Tuesday Wisdom: Metal Rhythm - Tools Of The Trade

This is the first article in what will hopefully be a series devoted to metal rhythm and the equipment, techniques, and theory related to metal rhythm.

Ultimate Guitar


This is the first article in what will hopefully be a series devoted to metal rhythm and the equipment, techniques, and theory related to metal rhythm. I am writing this series for the guitarist who is relatively new to the instrument, but understands the very basics such as the parts of the guitar and how to read guitar tablature. The information in this series should be taken as a starting point, as there are no REAL rules in music, except play what sounds good to you. This first installment, 'Tools of the Trade', will focus on equipment, settings and basic techniques needed to play metal rhythm. In future installments I plan to cover some music theory, gradually more advanced techniques, as going into the process of writing your own original metal songs.

Equipment & Settings

The equipment you use is going to influence your sound, but despite the belief of some guitarists it does not DEFINE it. What I mean by that is that while equipment is fun to collect, upgrade and try out, you don't have to have a specific amp, guitar or pedal to play metal. There are certain pieces of equipment that are generally considered more suited to play metal, but these are not hard and fast rules. As an example, while probably 95% of metal guitarists use guitars with humbuckers to play metal you will still find amazing metal guitarists rocking their single coil pickups. As an example of metal played through single coils, you can check out much of Iron Maiden's work. While I'm talking about equipment to be helpful in giving you some general ideas on how to get started, don't think that you have to go out and replace your rig to play metal.

Guitar & Pickups

A big piece of advice is that early on don't get hung up on certain features, brands or signature models with guitars. Starting out there will be a lot of people sharing passionate opinions with you about what the right and wrong equipment is. You will hear people suggesting active or passive electronics, neck thru, string thru, bolt on, set neck, pickup configurations (HH, HSH, HSS, etc.), Floyd Rose or Kahler bridges, as well as a hundred other details about features, brands, etc. In my own journey certain people kept suggesting to me that if I was serious I needed to get a Floyd Rose equipped guitar as early as possible. I purchased a guitar with a Floyd Rose and at the time it seemed such a hassle to me that I probably played guitar less than I would have otherwise. I was still new to guitar and especially metal and I was impressionable and trusted every other guitarist I spoke with as being more experienced and having a better handle on things. It comes down to YOU have to decide what is right for you.

As I said before, most metal is played through humbuckers, and usually high output humbuckers, either passive or active. Active electronics are not required for metal, and aren't even necessarily preferred, depending on the exact sound you are trying to achieve. James Hetfield of Metallica still uses passive pickups. Dave Mustaine used passive pickups in his earlier records. Black Sabbath, one of the earliest iconic metal bands to have a worldwide audience used passive pickups. That being said, many newer metal bands are now using active electronics, including Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. The reason for this is that active pickups have a built in buffer and EQ, and tend to be higher output with less noise at high gain. Again, this isn't a requirement to have, and a lot of people feel that active electronics make your gutiar tone sound too sterile.

I know people who like to play through their neck pickup for rhythm, and others who play for their bridge pickup (I actually know a lot of people who whether playing rhythm or lead just stay in the bridge pickup position), but I don't think I know anyone who plays through both the middle position (for a HH configuration), or both neck and bridge pickups when playing metal rhythm. I personally feel like you are losing clarity when you do this, the sound just isn't as tight.

As a quick word on tunings, in metal there are probably a few dozen schools of thought. There are bands who still use standard tuning (EADGBe) which is also what I predominantly use, there are bands that tune in standard down by anywhere from a half step (just tuning each note flat) or Drop D (just tuning the thickest string down by one full step), all the way down to C standard or Drop B. If you are interested in alternate tunings, if you google it you can find detailed information. If you are new to alternate tunings I do want to say that if you have your guitar set up for standard tuning and you tune down anything more dramatic than tuning each string down a half step or full step or Drop D tuning, then this is going to affect your intonation on your guitar as well as the string tension will be different and will feel differently when playing. It is a good idea if you are interested in playing in multiple alternate tunings that you learn to intonate your guitar, or if you want to play in a very down-tuned tuning then thicker strings are a good idea to keep the string tension close to what you would be used to for standard tuning.

