Learning to Play Metal: Tips for Beginner Guitarists

A long time ago, on a day that started just like any other, I was flipping through TV channels seeking some passable entertainment when I stumbled on footage of Woodstock ‘99. Metallica had just taken to the stage, and while my young mind had yet to be introduced to the world of heavy metal, I was immediately mesmerised by the energy and wall of sound this band was able to build. By the end of Kirk Hammett’s minute-long guitar intro to King Nothing, I was sold. What I had just seen was everything that I wanted to do. Now, following twenty years of studying the art of metal guitar, I have a few tips to pass onto any budding metal guitarist.

What Kind of Guitar Do I Need to Play Metal?

In principle, you can play metal with any electric guitar, just as long as the rest of your setup is in order. However, there are a few features you can look for that are more designed for heavier guitar work.

The Best Metal Pickups

Almost all metal guitarists go for a guitar loaded with humbuckers. Humbucker pickups create less noise than single-coils and deliver a thicker, more powerful sound. There was a time that active humbuckers were particularly popular since they produce noise-free cleans and a super tight sound when fed through high distortion. Playing through a set of active humbuckers is definitely great when you’re playing at full volume, but passive humbuckers have recently been on the rise in the metal-verse, since they have a fast and defined response to playing dynamics so you can play with more expression.

What Kind of Neck Should a Metal Guitar Have?

Another feature that can support your playing is a good neck. An extreme example is a guitar with a neck through construction, where the neck is run through the centre of the body rather than glued or bolted on. This construction enhances the sustain (so, how long a note rings out for) and resonance, and puts the higher frets within easy reach. Any lead guitarist should set themselves up with a model with 24 frets, so you can finish off a face-melting solo with a screaming high E, and while we’re on frets; most metal guitarists tend to prefer a set of medium jumbo or extra jumbo frets. Since they’re a little higher, less effort is needed to grab a note so you can play faster and smoother.

Metal Guitar Builders

There are many guitar builders that are well known for their metal guitars. One of the most popular has to be ESP Guitars, and their more affordable daughter-company, ESP LTD. You’ll find these guitars played by metal bands in various different sub genres. In the eighties, Jackson and Charvel caused a stir in the metal scene with their modified ST-style models and these guitars still remain a solid choice. Ibanez guitars are also regularly sported by many metal guitarists across Europe, especially since they come fitted with relatively thin and flat necks which support fast shredding. In America, Schecter rules the metal world, especially when it comes to various ‘core’ genres. If you’re looking for a cool looking guitar but don’t have a big budget, then taking a look at the more affordable models made by brands like Fazley is also a good option.

Learning to Play Metal: Tips for Beginner Guitarists

What Kind of Amplifier Do Metal Guitarists Use?

It’s recommended that aspiring metal guitarists go for a guitar amplifier with modelling technology on board. These amps are able to mimic the sound of iconic amplifiers and effects, giving you immediate access to a vast range of sounds. To play metal in the way it’s intended, an amp with a high-gain setting is a must. These days, there are plenty of manufacturers that offer outstanding modelling combo amps, including Boss, Line 6, Fender, and NUX. Guitarists that are just starting to play are in luck, since twenty years ago, there weren’t so many options. Back then, you had to make do with a buzzing multi-effect unit.

Valve Amplifiers: For the More Experienced Metal Guitarist

Later on in your career, you’re likely to want to upgrade to a valve amplifier. There are countless options when it comes to valve amps, but for metal, a few brands stick out, including ENGL, EVH, Hughes & Kettner, and of course, legendary names like Mesa Boogie and Marshall. Every amplifier will offer its own character when it comes to sound, so it can take a little while to find the perfect thing for you. As such, it’s a journey worth taking later in your metal-training.

Learning to Play Metal: Tips for Beginner Guitarists

What Are the Essential Metal Guitar Accessories?

