The birth of Heavy guitars dates back to 1958 when Gibson introduced the Explorer and Flying V which deviated from ‘traditional shapes’ giving their guitars a modern touch. Initially, the guitars were designed for jazz musicians and as you may know the experiment was a complete failure, so much so that Gibson immediately stopped production, only to resume production in the late 60’s for the Flying V and mid 70’s for the Explorer .
The reason for this was that some Hardrock guitarists discovered these guitars with the jagged shapes for themselves. These two models can clearly be described as the original heavy guitar models, which were also copied by other manufacturers and released to the market in a slightly modified form. Such as the Randy Rhoads model by Jackson was clearly based on the Flying V, but with a shortened “wing”. The Ibanez Iceman, which for a long time was the main guitar of Paul Stanley (Kiss) is strongly influenced by the shape of the Explorer . In the 1980s, came the metal boom, inviting more and more manufacturers to the scene, who were to a certain degree devoted to this Guitar Genre: Charvel/Jackson, Dean, ESP, Kramer, Hamer and BC Rich.
Heavy guitars differ from “normal” guitars like Stratocaster or Les Paul on the one hand because of its extravagant body design, but in most cases also in their powerful Humbucker pickups to draw out every bit of distortion from the amp. In the 1980s, a Floyd Rose tremolo system was extremely popular, although it slightly faded into the background again. During this time many bands experimented with different downtunings, which isn’t always suitable to this system. With the rise of nu-metal style in the mid-1990s, guitars became tuned lower and 7-string instruments with a deep B-string evolved. One of the first production models was the Universe by Ibanez, co-developed by Steve Vai. In the meantime, eight-string guitars are no longer unusual, while competing with bassists thanks to the extra low notes.
Guitarists and guitars
There are few genres that can boast so many icons such as metal, where almost all guitarists are considered true living legends. Many heavy metal guitarists have been collaborating for several years with various companies to create “signature” guitars, reflecting their own peculiarities and special requests. Here is a small selection of the preferred instruments among various guitarists in the heavy rock genre:
James Hetfield (Metallica)
Hetfield plays ESP and has several signature models (Iron Cross, Snakebyte, Truckster). These guitars are equipped with EMG pickups and a Tune-O-Matic bridge: for his legendary ‘down picking’, James needs a firm and fixed bridge.
Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
Tony Iommi plays several Gibson SG models. His SG signature model has 24 frets and Custom humbuckers tailored to the body, the pickups are also available separately. There is also alternative versions produced by Epiphone. 😉
Dimebag Darrell (Pantera, Damageplan)
The late Dimebag “Dime” Darrel who left us much too soon, guitarist of Pantera and Damageplan, always had a great relationship with Dean Guitars, who have published several instruments under his name. The shape of preference is a cross between an Explorer and a Flying V and is usually fitted with two Humbucker pickups. Darrell often had a Floyd Rose tremolo system installed on his guitar.
Jeff Loomis (Nevermore, Arch Enemy)
Jeff Loomis is currently touring with Schecter Guitars. His main model is his signature model with Strat-style body, available as a six- or seven-string, with Seymour Duncan humbuckers and either a Floyd Rose tremolo or a fixed bridge. The pickups are also separately available as a set.
Scott Ian (Anthrax)
Scott Ian played Jackson for many years. Among his signature guitars include a Soloist, available with two humbuckers + Floyd Rose, or a single humbucker at the bridge + fixed bridge, and a King-V. Recently, Jackson also introduced the possibility to choose of configuring the pickups or bridge on a King-V model. These signature models are available in the X series, affordable for all budgets, or the USA series, for those looking for a high quality handmade instrument.
Fredrik Thordendal / Marten Hagstrom (Meshuggah)
The two Meshuggah guitarists use instruments made by Ibanez, offering two Meshuggah Signature models, both 8 string guitars with double-cutaway body in black finish. Both are equipped with a Lundgren M8P Pickup (passive) and an Edge III-8 Tremolo System. Another special feature is the very long neck with a length of 749 mm. This is necessary, because the strings are tuned far down, the deepest tone is F1, almost one octave lower than a normal guitar.
Tosin Abasi (Animals As Leaders)
Tosin Abasi mainly uses 8-string guitars. Ibanez has produced two signature models (TAM-100 and TAM-10) following the exact specifications desired by Tosin. The guitars are equipped with an HSH (humbucker-single coil-humbucker) DiMarzio pickup configuration with a 686 mm scale and the lowest string is tuned down to E1(an octave below traditional guitars). For this reason, the Animals As Leaders don’t have a bass player for their live performances.
What is important for a heavy guitar?
Body / Wood
The shape is of course primarily a matter of taste. Regarding body wood there are different approaches and no clear directions as tastes differ. Traditionally, mahogany is a good choice, which is characterized by excellent sustainability and a softer tone, which can be combined with aggressive sounding pickups. Basswood is also very popular with heavy guitars; this wood does not have so much sustain, but a very crisp, attack-driven sound, which can provide clarity with fast riffing.
Neck / Frets
Necks are predominantly maple or mahogany and the fingerboard is primarily of rosewood. While this construction is quite standard, it’s the neck profile which are of striking feature, because these are rather slim and the fretboard has less curvature. The string position should be fairly flat, to favour fast-paced playing. Medium jumbo or jumbo copies frets are first choice, especially the massive jumbo frets which are suitable for bends, because you have less surface friction on the fretboard. For this reason, Ritchie Blackmore or Yngwie Malmsteen used Scalloped Fretboards where the fretboard is deepened between the frets. The number of frets is also important for anyone who wants to play solo’s in the high frets and should in any case have a guitar with 24 frets.
Tremolo or Fixed bridge?
The question is actually answered quickly, because if you work with various Downtuning, a free-floating tremolo will not be fun, because when tuning a string in this system the neighboring strings are also influenced. The string tension is usually balanced by the tremolo springs, and so when only one element is changed, it also changes the rest. So let’s just say going from standard tuning to drop D tuning is not as easy as it is with a fixed bridge. A fixed bridge is the only right choice for downtunings.
However, fanatics of Dive Bombs and lots of tremolo action, should have a stable tremolo system, a task which is left to many guitars with a Floyd Rose system. This way the strings are clamped to the saddle and the fine tuners on the bridge are used when tuning and the virtual lack of friction allows for extreme detune-free tremolo movements. Another tricky point is the support surface at the bridge which is important for the right hand when using palm-muting techniques. For some guitarists the fine tuners of the Floyd Rose get in the way of this technique. Furthermore the pressure of their palm can move the bridge altering the tune. For this reason Kerry King from Slayer prefers the Kahler system because it is somewhat less sensitive offering a firmer palm rest.
The pickups of a “heavy” guitar must be powerful enough to distort
the amp and produce a sound worthy of the most powerful metal. Active pickups have established themselves here in many ways because they also have the advantage of being quite insensitive to background noise. The most popular manufacturer in the heavy range are DiMarzio, EMG and Seymour Duncan .