Amplification & Effects

As far as amplification, there are a lot of options here. The modeling amps that are especially popular among new guitarists now tend to have several different settings that are good for metal rhythm. The different modeling amps on the market each have their pros and cons, and there are a lot of opinions so when choosing your equipment it is always best to try the equipment out and pick what sounds good to you. Many non-modeling amps still have 2 channels, with a channel devoted to clean and a channel devoted to 'dirt' or distortion. Maybe you're thinking well I'm just playing my Squier Bullet through a 10 watt solid state practice amp that's fine, but you're gonna have to get a distortion pedal. Every major pedal manufacturer makes at least one if not dozens of variations of distortion pedals, and they don't have to be expensive. As a matter of fact, one of the distortion pedals seen as almost a pedalboard standard, the Boss DS-1 distortion goes brand new for $49.99, and can be found considerably cheaper used on eBay. There are other pedals, both more and less expensive available and each has their own tonal characteristics.

You may find yourself gravitating towards a specific genre of metal that requires much higher gain than you are going to get from your average distortion pedal or dirty channel on an amp. I would strongly suggest you avoid getting stuck in being interested only in a specific genre of metal early on as this is going to limit what you learn early on, and you will end up sounding like every other guitarist in that subgenre. As you slowly gain experience, realize what you want to sound like and what equipment you like, then you are ready to dive deeper into a specific subgenre. As you go along you may want to add a compression effect or a whole host of other options, but do this because you are trying to get a specific sound or tone and not because the metal guitarist crowd is telling you that you can't live without this effect or that.

Foundation Techniques

I want to touch very briefly on some of the most basic techniques integral to metal rhythm, and which I think of as "foundation techniques". I will explain very briefly how to perform each technique, but I will not go into great detail as there is a wealth of information that is freely available on the internet, especially YouTube, on how to perform even the most esoteric guitar techniques. These are the techniques that I personally believe you have to know out of the gate to play metal rhythm.


Contrary to what is taught as the "correct" way to do it in almost every other genre, in metal it is almost always recommended to only strum down and/or pick down. This is to make your pick attack sound consistent from note to note and chord to chord. You will generally get a more aggressive sound using this technique. At first this will be difficult, especially for fast tempos, but with practice it will come. Even if you prefer alternate picking/strumming, it is a good idea to at least get proficient at down-strumming as it is another tool in your arsenal and it is really a foundation technique for playing metal rhythm.

Palm Muting

Palm Muting notes is accomplished by using the fleshy part of the palm on your right hand (assuming you are right handed) to press lightly on the strings near the bridge to give your rhythm playing a more percussive sound. This is a fairly easy technique, you only have to spend a little time at it to get used to it. If you have a metal riff you are playing that maybe sounds a little boring, if you mix in some palm muted notes it will change the whole feel of the riff and can seem to add new dimensions to your boring riff. You will find times where you want your guitar more or less muted by your palm, and you can do this by resting your palm closer or farther from the bridge with more or less pressure. Experiment around with it and it will begin to come naturally very fast.

Chugging, Triplets & Gallops

When I first started playing metal I was confused about the difference between chugging, triples and gallops, and I was completely self taught. I found that it is hard to find a good explanation on the internet that didn't leave me confused on this fairly simple subject. Each of these is a foundation technique for playing metal, and anyway they're fun to play and practice, especially when building up your speed. Before going further it is important to have a basic understanding to the lengths of notes such as whole, half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. If you are not familiar with this, then research the subject and wrap your head around it.

Chugging is played exclusively with down-strokes and is usually palm muted. For the purposes of explanation in this example think of the chugging as being played as eighth notes, which means if you are counting out a measure in 4/4 timing as: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +, then you would be playing on both the numbers and the +'s, so you would be playing 8 notes or chords in a measure in 4/4 timing. See below:

1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +
D  D  D  D  D  D  D  D
Triplets are played with alternate picking, so if a 'D' means a down-stroke and a 'U' means an up-stroke then you would play a triplet by playing DUD, and in our example they would be played as sixteenth notes the majority of the time which means twice as fast as the eighth notes. If you played two triplets in a row then the first would be played DUD and the next UDU as you would continue to alternate pick together they would look like DUDUDU. As a helpful hint, the way I count when playing sixteenth notes is 1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh. See below:

One Triplet would look like this:

