Here are some important things to consider when selecting a guitar:
Body style: There are many different guitar body styles, but some of the most popular are the Stratocaster style with 2 cutaways, the Les Paul style with a single cutaway on the bottom, the SG shape, and the V-shape. I learned on a Strat-style body, so that has always been my preference. This shape has a balanced weight distribution and it rests comfortably on your leg. V-shaped guitar bodies require a different playing position when sitting down that I find very uncomfortable, so make sure this is acceptable to you before you decide you want one. The guitar body shape will also affect the tone of the guitar somewhat, but the differences are subtle unless you’re an experienced player.
Pickups: For playing metal, you’ll probably want to have a humbucking pickup in the bridge position. You can get by on a single coil for a while, but eventually you’ll want that humbucker for less noise and higher output. Having single coils in the neck and middle positions is fine, and may be preferable to some people for extra tonal versatility. Humbucking pickups come in active (battery-powered) and passive form. I love the EMG 81/85 active pickups for metal. They are used by many metal bands because they have a high output and are very sensitive. However, some people don’t like them because the tone they produce isn’t as warm and full as passive pickups. I don’t have experience using a lot of different high-quality pickups—just the EMGs.
Bridge style: There are several different styles of bridges in guitars, and each has advantages and disadvantages.
The Floyd Rose tremolo system is very popular for metal and shred guitar, because it allows crazy dives and pulls of notes, along with some cool vibrato techniques and squealing sounds with the tremolo bar. Additionally, with the double-locking system, your strings will generally not go out of tune at all until it’s time for a string change. However, there are some drawbacks. First, string changes take quite a bit longer on a Floyd Rose system. Second, tuning changes or changes in string gauge can require that you spend a significant amount of time adjusting the tremolo springs so the bridge lays flat. Third, some people feel that the “suspended” style tremolo decouples string vibration from the body more so than other bridge styles, so they claim a loss of tone and sustain. Personally, I think the difference is very subtle, so I wouldn’t let that be a deal-breaker. Another thing to consider is that the Floyd Rose system adds significant cost to the guitar. If you are considering two guitars of roughly equal price, one with a FR system and one without, it is likely that the guitar without the FR system is of better quality in terms of materials and hardware. Finally, many cheaper guitars do not use original Floyd Rose systems, but instead use a “licensed by Floyd Rose” system (a knock-off version). Some of these knock-off systems are okay, but others are notoriously bad in terms of keeping strings in tune. I really don’t know which systems are good and which are not, so it is better to ask someone else.
The vintage Strat-style tremolo allows you to bend notes lower with the bar. Since it also uses springs in the body cavity to balance the tension of the strings, changing tuning and/or string gauges can sometimes require adjustment to those springs (usually only when tension increases). However, string changes are relatively easy with this style of bridge.
The fixed bridge and tune-o-matic bridge styles do not use any springs, and both make it very easy to change strings. The disadvantage is that you don’t have any tremolo system to work with.
To help make your decision about bridge style, consider how you plan to use this guitar. Are you going to use a single tuning and string gauge for extended periods of time (at least a full year)? If so, then the bridge style is less important. If you want the Floyd Rose system, then go for it. However, if you plan to change tunings and/or string gauges quite often, I would recommend going with a fixed bridge or tune-o-matic bridge, unless you really like spending a lot of time working on your guitar!
There are many other things to consider when choosing a guitar—type of wood, neck attachment method, fretboard curvature etc.—but if you’re reading this guide, it’s likely that these things won’t make much of a difference to you. I would not let any of these things influence your decision, because I don’t think they’re nearly as important for the beginner/intermediate guitarist as the things I’ve discussed above.
