If you have never played Heavy Metal on the guitar before, I suggest you read this lesson first so that you know what you will need to learn to become fluent in the genre.
In today’s lesson, we’ll be focusing on one of the most defining components of Heavy Metal music: The guitar riff.
The great thing about Heavy Metal guitar riffs is that while in many cases, guitar solos are hard to play, at least at certain points, riffs can be very easy at times, thus a really good place to start.
The metal guitar riffs in this lesson will start from the very easy, and reach more advanced levels by the end.
Though there are other techniques you will eventually add to your bag of tricks, the 5 techniques mentioned above are crucial if you want to create Heavy Metal music.
On each of the following Heavy Metal guitar riffs, I will identify the most important components of each riff so that you can use them when creating your own.
Metal guitar riff 1
In this riff, take note of the use of:
- Vibrato on the long notes: Vibrato is an essential technique used in most genres of guitar playing. Though it’s not hard to execute, you need to spend time working on developing this technique since there is good vibrato and messy vibrato.
- Rests: Silence in music is as important as the musical notes or chords you’re playing. The use of rests is a very important rhythmic element when creating Heavy Metal guitar riffs.
- Power chord: To keep things simple this riff is made of single notes, except for the last chord, which is a power chord, probably the most frequently used chord in the history of Rock music. This chord will feature in many of the following riffs.
The power chord is notated as the letter name of the chord followed by the number 5. The number 5 has to do with the theory behind the power chord, which you can learn more about here.
Metal guitar riff 2
In this riff look out for:
- Palm-muting on a single string. Palm-muting is another technique you can’t do without if you want to play Heavy Metal riffs. Learn more about how to use it here.
Metal guitar riff 3
This riff uses the same components as the riffs above, the only differences being:
- Palm-muting on a chord: If you’re new to palm muting, I suggest you learn how to do it on a single note first (as in riff number 2). However, this technique is also frequently used on chords, especially in Heavy metal music.
- A succession of power chords: The two riffs above were single note based with power chords at the end. This riff is made of a succession of power chords.
Metal guitar riff 4
Since palm-muted power chords are so common in Heavy Metal, here’s another riff using these same components.
In fact, the rhythm used on this riff is so common in Heavy Metal music that it’s been nicknamed the “Heavy Metal gallop”
Metal guitar riff 5
This riff introduces hammer-ons and pull-offs, another guitar technique frequently used in this genre.
Metal guitar riff 6
In the next riff, we’ll introduce the slide, a powerful technique used by guitar players in most musical genres.
Metal guitar riff 7
The next riff introduces string bending. Though this technique is more likely to be found in guitar licks or solos, bending the string instead of picking the following note can also be used in guitar riffs.
Metal guitar riffs 8
In music, the term legato means to play the notes smoothly.
This is achieved in different ways on different instruments and on the guitar it is achieved through the two techniques used in riffs 5 and 6, that is hammer-ons and pull-offs, and slides.
In the next riff, we’ll be using legato runs that are a combination of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides.
Metal guitar riffs 9
The next riff uses slides on entire power chords as well as notes of shorter duration that make the riff’s pace faster.
Metal guitar riffs 10
I would consider this last riff as a very basic introduction to what is commonly referred to as “shredding”.
Being able to play fast on the guitar is not what makes a guitar player good.
If your phrasing is bad, your bends are out of tune, you’re not in time or don’t have a sense of melody, among other things, the ability to play fast won’t compensate for those weaknesses.
That said, if the other components are in place, playing the guitar fast (learn how to do so here) is both expressive (ex. Using speed to create a climax) and impressive (since most guitar players don’t have this skill, if you do it right, people will be impressed).
The following riffs involve short legato runs in bars 2 and 4. If you find them hard, zoom in on just four notes and play them at a very slow tempo for a number of times.
Once you gain the necessary muscle memory reaching the speed used in this riff, or even faster, shouldn’t be out of your reach.
Conclusion: Where to go from here
If you can play all these metal guitar riffs with ease and on time, well done you’ve already made giant steps in the art of guitar riffing.
What I would do next – apart from working on the other elements of Heavy Metal guitar playing – would be this:
1. Record the riffs you learn and make sure you’re completely on time.
Being slightly before or after the beat may go unnoticed while playing in your bedroom, or even rehearsing with your bandmates, but it won’t at the studio.
I realized how important this is this the first time I recorded in a studio. Had I had the habit of recording myself, I would have realized these timing inaccuracies at home, rather than in paid studio time, in front of others.
2. Learn riffs from different genres of Heavy Metal as well as outside metal.
I am a metal guy and play Heavy Metal most of the time.
However, I consider myself a guitarist and a musician first and over time I realized that by listening to and playing just Heavy Metal I was limiting my options.
There’s a lot you can learn from genres like Blues, Funk and Reggae and occasionally learning guitar riffs from these genres will just add to your arsenal of ideas.
3. Create your own riffs
If you’re fluent in playing guitar riffs, this is the right time to start creating your own.
Creativity is something that can be trained, and now that you know the main components that make a guitar riff, you can choose any of them, and creatively use them to make riffs of your own.
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