Forge Your Iron Wrist & Start Playing Guitar Riffs
Don’t be foolish taking rhythm guitar light-hearted! It is a privilege playing the god-like guitar riffs that define rock and metal as we know it. The heaviest, fastest, grooviest and most
memorable guitar riffs are the essence of the most iconic songs in history. But with great riffage comes great responsibility and that’s when you need a top-notch picking hand technique!
Endurance, timing, and precision need to be developed when crushing through metal and rock riffs. Rhythm guitar and rhythm techniques are fundamental skills that every guitar player needs to take
care of. Playing songs consists mainly of playing rhythm guitar. Duh! Well, no one wants to listen to a song that is performed sloppy and sounds like falling down a stair!
Make the guitar gods proud and forge that iron wrist! Learn to rock and worship the very core of our existence...
The riff. The whole riff. And nothing but the riff!
Learn how to use palm-muting and dynamics to explore rhythmic possibilities
Learn crushing riffs to really get your picking hand going
WTF?! Rhythm Guitar Playing
The rhythm guitar is contributing rhythm and harmony to a song. Mainly by playing chords, riffs and even single note lines. The rhythm guitar is the meat and potatoes of a song. Especially rock
and metal songs, live through the crushing guitar riffs and rhythms to bang your head!
The lead guitar, on the other hand, provides the tasty sauce or topping. But how much time does a solo usually take of the song? Not that much compared to the rhythm sections.
You see, without the lead guitar the song still works but without a solid rhythm guitar, there is no song. Also having a crappy rhythm technique will just make the song, no matter how awesome you
can shred for 8 or 16 bars, sound terrible.
Listen to guys like Malcolm Young, James Hetfield or Scott Ian. Those guys are tight, fast, groovy and precise as f***. Heck, I can set my watch to their rhythm playing! Without the rhythm
section, there is no song. That’s why a rock-solid rhythm guitar is so damn important!
Best Practice: Beginner Advise
How do I hold my guitar? Grab the guitar with your fretting hand and place your thumb on the back of the guitar neck. Never play without your thumb. There is no universal or
right thumb position. The thumb will constantly move depending on what you play. From having a classical position (thumb on the back) to really grabbing the neck (thumb coming over the fretboard)
- all is possible. Just make it feel natural and relaxed.
How do I hold my guitar pick? Use your thumb and index finger. The thumb is on the side of your index. If you are right-handed, the thumb is on the left side of your index. Now,
just add the guitar pick in between. That’s the way to hold your pick. For strumming, a more lose grab is recommended. For fast and precise stuff, angle the pick a little bit that the tip of the
pick is facing more towards the ground.
Should I use a metronome? Yes, anything that gives you a steady beat.
1. Getting Started: Rhythm Guitar Basics
Strumming means that you play (or strum) the guitar strings with your fingers or guitar pick to make the guitar sound. To make it sound means to make it sound good, that’s why you strum chords
like open chords, barre chords or power chords. I play all the stuff in this lesson with a guitar pick and since this page is about rock and metal guitar I recommend a pick.
Look at the following strumming patterns to get your picking hand going.
Strumming Pattern 1
This strumming pattern has only downstrokes on every beat. You can count “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” for one bar. That means every “number” is a chord and every “&” is the space between
the chords. Keep your wrist loose and focus on the timing.
Strumming Pattern 2
Let’s kick it up a notch and add upstrokes! Again keep your wrist loose and make sure you get the timing right. Play as slowly as needed to make it sound right.
Strumming Pattern 3
The last beginner strumming pattern has a nice little twist in it. There are two upstrokes played with no downstroke in between. This strumming pattern is a nice exercise to get this loose,
counting feeling in your picking hand going. That means you should always move your wrist with the rhythm even though you may not play a chord. If you get this example down and the two upstrokes
don’t feel weird, you will know what I mean.
2. Down Picking
Down picking is a very simple technique that can have devastating effects! As the heaviest and most crushing metal riffs are played with down-strokes. Down picking is all about persistence,
precision, and force. But before we encounter wrist-breaking riffs, let’s have a look at the basics.
