Headbangers Brawl: Four Metal Machines for $750 or Less Reviewed
B.C. Rich, Blakhart, EVH, and PRS prove you can get heavy—and surprisingly refined—on a budget.
Click on the guitar you want to read more about.
The realm of heavy guitar that includes shred and the many mutations of metal is a beast of countless shapes. The considerable differences between the guitars reviewed here highlight the depth and breadth of metal’s many subgenres. From the fluid, EMG-propelled muscularity of the Blakhart HX FM or 7-string thunder of the B.C. Rich Warlock Lucky 7, to the re-imagined classicism of the EVH Wolfgang Standard and PRS SE Zach Meyers, these guitars provide numerous ways to probe the darkest depths of heaviness.
But what’s most remarkable about these instruments is that each can be had for 750 bucks or less. And if you’re a devotee of the guitar’s darker side who’s also on a budget, here’s something to celebrate: Each instrument provides an impressive heap of brutishness while, in many cases, offering a refined side too.
PRS SE Zach Myers
The newest PRS SE Zach Myers signature model is a complete overhaul of the previous PRS to bear his name. Where the first was a single-cut with three humbuckers, this version is a semi-hollow single-cut with dual humbuckers. A semi-hollowbody might not be the first guitar design you associate with heavier styles, but the Zach Myers is an extremely capable axe that can cover both a broad range of hard rock and music that falls well outside that genre.
If you’re a fan of PRS styling, it’s hard not to be taken aback by this instrument’s beauty. The Trampas Green flame-maple veneer top, single f-hole, vintage-inspired tuners with tulip-shaped tuning pegs, zebra pickups, mahogany neck, and rosewood fretboard with bird inlays all exude that distinctly PRS sense of bling that define the company’s more expensive handcrafted instruments. Two other finishes—Spalted Santana Yellow and Vintage Sunburst Quilt—will soon be available.
Even before I plugged it in, I was impressed by the guitar’s resonance and lively sound. Through the rhythm and lead channels of my Mesa/Boogie Mark IV, the SE245 low-to-medium output humbuckers delivered a vintage sound that’s excellent for hard rock rhythm and modern, drop-tuned metal riffs. And it was easy to coax a killer lead tone, rich with sustain, that made playing leads feel effortless.
One of the coolest things about the Zach Meyers is feeling and hearing how lively the chambered body is at high volume, and getting a sense for how that liveliness translates to a more expansive tone palette. Through my amp’s clean channel, the guitar could sound powerfully jangly with an almost acoustic-like airiness when I rolled its volume knob back a bit. To my surprise, feedback was not an issue.
The neck pickup generates warm and syrupy tones perfect for sludgy, low-down riffs. Better still, warmth doesn’t come at the expense of attack. Even with the tone knob backed all the way off, notes remained crisp and articulate. Pick response is excellent, and my sweep-picked arpeggios and alternate-picked sequences made notes pop like a machine gun.
The bridge humbucker has a slightly attenuated treble response not often associated with bridge pickups, and this translated into snappy single notes that didn’t sound brash. I found the bridge humbucker’s combination of fast response and warmth made it ideal for three-notes-per-string legato runs. Hammer-ons and pull-offs had a pronounced attack, which meant I could pick less (and less forcefully) and still generate articulate-sounding phrases.
The Zach Myers’ 22-fret, 24.5"-scale neck sports PRS’ wide-fat profile. If, like me, you’re coming from a world of thin-neck shred machines, a bigger neck profile might be a concern. Yet with its satin finish, this neck feels slimmer than it is, and this made everything from big chords to speedy licks feel natural.
The PRS SE Zach Myers is a well-realized and well-built instrument that, quite honestly, can stand toe-to-toe with semi-hollows that cost four times its price. But beyond its obvious hard-rock pedigree, it’s a very versatile instrument that can handle most any genre of music. In fact, the SE Zach Myers is a top-notch axe capable of so much that it almost seems criminally underpriced.
