How to Play Death Metal Guitar - Part 1 - Basic Skills
First up, there are no set rules when it comes to learning how to play
death metal guitar as it's a very experimental style of music and
should remain that way.
But as this is the first of two specific death metal guitar lessons,
I'm going to first
take you through some of the core techniques that have defined the
the past decades and a little theory behind
the mayhem and madness. This is supposed to be a bit tongue in cheek...
and a lot of fun.
Before we begin, just a note that the examples in
this lesson are in drop
C tuning. Most death metal uses some form of down tuning
(although not necessarily drop).
However, the concepts we're about to
look at work for both drop and standard tuning. You can download drum
tracks for each exercise and play whatever you want over them.
We'll look more
at fundamental death metal elements such as speed playing over blast
beats in part
2, but this
lesson will build on the basic
metal techniques (such as palm muting) in the context of death metal.
metal guitar basics - setting the tone
In this genre, the aim is
typically to create
the most brutal music possible. Now, much of this brutality comes from
the drummer's attack, but there are
intervals used in heavy metal that
naturally sound ominous, unsettling, aggressive, (insert dark
Click any of the tabs on
this page and you'll hear an example in your media
The diagram above shows (in
drop tuning) some
chord intervals relating to that open
root of C (as
we're in drop C). But remember, you don't always have to play them from
the open position.
These intervals (including the
infamous tritone interval - once nicknamed the "devil in music"
- a distance of 6 semitones or frets) have been used in
metal for decades to create an atmosphere of impending doom/shit
Played as power
chords with heavy distortion, they create the tension we need for death
Get to know these intervals starting from any root
position on the
fretboard, because they are the backbone for creating many of those
brutal death metal riffs.
simple death metal style riff
What you'll find is, if you use intervals from the scale above, mix it
up a little and
add some rhythm, you instantly get a riff that sounds very
of death metal, like the example below (click the tab to hear)...
That was a very slow riff, inspired by old
school DM bands like Obituary, using only the power chords
from that initial
See what I mean? Not exactly wedding music by a long shot (although it
would make a nice change).
Most death metal builds on those
movements, often inserting chromatic movements in between. They are
like harmonic marker points.
you don't always have to start riffs on the lowest open string, these
interval movements are relative to where you start
your riff. Experiment!
We're by no means limiting
ourselves to those intervals, but think of them as a foundation.
Palm muting & sliding in death metal
Here's a death metal inspired palm muting and sliding exercise for you
to try. If you need the basics on palm muting, see this essential
For the tab below, the
/ and \
symbols are "slide up" and "slide down" respectively. This is where you
fret the note/chord as usual, but keep your fingers on the board as you
slide up to the
destination fret instead of lifting off the fretboard. For example - 6 / 9
means slide up
from fret 6
The following exercise will
get you down picking from standard power chords on the G string (A string in
standard tuning) to the drop power
chord forms. The drum track uses a mid-tempo blast beat commonly heard
in death metal.
It's a technique born out of
thrash using alternate, down-up-down-up
that can be welded into a riff as a base (as that low "chugging" or
"machine gun" sound
heard in a lot of metal) or within a sequence higher up the fretboard.
The example below is a typical
combo and involves a sharp time signature
change at the end...
Drummers will often use
double-bass during the chug part and what you
get is a brutal wall of noise. If played accurately it's truly
invigorating (and not like that new herbal shampoo).
Start that off slow and
build up, preferably with a, yep, metronome.
Death metal tends to focus on
the deeper tones of the
guitar, and will occasionally inject lead phrases low down the
fretboard (which is still technically a rhythm guitar style).
Chromatics are also commonly applied to this technique, as it creates
an aimless, chaotic energy. Kind of jazzy, but often cruder.
In the example above, that
single string lead phrase turns into a chunkier power chord phrase on
the same frets. You can use the same fingers
you used for the lead line, but the only difference in this exercise is
you're fretting 2 strings instead of one which
gives you some good, crushing tones.
Remember, you can palm mute
these phrases for variation. Mix it up.
Making more of
a journey out of your death metal riffage
One of the annoying things
about death metal is how
"samey" it can all sound if you hang around those first few frets all
A really good way to make your
metal music sound
fresher is to take it on a journey, away from that root power
and then bring it back down as a really satisfying cadence (the end of
a musical phrase). It's often
called returning home or returning to the "tonic".