Down Picking Pattern 1
The first pattern should give you the feeling for 4th and 8th notes. Focus on the timing and play as slow as you need to. Shake your wrist and give it a short break if it starts to harden up. The
key for the faster 8th notes is to minimize the picking movement!
Down Picking Pattern 2
Let’s get some rhythm going! This little riff has some breaks in between the notes. Again, focus on the time and make sure you are not getting faster or slower. You picking hand needs to become
the metronome itself. Timing is a skill like any other that you will develop over time.
Down Picking Pattern 3
The last pattern for down picking is a standard kinda rock riff. The two notes stacked on each other are called double-stops and they kick ass! Down picking can really add energy and attitude to
riffs like those. The riff is straightforward with no breaks but simple patterns like this can be really hard to keep in time!
3. Alternate Picking
Alternate picking, as the name implies, means that you alternate between down-strokes and up-strokes. This picking style is, therefore, more efficient than only using down-strokes *duh* Riffs at
supersonic speed? No more problem!
Alternate Picking Pattern 1
This looks like the first down picking pattern but this time, it is played using alternate picking. The up-strokes may seem really weird at first, I know I hated it! Play as slow as needed to
keep a steady rhythm. A firm grip on the pick and a slight angle will make life easier.
Alternate Picking Pattern 2
This pattern is a bit tricky. If you are happy to play straight alternate picking - tough luck - now it’s time to add some rhythmic variation. Do not get things mixed up and pay attention to when
to play a down- or up-strokes.
Alternate Picking Pattern 3
Here is a little riff that will teach you how to incorporate power chords and change strings while alternate picking. Down-stroke on every power chord to add heaviness and attitude to the riff.
Strumming, down picking and alternate picking are the basic techniques when it comes to playing rhythm guitar. In the following section, you will see that these rhythm techniques appear in all
kind of different ways. The riffs in the next sections will illustrate the huge ground these rhythm techniques cover.
2. Full Shred Ahead!: Palm-Muting and Dynamics
All the techniques described are essential for playing rhythm guitar or if you will, guitar in general. What makes your rhythm playing come alive is the way you play things and the way you make
them sound to express yourself. In other words: Your Attitude!
Ironically, to express yourself and to make your rhythm playing interesting, we depend on technique again. This section is about palm-muting and dynamics such as volume and accent. All the good
stuff to spice things up and add some grid!
Palm-muting means that you mute or damp the guitar strings by resting your palm on the guitar bridge. Done right, palm-muting creates some heavy rhythms!
Palm-muting has two main functions:
Adding dynamics to your playing
Silencing noise and everything that’s not supposed to sound
Here is how it is done: Put your palm on the bridge of your guitar, where the guitar strings lay on. If you have a Les Paul that would be the saddles. The little blocks you
adjust the intonation with.
If your palm is too far on the guitar strings, you will just kill the sound or produce harmonics. The other way when your palm is behind the bridge, you will have un-muted strings, so no effect
at all. Experiment with slight adjustments of your wrist positioning to get the desired sound and the right palm position. If you achieve a nice muted tone, that’s the way to go!
Palm-Muting Practice Riff
The easiest way would be to play an E power chord and start chugging. That means, you just try to find the right wrist positioning and experiment with the different sounds as described above.
Anthrax - Madhouse [0:12]
Let’s get musical! The first power chord is played open followed by the palm-muted down picking. This creates heaviness and adds attitude to the whole riff. The heaviness increases even more
through the contrasting open single note riff at the end. Try to make the switch between palm-muted and open notes as fluent as possible.
Iron Maiden - The Number Of The Beast [0:24]
Next, to playing heavy riffs, palm-muting is a great way to emphasize certain notes and chords. Iron Maiden’s “Number Of The Beast” shows that in a great way. By highlighting the notes this does
not only create a great riff but an undying hook and classic!
Side Note: Fret Hand Muting
As the name implies, you are using your fretting hand to mute the strings. Just lay your fingers on the guitar strings. Do not press the strings down! Just touch them to silence the guitar
This again is great for silencing unwanted noise but can also be used to create a nice percussive sound. How may you ask? Listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”. The first
part of the intro is all fret-hand-muting.
