Metal Rhythm Guitar Part 1

This lesson looks at metal rhythm guitar. After previously discussing some more interesting variations on the power chord for use in your rock rhythm playing (check it out here) I thought it would be useful to start a thorough exploration of the techniques involved in metal rhythm guitar playing.

Over the course of these columns I’m going to cover a range of ideas from picking patterns, muting, getting a good sound out of your equipment, harmonics, scales, modern rhythmic ideas, and how to approach writing your own metal riffs

Most of this material is going put the focus on your picking hand. Be sure to not over practice and learn to listen to your body. Repetitive strain injury is a real hazard when practicing fast drills, but warming up slowly and taking breaks can minimise this risk.

Palm muting is central to giving your metal rhythm guitar playing dynamics (contrast of loud and soft). To achieve the correct placement place your picking hand on the bridge as if your were karate chopping into the guitar, so the side of your hand lines up along the end of the strings. Then close your hand down over the strings into a comfortable picking position. You should still be able to hear the pitch of the notes clearly when palm muting, they should just not ring out fully.

Now we’re going to dive right in with a classic 80’s metal riff based on power chords and open strings. This should be fairly straight forward, but to get the right attack the picking hand should only palm mute the open E string and let the power chords ring out. Downstroke all of the notes for an authentic, consistent attack.

You may like to practice this simple drill in you’re not used to the technique: Keep picking consistent downstrokes on the open low E string palm muting the first four notes of the bar but lifting the palm up for the second four notes to let them ring out. Repeat and when comfortable alternate every two notes instead.

Now to incorporate alternate picking. For example two we go to the perennial metal giants Iron Maiden. They are synonymous with the ‘gallop’ rhythm (examples include The Trooper and Run to the Hills) The basic pattern should be played with a ‘down down up’ picking pattern. If this is new to you, then I recommend looping one beat of the gallop pattern for a few minutes at a time, or until you feel tension building up. Practicing like this will help build the necessary stamina to be able to stay relaxed when playing in this style for prolonged periods.

The last example for this section of our journey into metal rhythm guitar draws together the palm muting, down picking and bursts of alternate picking. Remember to keep relaxed, start slow and vary the palm muting to give the riff its full impact, lifting off for the notes marked with accents in the notation.

When practicing this style, always use a metronome. If you don’t build in evenness and precision, you’ll struggle to play tightly with a rhythm section in a band.

To start with we’ve looked at classic metal vocabulary, though every guitarist who’s come since has built on these ideas. Have a go at tackling similar examples from bands such as Metallica, Anthrax, Iron Maiden, and Exodus.

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