How to master the rhythms of heavy metal

When the Tenacious D musical duo proclaimed, “You Can’t Kill Metal / Metal Will Live,” they were actually preaching some serious gospel truth. Since its genesis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the genre known as heavy metal (with its myriad of ramifications and subgenres) has been one of the most popular, enduring and enduring. most scalable. Because many beginning students start by strumming cowboy chords on an acoustic steel string, making the leap to metal seems as intimidating as swapping a pedal tricycle for a Triumph Rocket 3. But mastering a few Basic picking movements, anyone can tap into the visceral thrill and unmatched power at the heart of “The Metal”!

Power progressions

As amp manufacturers began to incorporate more gain (aka overdrive or distortion) into their preamp stages, players changed their techniques to harness that extra sustain. Increasing the gain meant adding harmonics to your sound and it made the chords open to full voices indistinct and muddy.

A simple solution to this sonic dilemma was to reduce the chords to the root and the 5. These “5” chords (also called power chords) are harmonically ambiguous (missing a 3 which would designate them as major or minor) but sound thick and full when pushed through an overdrive amp.

Ex. 1 shows some power chord re-harmonizations of commonly played open forms. I use a partial measurement of the first finger on the E5 and A5 and put my index finger on the 5th string to cut it while grabbing the G5. The key here is to play fewer strings than you normally would, thus eliminating thirds completely.

Ex. 1

A common, but surprisingly unnamed, technique used when articulating power chords is to attack the lower strings with a short, aggressive “slap” or “push” motion that comes from the wrist as opposed to a traditional strum. that comes from the forearm.

Ex. 2 takes our chord forms from the previous example but adds the element of syncope by hitting them on the offbeat, or the “and” of beat 4. This rhythmic shifting of power chords was a separate technique exploited by Malcolm Young in ‘AC / DC, one of the architects of heavy rock rhythm and it sounds unmistakably cool against a solid backbeat.

Ex. 2

Hells Bells – Malcolm Young Isolated – Live in Donington

Another pioneer of power chords, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, developed a style that relied heavily on the movable two-finger power chord handles used in Ex. 3. This was done largely in compensation for an industrial accident that severed the tips of several fingers on Iommi’s fretting hand, but ultimately gave Black Sabbath a distinct sound based on the riff that would become the model for most styles of heavy metal. Among other things, this economic hold allowed for a legato movement between chords as evidenced by the slip on beat two of the two bars.

Ex. 3

BLACK SABBATH – “War Pigs” (Live Video)

Palm steering

While playing power chords through a high gain amp or pedal provides epic sustain, to produce percussive eighth note rhythms, mastering the technique of palm mute is essential. The name palm mute is somewhat improper as it is actually performed by resting the outer edge of the picking hand on the bridge just enough to make constant contact with the lower strings and dampen them. Make sure that the bridge and not the strings are supporting the weight of your hand or the sound will be too muffled. Also, don’t forget to hit those bass strings with a short, aggressive wrist motion, as opposed to a traditional strumming motion. I tell my students that scratching is a bit like using a paint roller to cover the walls, while palm muting is like using a brush to paint the corners. It may take some trial and error to strike the right balance between contact and pressure with your fretting hand, but once you’re in the right place, try playing the muted power chord progression in Ex. 4.

Ex. 4

A stylistic nuance can be obtained with the palm mute by emphasizing certain beats. Quite often, accented chord hits can be enhanced by playing only root notes on unstressed articulations. In Ex. 5, the previous chord progression is now animated by adding an accent on the first beat of each bar [ONE and two and three and four and] and play a single root song muted for the rest of the bar.

Ex. 5


Once you master the accented palm mutes, they can be strategically deployed to add rhythmic complexity and sophistication to progressions by syncopating certain beats. A common model illustrated in Ex. 6 takes one measure of eighth notes and divides them into a 3 + 3 + 2 group with the accent coming on the first eighth note of each subgroup [ONE-and-two-AND-three-and-FOUR-and].

Ex. 6

A two-bar variation shown in Ex. 7 divides the 16 eighth notes into an accent pattern 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 [ONE-and-two-AND-three-and-FOUR-and one-AND-two-and-THREE-and-FOUR-and]. These two motifs are based on the Afro-Cuban clave rhythm and appear as the rhythmic foundation of thousands of songs of all genres.

Ex. 7

Alternative routes

So far, we’ve relied heavily on downstrokes, but basic mastery with alternate selection techniques is a must-have skill for playing rhythmic and melodic patterns with speed and precision. One of the challenges newbies seem to have with alternative picking is approaching the strings on the way up. In Ex. 8 the fourth note of the pattern moves to an E on the 4th string and should be taken with an upward movement. Practice this minor scale movement slowly, making sure you are placing all the alternating strokes correctly. Once you hit it at a reasonable speed, try playing it twice in one position, then drag it from one square to the next position. Keep moving the drill up to your neck.

Ex. 8

This example and all of the previous examples can be played with a metronome, but keep in mind that a metronome cannot teach you rhythm. It can only fine tune your accuracy and help increase speed gradually. I highly recommend learning to grab each exercise slowly and correctly before dialing in the tempos of the Mach 5 metronome. Precision leads to speed, but speed will not lead to precision and the development of a strong, picking hand. Precision is essential for mastering heavy metal guitar.

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