Recommended Guitar Selection Method
During the summer of 2007, I decided to acquire a new guitar for the first time in many years. I followed a methodical, yet very simple selection process, and I would recommend it to anyone considering a new guitar. First, decide what features you’d like on your new guitar (body style, bridge style, pickups, etc.). Next, make a list of guitar models that have the features you want and fit within your budget (guitarcenter.com, musiciansfriend.com, and zzounds.com are good places to look for prices). Most guitar manufacturers will probably make at least one model of guitar that fits these criteria. Some popular manufacturers for metal/shred guitars are ESP LTD, Ibanez, Jackson, Dean, and Washburn, but there are many others that may offer suitable guitars. Go to some local music stores and play on as many of these guitars as possible. I probably tried about a dozen guitars before finally deciding on my Washburn X50 Pro FE. Get the guitar that feels the best to you. Be careful about choosing based on perceived sound quality. It is likely that you’ll be playing through several different amps, none of which match your rig at home, so sound quality comparisons are probably not very useful. As I mentioned before, for distorted guitar sounds, most of the sound is shaped by the amp or processing device. If you decide to buy from a local store, be sure to ask for a setup on the guitar.
Amplifiers and Processors
Amps and processors have come a long way since I started playing! It would have been really nice to have a modeling amp with many built-in effects, but instead I was stuck with a crappy combo amp with a separate multi-effects pedal board. It got the job done, but today’s offerings are so much better!
The first thing to consider is how the amp is going to be used. Is this your first amp? Does it need to be portable? Is it just for your personal practice sessions, or are you going to be playing with a drummer? Do you want to use it for direct recording to your computer? The answers to those questions will determine what amps/devices you should be considering.
These days, since I’m not playing with a band, I rarely play through a guitar amp. I have my POD X3 hooked up via USB to my computer, so when I’m playing I’m listening through my computer speakers or through headphones. My Marshall stack sits unused in the corner of the room. The sound of the POD X3 is fantastic, so I really have no need to play through a dedicated guitar amplifier. The POD X3 is also very portable in that I can easily pack it up and take it with me on trips. I can just use headphones, or I can run it through a home stereo system or computer speakers. If you’re in a situation like me in which you don’t need something that allows you to play along with a drummer and you have your own computer, then you should strongly consider just getting something like the POD X3 as opposed to a dedicated guitar amp, because it is more versatile.
However, many people will want an amp with a built-in speaker (a combo amp) for ease of use and for practice sessions with other people. If this is your first amp, I think the Line 6 Spider series of amps are a great choice! These amps get picked on by many people (mostly tube snobs and guitarists who feel that they are “too good” for cheap modeling amps), but they offer incredible versatility and value. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend one for a practice/learning amp. Another advantage of these amps is that they offer an output for direct recording which is similar to the quality of a Line 6 POD. If you want something that can compete in volume with a live drummer, then I’d recommend a combo amp with at least two 12” speakers (2x12 combo). The other option is a half stack, which consists of a separate amp head (pre-amp and power amp) and speaker cabinet (usually 2x12 or 4x12).
I have never owned a true tube amp, so I can’t offer any recommendations there. My main gigging amp was a half stack consisting of Marshall 8100 Valvestate head (no longer in production) and Marshall 1960A 4x12 slanted cabinet. I thought it sounded great, and I was always receiving compliments on the tone. If you’re trying to duplicate the sound of your favorite guitarists, the amps you’re going to be looking at are very expensive. These are some of the amps most commonly used by metal/metalcore bands these days: Peavey 5150/6505, Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, Soldano Solo 100, and other $1000+ tube amp heads.
I am not a big fan of distortion pedals. If you want good distortion, I feel it should come from the amp itself or from a quality amp modeling device like the Line 6 POD. This is just my opinion, though. Many people are happy with the sound they get from distortion stomp boxes.
In terms of effects like chorus, flanger, reverb, etc., many amps and modeling devices have them built-in these days. If not, you can buy a separate multi-effects pedal board or get separate stomp boxes for each effect. I haven’t used any such devices in a long time, so I can’t really offer any recommendations. I just use the effects that are included with the POD X3.
Disclaimer: I know I talk a lot about Line 6 products on this page, but I am in no way affiliated with Line 6 and I have no incentive for recommending their products. They just happen to be the biggest name (and one of the pioneers) in amp modeling, and I’ve been happy with the products I have owned and tried.