Heavy Metal is not an easy genre to play on the guitar.
When I started learning the guitar I was a strictly Metal guy and this caused me a lot of frustration since I couldn’t play the music I really loved.
After a year of heavy practicing I joined my first Metal band, only to make a fool of myself….and learn a great lesson about learning the guitar and life:
It doesn’t matter how many hours you put in if you’re doing the wrong things.
My first guitar teacher, who was neither a metal guy, nor bothered with the fact that I wanted to play metal, was teaching me how to read standard notation and a few chords.
The open chords were useful but other than that, practicing for 2-3 hours a day for a year wasn’t getting me an inch closer to my real goals at the time: To join a metal band, play gigs and record albums.
The following is the advice I would have given to my former self knowing what I know now, 27 years later.
You don’t need to wait a long time to start playing your favorite genre of music if you do the right things, in the right order and with the right mindset.
Tip 1: Set goals
Never practice anything for the sake of practicing.
Always have a specific short term goal in mind, and make sure that it’s in line with your long term goals.
If you’re learning with a teacher (I strongly suggest that you do), always make sure that he:
a) Knows what your goals are. If your teacher never asks you about your goals, bring the subject up yourself. If he ignores you or tries to brush the subject off, it means he only cares about his goals. Find another teacher.
b) Can help you reach them. Once I had a good guitar teacher who cared about my goals and tried his best to deliver but after a few years of studying with him there was little more he could do to help me improve.
He was a Classical guitarist, and while he was a much better guitarist and musician than I was, I could play Rock and Metal better than him.
There’s nothing wrong with learning from a non-metal oriented guitar teacher, but always make sure he’s also fluent in the techniques that are frequently used in your favorite genre.
Tip 2: Balance rhythm and lead guitar
An advanced metal guitar player may decide to specialize in either lead or rhythm guitar playing.
A beginner and an intermediate guitarist should learn both. The guy playing the riffs and the guy playing the solos are playing the same instrument. They’re only taking a different role.
Don’t think of yourself as a rhythm or a lead guitarist.
What you will learn from practicing one side of things, will leave a huge ripple effect on the other. Thus you should be learning both simultaneously.
Tip 3: Shedule your practice
The slowest way to reach your goals is practicing things on whim.
A guitar practice routine helps you achieve results faster because everything you practice is seen as part of a bigger picture.
It also helps you to be constantly motivated to practice since you can see and measure results.
Tip 4: Learn guitar theory
Learning how to read standard music notation is often confused with studying music theory for the guitar, so before we proceed let’s make an important distinction.
Reading standard music notation: This simply means reading the musical notes from a sheet, identifying where and when they should be played on the guitar, and playing them.
While you may want to develop this skill to become a more complete musician, you do not need to develop this skill to play metal.
The reason is that all written metal guitar music is available in the form of guitar tabs, which is much easier than reading standard music notation.
Guitar theory: Music theory is the study of how music works.
It explains the elements of music that have been tried and tested by great composers and found to work.
Guitar theory refers to all those elements in that study that apply to playing the guitar.
Learning how notes relate to each other, scales, how chords are built and concepts like consonance and dissonance, or motif and variation will become very useful when creating your own heavy metal music.
If you want to compose heavy metal apart from learning other people’s music, it’s a good idea to start learning guitar theory earlier on.
Note: There are 3 stages of learning something in guitar theory:
- Understanding it. (Ex. What notes in a scale are, the intervals between them)
- Playing it/memorizing it on the guitar (Ex. Using 3 note per string patterns)
- Application (Ex. Using the scale to create guitar riffs and licks)
Many guitar students have the wrong impression that music theory is boring simply because they stop at step (b).
They don’t apply what they learn because they think they don’t have enough skills to do so.
When students do this, I correct their thinking first and show them that they have enough resources to come up with an easy riff or a lick.
Always keep in mind that your goal should never be to create something complex (surely not at this stage), but to create something pleasing to the listener.
You don’t need to shred a hundred notes to come up with a good melody.
Your first simple melodies will start getting you thinking creatively.
They will also make guitar theory fun, because now it’s also useful.
Tip 5: Learn how to mute unwanted strings buzzing
Most heavy metal music is played with distortion.
Some consider this a blessing because distortion can dilute certain mistakes.
I don’t consider it a blessing because it makes it harder to identify my mistakes and correct them. In fact I deliberately spend around 25% of my practice time either unplugged or clean.
Aside from cloaking mistakes, distortion adds a new challenge: Unwanted string noise.
