Building Speed with Metal Riffs

Lzzy Hale - Photo by Jack Lue
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 9 – Autumn 2019 – Ladies of Metal

Metal is a scary genre — sure some of the subject matter covers all things dark and gruesome, but I’m talking scary from a guitar sense here. Before we start blazing around that fretboard like all of our metal heroes, we need to make sure we’re fully tightened up with our rhythm skills. Metal is a very rhythmic genre and requires utmost precision from the left and right hands.

We can first work on our picking hand with some simple, rhythmic open string exercises.

Start with some straight eighth notes along with a metronome, one note per click with strict alternate picking. This will get the hand warmed up and feeling tight with the beat. Counting this strictly has 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & with each beat being a down pick and the “&” notes as an up.

Once you’re feeling warmed up, we can double that to sixteenth notes. Keep your metronome tempo the same but double the speed of your pick. You will now be hitting four notes per beat. As with all sixteenth note based exercises, you would count this as 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a with the down picks hitting on the beats, and the “&” of each beat and the up picks hitting on the “e” and “a” of each beat.

Now let’s keep that sixteenth note idea going but change the feel to a gallop. If you’re a fan of bands like Iron Maiden, you will no doubt have heard the gallop in action. This is a sixteenth note pattern divided into groups of three notes starting on the “&a” of the previous beat.

& a 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4

Pick each group as down up down, with the down on the & and beat and the up on the “a.” Where the “e” was previously, we’re now taking a short rest; this rest gives the rhythm that gallop feel.

To make your gallops more exciting, on the final down pick (the one that falls on each beat), you can add a power chord. In this example, the moving power chord is on the A and D strings, but you could just as easily put this chord on your E and A strings. This gallop is a very Iron Maiden style gallop riff.

In modern metal bands, technical and speedy riffs are the order of the day. You may see modern metal heroes flying all over the fretboard. The next few riffs are great as coordination and picking exercises. They are all straight sixteenth notes and should be alternate picked throughout.

This example is all based on the Low E string. Look at each section as a 4 note phrase across each beat, and you will see that the fretted note falls on the third note of each group. In the case of sixteenth notes, this is the “&” of each bar.

Now let’s add fretted notes onto the “e” and “a” notes of each sixteenth note group and keep the beat and “&” notes as open strings.

In this example, we are revisiting having the fretted note on the “&” of each 4 note grouping, except the note is now located on the A string. We are keeping the low E string as open on the “1 e” and “a” beats.

Now let’s get a little busy. This exercise is still straight sixteenths throughout, but we’re moving around a lot more both across the strings and across the beats. Start slowly with this and focus on each 4 note phrase, fitting each group to a beat. Then start to piece the whole thing together before focusing on the speed.

Metal is fast, metal is technical, and metal requires precision. When working on these picking exercises, spend time with a metronome, and work on the speed slowly. Start off at a comfortable level and gradually build the speed up until you hit the goal you have in mind.

Remember, it takes time to build the level of speed and accuracy needed to play like the metal greats.

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