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.
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 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
One Triplet would look like this:
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh D U D
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh D U D U D U
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh D D D U D D D D U D
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh D D U D D U D D U D D U
1 eh + uh 2 eh + uh 3 eh + uh 4 eh + uh D U D D U D D U D D U D
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