Having a “signature sound” is vital to most metal bands’ success. If you don’t have a unique sound, then what separates you from the hundreds of other bands in your genre? Very few bands have gone on to experience long term success without a sound that is distinctly their own. Bands like Pantera, Korn, Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Tool were originators in their sound. It’s hard to compare anyone to any of these bands.
Most metal acts are driven by the lead guitarists that give the band its signature sound (or not-so-signature sound). We’ve compiled a list of the top ten most recognizable metal guitarists on this page (as of 2013). The list has nothing to do with virtuosity, but more to do with originality and style.
Alexi Laiho is one of the most recognizable guitarists in extreme metal. One can tell right away when they hear a new Children of Bodom song. His unique combination of thrash speed,hollow sounding tremolo picking, and neoclassical power metal upticks is what gives the band their signature sound. Children of Bodom classics like “Silent Night, Bodom Night”, “Follow the Reaper”, and “Angels Don’t Kill” are perfect examples of Laiho’s unequivocal guitar technique.
In the age of grunge, shredding, technicality, precision, and indulgence were left behind in favor of mood and experimentation. Soundgarden always straddled the fence between heavy metal and grunge, thanks in part to guitarist Kim Thayil’s dark, trademark sound on songs like “Black Hole Sun,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” and “Flower.”
When you hear a Thayil song, it’s immediately apparent, especially as the band developed in the 90’s. “Black Hole Sun” in particular has a particular wavy, eerily apocalyptic vibe that is distinctly Thayil.
Of all of the “Big Four” thrash bands, Slayer rises above the rest as having the most unique sound. The diabolical sound that can only be described as pure evil is fueled by the unpredictable, frantic guitar playing of Kerry King. Play any Slayer song from the 80’s next to a Megadeth, Anthrax, or Metallica song, and the latter will sound outright poppy next to King’s pummeling solos. In terms of recognizable thrash, Hammett, Mustaine, and Ian don’t hold a candle next to King.
Zakk Wylde had huge shoes to fill when coming on board to Ozzy’s camp in 1987, following Jake E. Lee and the incomparable Randy Rhoads. On no song is Wylde’s contribution felt so greatly as “No More Tears,” one of Ozzy Osbourne‘s best songs that confirms the guitarist-vocalist pairing was the right one. Other songs from Ozzy’s solo career like “Perry Mason,” “Gets Me Through,” and “Mama I’m Coming Home” prominently feature Wylde’s guitar work and writing credits.
Wylde’s style became so domineering over the sound of Ozzy’s solo albums that it the Prince of Darkness had to shake things up in order to avoid comparisons to Wylde’s own Black Label Society. It takes seconds to identify Black Label Society or Wylde-era Ozzy, making his guitar sound one of the most recognizable in the world of metal.
The core of nu metal may owe its very existence to Korn guitarist James “Munky” Schaffer. Undoubtedly one of the most copied bands of the 90’s, Korn brought a sound to the table that was unlike any other metal band at the time. While other band members contributed to the overall one-of-a-kind sound of Korn, that repetitious, foreboding riff that started “Blind” was Munky. Korn would not sound like “Korn” if you took away the Munky. Co-founder Brian “Head” Welch was Munky’s guitar songwriting partner, and half of the guitar sound of Korn until his depature in 2005. The sound of Korn has lived on with only one studio guitarist, placing Munky at invaluable status in terms of the aesthetics that comprise Korn’s sound.
One of the most copied bands of the 90’s were Alice in Chains, for their songwriting, harmonized double vocal style, and Jerry Cantrell’s cavernously deep, downtuned sludge guitar sound. There’s no mistaking a Cantrell riff, like on their 2013 song “Hollow.” Want more examples of how Cantrell is distinguishable from the first note? Think “Heaven Beside You,” “Man in the Box,” “Grind,” “Them Bones,” and “Down in a Hole.” Today, Alice in Chains legacy lives on, and the sound remains as copied as ever.
Whether you consider Guns N’ Roses glam metal, root metal, hard rock, or just plain old rock n’ roll, there’s no denying that there are metal elements present on Appetite for Destruction. Slash was a driving factor in the heaviness that made Appetite so addictive, raw, and welcoming in 1987. His guitar work became more distinguishable and emotional in later works on Use Your Illusion I & II on songs like “Estranged,” “November Rain,” “Don’t Cry.” But, don’t worry, because his heaviness was still there to balance his softer side on “Garden of Eden,” “Perfect Crime,” and “You Could Be Mine.” Snakepit, Velvet Revolver, Guns N’ Roses, or solo work, when it’s Slash, you know it’s a Slash tune.
“Sober,” “Stink Fist,” “H,” “Aenema,” “Schism,” and “Fourty Six & 2” all contain the memorable riffs provided by Tool guitarist Adam Jones. Part of what makes Tool so unique is their odd, complex time signatures provided by both the percussion and the guitar. Further randomizing their sound is the intensity of the playing and the combining of different techniques in every song. From one song to the next, Jones may use a talk box in one, then use anthemic, stadium-worthy power chords in another. Of all progressive metal bands, Tool is undoubtedly the most well known, and Jones plays a big part of that.
It wasn’t Phil Anselmo’s vocals that differentiated Pantera from the then-dominant thrash metal bands of the early 90’s, it was the larger-than-life, sonic boom of guitarist Dimebag Darrell that blew people away right from the start of Cowboys from Hell.
To understand the importance of Cowboys from Hell and the emergence of Pantera/Dimebag, consider the heavy metal music landscape at the time of the recording and release of this album. It was recorded in 1989, a time when glam metal bands Warrant, Poison, and Bon Jovi were topping the charts. Nothing as heavy, original, or as raw as this in the metal world was on the scene at all. While thrash was popular, this was the first groove metal based album during this time period. Their next album, Vulgar Display of Power, would further showcase Darrell’s deep, heavy riffs.
That all changed with the release of Cowboys. Pantera’s sound has been described as groove metal, which is entirely orientated around Dimebag’s guitar sound. The riff in “Walk” from Vulgar Display of Power is a great example. Pantera’s early albums are often cited as a catalyst for the mid to late 90’s nu metal boom, which was largely influenced by Pantera’s signature groove metal style.
Dimebag Darrell’s legacy as one of the most influential metal guitarists continues, while generations of up-and-comer metal bands gain inspiration from the signature riffs of “Cemetery Gates,” “I’m Broken,” “This Love,” and “Domination.”
Let me point out five songs that demonstrate how Tom Morello is by far the most recognizable heavy metal guitarist ever:
When you hear a Rage Against the Machine song, you know it from the first split second you hear it, courtesy of Tom Morello’s hip-hop inspired guitar scratching and riffing. Morello has not only been influenced by hip hop, but by classic metal acts like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. The overall affect of turntable style guitar sounds, screeching, and punk/hip-hop/metal fusion is due to the many effects pedals used on Morello’s songs.
In the early 2000’s, Morello switched gears once Rage Against the Machine went on hiatus, evolving his style to a more alternative metal sound that meshed with his new band, Audioslave. No one could say that Morello was a one trick pony, having diversified his guitar sound to adapt to the nuances of former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell’s vocals and the hard rock sound of Audioslave. You can hear the change in Like a Stone and Be Yourself. These are songs that never would have fit in with RATM.
Morello further exhibited his diversity and talent when he fronted his own solo act, The Nightwatchman. These are folk acoustic songs with the political activism you’d expect from Morello in a rock genre no one expected.
What do you think? Which guitarists are the most recognizable to you? Do you agree with the list? Let us know in the comments below.