1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh
D  U D
Two Triplets back to back would look like this:
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh
D  U D  U D  U
So, remembering that a 'chugging' rhythm would be played as eighth notes and triplets as sixteenths, then if we mix them up in a measure we could play something like this:
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh
D    D    D  U D    D    D    D  U D
Gallops are a little bit odd, and in our example you would play it as an eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes and you would play it DDU, with the first down-stroke being an eigth note and the next D being a sixteenth note and the U being a sixteenth note. A measure of gallops would look like the following:
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh
D    D  U D    D  U D    D  U D    D  U
There is also a less used gallop that goes backwards or in reverse, which just means it would be two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note, and would be played DUD (like a triplet, except the last note lasts an eighth instead of a sixteenth, and back to back backward gallops would be played like DUDDUDDUD). A measure of backwards gallops would look like this if you were counting it out:
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh
D U  D    D U  D    D  U D    D  U D
When practicing chugging, triplets and gallops experiment with different levels of palm muting, as well as mixing in palm muted notes with non-muted notes. You can get some really interesting rhythm figures, even if you are playing solely open strings like this.

In Conclusion

As a parting piece of advice, it is always a good idea to practice with a metronome, but especially in the world of metal as the rhythm has to be tight and precise and usually at a very fast tempo. Start out your practice slow and slowly work up your speed till you are hitting the targets you set for yourself. It is a good idea to begin with counting in your head or even out loud along with your metronome until you feel comfortable playing complicated rhythmic patterns. Also, as soon as you can start playing with other people the quicker you will see results in your playing playing with friends really facilitates growth and learning in the world of music.

In my next installment of the Metal Rhythm series I will touch on commonly used chords in metal, as well as some more advanced techniques in a lesson titled 'Metal Rhythm Building Blocks'.

