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Classic Heavy Metal

There are many different genres of metal, from heavy metal to thrash metal. But there are certain common elements between all of them, that makes them sound like metal. There are common ways of doing things among all genres of metal that separate it from other types of rock music, and make it easily identifiable to the ear. If you have no interest in metal then by all means ignore these lessons. For the rest of you head banging maniacs let's get started!

Down picking

To get that consistent metal sound, we down pick everything where possible. When we pick in one uniform direction it gives the music it a consistent, relentless sound. There are occasions however when we need to alternate pick, namely when we can't down pick fast enough.

Precision and focus

Probably the most important nature of playing metal riffs is precision.

What do we mean by this? Basically, what we play needs to be tight and focused. We hear only what we meant to play. We try as much as possible to keep unwanted noise to zero, and we aim to control every aspect of the sound. Metal riffs, although loud and aggressive,  have a characteristic tightness to their sound. Everything is controlled and focused.

Music such as punk rock can sometimes have the opposite approach, where you can swing your arm and really whack the strings with more abandon. The resulting chaotic sound while being somewhat messy can really bring out a sense of wildness and chaotic abandon which can enhance the mood of such types of music.

But for a budding head banger we need to keep things tight. Let's look at a simple example riff to test out how tight we can play.


Sound clip - Slow

Sound clip - Fast

Have a listen and memorise the rhythm.

The first thing we notice, is that everything in on the low E and A strings. So for our goal of being tight and precise, we need to try as much as possible to make sure no random little noises escape from the other four strings.

The easiest way to do this is to mute those unused strings with out fretting hand. So while we're using the tips of our fingers to fret what we are playing, we use the rest of our fingers to rest them gently over the other unused strings. This should stop them flapping about and making unwanted noises.

Even if we don't hit these unused strings with the pick, unless we mute them they can still flap and cause some unwanted noise. When we use a lot of distortion, which is what we do in metal, this amplifies the problem of random noises so we especially need to be careful.

A second more obvious tip is to make sure you don't pick anything you're not supposed to! Your picking hand needs to be very accurate and make sure it doesn't travel further down than the A string.Keeping these tips in mind try to play the example, using a healthy amount of distortion and trying to keep it as tight and as clean as you can. Try to play it as tight, if not even tighter than the sound example.

Also notice we've been using palm muting for most of this riff. Try playing the same riff without palm muting. It's very messy and doesn't have that tightness we need for metal.

When we change positions to the other chords, try to do it quickly without rubbing the strings too much along the way. But also don't lift your hand completely off the strings, this will cause the open strings to let out some unwanted noise. A small amount of noise while we change positions is sometimes unavoidable and is the bane of many metal heads. And in some cases we just have to live with it.

Another secret to keep playing tight is nothing to do with your playing but to your gear. Noise gates are effects we can use that can cut out unwanted noise while not messing with what we do want people to hear.  Although very useful, noise gates aren't magic miracle workers and we still need to have good technique. Having said that, they're highly recommended.


Pedal notes

Pedal notes are used often in metal music. A pedal note is a note that we frequently return too during the riff. They can be used in leads also. The point of a pedal note is to provide a anchor point to the music. A note which we can use tie together the other notes and give the piece a consistency. Let's take a look and listen to an example.

Sound clip - Slow

Sound clip - Fast

The pedal note in this example is the open low E string. Palm muted of course! Palm muting is a head bangers most beloved friend. The open low E string is probably the most used pedal note in metal. The open A string is also used often.

Using the pedal note sandwiched between the power chords in this way creates a more interesting piece of music, or at least a more metal piece of music! Instead of using that pedal note, try playing the riff just using the that E power chord. While it might still sound good, and you might even prefer it, it certainly sounds much less metal!


Faster pedal notes and sliding power chords!

Remember when we mentioned that we try to down pick everything? And that there are times however when we need to use alternate picking. Well we're going to be doing that in this example! Let's take a look and listen.

Sound clip - Slow

Sound clip - Fast

We're pedalling that that low E string again, but this time we need to do it much faster. So unless you have some kind of bionic arm, we're going to alternate pick that pedal note.

After we're done pedalling that note we get to some power chords which we need to change quickly. To help us move between those chords quickly we slide those power chords from one position to the next. Aside from making it easier to play it also sounds pretty cool! And although we're using them in this fast riff, sliding power chords is also used often in slower riffs also.

Don't forget to palm mute that low E string pedal note, and as always watch out for unwanted noise from the unused strings.


Single notes in the mix

So far we've been using pedal notes and power chords. But single notes are used very often in metal music. Here is a typical example. Have a look and listen

Sound clip - Slow

Sound clip - Fast

This time we're using the open A string as the pedal note and we are using single notes to make the riff more interesting.

The first half of the riff we're jumping between that pedal note and the single notes. In the second part we're using the single notes to make a short run. It's also common for single notes to dominate a riff. We're also sticking to the low three strings, but it's not unknown to use the top strings also for riffs.

Try to aim to use down picking for this example. If you want to speed the riff up and play it quicker than the example you may need to use alternate picking for parts.

Often metal riffs may use single notes with legato techniques such as slides and hammers. Also many metal riffs have included bent notes.