If you move from a note on the 6th string to a note on the 5th string, you want to make sure you didn’t leave the 6th string buzzing.
This unwanted noise will decrease the quality of the music.
Muting unwanted string noise is not an easy technique and you will master it as you get more proficient in the instrument. Start thinking of ways you can use either your left hand or your right hand to stop unwanted strings buzzing.
Tip 6: Slow down the impossible
If you want to learn say, Iron Maiden songs, you will find parts of the song (usually melodic licks and some of the riffs) within your reach.
However other parts of the song, especially parts of the guitar solo, are not just hard but literally impossible for you to play.
You can stick to playing just the easy stuff, but within the “impossible” stuff there is a wealth of knowledge you can still learn from if you slow everything down.
If you learn a fast Iron Maiden solo at just 25% of the speed, or even slower, you will still learn the musical elements and techniques used in that solo.
You can get back to that solo after you increase your overall level of guitar speed and play it at a faster tempo.
Tip 7: Practice for joining a band
For most heavy metal guitar students, joining a band, playing on stage and recording albums are important goals.
If that’s you, start practicing for achieving those goals.
Here are some things you can do:
- Jam with friends and musicians. You will start getting the feeling of playing with others and understanding the needs of those you’re playing with.
- Don’t limit yourself to learning other people’s music. Create your own. In this lesson I show you how to create guitar riffs, the engine of heavy metal songs.
The ability to make music will make you an asset for any band you may join or form in the future.
- Practice the guitar standing up.
- Play the guitar while visualizing an audience. Some people say “fake it until you make it”. I don’t like faking stuff and would adjust the saying to: “Practice it until you become it”.
The more you play to an imaginary audience, the easier it will be to play to a real one.
Note: It is imperative that while doing so you feel good about yourself. If you tend to judge yourself negatively, for the sake of this exercise, just don’t.
Don’t allow yourself to make any negative judgment, only good ones. And the audience is always cheering, never booing.
Allow yourself to indulge in glory you haven’t yet reached. You deserve doing this (in your imagination) since you’re putting in the hours to turn your dreams into real achievements.
Tip 8: Learn Metal Scales
The basics of music theory are universal however you should keep in mind that traditional music theory wasn’t written for metal.
It is metal musicians who took elements of traditional music theory and adapted them to their genre (consciously or unconsciously).
For instance if you learn guitar theory in the order of traditional music theory, the major scale will be the first scale that you’ll learn since most scales are either derived from, or related to it.
It may take you years until you reach the point where you understand how the Phrygian mode works and learn how to use it.
Yet while the Phrygian mode is commonly used in metal, creating metal music with the major scale is hard.
The reason is that the major scale has a happy sound while the Phrygian mode has a dark, sinister sound.
Thus, while you should be learning music theory in the right order (otherwise things will not make sense), it’s also a good idea to take a peek at musical elements that are used in Heavy Metal, even if you don’t fully understand the theory behind them yet.
A good place to start is learning scales that are popular in Metal.
Tip 9: Aim to be creative, not original
Some metal guitar students want to play exactly like their favorite players. Others don’t want to sound like anyone. They want to be original.
I think neither is a worthy goal to pursue.
You don’t need to sound like Slayer or Running Wild. Neither should you try to invent a new sub-genre of Metal.
The music you will create will be the result of your influences.
Milk everything you can from those influences, let it all unconsciously blend in, and come up with your own thing.
Which will be original since no one goes through the same thinking process as you do.
Tip 10: Learn some blues
A guitar teacher once told me that if I wanted to play good Metal solos, I should first spend a year learning the Blues, particularly guitar licks and solos.
Though I didn’t spend a year learning just Blues, I understood what he meant and it proved to be good advice.
In Metal solos we tend to play many fast notes and only put emotion (through vibrato, bends, accents and other phrasing techniques) on the last note of each phrase.
Blues guitarists tend to use less notes and compensate by milking every drop of emotion out of each note.
Thus, by learning how to play Blues licks and solos along with Metal, you will be training yourself to put emotion in the notes while learning the more complex mechanics of Metal solos.
The end result will be better Metal solos, as well as acquiring the ability to play some Blues.
Conclusion: It’s a long way to the top if you want to Rock N Roll
Nothing comes without effort and since Heavy Metal is a genre that values musical proficiency, if you want to play metal on any significant level, you have a long road in front of you.
The good news is that you don’t need to wait to get started. You can start immediately by practicing things that lead directly to your clearly defined goals.
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