By Brandon East

52 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Hetfield uses passive pick ups? LOL He has a signature line with EMG!
    Thats exactly what I was thinking, and Adrian Smith used a lot of Les Pauls and Ibanez Destroyers on the a lot of the 80's Maiden catalogue, those guitars feature humbuckers.
    They're passives aren't they? I'm pretty sure they're still passive, even though he's with EMG
    And even with the stuff that Maiden play on strats these days are seymour duncan mini-humbuckers like hot rails, jb juniors and stuff like that
    Veronique Vega
    Hetfeild uses both passive and active p'ups, in the studio and on stage. His signature models feature active p'ups. But footage of Hetfeild in studio and onstage shows him using either.
    This article is a really good idea, just pass it on to somebody who knows what they're talking about please
    This Many non-modeling amps still have 2 channels, with a channel devoted to clean and a channel devoted to 'dirt' or distortion I've never seen a "dirt" channel before. I've seen Overdrive, Lead, Crunch channels but never "dirt" or even a distortion channel. Maybe this guy isn't the brightest?
    Nice first article, however, vou've got triplets wrong. For example duration of 1 8th note triplet is 2/3 of 8th note. So 3 triplet 8th notes together have the same duration as 2 8th notes. In your example you are just playing 16th notes with alternate picking. It should be like: D(1) U D U(+) D U D(2) U D U(+) D U D(3) U D etc.
    Root Beer
    Dear God, you're nerdier with rhythm than I am, and I'm primarily a drummer.
    I don't know how to say it nicely, but if you think that's being rhythmically nerdy, hell, if you think rhythmic "nerdiness" exists, you must be a terrible drummer.
    Root Beer
    Really? Cause I play for the current Smasing Pumpkins drummer's former prog group, and he himself called me a human metronome. Just cause I don't know how many 8th note triplets there are in an 8th note doesn't make me suck. I don't know how to say it nicely, nor do I want to, but **** you.
    This reply has nothing to do with what he said. He's saying that calling a dedicated musician a "nerd" makes you look like an amateur, whether or not you are one. Choose thy words carefully in response.
    Root Beer
    I think the confusion is stemming from the fact that I meant it as a compliment; I consider myself musically nerdy. And honestly, I admit what he said isn't that nerdy, I replied early in the morning so my brain wasn't fully awake yet. But I did not mean to offend at all, and if I did I sincerely apologize.
    Ok, I really rushed into this article expecting some Carcass... :/ Nice lesson though.
    Yeah, I thought it would be about Carcass, or at least about that awesome cover by Nasum. UG needs moar Carcass.
    My Last Words
    My pro-tip = PLay both clean and distorted. PRACTICE LOUD TO HEAR YOUR MISTAKES. I always used to play on talk-volume, only to find out later that I was making alot of mistakes.
    it also helps playing unplugged often. it helps you clear up your sound and avoid mistakes. sooner or later your hand learns how to play tight rhythms properly as long as you can listen to mistakes and fix them. also, playing some tough rhythms slower and correctly is much better than playing them fast and sloppily
    "Contrary to what is taught as the "correct" way to do it in almost every other genre, in metal it is almost always recommended to only strum down and/or pick down. This is to make your pick attack sound consistent from note to note and chord to chord." No. No, no, no, and no. You do only downstrokes if you're James Hetfield or really lazy. Practicing with a metronome and using alternate-picking whenever possible does wonders for your playing, regardless of genre.
    If your pick attack sounds inconsistent from note to note when alternate picking, then all it means is that your alternate picking technique sucks.
    downpicking is good for aggressive stuff to a point. but if you're playing 16th notes at 200bpm you're not going to downpick them, that would ridiculous, its like playing 8th notes downpicking at 400bpm it just doesnt work u can achieve aggression with alt picking. Songs like Fight Fire with Fire and Angel of Death rely heavily on aggressive alt picking at high speeds
    Right, but it's still better to have to work at developing your alternate picking technique than to have to rely solely on downstrokes to not sound like ass.
    I was taught in music school that only half ass musicians practice with a metronome. I've never had any use for it, then again I don't play fast, but rather slow tempos. Missing beats is really difficult when you have inner control of your timing.
    You had me until "only strum and pick down." It's pretty impossible to do this with fast or complex riffs, and it really limits your playing. If your concern is consistency, you could always, I don't know, practice.
    I agree with this. I used to play mostly downpicked riffs thinking that was the 'correct' way to play metal rhythm and keep it tight. But to be honest, that was only because my alternate picking was not up to par. Now that I am a better guitarist, I can play the same old riffs alternately picking much easier and still keep it tight and aggressive.
    Read the comments whilst imagining the voices of the south park characters...
    I dont know why so many ppl are disliking or complaining about this article, there are alot of helpful tips that can be useful to those who arent familiar with playing the metal style...some of what the guy says is probably opinion, but theoretically, he is right about the rhythm notations, and you see them alot...so dont be so quick to bash an article just because it isnt of your exact preference or because he said Hetfield plays passive pickups or whatever, who freakin cares
    "... but theoretically, he is right about the rhythm notations, .. " He is right about some of the rhythm notations.
    well that's all a matter of opinion, I've seen them all personally, I'm not going to lie
    Well I play loud,heavy distortion with fast solos So yeah. do I need the exact equipment if I do the basic ideas?
    One thing I agree with is that the middle setting on a Les Paul or most any HH is about worthless. Anyone else agree or disagree? I flipped the polarity on my neck pickup so my middle setting is now out-of-phase, and slightly more useful
    I think that middle setting on the Paul (and even the middle selection on a 5-way switch) is okay for occassionaly jazzy playing. It has kind of a compressed sound and it works well with a flange effect. It has pretty much no use in metal playing but can be useful in other genres.
    Sorry for the double comment, this was meant to be replying to the article and katalyzt13's comment
    No, he used a Seymour Duncan Invader on Kill 'Em All and Ride The Lightning, by the time of Master of Puppets he moved to EMGs. James used EMGs for 6 of the 9 albums and Kirk used EMGs since Kill 'Em All. Also, yeah, Iron Maiden use more humbuckers than single coils if I'm right, even if they look like single coils a lot of the time they're just stacked to essentially be a humbucker.
    You're right, my research was bad - I was reading that the EMG's he used early were passive, that his signature pickups, which are active, he only uses about half the time. Then I realized my source was full of it. As far as Iron Maiden goes, Adrian Smith does use humbuckers sometimes, but he also used true single coils sometimes, too. I was trying to find fast examples about passive pickups and single coils to illustrate the point that you don't have to have a specific piece of equipment necessarily to play the music you want - I should have done better research as I see that it is hurting the integrity of my article.
    true, equipment is not as important as playing. But... you just can't play good metal on a peavey raptor with an 8-watt amp... too bad I'm ****ing broke and can't upgrade
    And to the Master of Puppets commentor above... that was the exact song I figured this out on! I used to exclusively play that down picked (I think Het plays it like that too). However if you can get your alternate picking up to speed and clean, it's a MUCH easier song to play without losing the percussive aggression in the riff.
    And to the Master of Puppets commentor above... that was the exact song I figured this out on! I used to exclusively play that down picked (I think Het plays it like that too). However if you can get your alternate picking up to speed and clean, it's a MUCH easier song to play without losing the percussive aggression in the riff.