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By Aldo Chircop

There is more choice of electric guitars on the market today than ever before. While the ‘historic’ brands which we all have heard about still enjoy a lot of popularity, more and more new brands are entering the market with some really interesting products. However, all this choice comes at a cost. Just how do you pick the best guitar for you, given all the variety of choices possible?

A frequent question among guitar students who aspire to be ‘guitar heroes’, who want to eventually shred like demons on guitar, is on which criteria they should choose a guitar that will support the kind of advanced technique which they aspire to.

Without further ado, I’m going to share with you what I look for when choosing a good metal guitar, based on two and a half decades of experience playing rock and metal. 

The two most important attributes

Evaluating all the possible features and variations in guitar design, essentially boils down to judging how those features affect the two attributes which I consider most important in a metal guitar:

‘Playability’ is a term which guitarists use to convey how ‘easy’ a guitar feels to play. Here are the features that make a guitar highly playable, in the context of metal and shred:

A ‘flat’ (high radius) fretboard.

Electric guitar fretboards have a slight curve to them. The centre of the fretboard (the part underneath where the 3rd and 4th strings are) is higher than the edges of the fretboard (where the 1st and 6th strings reside.) The radius rating of the fretboard tells you how pronounced this ‘hump’ along the middle of the fretboard is. The radius can vary quite a lot between different guitar designs. Some vintage designs have a radius as low as 7 or so inches, while other more modern designs can go as high as 16 inches or more.

So how does this affect playability? The consensus is that lower fretboard radiuses feel a little more comfortable when playing barre chords, whereas higher radiuses facilitate slick lead playing. The reason for this is that a high radius fretboard allows you to set a lower string action, while maintaining the capacity to perform extreme string bending without the string chocking out on the ‘hump’ of the fretboard. The higher that hump (the lower the radius), the more clearance is needed by the string to keep on vibrating without chocking out on the higher frets when you bend a note. Therefore, if your guitar has a low fretboard radius, you will be somewhat forced to have a fairly high string action if you want to still be able to play deep bends. While there are exceptions to all rules, in general, guitarists who want to ‘shred’ prefer a low action. 

Conclusion: if you want a low action that feels slick, while still being able to bend strings with abandon, look for a fretboard with a high radius, which means something in the region of 14 – 16 inches.

High (‘Jumbo’) frets.

Again, there are some variations in personal preferences here, but in general, high frets (often called ‘jumbo’ frets) also facilitate the combination of low action and easy bending capability. The extra height between the top of the fret wire and the fretboard wood gives your fingers more purchase to get a good grip on the strings when bending, while still allowing you to set the guitar with a low action, which is the distance between the top of the fret wires and the bottom surface of the strings.

Good high fret access.

If you want a guitar that makes it easy to solo in the extreme high range of the guitar, you will want it to have very good high fret access. Fret access is a combination of two factors: the depth of the body cutaway, and how bulky the neck to body joint is. Of course, here we will be looking for a deep cutaway combined with a streamlined neck joint. In essence, you want your guitar to allow you to move your fretting hand as high as possible up the neck while still maintaining the correct hand position with the thumb centred at the back of the neck. 

Relatively slim and smooth neck.

In general, a neck that is on the slim side (meaning the thickness between fretboard and back of the neck) is less tiring on the hand, and allows for more comfortable and quick change in positions, which is something you want to have in a shred guitar.

Let’s now have a look at the second general attribute, which I called ‘signal to noise ratio’.

High signal output is king!

We could discuss ad nauseum all the aspects of guitar pickups, debate which ones give you ‘that’ hallowed tone you are after, and so on. All these finer points are valid, but my intention is to simplify the decision process as much as possible.

What’s the hall mark of heavy metal and shred guitar playing? Heavy, heavy, high gain distortion.

To have that, we want our pickups to have two specific qualities: high output, and low noise.

We want high output because that’s what we need to drive our amp or distortion pedal into full metal meltdown. Gutless, low output pickups will never give you that super punchy distorted sound which you are after. However, we want the pickups to also be very resistant to stray noise, since the high gain amplifies any buzzing and humming which the pickups absorb from their surroundings. The combination of high output and low noise is what makes it possible to play with lots of distortion while still maintaining clarity and studio quality tone.

Saying this might make me some enemies, but these requirements basically rule out single coil pickups. Their low output and high noise means they are a bad choice for high gain distortion playing. If you want that crunch from hell heavy metal rhythm sound (and lead sound too), having at least a high output humbucker at the bridge is simply a must.

There are many choices of suitable high output pickups out there, all boasting their particular tonal characteristics. Tone is a personal choice, but I’ll still contend that the most important attributes – more important than tone nuances – are high output and low noise. Unless your pickups have a high enough output and are resistant enough to noise to allow you to play with the level of gain you desire, any other tonal advantage they may have will be nullified. Priorities. Besides, if you play with heavy distortion most of the time, 80 or 90% of your tone character comes from the tonal characteristics of your distortion device, anyway.

As a final concluding point, if you find yourself having to choose between a guitar with great playability but less than ideal pickups, and one with great pickups but inferior playability, which one should you go for? My suggestion would be to choose the guitar with the superior playability. Pickups can be upgraded easily, but you cannot change the fundamental construction of a guitar.

About the author:

Aldo Chircop is a guitarist, composer, producer and guitar teacher based in Malta. He is president and chief instructor of Malta Rock Academy, home of the best blues, rock and metal guitar lessons in Malta