How to Create 'Atonal' Guitar Metal Licks

If you are wondering how modern metal players use all these "wrong" notes and still sound great... here's how.

Ultimate Guitar
You know your metal guitar scales like the back of your hand but you have noticed that your guitar heroes sometimes are simply "ignoring" the scale and play seemingly random notes ... and yet they still sound amazing? How is that possible? Well, it's not black magic, it's just a simple application of tension and resolution, and I'm going to show you how. Keep reading.

If you play metal guitar, you know (and like) many players that are using notes "outside" of the scale to spice up their playing. Sometimes we refer to their riffs as "atonal" (though the use of this label is controversial for a number of reasons that go beyond the scope of this article).

There is a widespread belief that notes out of the scale are "forbidden," but in fact they are perfectly usable, if you know what you are doing ... of course if you don't know how to use the "outside" notes, they will sound dissonant and "wrong" when you play them. At the same time, restricting yourself to only notes in the scale can make your solo sound stiff, uninteresting, and "scalar."

I am not going to explain all the possible ways to play outside the scale. First of all, because there are simply too many ways and I don't have enough space in this column:-) Second, because it's much better for you if I explain one simple method, so that you can get used to the sound of the "wrong" notes. Once your ear get used to them, you will be able to come up with more original ways to play outside the scale.

In other words, this is not the definitive, ultimate guide to outside notes, but a method to get started and learn how to explore the sound of going out of scale.

This is exactly what I'm doing in the video below: I'm explaining one and only one trick, but it's trick that can take your really far if you take the time to master it, and at the same time it's very easy to understand and play. What's not to be loved? Watch the whole video so you can learn it too.

YouTube preview picture

As you can see, what I show in the video is quite elementary, yet effective. It will not take any effort for you to implement this trick into your guitar playing, and you will be able to use it immediately. What are you waiting for? Grab your guitar and give it a try!

About the Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.

17 comments sorted by best / new / date

    "Sometimes we refer to their riffs as "atonal" (though the use of this label is controversial for a number of reasons that go beyond the scope of this article)." I'm glad you included this paragraph, because nothing you discuss is atonal at all. Even referring to a scale would rule out the song being "atonal". There would be no tonic for the scale to be heard in relation to. Good lesson otherwise.
    Thank you! I was waiting for something like twelve-tones but this was really helpful =) Reminds me of Megadeth.
    Gee Halen
    Not an accident. Watch this from 27:16. MArty Friedman talks exactly about this.
    Chris Zoupa
    I saw this on YouTube a few weeks ago. This is hands down one of the best lessons I've ever seen. Thanks Tommaso.
    Maybe naming it atonal isn't that smart, as it actually means something completely different.
    This is why i hate when people talk bad abbout chord progressions made up of power chords. If you're soloing over them you have so many options since there is no 3rd in power chords.
    While powerchords may not have thirds, the progressions are still usually in a certain key. If you are in E minor and you play E5-D5-C5-B5, you are following the I-bVII-bVI-V progression which either works out to i-bVII-bVI-v or i-bVII-bVI-V depending if you want that cliched harmonic minor dominant sound (V in a minor key). So while you are not actually playing the 3rd in the power chords, the third is still implied and so playing a Dm or Cm would sound sort of odd, as would playing the b3rd associated with each of those chords. Also with many subgenres of metal, particularly the more melodic variants such as the traditional heavy metal, folk metal, melodeath, melodic metalcore, power metal, etc tends to not use that many accidentals and tends to favor strict diatonic harmony and note choices with the exception of the aforementioned harmonic minor raised 7th and the occasional modal bit here or there (phyrgian and dorian in the minor keys and maybe mixolydian or lydian in major keys when used). Because of this, you don't typically deviate that much from the diatonic major/minor or harmonic minor scales that much anyway and scales are chosen to match the tonality of the key as a whole rather than based around the particular chord. This contrasts with genres like jazz or country where scales and note choice are heavily dictated by the chord, particularly when non-diatonic chords are present such as the II, III, and bVII that are incredibly common in country. In such case, notes are taken from outside the overall key of the song. That being said, you can do whatever you want really and you are not limited to flat 3rds over a minor chord or major 3rds over a major chord. Using a flat 3rd or flat 7th for example is done fairly liberally in certain genres such as blues, country, and bluegrass, and in fact it is common in country and bluegrass to use both thirds in the same lick, often with in a flat 3rd, 3rd, root kind of thing. A great example of using a flat 3rd over a major chord is in Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The song is played in either G or A. During the 5th measure, an E or F# chord (depending on the key), which is a VI, is played on the rhythm instruments (typically guitar and mandolin) while the banjo plays an E minor (or F# minor in A) arpeggio over it, which clashes quite a bit, but helps to give the tune its signature sound. Really I don't ever see people hating on power-chord based progressions when used appropriately, such as when played by an instrument like a distorted guitar where the 3rd (whether major or minor) harmonically clashes with the root and 5th, thus creating what is generally considered an unpleasant and dissonant sound. In fact, that reason is the main reason why power chords are so heavily used on guitars: because it is often the only real option if you want consonance.
    he should have made a close up on his playing cause its so hard to hear what he says. :/
    Wow, that works really well and it's very easy to do, thanks man!
    The interesting thing about this, is that it illustrates the idea of inside outside playing. A lot of minor 2nd intervals do this as well as preceding target notes with tritones (b5). I don't mind this lesson, but it becomes abstract gimmickry disguised as knowledge if you don't understand the underlying concepts. Best, Sean
    I haven't tried much outside playing in improvisational settings, but I find it to be pretty easy to compose things, just by using the circle of fifths. It's like a rabbit hole that can go deeper and deeper that you eventually get out of. Eg starting at the third of the fifth of the fifth of the fifth of the major first is a minor second. Not that that matters per se. Just that you can grab notes from adjacent keys or modes and logically bring yourself back, or out there. Or combine things. Like play a run beginning with a note, then the flat fifth of the diminished seventh chord of the key that out it's the fifth of, then shifting back another key using the seventh chord again, or maybe another one. There are limitless combinations and I'm only talking about going through fifths because it's that dominant sounding transition because the scales only differ by one note. But you could start at the minor three chord, change that from Dorian to aeolian cause **** it, take the third of that which is now Ionian and change that to Lydian cause **** it. When I say 'start with' I'm just explaining the theoretical makeup of the notes. You could even have a lick of notes over chords coming from another place entirely but both resolving to the same place, or a lick which is itself interlaced notes from different places. Basically the easiest way to do it is use music theory to find the outside notes that have a close relation to the inside notes