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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 style over 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.

Death 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 adjective here).

Click any of the tabs on this page and you'll hear an example in your media player.

tab showing typical power chord intervals used in death metal

The diagram above shows (in drop tuning) some typical power 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 bringing.

Played as power chords with heavy distortion, they create the tension we need for death metal.

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.

Making a 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 typical of death metal, like the example below (click the tab to hear)...

tab of a typical death metal riff

small chevron Download the drum track

That was a very slow riff, inspired by old school DM bands like Obituary, using only the power chords from that initial scale. 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.

Note: 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 techniques video.

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 to 9.

tab of a death metal riff that uses slides and palm muting

small chevron Download the drum track

Use a metronome to help get up to speed. Start slow and use increments of 10 BPM, only speeding up when you can play flawlessly at the current tempo.

Also try the below exercise which, like above, mixes muted and non-muted power chords.

tab of a riff which uses muted and non-muted power chords

small chevron Download the drum track

Down picking & moderate blast beats

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.

tab of a riff that uses both standard and drop power chord forms

small chevron Download the drum track

When changing from the regular shaped power chords on the G string to the drop power chord shapes directly below, your middle finger can come in handy, as it's not being used.

Again, start slow with a metronome and build up your speed.

Palm muted tremolo picking in death metal

This is covered in more depth in the fast guitar picking for metal lesson.

It's a technique born out of thrash using alternate, down-up-down-up picking 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...

tab of a riff that uses fast alternate picking

small chevron Download the drum track

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.

Single string riffage

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.

Again, click the tab to hear...

tab of a single string riff

small chevron Download the drum track

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 the time.

A really good way to make your metal music sound fresher is to take it on a journey, away from that root power chord 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".

Let's look at a practical example...

tab of a death metal style riff that goes on a journey

small chevron Download the drum track

Makes it sound a bit more interesting (in my opinion anyway), even if it is slightly venturing away from traditional death metal dynamics.

This means climbing and descending around the fretboard with your chords and injecting relative movements from that scale we looked at right at the beginning of this lesson.

If you want to take your listeners on a journey and keep them interested, this is a great way to do it.

Was this lesson helpful? Please let others know, cheers...

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