If Donais sounds jaded, it’s only because when he first took up guitar, prospects were a bit rosier for dedicated metal musicians. Rock fans still bought records by the truckload, MTV was still music television, and, with bands like Ratt and Van Halen atop the hard rock heap, monster guitar still reigned supreme. But don’t get sidetracked by the bitterness in Donais’ statements. What you need to catch here is the brutal honesty with which he delivers them. See, you can’t fake the heavy. To have true heaviness come through in your music, you’ve gotta live it somewhat too.
Donais’ bold, in-your-face, pull-no-punches persona translates to his playing, adding a brutality to his riffs that can’t be achieved any other way—a brutality that has helped him, co-guitarist Matthew Bachand, and Shadows Fall earn many fans (and yes, substantial record sales) around the world.
Hailing from “Metalchussetts”—home to fellow modern metal stalwarts such as Killswitch Engage, Unearth, All That Remains, and Cannae, to name a few—Shadows Fall stoke the inferno lit by American thrash icons Metallica and Testament, as well as pioneering dual-guitar Euro-metal bands such as Iron Maiden. As can be heard on compelling works such as The Art of Balance  and the Grammy-nominated The War Within  (both released on the renowned Century Media label), the band also takes inspiration from more melodic, yet fully crushing outfits such as In Flames and At the Gates. Considering indie artists rarely achieve this level of success, it’s no wonder all eyes are on the band’s major label debut, Threads of Life  on Atlantic Records.
Matt Bachand starts this lesson off with an up-tempo riff that will help you get your down-stroke technique up to thrash metal tempos [Ex. 1]. “I tend to down-pick everything if possible,” says Bachand “It sounds a lot tighter, as opposed to the slop that results when alternate-picking a riff like this.” To achieve extra rumble, Bachand plays this phrase in D-G-C-F-A-D tuning (standard tuning down a whole-step), and gets a pummeling muted sound by resting the lower part of his picking hand on the string saddles and picking at a “45-degree angle or so.” When switching power chords at these machine-gun tempos, Matt silences the strings by keeping his fretting hand fingers touching them during position slides of two frets or less [Ex. 2]. During wider jumps, Bachand uses his picking hand to momentarily deaden the strings. To consistently decimate fans with a one-two punch of low-end riffage and skull-melting shred, both Bachand and Donais plug their respective EMG-equipped signature model Ibanez MBM1 and Washburn Face Eraser axes into 100-watt Krank Revolution heads and matching 4x12 cabinets loaded with 75-watt Celestions.
No metal guitarist’s riff arsenal is complete without true command of the galloping eighth-note. “It’s like riding a horse,” remarks Bachand, bursting out of the gate with Ex. 3. The “horse,” if you will, is typically the sixth string, and the “ride” consists of consecutive eighth- and sixteenth-note rhythmic combinations. Yes, at racehorse speeds, you’ll need to break the “all downstrokes” picking rule with the sixteenths—the second in each pair will require an upstroke.
For a look into the shred approach of lead guitarist Jon Donais (who also often tunes down a whole-step), check out Ex. 4’s searing three-note-per-string alternate picking wildness. This sky-high E Aeolian run is executed with a white-hot bridge pickup tone and rapid-fire, free-floating wrist technique that calls to mind the picking hand of Zakk Wylde, one of Donais’ primary influences. Dig the whole-step-wide bending and releasing of the final note—Donais often applies this sort of vibrato at the end of runs. He also changes things up by playing two- and three-note-per-string ideas [Ex. 5]. “I’ll also mix up picking with legato,” adds Donais playing Ex. 6, choking up on his generously angled pick, thus making minimal contact with the strings. For exclusive two-note-per-string patterns Donais will go for ideas like the root-position pentatonic lick in Ex. 7. To get a smoother tone when playing these licks, he switches to the neck pickup for runs that primarily hover around the sixth, fifth, and fourth strings.