Who’s the greatest metal guitarist?

Back in the day, the big debate was always who’s the best guitarist in the world? The two main choices back when I was growing up? Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads.

As you grow a little older, you realize there’s innumerable great guitar players out there, and who’s the best is strictly a matter of opinion. Still, we metal fans tend to get very opinionated about this stuff, and musicians always love to armchair quarterback their rivals.

That said, another poll recently surfaced: The Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarist of All Time. This poll was launched by Gibson guitars, and again, these polls are all a matter of opinion. I’m sure many will nitpick who’s really a metal player, this guy’s better than that guy, and on and on, but here’s who made the list…

First, let’s cut to the chase… Who was voted #1? Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath. While he may not be as technically accomplished as Randy Rhoads, who came in at #3, or Eddie Van Halen, who came in at #6, let’s face it, Tony invented a genre.

How many guitarists can say that? Tony’s sound, which wasn’t easy to achieve on the gear that was available back in the sixties, helped craft the sound of metal that everyone followed.

These days, you can buy amps at any Guitar Center with plenty of distortion and balls, but again, it was hard to get your guitar to sound as heavy and dark as Tony did back then. And like Led Zeppelin’s tour manager Richard Cole once told me, with Zeppelin’s music you could trace where it came from, but Sabbath’s sound was so different, it practically came out of nowhere.

Right behind Tony at #2 are Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield from Metallica, and like Iommi, Hetfield’s one of the best riff masters in metal history. The almighty riff is the building block for any metal classic, and Hetifield’s crafted plenty of great rhythm parts. The influence of Randy and Eddie is clear with so many guitar players, and especially in Ed’s case you can’t over-estimate the impact he had on guitar. Once Ed exploded on the scene, millions of kids wanted to be a guitar god. With Randy, he broke major ground by bringing classical music and metal together like no one before.

#5 on the list is Dimebag Darrell, the late Pantera guitarist, and certainly one of the most influential metal guitarists of modern times. Where Metallica and Slayer were the heaviest bands around in the mid-eighties, Pantera was the metal band the next generation called their own, and you can hear Dime’s influence all over today’s metal.

Others on the list include John Petrucci from Dream Theater at #4, former Ozzy guitarist Zakk Wylde at #7, Adam Jones from Tool at #8 (Here’s an example I wouldn’t consider metal, as talented as the members of Tool are), Dave Murray and Adrian Smith from Iron Maiden at #9, and George Lynch from Dokken at #10.

With Dave and Adrian from Maiden, their guitar harmonies inspired countless bands to do similar melody lines, and in the early eighties, George Lynch was one of the hottest guitar gods in waiting. Back then, it was all about who was going to be the next Eddie or Randy, and George was definitely on that list in his prime.

There’s plenty more guitarists we could name that should have been rated here, but what’s fun about these lists is the debate they inspire. Where’s Jimmy Page? Can you technically call Zeppelin, AC/DC or Guns N Roses metal? What about the lesser known guys who had big impact like Michael Schenker and Gary Moore? And on, and on, and on. Probably more than any genre, metal is very guitar driven. Really, it doesn’t matter who’s #1 or #100 down the list, there’s a great smorgasbord of musicians to listen to and enjoy.