Though heavy metal was the reason I picked up the guitar in the first place, I couldn’t start playing my favorite genre from the start.
When I listened to heavy metal guitar techniques like fast legato runs or sweep picking being played, I used to believe that it would take me ages before I could even consider playing the genre.
Well, the good news is that not every guitar technique used in heavy metal is difficult to execute.
In this lesson, I’ve shown you how to get started playing metal, even if you’re a beginner on the guitar.
Today I’ll give you a list of techniques that are commonly used in heavy metal music and are within the reach of beginner and intermediate guitar players.
Though this list of metal guitar techniques is not written in any strict order, I’ve tried to put the techniques that are either easy to learn or very commonly used at the top.
1. Power chords
Power chords are easy to learn and use since they’re made of just two notes, are moveable across the guitar fretboard, and do not require you to perform a barre.
They’re used regularly in heavy metal guitar riffs, either as a sequence of power chords (ex. 1) or combined with other notes or chords (ex. 2).
Power chords are notated by the name of the chord followed by the number 5 (ex., A5, G5, etc.)
2. Palm muting technique
The riffs in the example above sound rather bland, the reason being that other techniques are usually applied to power chord riffs.
The guitar technique most commonly applied to power chords (among other things) is palm muting, where the palm of your right hand lightly presses the strings close to the bridge.
This doesn’t mute the notes completely but instead gives them that “chug-chug-chug” sound commonly found in heavy metal music.
The following is a power chord riff that makes use of palm muting, which is indicated by the letters P.M.—- below the notes or chords on which the technique is to be applied.
Palm-muting doesn’t actually mute the note or chord, rather it changes the way it sounds, its timbre.
This does not mean guitar riffs are only made of different sounds though, they can be made of silences too.
These silences are called rests. To get them on your guitar you need to either lift your left hand from the strings (but keep it touching the strings so that no unwanted noise comes out) or use your right hand to mute the string completely.
The rests in the following example can be achieved by simply lifting your left hand fingers from the power chords.
Vibrato is a very expressive guitar technique used in most guitar oriented genres of music, including Heavy Metal.
It is executed by bending the strings in a rapid motion, where rather than hitting the next note with the bend (as we’ll see in the next technique, string bending), you’ll give a different, pleasant sound to the note you’re playing.
The next example is exactly like the one given in the previous technique, with vibrato applied to the long notes.
A wiggly sign over the notes that should use the technique denotes vibrato.
5. String bending
String bending and vibrato are two techniques that can literally make the guitar sing since they can imitate the way the human voice produces the notes when singing.
In this lesson, you’ll find a variety of string bending exercises to get started in this technique commonly found in heavy metal and most guitar-oriented genres of music.
The slide is another technique a metal guitar player cannot do without.
The following is a four-bar guitar lick that makes use of this technique, along with vibrato.
7. Hammer-ons and pull-offs
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are also commonly used in heavy metal riffs, licks, and guitar solos.
Practice this technique by going through the exercises given in this lesson.
8. Controlled picking
Not every heavy metal guitar player uses the same kind of picking.
James Hetfield is known for his consecutive downward picking in his riffs. Other guitarists prefer alternate picking, while others go for economy or directional picking.
What all great metal guitar players do have in common is complete control of the pick.
A beginner guitar player usually doesn’t hit the strings strongly enough in order not to hit adjacent strings.
An intermediate guitar player would have developed the ability to hit the notes with enough strength without hitting unintended strings.
But a great guitar player is able to accent some notes by hitting them with more force than others and play around with the dynamics (the loudness of the notes—piano, forte).
In this lesson on guitar picking I show you how to train your right hand to gain control of the pick, a skill you’ll need a lot if you want to become a metal guitarist.
9. String skipping
Playing notes from adjacent strings comes naturally and is easy to perform.
Never skipping strings, though, will narrow your options when playing metal guitar riffs, licks, and solos.
When creating music, it’s important to remind yourself that you have more options than playing adjacent notes, something that will start coming naturally once you have trained yourself in string skipping.
10. A tight rhythm
Developing a good sense of timing is necessary if you want to play any genre of music, not just metal.
I think it deserves a mention here because it is so important.
No matter how melodic, complex, fast, or creative the music you’re playing is, if you don’t play it on time, it sucks.
There’s no way around that.
If you’re a beginner in this genre, start developing a good sense of timing now, not when you’re shredding lightning fast.
Or else you’ll be doing it all wrong.
11. Heavy Metal Gallop
As the name of this technique suggests, this one is particularly used in heavy metal.
The heavy metal gallop is simply playing one of these two rhythmic patterns in succession, usually over power chords, sometimes with palm muting applied.
A common technique used in heavy metal guitar riffs is the drone, where one note, sometimes palm-muted, is repeated over a changing melody.
In this lesson, I show you how to create guitar riffs using this technique.
13: Inverted power chords
Chords are inverted when the lowest note in the chord is not the root. In music notation, they’re written as slash chords, with the name of the note to be played in the bass written after the slash.
For instance, C/E is made of the notes of the C major chord (C, E, and G) with the note E played in the bass.
Since power chords are made of just two notes (and this, in theory, makes them a dyad rather than an actual chord), an inverted power chord is one where the fifth note is in the bass.
The most commonly used pattern for inverted power chords is the one below.
Inverted power chords work well in combination with power chords in root position as well as single notes when composing guitar riffs.
Trills find their roots in the music of Bach and were one of the ways he would ornament a note.
They are performed by playing rapid pull-offs and hammer-ons between the note you want to ornament and the note a fret or two above it.
In this short lick, the trill is performed on the last note of the first bar.
15: Tremolo picking
Another guitar technique commonly used in metal music is tremolo picking, where the same note is hit rapidly by the pick multiple times, as in the following example:
16: Hybrid picking
Hybrid picking means playing the guitar with a pick but also using your remaining fingers to pluck the notes.
This technique is more commonly used in Country music (where it’s usually referred to as chicken pickin), but it has also made inroads in metal music since it gives the player the ability to play wide leaps with ease as well as very fast.
In this lesson I give you a set of hybrid picking exercises that start easy and get harder, ending with a heavy metal guitar riff that uses this technique.
17: Playing fast
Playing fast should come last.
It’s pointless trying to play something fast unless you can play it accurately and on time.
That being said, if you’ve got a good grasp of the metal guitar techniques in this list that you need to express yourself in this genre (probably most of them), it’s good to start building your speed since heavy metal is a fast and aggressive style of music.
In these guitar speed exercises I show you how to go about building your speed on the instrument.
Conclusion: Where to go from here?
If your main goal in music is to become a heavy metal guitar player, you may eventually want to learn more advanced techniques like sweep picking, tapping, and pinch harmonics.
Before you go for the harder stuff, though, it’s important that you don’t just “know” the metal guitar techniques explained above but are also able to use them in a musical context as well as integrate them together.
You do this when learning songs as well as improvising on the guitar.
I also suggest that you learn the basics of music theory as well as mastering the fretboard since this will make the application of any technique on the guitar a lot easier.
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