“If you want to be a well-rounded metal player, alternate picking is something you cannot skip out on”: Josh Middleton on the essential techniques and discipline of metal guitar

Josh Middleton performs onstage
(Image credit: Matt Barnes)

Following the shock announcement that he was parting ways with Architects back in May, Josh Middleton is back to doing what he does best – churning out an onslaught of finger-twisting riffs and leads on the new Sylosis album, A Sign Of Things To Come

Ahead of the band’s live dates in November, Middleton discusses what makes a well-rounded metal musician...

Alternate picking is clearly one of your strong points. How did you hone in on that particular technique?

“I think it’s really important to be able to alternate pick groups of threes. Because the modes are a big part of lead playing and that’s how they are generally played. It’s not very natural to begin with because if you start on a downstroke, the notes you play on the next string will begin with an upstroke. 

“It takes a while to get to grips with, but it’s a crucial part of well-balanced lead playing. Three note per-string modes were one of the first things I ever practiced as a kid and I genuinely attribute a lot of my skills to that – strict alternate picking up and down the neck. 

“I didn’t necessarily listen to their music, but reading about and hearing people like Paul Gilbert and Zakk Wylde through guitar magazines made me realize I liked the sound of picking every note.”

It’s a technique that comes in handy for your more adventurous riffing, too…

“Exactly. The right and left hand co-ordination is essential, whether that’s for lead or rhythm. For metal guitar, the lines between the two can get kinda blurry. Some riffs can be just as demanding as solos – just listen to a song like Spheres Of Madness by Decapitated, which has these fast palm-muted diminished lines and lower string bursts. 

“If you want to be a well-rounded metal player, alternate picking is something you cannot skip out on. It’s all about getting used to those uncomfortable groups.

“Another thing I like to do is sequence my runs – you can get more mileage out of different licks by breaking them into groups of three or four or five or whatever you want. The idea is that you play a group of notes and then start again on the second one you played, going one note further. And then you start on the third note, and so forth.”

And you’re also no stranger to string skipping and sweep picking…

“I got comfortable with string skipping before I got into sweep picking. I find it easier for some reason. I guess us guitar players seem to like them because they have wide intervallic leaps – both techniques allow you to go from one note to another elsewhere in the scale in quick succession. 

“It’s the melodic distance that sounds impressive. It’s a much easier way of covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Something like a symmetrical diminished line – a series of minor third intervals on the G and high E can sound really fast. Leaving gaps in between the strings you play can make your lines sound almost more like a keyboard or piano.”

Is there a particular practice regime that helped get you where you are today?

“My approach when I was first learning and doing most of my woodshedding was asking myself, ‘What’s the most annoying and hardest thing to play?’. And I’d work on all of that stuff because I knew at some point I might need to do it. So I would write myself licks that would test me or required awkward picking stuff, and then force myself to learn them slow and then faster and faster. 

“Everyone’s so concerned with speed. As much as it’s fun to be able to play fast, if you try to jump ahead you might neglect the quality of your playing or the cleanliness of how you put it all together. That always comes first for me. I’d rather be able to nail something 100 percent at half speed than play it with a bunch of mistakes at full speed. And also, if you learn something the wrong way, it becomes harder to unlearn it later down the line.”

So do you practice on the clean channel or with distortion?

“Both are valid. If you practice clean, there’s no distortion hiding your pick attack. If you’re playing really fast licks on a clean amp, you can hear every mistake clearly and if you’re not nailing it, you can tell. 

“On the other hand, if you only practice clean, when you eventually play through an amp with loads of distortion, you might realize you are not muting the strings properly. You’ll have things ringing out and all these scrapey, scratchy noises that only come through when you are using a high gain sound. 

“That’s why I do it both ways, through an amp and also unplugged while watching TV on the sofa. Obviously if people are with you, they’ll probably find it really irritating! But it all goes in as muscle memory – through your hands and into your brain.”

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).