Metallurgy 101: How to Create Heavy Metal Riffs

Learn some cool tools, tips and tricks you can use to forge your own fiery riffs with this metal rhythm guitar primer.
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Behind every great heavy metal song there’s a great guitar riff or rhythm figure. Whether you’re cranking old-school Cream-Zep-Purple-Sabbath tones through vintage plexi Marshalls, or pumping out ultra-hi-gain, rectified, scooped-mid Metallica-style mayhem, it’s usually the riff that is memorable, not the solo. With that in mind, this metal rhythm guitar primer was designed to provide some cool tools, tips, and tricks you can use to forge your own fiery riffs.

As with any stylistic analysis, we begin by examining recurring patterns, motifs, techniques, etc., and then organize them into a method of sorts. The elemental table of metal music includes power chords built from perfect fourth and fifth intervals, muscular single-note and partial chord riffs, galloping and stuttering rhythms, and yes, even tender moments framed by gently arpeggiated chordal figures.

And consider this: If rock and roll was birthed from the blues, then heavy metal is the offspring of both. How so?

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
Scores of well-known metal riffs have their origins in the blues scale, partially because its root-b3-4-b5-5-b7 formula lends itself well to parallel (i.e. equally spaced) harmonies, especially fourth and fifth intervals, the main ingredients in power chords. EXAMPLE 1A shows an A blues scale (A, C, D, Eb, E, and G) harmonized in parallel fifths. Think of it as an A blues power-chord scale, and try out a few of your own stock blues licks in fifths.

Inverting these fifths, by moving the bottom note up one octave, transforms EXAMPLE 1A’s power chords into EXAMPLE 1B’s easy-to-play, one-finger, double stopped parallel fourths, while EXAMPLE 1C offers a descending, octave-lower version of the same chord scale. Get to know them.

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LICK IN A BOX

Planting your fret hand in fifth position (index finger at the fifth fret) allows easy access to “boxed” patterns of fourths on the bottom four strings, such as those illustrated in EXAMPLES 2A–D. Familiarize yourself with each pattern and devise a few of your own. Each five-note pattern can also be re-ordered to produce a whopping 120 permutations (1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5)—24, starting on each fourth. Additionally, all of these except EXAMPLE 2D can be inverted to fifths, by dropping the top note down one octave. And yes, all of the above works in all keys. This gives us plenty of raw materials to work with. The only thing missing is rhythm.

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DIS PLACE ROCKS!

Rhythmically speaking, there’s no cooler tool than displacement, a compositional/improvisational technique whereby a motif is repeated verbatim, but starting on a different part of the measure. To illustrate, EXAMPLE 3A applies the first three chords from EXAMPLES 1B and 2A (A5-C5-D5) to a simple eighth-eighth-dotted-half-note rhythmic motif and then reverses their order (D5-C5-A5) to create a two-bar “call-and-response” riff. The rhythmic displacement begins in EXAMPLE 3B, where the same riff is played starting one eighth-note later, on the “and” of beat one. (Think Jeff Beck’s “Plynth.”) Using the same strategy, we can continue the eighth-note displacements by starting the same riff on beat two (EXAMPLE 3C), the “and” of two (EXAMPLE 3D), beat three (EXAMPLE 3E), the “and” of three (EXAMPLE 3F), beat four (EXAMPLE 3G), and the “and” of four (EXAMPLE 3D), after which we come full circle back to starting on beat one.

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Now try playing all of the previous displacements with added open A notes on every unused eighth note. EXAMPLES 4A and 4B will get you on track. For additional mileage, apply the substitute rhythms notated in the footnote to the displaced riffs. You can also mix and match measures from different rhythms and displacements for even more variations.

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EXAMPLES 5A and 5B feature a four-note, A5-C5-Eb5-D5 motif that’s ripe for all of the previous treatments. Try sliding from Eb5 to D5 (bar 1) and D5 to Eb5 (bar 2), or applying a half-step bend and release to the Eb5. Create your own displaceable groupings of fourths, based on those in EXAMPLES 2A–D, and rock out!

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DECONSTRUCTION ZONE

Another route to riffage involves taking an existing riff and deconstructing it and reorganizing its elements, or even by playing it backwards. EXAMPLE 6 utilizes the fourths from EXAMPLE 5A, transposed down a whole step (G5-Bb5-Db5-C5) to reimagine a classic proto-metal riff that’s sort of recognizable

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And how about EXAMPLE 7’s similar take on a well-known 60’s power-trio figure? Seems vaguely familiar, but different, right?

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EXAMPLE 8 mines EXAMPLE 1A’s parallel fifths (transposed to D and embellished with a slippery E5 II-chord) to revise an ironclad metal staple that recalls a gloomy Sunday. Deconstruction also works with any single-note riff, such as the Bach-influenced, F# Aeolian minor mash-up shown in EXAMPLE 9. (Can you decipher it?) Now get to work and play each example backwards!

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THE GALLOP POLL

Other groovy metal weapons of mass distortion are the genre’s relentless galloping rhythms, which are derived from 16th-note and triplet divisions of each beat and typically relegated to the low open low-E string. (Tip: Repeat each of the following 2/4-meter examples to form bars of 4/4.) Take your pick, from every 16th-note (EXAMPLE 10A), eighth-plus-two-16ths (EXAMPLE 10B), two-16ths-plus-eighth (EXAMPLE 10C), and 16th-eighth-16th (EXAMPLE 10D), before mixing them up as shown in EXAMPLES 10E and 10F (think Zep’s “Immigrant Song”), and exploiting the Metallica-flavored snare-drum triplet rhythms in EXAMPLES 10G and 10H. It’s a chops-building, alternate picking fest that will also cement your familiarity with the way beat divisions look and sound. Pick-hand palm muting is a must, as are accented downbeats. Already been there and done that? Try transposing these examples to the open A string, and incorporating them into displaced riffs, as suggested in EXAMPLES 4A and 4B. Better yet, add octaves, b7s, or other E blues scale tones on the “twos and fours,” and take it from there.

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ARTFUL ARPEGGIATIONS

Finally, when it’s time to tenderize a metal ballad or introspective half-time section of an up-tempo song, clean-toned arpeggios are the way to go. These can take the form of the Am-G-Em-Dm/F filigrees illustrated in EXAMPLE 11, or the sparse, complementary, two-guitar chordal reductions of the Im-bVImaj7 (Bm-Gmaj7) progression that frames EXAMPLE 12A and 12B. And that’s just scratching the surface. Process all this information and run with it… it’s all you’ll need to create mountains of metal mayhem.

EXAMPLE 11

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EXAMPLE 12B

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