riffing is something else.
Åkerfeldt’s riffs are mental too. But then again, he isn’t the kind to shred out solo’s.
Erik Lindmark- Deeds of Flesh should make any death metal list, especially for riffs. Decapitated?? Spheres of Madness is a riff of legends. There’s probably too many good guitarists to list, so you’re always gonna miss someone.