In general, we can define dynamics as making your playing badass. It is all about how you play something than what you actually play. The most simple idea can sound super rad! Think about someone
like the mighty Zakk Wylde.
Zakk uses certain pentatonic licks all the time and if you analyze them, those licks are pretty much standard rock licks?! But why can’t people (including me) get enough of it? Because he plays
like he means it! And it sounds killer! That’s what I mean when talking about dynamics.
Here are a few options next to palm-muting that can spice up your playing:
Volume - From subtle to full-blast, volume has a tremendous effect on your playing. It’s great for building up tension in a riff or using it for contrast. One possibility to
control Volume is velocity.
Velocity - This means, how hard or soft you hit a note or chord. You can play very soft for some nice mellow stuff or really hit the f***er! That’s what Zakk does.
Accents - This relates strongly to velocity. Emphasizing certain notes by hitting them harder or by using palm-muting for example.
Breaks - Making sudden stops or just a pause can be used to great effect. Breaks can be used to make a rhythm part heavier like the breakdown at the end of Pantera’s
“Domination” or to emphasize a particular groove like Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”.
3. Nat Geo Shred: Rhythm Guitar
Let’s how a look at how the pros fuse rhythm techniques and dynamics to pull off awesome riffs! Keep the things in mind that you learned so far and you’ll be surprised how creative you can get
with the basic techniques!
1. Steel Panther - If You Really, Really Love Me [0:01]
This is a great example of how simple chords can sound beautiful. Listen closely for the right strumming pattern and make sure your wrist is relaxed.
2. Metallica - Creeping Death [0:18]
This riff is brutal on the picking hand! Start slow and nail the rhythm first before you start speeding up. When you feel your hand cramping up, take a short break and start again. BTW: Yes, it’s
all down picking.
3. Megadeth - Holy Wars The Punishment Due [0:24]
Get your alternate picking ready! This lethal riff is a high-speed attack. Luckily you are all set with alternate picking chops to tackle this classic! Make sure to really emphasize the pull-offs
4. Van Halen - Aint Talkin Bout Love [0:00]
Blazing metal riffs aren’t the only option for down or alternate picking. Check out Eddie playing this arpeggiated and heavily palm-muted riff. We have a combination of down-strokes and
up-strokes so pay attention to the picking directions.
5. Warbringer - Living Weapon [0:10]
What the hell is that? It’s called a gallop or gallop rhythm. It’s basically alternate picking which emphasizes groups of three notes. Gallops are a great technique from slow driving riffs like
Manowar or Dio to aggressive riffing like this beast right here.
6. Santa Cruz - Wasted & Wounded [0:14]
This is a personal favorite! This one has it all. Palm-muting, a chuggy low E-string, pinch harmonics and subtle breaks to get the groove going. As always, listen over and over until you hear the
riff and rhythm in your head and your hand will eventually follow.
7. Pantera - Revolution Is My Name [0:44]
Talking about groove: Forget the 4 and praise the 3! You can create monster grooves and guitar riffs by playing triplets or in a ¾ time signature. This is easier than it may sound. Just check out
Dime riffing on “Revolution Is My Name”!
Along with bass and drums, rhythm guitar playing is the backbone of your rock and metal songs. Please just get away from the idea to separate strictly between rhythm and lead guitar. Both
elements make a great guitarist. Focusing on one aspect only is not the way to go. We love flashy playing and lead guitar stunts but when you look closer, all guitar heroes have a solid to
world-class rhythm guitar going.
Listen to guys like Nuno Bettencourt, Eddie Van Halen or Dimebag Darrell. Those guys are mainly known for their shredding skills but check out the rhythm playing. Especially Nuno for attitude and
tone all over the place! Other recommendations are guys like James Hetfield, Scott Ian, Malcolm Young, Dave Mustaine or Izzy Stradlin.
I hope I could help you on your journey for the iron wrist! Perseverance is the way to go. It takes time to nail those fast Hetfield riffs or get the groove of Malcolm going. Just stick to it and
playing the tunes that get you going!
“It probably has something to do with the attitude I put into it. I don’t think what I do is hard, really. If it doesn’t swing, it doesn’t mean a thing. That’s
about it.” - Malcolm Young