Different kinds of power chord

So far we've been sticking to the regular power chords, or the 5th chords, remember a power chord is made from a root and a perfect 5th. We've been using both the two note power chord popular in thrash and faster kinds of metal, and the three note power chord popular with heavy metal and almost all kinds of rock music. Many metal bands also use two note power chords but without that 5th note. We can swap that 5th note we're used to for something else.

Sound clip - Slow

Sound clip - Slow

The first chord is the E power chord in the 7th fret position. The next chord we've moved that 5th note along a semi-tone. So that perfect 5th has become augmented 5th(also known as a minor 6th). So we can get away with calling this chord a E augmented 5th, or just a augmented power chord. But what it's called isn't really important unless you're planning to write a essay or a web site giving guitar lessons! To play this chord just use your index finger on the root as usual, and reach across with your little finger for that augmented 5th note.

Moving to the next bar we've still got two note power chords, but this time the second note of the chord is behind the root on the neck. For that first chord play the 5th fret note on the A string with your middle finger and the 4th fret note on that D string using your index. With this chord instead of a root and perfect 5th we've got a root and major 3rd. This makes the power chord sound like a major chord.

For the next chord along use your index finger for the note on the D string and your ring finger for the one on the A string. The chord is made from a root and a minor 3rd. So it sounds like a minor chord.

For this example we've got chords that break out from the normal power chord mould. Normal power chords since they don't have a major or minor 3rd, don't sound like a major or minor chord. That's why they can sound good when thrown together in almost all combinations regardless of key. But since some of these chords in the examples have a major and minor sound, we've made sure to pick notes to keep in the key of E minor. If you take these different variation of power chord and play them willy nilly, it might sound 'wrong' unless you stick to a set key.

If some or all of that went over your head, don't worry. Just remember those new shapes shown in that example and see if you can work them into your own music.



Rhythm is extremely important for metal music. A lot of metal songs use very similar if not the same chords as each other, but they retain a sense of uniqueness by their own rhythm.

We wont be needing any tabs to demonstrate this. All the examples bellow all use only two chords. The low E power chord, and then a G power chord. Sometimes palm muted sometimes not. So while all the examples are using the same chords through out, we're going to play using different rhythms to create unique little mini riffs.

Listen to the example and try to memorise the rhythm. Try to hear when we're palm muting and when we're not. When you can hum the example to your self using your voice, then you are ready to play the example with your guitar. Try to get the rhythm exact. All the examples start with that E power chord and after a bit hit a G power chord, it may repeat a few times also. Listen carefully.

Sound clip - Rhythm example 1

Sound clip - Rhythm example 2

Sound clip - Rhythm example 3

Sound clip - Rhythm example 4

Sound clip - Rhythm example 5

Sound clip - Rhythm example 6

Sound clip - Rhythm example 7

Sound clip - Rhythm example 8

Hopefully this should demonstrate how the rhythm is so important to metal. Just by modifying the rhythm we've made different pieces of music even though we're using the same chords for all of them.

Many metal guitarists claim to get inspiration for new rhythms from their environment. The hammering of a work man's pneumatic drill or a bird song for example. Or even a drummer! Fancy getting new musical ideas from a drummer of all places!(no offence any drummers out there)



If you look back over the past examples, you'll notice how we hit a lot of power chords with accents, and we also hit them on their own. In almost all of these examples we've not hit the same power chord twice in a row. We've given it a whack then moved on to another chord, or moved back to a pedal note. Doing this helps to heighten the sense of impact. Each chord hits like a individual missile.

You'll notice how we preceed these high impact chords with lots of palm muting bits. This helps to heighten the sense of impact even further. By palm muting large parts of a riff it accentuates the non palm muted chords, making them more forceful sounding. And metal is all about impact and force right? If we're playing a bad ass song about nuclear warfare, it makes sense to have a sense of force and impact in our playing.

In and out of key

While in general terms we try to stay in a certain key, it's common in metal riffs not to pay to much attention to keeping in strict key. While many riffs certainly do stay in a particular key, a equal number throw caution to the wind. If you look back at the example on using single notes in a riff, you'll see that the short run in that example doesn't stick to any normal key. But we don't care because we think it sounds good.

General speaking, and this is very loose, playing in a set key sounds more 'musical' and structured. While playing without a set key tends to sound more evil or dark.

When we get to the solo section of a metal song, it's common to play in a set key, just to give your lead guitarist, or you if you're the lead guitarist a easier ride. If the riff sticks to E minor, then naturally you can play the solo in E minor too. If the riff during the solo doesn't stick to a set key, then you're going to have a less simpler task. Lead guitarists who are used to playing over riffs in weird or no keys, often play by ear. Just through experience they know what works and what doesn't. Or you could just play really, really fast! Insanely fast solos can get away with being out of key since...well they are so fast nobody can tell anyway!

And so..

This is far from the encyclopedia of metal riffing. But we have introduced the core elements of metal riffs and what makes them metal and not just plain rock. Try to use these tools to invent your own riffs. Remember to keep it tight, hard and forceful!

Key points to remember!

  • Muting is essential, we don't want to hear anything other than the notes we intended.
  • Down pick as much as possible.
  • Use plam muting often, especially with pedal notes.
  • Power chords sound more forceful when played hard and without being repeated.
  • Rhythm is important, changing rhythms can create intirely new riffs.