Ever since Tony Iommi chugged out his first riffs for Black Sabbath in the 1960s, heavy metal guitarists have been pushing the boundaries of what is possible on a guitar. Excesses in power, speed, complexity and sheer volume have become hallmarks for heavy metal. As with any type of rock music, heavy metal simply would not exist if not for power chords. But it’s what is done with those chords that separate metal from every other style of rock music. Below are some tips for playing heavy metal music on your guitar.
There are those who consider heavy metal to be nothing other than noise. They have obviously never tried to play a metal song on the guitar, because while dissonance can be an important aspect of the metal sound, a great deal of precision is necessary to achieve such a sound.
Regardless of whether one plans on playing lead or rhythm guitar in a heavy metal band, hours upon hours of practice will be necessary. A common theme in metal is speed, but speed without precision leads to noticeable sloppiness. And in the case of metal, practicing with the right hand is just as important as practicing with the left.
Strumming techniques are responsible for some of metal’s trademark sounds. Palm muting, in which the bottom edge of the right palm rests lightly on the strings, combines with fast alternate strumming to produce that chugging, rolling sound that is the basis for many metal songs.
That fast alternate picking is also a requirement for metal solos, which can be some of the most blistering, energizing sections in all of rock music. Knowing scales and practicing techniques with your fretting hand — including using slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs and vibrato — are also very important for playing metal riffs and solos.
Once you have the metal basics down, you can move on to more advanced techniques found in the most extreme versions of metal. One of these techniques is tapping, in which the right hand taps notes at certain frets while the left hand frets other notes. This craft, made popular in rock by Eddie Van Halen and in metal by Kirk Hammett of Metallica, allows notes to be played at faster rhythms than the simple strumming of strings.
Another advanced technique that is becoming more popular is sweep picking. In sweep picking, the right hand makes a single sweep up or down the strings while the left hand usually fingers an arpeggio, a series of individual notes that make up a chord. The result is a fast but flowing series of notes that can add a fresh, new element to metal solos.
Many heavy metal guitarists also prefer to tune down their guitars to get a darker, heavier sound. Tuning the entire guitar down a half-step is an easy way to get a moodier sound, though some will tune the guitar down a full two or three steps — typical of that aforementioned metal excess.
A favorite tuning trick often used in metal is keeping the guitar in standard tuning, but tuning the low E string down one full step to D. The primary effect of this is that it matches up all the notes in a power chord on the same fret. One finger can fret the low two or three strings on the same fret to create a power chord, allowing for easier and faster changes between chords. It also means the top two or three strings, played without fretting at all, are now a D power chord. This open chord can then easily be paired with higher notes and chords, since no fretting is necessary for the former.