EVH Wolfgang StandardThe Wolfgang Standard may be the most affordable EVH yet. But it sacrifices surprisingly little of the magic and utility that makes its more expensive cousins objects of desire among Eddie heads. The Standard is loud, responsive, and feels fantastic—everything a serious player could want at a fraction of the price.
Wolfgang Standards are offered in relatively understated trans black, trans red, and gloss black finishes like the EVH models Van Halen himself uses onstage these days. My Indonesian-built test model looked sharp: Its gloss black basswood body and black hardware makes a bold contrast to its bone-hued maple neck. The guitar sports a pair of high-output, Savage EVH humbuckers that are direct mounted for better sustain.
As with all EVH guitars, the 3-way pickup selector switch is wired backwards—the up position activates the bridge pickup and the down position activates the neck. This is a functional, Eddie-specific design feature: His right hand often accidentally knocks the switch when he’s playing hard, and this reversed configuration keeps him at the bridge by default. It’s counterintuitive in some respects, but I had no problems with the setup in practice.
The domed and textured volume and tone knobs have indentations that make volume swell-intensive figures like “Cathedral” easier—especially if you use a thumb and index finger combination. However, if you control the volume knob with your pinky, it’s not quite as comfortable. Because the volume knob’s placement is fairly close, height-wise, to the bridge, there isn’t much clearance between the knob and the whammy bar. So the bar insert screw will inadvertently press into the back of your pinky.
I tested the Wolfgang Standard through a Fender Super-Sonic combo with a Mad Professor 1 pedal for extra dirt. Loud and bold, the Savage EVH pickups offer the brilliance and bombast you’d expect from a Van Halen-designed guitar. When I played triad-based rhythm figures, like the intro to “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Panama,” the Standard delivered cutting tones that were glassy but never piercing, and at times, even quite warm. That same responsiveness came to the fore in lead situations: Whether I was tapping or tremolo-picking, single notes felt and sounded explosive, and it was easy to coax pinch harmonics from the strings.
The Wolfgang Standard has a commanding voice that would kill in any hard rock setting. No matter how I adjusted the controls, the guitar maintained great presence and clarity. Even when I engaged the neck pickup and rolled the tone knob way down, the guitar stayed dynamic and clear. I could play the deep, low inversions of the intro to “The Best of Both Worlds” and get perfect note separation.
Given its Sunset Strip roots, it’s little surprise that the Wolfgang Standard can conquer any hard rock or classic metal riff I threw its way. What’s less unexpected is how well it functions in a modern metal environment. The guitar’s tight, focused sound allowed me to play rhythmic djent riffs with surgical precision.
Eddie Van Halen launched the shred movement almost singlehandedly, so you’d expect that any Eddie-associated axe would be built for speed and maximum playability. With a 25.5" scale and 12"-16" compound-radius fretboard, the bolt-on, graphite-reinforced neck delivers big time in this respect. Boasting rolled edges, the 22 frets add to the fast and silky feel.
While I was really enamored with the Wolfgang Standard’s fabulous neck, I have to mention that I had a tough time keeping the guitar in tune if I used the EVH Floyd Rose Special aggressively. It seemed as if only a couple of dive bombs would quickly knock the tuning out of whack.
If you’ve always wanted a Wolfgang but have limited funds, the Wolfgang Standard is a dream. It gives you all the key ingredients of the Van Halen flavor—high-output pickups, compound radius fretboard, locking tremolo system—at a price that’s hard to beat. Even if you’re not aiming to religiously replicate Eddie Van Halen’s sonic stylings, the Wolfgang Standard is a top-notch rock ’n’ roll axe that will shine in almost any musical situation.
Blakhart HEX FM Philip Fasciana SignatureBlakhart Guitars founder Chad Petit is an unapologetically dedicated metal maniac. His company exclusively works with metal- and shred-oriented designs, and Petit is a metal musician himself with decades of playing under his belt. His experiences as a player inform his designs in a big way, and as the company’s artist roster suggests, he’s gotten the formula right for some of metal’s biggest names.
