Studying Heavy Metal Guitar
By Tennyson Williams, Author of The Essential Guide To Guitar Virtuosity
Heavy Metal is an amazing style of music, and requires a lot of refinement in a guitarist’s playing. In this article I’m going to talk about what you will need to study to get into this style of music. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you read my other article on studying Rock guitar.
I have always talked about how universal music is, and when it comes to metal, it can be as universal as you want it to be. A lot of people shrug and don’t think that it is, but they are quite wrong.
A good place to start would be to study a little bit of the approach to rock guitar. Metal, like rock, uses a lot of power chords and a lot of the same scales and modes, but because metal is more adaptable to different genres of music, it can include any number of modes or chord structures.
This article has to be vague because there are so many different forms that heavy metal comes in. You have speed metal, thrash metal, black metal, alt metal, death metal, neo-classical metal, Black metal, Power metal, Goth metal, Jazz metal, and even Polka metal. In all reality that list is very tiny, as new forms of the musical movement are constantly being recognized.
They still all have a similar core foundation, and its just ahead that we’re going to talk about this foundation.
1. Rhythm Guitar
In a lot of metal songs, a common theme is to ride one string and insert chords where desired. By riding a string, I mean to pick that string multiple times while inserting chords (typically power chords) at different times throughout a riff. A lot of rhythm guitarists try to do this with downstrokes, but I highly advise you to correct this and start using alternate picking. This will allow you to produce some intense and fast rhythms. It is also quite common to palm mute the string that a guitarist is riding. When I say palm mute, I mean to literally rest the palm of your picking hand on the string, muffling the string to get a good crunch. The palm is generally layed close to the bridge of the guitar.
2. Stops and rhythm accents
With the above approach to playing rhythm guitar in heavy metal, a lot of complicated rhythm structures are often created. It is common for a metal guitarist to insert a lot of stops in their rhythm structure. The rhythms are typically always changing, creating elaborate and interesting riffs. I always think of the rhythm guitar in a metal song as being very percussive. If you take the time to familiarize yourself with what a drummer is doing in a metal band, then this will make better sense to you.
That’s right – use a metronome. If you are just starting out, you’d be wise to practice metal rhythms with a metronome. The rhythm has to be tight, because metal is actually a very sophisticated for of music. Often times the drummer is playing very fast, and is usually using the double bass pedal on a drum set. These guys can really lay it on the bass drum, so you need to be able to keep up with it.
When I was a kid I got involved in a metal band that was way out of my league. As a lead guitarist, I naturally spend more time working on fast solos, and not rhythms. I tried to play these complicated rhythms, while trying to keep up with our drummer, who was a bit of a legend in the area. It stressed my picking hand out so much that it took me about three months of TLC to repair it and bring it back to its old self.
I would suggest sitting down with a metronome and working on riding the low E string, or A string, in sixteenths. This will get your picking hand loosened up and give it some added strength. Practice doing this will palm muting and without palm muting, but start at a very, very slow tempo.
4. Scales and Modes
I personally have always thought that when it comes to modes in heavy metal, everything is fair game. The Major scale, Major Pentatonic, Minor Pentatonic, Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor, Phrygian, and the Exotic Scales are excellent for guitar leads in metal. Lead guitarists who play metal tend to be quite the achievers, so you should probably take the time to learn every scale and mode available.
Heavy metal guitar also boasts its fair share of techniques. Not only that, but it actually dominates these techniques. Here’s a small list.
a) alternate picking
b) string skipping
e) sweep picking
f) economy picking
There are also many more, not so common hybrid techniques, like sweep legato, or string skip tapping.
6. Classical Music
Classical music is a huge influence for the world of metal. It is very important to listen to classical music, and study its nature. For instance, Counterpoint is a Baroque approach to playing two melodies that has resurfaced in the metal community in recent years. It would also appear that a lot of predominant metal guitarists are quite fond of J.S. Bach, and this certainly does not exclude the ever famous Yngwie Malmsteen.
Metal is one of the most ambitious styles of music out their. There is a lot to learn, but start small and know that you will eventually have finished climbing the mountain. This is also inspiring, because if you reach the top of that mountain and decide to study a new genre of music, you’ll be very much prepared. Alex Skolnick who was the former lead guitarist for Testament did just this, and mostly plays Jazz guitar now. You can be assured that he makes an amazing Jazz guitarist. Keep rockin’!
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