I know many of you folk reading Steff Metal are learning – or thinking about learning – to play heavy metal guitar. This can seem like a daunting task, especially if you’ve never learned an instrument before or feel like you aren’t making any progress.
Here are a few tips on learning to play metal guitar I gleamed from my brief stint learning the instrument, and from picking the brains of metal guitarist mates. This of course won’t replace getting local guitar lessons.
1. Figure out how you learn best, and stick to that
There are so many different ways to learn a musical instrument, and not all of them will work for you. Some people learn best in a classroom environment, where they can interact with a teacher and other students. Others might prefer a private tutor. Some people will simply find videos and tab of their favorite songs online, and sit down with the instrument and figure everything out, while others might prefer the structure of a book and CD, or an online tutorial series. Some people simply ping strings until they discover a sound they like, and some people need a combination of all of the above.
If you’re attempting to learn metal guitar in a way that doesn’t gel for you, you’ll quickly become frustrated and disheartened. The key to figuring out how best to learn metal guitar is to experiment and see what gets you the best results. You can:
Find guitar classes at local community centres.
Find guitar tutors in your neighbourhood in the classified section of the newspaper.
Ask a friend to tutor you. I learned guitar for a year by asking.
Put up an “Tutor Wanted” ad on a local metal forum or in a music shop.
Use sites like Ultimate Guitar and Metaltabs to find tabs to your favorite songs online, and learn from these.
Find videos and tutorials on youtube.
Rent or buy DVDs from your favorite guitarists.
Experiment with guitar pro. Not only does this give you tab, but helps you learn to play along to a metronome and get the timing and tempo of a song right.
Join an online forum that’s friendly to metal guitarists – such as Guitar Master Class.
2. You have to Practice
It’s all good dreaming of starting your own death metal band, but you’re not going to have the chops if you don’t stick to regular metal guitar practice. Set aside a time every day where you sit down with your guitar and play – even if it’s only for 10 minutes. 10 minutes of practice seven days a week is more valuable than 70 minutes of practice one day a week.
Here are some tips to help you stick to practice time:
Make your metal guitar practice a priority. Switch off the TV, cellphone and computer and pick up your guitar.
Place your guitar in a prominent place – even right in your way. Don’t put it in a corner where you can easily ignore it.
Tell your partner, flatmate or sibling to nag you about practicing every night. Sometimes having that external person to report to will give you the push you need.
Set a timer for the duration of the practice. Even if you want to go do something else, tell yourself you’ll practice for ten minutes first.
Surround yourself with inspiration. Posters, records and quotes from your favorite metal musicians.
3. Warm up before you play guitar
Having strong, flexible fingers, arms and wrists (as well as a bit of stamina) will be imperative to becoming an epic shredder. Before you begin your lesson, perform a few basic guitar stretches to warm up your hands and improve your flexibility. You can find some great guitar stretches online – here are a few examples. Running through some basic scales is another great way to begin a practice session.
Many metal musicians also work out with fingerweights or do finger press-ups to increase the strength in their fingers.
Part of becoming a successful musician is developing an ear for the notes. Some lucky bastards have a natural affinity for music – they can listen to a song and transpose it to any instrument with ease – but for the rest of us, it’s important to listen. Play the song you want to learn again and again.
This is particularly important if you’re learning from tab, as many tabs aren’t accurate, and you need to be able to pick up when the notes are incorrect.
The good news is that the more you listen to metal with a musicians ear, the better your playing will become.
5. Don’t skip Lessons
Don’t be in such a rush to learn new techniques and songs that you neglect going over your lessons as much as you need to. When learning an instrument you have to play the same things over and over until you get stronger, quicker and more accurate. Slow down – go back, and practice again. You have years ahead of you to master metal guitar techniques – focus on getting the basics right first.
6. Set small, achievable goals
You’ll get disheartened with metal guitar quickly if you don’t notice yourself improving. The easiest way to track your progress is to set yourself small, achievable goals. A small goal for metal guitar could be:
- Learn a new song
- Master alternate picking at a certain BPM
- Add pinch harmonics to a riff
- Learn a song with palm muting
Avoid setting goals like “get good at alternate picking” or “play faster”. These are open-ended – you don’t have a definite point at which you can say to yourself “OK – goal completed.”
If a goal is taking you too long to achieve, break it down further. Instead of mastering all of “Master of Puppets”, why not focus on learning just the first three riffs or just the solo.
7. Wear a blindfold
When you’re trying to learn to form and change chords without looking at the fretboard, a blindfold can be a great way to ensure you’re not peeking! Simply tie it on and form a chord as best as you can remember, then give each string a strum and see how far off you are. Change to another chord and try again. With practice this will become easier.
8. Watch different guitarists playing
All the big name metal guitarists – Yngwie Malmsteen, Chuch Schuldiner, Kirk Hammet, Axel Rudi Pell, Chris Broderick, Mikael Åkerfeldt, John Petrucci, Tony Iommi – have a unique style. Each favours different techniques and arrangements, and when you hear a song by one of these guitarists – even if you’ve never heard it before, you can tell it’s them playing.
One of the best ways to get an idea how metal musicians add their own flair to their music is to watch tutorial videos of these musicians playing and explaining their techniques. GMC has a whole library of videos from metal greats like Blind Guardian, Opeth and Therion – in my opinion, this is one of the best features about the site.
9. ALL types of music have something to teach you
You may think, “I only want to play tr00 metal. Why would I waste my time listening to anything else?”
Broadening your musical tastes helps you to improve your range and diversity as a metal musician.Taking influences from other styles of music and bringing them into metal results in bands like Nile, Voyager, Apocalyptica, Eluveitie and Mezarkabul, to name just a few. Metal musicians often incorporate aspects of jazz, classical music, funk, and blues into their riffs and solos. Stepping outside the bounds of “metal” often results in groundbreaking music.
With competent musicians, there is something to enjoy in all forms of music – even if it’s buried deep down under layers of crap.
My husband, who plays multiple instruments and has a wide range of musicals tastes, says that if you want to play like a certain guitarist, don’t just listen to that guitarist’s stuff over and over and over. Look up who influenced them – who they were excited about musically when they were honing their skills – and listen to those bands.
10. Relax and have a blast!
You’re not going to be Chuck Schuldiner overnight, so don’t even worry! Focus on enjoying yourself and learning more about metal guitar. Even if you don’t become a world-famous shredder, you’ll gain an increased appreciation for the skill and creativity of your favorite metal bands.
Are you still keen to learn to play metal guitar? Are you a beginning, experienced or “insane” guitarist? What has been some of the most helpful tools and techniques in learning and improving your craft?
Steff Metal – in association with GuitarMasterClass – are giving away SIX memberships to the GMC guitar forum. To enter, simply leave a comment on any of the Metal Guitar Week articles – the more comments you leave, the more chances you have to win!