The Korean-made HEX FM reviewed here is a signature model designed for Philip Fasciana of Malevolent Creation. It’s built around a mahogany body, but the HEX FM’s olive-green, flame-maple cap, and the stealthy shark fin inlays that adorn its fretboard communicate a dark and mysterious metal vibe. And though there are hints of a Gibson Explorer and Ibanez Destroyer in the silhouette, the guitar is peppered with unique design twists.
Though the HEX FM’s body might appear hard to balance when playing seated, its right-side wing sits naturally and comfortably on the thigh. The guitar’s lower-left wing, however, is really big and getting my forearm over the corner wasn’t easy. Not surprisingly, playing with the guitar strapped low and the headstock tilted up at an angle is how this guitar feels most ergonomically at home.
The HEX FM is built with true neck-through construction, which enhances stability and sustain. The ebony fretboard feels sleek, and the guitar’s deep cutaway improves upper-fret access, making it easy to hit those wailing, two-octaves-up, dog-whistle bends. The neck offers a comfortable all-around profile that should appeal to both rhythm and lead players.
I tested the Blakhart HEX FM through a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV amp. The guitar features the tried-and-true metal pickup configuration of an EMG 81 in the bridge and EMG 85 in the neck. It’s a perfect fit for this shred machine, although for some reason, the neck pickup was noticeably louder than the bridge, even though the bridge pickup was set physically higher. That said, the difference in pickup volumes wasn’t as great with a ton of gain on top.
That sonic oddity aside, the Blakhart makes extracting heavy-hitting metal moves very intuitive. It’s easy to dial in tight sounds for palm-muted, low-E chugging by engaging the bridge pickup and maxing the tone control. But even when I rolled the tone knob all the way back, notes still had crisp definition. At this setting, most rhythm guitar figures (excluding ultra-tight, palm-muted riffs) still sound tough and cutting, and no matter where you set the tone knob, the guitar has a beefy bottom end that feels like a punch in the gut.
The HEX FM has a compressed quality that generates copious sustain for lead playing. For solos, I liked using the bridge pickup with the tone knob turned down to around 4 to take some edge off the attack. Rounding off the front end of the notes made shredding feel a tiny bit easier, particularly when I was relying on legato moves to build speed.
The neck pickup offers a slightly more limber feel and a softer attack without getting woofy. It worked well for fast runs, especially when I wanted to hear the individual notes ring through the sonic blur of sweep-picked arpeggios.
I was also able to get many variations of clean sounds for everything from modern extended-range, prog stylings to classic metal moves. With the bridge pickup engaged and the tone knob rolled down to about 6, Animals as Leaders-inspired, hybrid-picked, open-voiced triads had a modern, bell-like resonance. Using the neck pickup with the tone knob all the way up, individual notes in arpeggiated, open-string chords had a crisp attack that at times almost sounded like an acoustic guitar. But you can dirty things up fast if you get aggressive with your pick attack.
The Floyd Rose tremolo is set up for big, dive-bombing pitch bends, but the recessed cavity assures that it can be adjusted to pitch up as well. Grover Mini Rotomatics make tuning stability excellent. In fact the guitar was very close to pitch when I removed it from the case—after a long trip on the FedEx truck—and it remained close to pitch no matter how savagely I pummeled the vibrato arm.
At 750 bucks, the HEX FM is impressively outfitted. EMGs, an original Floyd Rose, and neck-through-body construction are pro-level features that we’re used to seeing on much more expensive instruments. It’s also a very solidly built guitar with a high-quality feel that belies its price. The Blakhart HEX FM is a killer metal axe and it’s worth considering no matter what your metal needs are.
B.C. Rich Warlock Lucky 7B.C. Rich guitars inhabit our collective psyche as one of the great totems of glam metal. But for all the potentially nostalgic baggage, the 7-string Warlock has the stuff to tempt a very modern generation of low-tuned headbangers.
There’s no mistaking the Lucky 7’s intended purpose: It’s a hardcore metal machine. The guitar’s mahogany body is carved into that classic, menacing Warlock shape, and finished in gloss black with all black hardware, pickups, tuners, knobs, and bridge. Made in Indonesia, the Lucky 7 sports excellent workmanship for an entry-level import model. Binding is all but flawless and the fretwork is perfect.