There aren’t really many ‘typical’ metal accessories you’ll need. What any regular guitarist uses, a metal guitarist will also find useful. But, for the ultimate metal sound and optimum playing comfort, it’s worth making sure that the accessories you do use have the right features. Here are a few tips:

Picking the Right Plectrum

One accessory that should never be overlooked is a good plectrum. Finding one that feels right and fits your playing style is absolutely essential. The shape, thickness, and the material used to make a plectrum has a massive impact on the sound and playability. While there’s really no right answer when you ask which pick is the best, I do have one tip I can share with you. Many novice guitarists tend to go for a relatively thin plectrum, like a 0.88 or 1.0mm. But, when you’re playing metal, it’s recommended to use a strong plectrum. When I made the step up from a 1.0mm pick to a 1.5mm pick, the difference in speed, control, and note definition was immediately noticeable. These days, I always play using a 2.0mm thick Dunlop Delrin 500 plectrum, since it makes sweeping and alternate picking techniques as easy as can be.

Guitar Straps for Fearless Headbanging

Another important aspect is how you hold your guitar to play. When wearing a strap, your guitar needs to be perfectly balanced so you can play comfortably and avoid blisters. As such, a good guitar strap is not a luxury, but an essential. A wide leather strap ensures that the weight of your guitar is evenly distributed across your shoulder and back and doesn’t shift while you’re playing, and besides a wide strap, it’s recommended to use a set of strap locks. These are secured to the strap ends and slotted onto the strap buttons to make sure that your strap never comes loose – supporting fearless headbanging.

Effect Pedals: Tight & Fat Sound

There are already many blogs that cover effects pedals, but when it comes to metal, there are some pedals that you just can’t do without. If you’re not entirely satisfied with the sound of your amplifier, then using a distortion pedal is a good solution. And, since the typical metal sound has masses of gain and therefore extra noise, this can be cleaned up and tightened using a noise gate. Along with that, lead guitarists might want to add a delay, which adds a repeat (echo-style effect) to any played notes or chords, which fills out the sound and enhances any licks and solos. To finish, here’s a little tip from shredding legend Yngwie Malmsteen – leave the reverb on zero.

Learning to Play Metal: Tips for Beginner Guitarists

What Are the Essential Metal Playing-Techniques?

  • The foundation of many metal rhythms is ‘palm muting’. By holding the palm of your playing hand against the bridge saddles, you can lightly dampen the strings as you play them with a pick for a tight and aggressive sound.
  • Another essential technique (and one that can be combined with palm muting) is the use of downstrokes: where you literally strike the strings with an downward motion. To lay down a solid rhythm with an open low-E, try just playing downstrokes to get a tighter, more powerful sound.
  • On the other hand, there’s alternate picking (up, down, up, down, etc.). This is an important technique when it comes to power metal or progressive metal since it speeds up your playing.
  • A real classic when it comes to metal, and a picking pattern that every metal guitarist needs to know, is the gallop (up, down, up / up, down up).
  • For all of these techniques, the same approach applies: accuracy first, then speed. Always practice using a metronome so you can gradually build up your speed.

Learning to Play Metal: Tips for Beginner Guitarists

More than Enough Options, No Matter the Budget

In short, metal might sound easier than it is, but there’s a surprising amount of elements involved in getting that metal sound. While it can be fun, it can also be pretty challenging, but what you get in return is a great metal sound. Luckily, there’s a lot of metal-focussed gear available these days, even if you’re on a tighter budget. This makes it possible to experiment and slowly build your own custom metal rig without having to spend too much money.

If you have any questions or tips, let us know in the comments!

See Also…

» How To Become a Guitarist
» Setting Up a Guitar Amplifier: 5 Tips for Beginners
» How Do You Connect a Guitar to a Computer
» How to Change Electric Guitar Strings
» What’s the Difference Between a Cheap & Expensive Electric Guitar
» Learn to Play with a Plectrum
» Guitar & Bass: What Does ‘Fretboard Radius’ Mean?
» How to Tune Your Guitar
» Learn to Read Guitar Tab

» Guitar Amplifier Buyer’s Guide
» Guitar Strap Buyer’s Guide
» Electric Guitar Buyer’s Guide
» Plectrum Buyer’s Guide
» Overdrive or Distortion Pedal Buyer’s Guide?
» Strap Lock & Strap Button Buyer’s Guide

» All Electric Guitars
» Guitar Amplifiers
» Plectrums
» Guitar Straps
» Strap Locks
» Guitar Effects

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