Beginner’s Guide to Heavy Metal Guitar Playing

Your very first Heavy Metal guitar lesson

The sole reason I picked up the guitar 25 years ago was to play Heavy Metal. I added new genres among my favorites along the way, but back then it was just Metal and its close relatives, Hard Rock and Punk music.

And I had a problem.

What my favorite guitar players like Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore were doing looked impossible to play and worse still, what I was learning in my guitar lessons—mostly reading standard music notation and a few chchords—seemedo have no relationship with what the Gods of Heavy Metal were playing.

Would I be able to play those riffs if I managed to locate the notes on the fretboard? It didn’t seem likely.

Let me be honest with you. Heavy Metal is not an easy genre to play.

However, if you love metal and are just a beginner on the guitar, you can still get started in the genre because:

1. Metal guitar players are not playing difficult things all the time

For instance, though it’s going to take you thousands of hours of focused practice to even think of playing most of Kirk Hammet’s solos, the intros to some Metallica songs shouldn’t be out of your reach.

2. Complexity is not what makes it metal.

Yes, we love fast tremolo picking and shredding legato guitar solos. But there’s much more to metal than that. A good riff, lick, or solo doesn’t need to be fast and complex.

In this lesson, I’ll show you what you need to learn to be able to start playing Heavy Metal on guitar at this stage.

1. Reading guitar tabs

Guitar tabs are much easier to play than having to learn to read standard notation (though they have a flaw that we’ll be addressing in the next point).

Better still, if Heavy Metal is your thing, you can rest assured that if a song is published, it’s available on guitar tabs.

I’ll show you how to read guitar tabs using a simple example:

Tabs created with Guitar Pro

As you can see, we have two music staves over each other. The upper one shows you the notes as written in standard music notation, while the bottom stave uses numbers.

The bottom one is the guitar tabs version of the notation, which is the first thing you need to learn if you want to play Metal.

It works like this: Each of the six lines represents a string of the guitar, the lowest line represents the low E string, and the highest line represents the high E string. (The name of each string on the guitar is EADGBE starting from low to high)

The numbers on the notes tell us which fret to press to get that note and if the number is 0 it means that the string should be played open – without any fret being pressed.

Thus, in the example above, the first 4 notes are the unfretted low E string played in succession. For the next two notes, you have to press frets 2 and 3 of the A string. In the last bar, you press fret 2 on the D string and then play it open.

Reading tabs should be pretty easy once you get the grip of it and it takes much less time than learning to read standard music notation.

2. Learn the basics of rhythm.

Guitar tabs tell us where the notes on the fretboard we should press are, but not the duration of each note.

One way we can get that if we’re playing a song we know, is by ear. The tabs show you what notes you should fret and you figure out the rhythm.

Better still though, you should learn the basics of rhythm and get the duration of each note from the music stave above the tabs.

The standard music notation in the stave on the top, where the note is placed tells us what note we should play on the guitar fretboard – but we don’t need that, we got that from the tabs.

The different shape of the notes though is useful here since it tells us how long each note is to be held.

3. Power chords

If you’re going to play Heavy Metal or some related genre, odds are you’re going to use power chords a lot.

Power chords are easy to learn as well as to use. Learn more about the most popular chord in Rock, Metal and Punk here.

4. Palm muting technique

Heavy metal guitar players use a variety of guitar phrasing techniques but palm muting is one you definitely cannot do without.

It’s the one that gives your distorted notes and chords that chug-chug-chug sound commonly heard in Heavy Metal guitar.

Learn more about palm muting technique and how to use it creatively here. 

5. Guitar riffs and licks

Whether it’s the opening riff to Smoke on the Water or Breaking the Law, distorted guitar riffs that repeat themselves over the song, (sometimes in different forms and variations) are a defining element of the Heavy Metal genre.

Guitar licks are also present in many songs and what these do is inject little shots of melody into it.

In these lessons, you will find a set of guitar riffs and a set of guitar licks that increase the level of difficulty you should learn.

Build an arsenal of these riffs and licks until you reach the level where you can easily write your own.

6. Guitar scales

One of the questions I had, when I was a beginner, was:

How do guitar players know what notes to play?

There are so many notes on the fretboard, are they hitting one after the other at random?

Thankfully life doesn’t have to be that hard and guitar scales make it easier since you can think of them as paths that can show you through the fretboard maze.

Learning and using guitar scales will show you where you need to go to express yourself melodically. Practicing them also helps your ear to predict the following note before you play it, something that will be very useful in the next skill you’ll need to develop.

7. Improvisation

Improvisation is the skill of creating musical melodies on the spot. It’s not an ability just useful for Heavy Metal but in most genres of music.

If you’re a complete beginner, you may want to leave developing this ability for a bit later but if you’re getting close to an intermediate level of guitar playing getting started in guitar improvisation will help you become a better musician whether you’re playing Heavy Metal or any other genre.

Conclusion: Is this everything there is to playing Metal?

No. The Heavy Metal genre can reach very high levels of complexity, difficult technique, and speed.

However, if you’re a beginner you shouldn’t wait until you master the advanced stuff before you start playing Metal on guitar.

If you do so it will kill your motivation since you wouldn’t be playing the genre you love.

If you learn the above though, you will soon be able to take your first dig at Heavy Metal and even join a band.

As you learn new and more difficult techniques or build your speed on the guitar, you will have more options to use in your guitar riffs, licks, and solos.

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