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Cram Session: Thrash-Metal Rhythms

Learn how to conquer forearm-punishing riffs of the sort found in everything from early Metallica to Slayer and Megadeth.

Chops: Advanced
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Strengthen your picking hand.
• Learn forward and reverse gallop rhythms.
• Create brutal riffs in the style of Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Over the last 15 years metal has reached new heights in popularity and splintered into a wealth of different subgenres that include everything from the dissonance of djent to the retro-vibe of ’80s-style sleaze rock. In this lesson we’ll look at the roots of modern metal and dive into the art of thrash rhythm guitar. In the 1980s, three of the biggest names in this then-new style were Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth; each were inspired by British metal bands Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, among others. During this time the rhythms were characterized by extreme speed, brutally heavy riffs, and unabashed shredding solos. Some bands, such as Megadeth and Metallica, also showed progressive influences with extended song arrangements that often juxtaposed acoustic and electric sounds.

We’ll tackle a variety of common thrash rhythms and then apply them to stylistic examples from the bands that I’ve previously mentioned. The first group of examples are aimed at improving picking-hand stamina and speed. They are all based on the 6th string, but feel free to move them around to various other strings or scales.

Ex. 1 is a straight-eighth rhythm. Simple enough, right? Well, when you add the frantic tempo (175 bpm) and the fact that you play this with all downstrokes, it provides quite a challenge. This example also uses palm muting, which produces a very tight and aggressive sound. James Hetfield of Metallica is a master of the fast downstrokes.

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We double up the notes for Ex. 2. Instead of two notes per beat, we’re now playing four. Remember: Strict alternate picking will benefit you here rather than the all-downstroke technique used in Ex. 1. Start slow and lock in with the metronome, and then gradually work your way up. If you want to tackle Kerry King’s technique, getting this up to speed is essential.

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Now it’s time for the “gallop,” one of the hallmarks of thrash. In Ex. 3 we have what’s called the “forward” gallop where we play one eighth-note followed by two 16th-notes. A prime example of this is Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” but you can dial up nearly any ’80s thrash album to hear it. Pay attention to the picking. It’s a down-down-up motion.

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YouTube It

Slayer’s “Raining Blood” is hard to beat when it comes to pure SoCal thrash. The trademark galloping rhythm kicks in at 0:58. Hold on!

Naturally, we can reconfigure this three-stroke rhythm for each beat to create a “reverse” gallop (Ex. 4). Simply flip around the eighth- and 16th-notes and you get instant Slayer. This rhythm is tricky to get up to speed; you’ll need to fight the tendency to want to split the eighth-note into two 16th-notes.

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In Ex. 5, we combine an eighth-note with a 16th-note triplet that harkens back to old-school Metallica and Megadeth. The basic concept is that the second eighth-note is equally divided into three 16th-notes. The tricky thing here is the picking, as you want to aim to have a downstroke on the downbeat.

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We move to a variation of the previous example for Ex. 6. Simply play the triplet on the first half of the beat with the eighth-note falling on the second half. This rhythm is slightly easier to pick: The eighth-note lands on an upstroke, making the subsequent downstroke easier.

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Ex. 7 is a steady stream of eighth-notes, but with a 16th-note burst leading into beat 1. This driving rhythm is common in thrash metal, and is very effective when performed at speed.

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Ex. 8 is a galloping combination that mixes up a forward gallop with a pair of eighth-notes on beat 4.

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Our next variation (Ex. 9) is a reverse gallop with a quarter-note on beat 4. Use your palm to keep the gallop muted and let that quarter-note sound for its full value.

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Ex. 10 is classic Metallica. It’s similar to the riff that pops up in the middle of “One.” Start slow on this one because those sextuplets are faster than you think! Pay attention to the staccato marking on the eighth-notes. Keep them short and tight.

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Now let’s get to some real music. In Ex. 11, I crafted a fun riff that brings to mind Dave Mustaine’s unforgiving style. We have looked at these various rhythm combinations in our previous examples, but now we add some power chords. One of the stylistic traits of Megadeth’s rhythm style is the use of sliding power chords, which are used throughout this example.

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Ex. 12 is a fast galloping rhythm example based in the style of early Metallica. Rhythmically it’s nothing new, but check out the double-stops at the end of the fourth measure. The minor thirds give a darker sound to the riff and breaks up the monotony of root-5 voicings.

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Let’s stick with Metallica for Ex. 13, but this time we’ll add some harmony. Here, we have two guitars in lockstep for the sextuplets before they split off into harmony for the quarter-notes and the syncopated figure at the end of the fourth measure.

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The Slayer-inspired riff in Ex. 14 is a very fast forward gallop with a descending diminished pattern on the 6th string. The twin-guitar harmonies come back in the final measure with some evil-sounding eighth-notes.

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Our final stylistic riff (Ex. 15) again borrows from the mighty Slayer catalog. Thanks to the work we put in with the various rhythmic combinations, there’s not much brand-new work to be done. All you need to add is a towering wall of amps and piles of scooped overdrive.

Click here for Ex. 15