- Learn how to build up the foundation of heavy metal rhythm guitar.
- Develop a deeper understanding of drop-D tuning.
- Create grinding riffs in the style of King’s X, Judas Priest, and more.
What’s a Pedal Tone?
A pedal tone or pedal point is static note—usually in the bass register—against which higher notes and/or chords are sounded. Ex. 1 is reminiscent of a rhythm guitar lick favored by early metal pioneers like Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads, or Glenn Tipton and K.K Downing of Judas Priest. It features two-note dyads (also called double-stops) articulated against a pedal tone on the open 5th string in a jagged syncopated rhythm. Palm mute the open string and articulate the chord stabs with a short aggressive picking-hand motion.
Judas Priest - Live in San Bernardino 1983/05/29 [US Festival '83] [50fps]
Riffin’ With the Devil
Western music is based on a division of the octave into 12 equal half-steps, and on guitar a half-step is simply one fret’s distance. One of the most sinister-sounding intervals is the tritone, which is named because you have three whole-steps between the notes. In fact, it has often been called “The Devil’s Interval.” Guitarists like Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and Metallica’s James Hetfield have both used its jarring edge to great effect, often sounding a Bb5 power chord against an open 6th string pedal tone for maximum angst. Play through Ex. 2 to get a taste of the ominous-sounding tri-tone interval and remember to keep a slight palm-mute on the pedaled 6th string.
BLACK SABBATH - "Iron Man" (Official Video)
16th-Note Shred Secrets
As metal progressed into the new millennium, it branched off into various subgenres, many of which relied on a fusillade of rapid-fire 16th-note riffs played at breakneck tempos. Mastering the metric methods of bands like Slipknot, Gojira, and Lamb of God may seem daunting. The trick is to realize that there are only a finite number of ways to subdivide a beat and, once learned, these individual one-beat stems can be strung together in different combinations to create more complex patterns. Ex. 3 shows four common 16th-note rhythms. Play the first using a steady alternate picking-hand motion. For the second, third, and fourth patterns, continue the alternate picking-hand motion but “ghost” the missing stroke by simply not hitting the string. It’s imperative that your picking-hand never stops an alternating motion. This will help you navigate complex rhythms with both speed and accuracy. Once mastered, the four stem-rhythms can be connected together consecutively to create driving single-note riffs like the one in Ex. 4.
Flirtin’ With Invertin’
The root-fifth power chord voicing is the most common form of harmonic currency in the metal kingdom. One cool-sounding derivative of this formula is to switch the positions of (aka “invert”) the root and the fifth by playing the root above the fifth. This grip can be sounded by simply barring across any fret on the two lowest strings or—for a fuller sound—adding those same two notes up an octave by also barring the D and G strings two frets higher. Check out the C#5/G# power chord in Ex. 5. Once learned, this grip can be tied in with 16th-note rhythms and a pedaled low E string as shown in Ex. 6.
Drop to the Top
One lasting sonic innovation that became ubiquitous in metal was when King’s X started to crank out incredible drop-D riffs. To be fair, other guitarists had experimented with this before, but it was King’s X who first worked out a harmonic vocabulary around the one-finger root-fifth-octave power chords that are easily facilitated by the drop tuning like the F5 shown in Ex. 7.
Now power chords could be phrased with the same expression and fluidity as single notes. Ex. 8 ably demonstrates how a one-finger-barre voicing makes full-chord slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs easy to facilitate.
By the mid ’90s, myriad variations of lowered tunings had become extremely commonplace in the metal universe. Beginning guitarists are sometimes flummoxed by these alterations, but the overwhelming majority of the time they are just detuned versions of both standard and drop-D tunings, meaning everything you play in them will be fingered the same way, it will just be at a lower pitch. Some of the most common lowered tunings in metal are standard down a half-step, aka “Eb” (Eb–Ab–Db–Gb–Bb–Eb), standard down a whole-step, also called “D standard” (D–G–C–F–A–D) and drop-D down a whole-step (C–G–C–F–A–D), which is sometimes referred to as drop-C. If you’re a little hesitant about retuning your guitar, keep in mind that you’ve already learned to tune it to standard.
Learning to switch back and forth to a different tuning will be just as easy (if not easier) than when you first learned to tune. Try retuning your guitar to these then revisit some of the previous examples using the exact same fingerings, and see how the lower register affects the sound.
Octivate Your Device
Another cool intervallic device commonly used in hard rock and metal riffs is the octave shape shown in Ex. 9. It is most easily fingered by removing the middle note of a root-fifth-octave barre chord. You’ll want to use your first finger to fret a note on the fifth string while curving it to make enough contact with the fourth string that it mutes that string completely.
Octaves are great for sliding melodically up and down the neck and—as demonstrated in Ex. 10—can be sounded in unison against pedal tones, or broken up into individual notes creating cool intervallic leaps. In the latter case remember to keep the octave hand shape constant.
Now that you’ve got a basic handle of some of the most common rhythm guitar techniques you can listen to how they are employed by the great artists of the genre and use this as a jumping off point for your own songs!
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Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.