If you’ve never rocked a Warlock, you might assume it would be uncomfortable to play sitting down. That’s not the case. The corner horn fits perfectly into the knee area and its sharper angle actually makes the guitar feel more stable than many more gently contoured solidbodies.
Electronics include Duncan Design versions of the popular Seymour Duncan Blackout active pickups. OEM pickups can be hit or miss, but these sound amazing. They deliver authority and power in spades, and have a pleasingly aggressive growl. In many respects, I actually liked them better than some of the other more renowned active pickups out there.
The bolt-on, 25.5" scale, mahogany neck has a 12" radius fingerboard with jumbo frets and a graphite nut. The absence of fretboard position markers adds to the sinister look of the guitar. Don’t worry about losing your way though, there are dots on the binding. I found the flat neck very comfortable. Some 7-string necks feel big, but the Lucky 7’s fit the curvature of my hand very well and the string spacing felt just right. Walking-bass lines with chord stabs (hardly a classic metal move, but with a low B at my disposal, I couldn’t resist) felt surprisingly natural. For quick licks, the neck feels extremely fast, particularly if you keep your fretting-hand thumb behind the neck. The back of the neck has a nice satin finish to enhance the fast feel.
Played through a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV amp, the Lucky 7 sounded bright with a tight attack—even when bathed in gobs of gain. Serpentine, hyper-speed, chromatic, single-note riffs played down low—the type of riffs that can render a 7-string flubby and bassoon-like—cut through with razor-sharp definition. You might expect a guitar with this much high-end clarity to get shrill high up on the neck, but the Lucky 7’s tone is even and balanced all across the guitar. Even with the guitar’s tone control all the way up and amp treble up high, the sound is never piercing.
The Lucky 7’s ample sustain is tailor-made for shredding. However, the guitar’s very immediate attack can feel unforgiving. This could be a blessing or a curse, depending on the state of your chops. You can hear the notes of an alternate-picked passage loud and strong, but you’ll have to work for it a little. And the Lucky 7 doesn’t have that loose, spongy feel that makes you believe you can wiggle your fingers and have notes magically fly forth. But if you have serious lightning chops, people will take notice.
The Lucky 7’s knack for communicating detail extends beyond single-note riffs. It sounds just as colorful when playing the lowest, detuned chords. With the bridge pickup engaged and tone control wide open, I dropped the 7th string to A, and struck a massive A chord. And through this mammoth wall of sound, single-note definition remained excellent. I expected muddiness to creep in when I switched to the neck pickup and rolled the tone knob all the way off. But while there was less bite, each note sounded clear and full. Each pickup has its own volume control, situated on either side of the 3-way pickup selector switch, and I took advantage of the layout to craft kill switch-inspired, machine gun sputters and ghost textures as these big chords rang out.
The Lucky 7 is very sensitive and has a wide dynamic range, which was especially evident when I switched to the amp’s clean channel. If I picked lightly, I could make the guitar whisper quiet. When I hit really hard, I got a huge and startling jump in volume. But regardless of my attack, each note had a robust quality. The pickups are also very clean for how loud they can be—cleaner even than some active pickup-equipped guitars under similar playing conditions. The clean output enhances sonic differences between the two pickups. I definitely preferred the neck pickup, which is livelier and has more depth than the bridge pickup, which is weaker sounding in general.
If you’re a metal guitarist who has always wanted to explore the realm of the 7-string, but weren’t sure enough to commit to buying one—or if you’ve wanted to occasionally add the 7-string sound into your repertoire—the B.C. Rich Lucky 7 is a more-than-solid and very affordable option. And with 24 frets and seven strings, there is a lot of sonic territory to explore.
Owners will often swap out the pickups and hardware on entry-level guitars, but there’s little need to do this with the Warlock. This guitar is good to go right out of the box, and at just $399, that’s a whole lot of bang for the buck.