When I started listening to metal in my teenage years, I remember walking home from school listening to Metallica’s "Disposable Heroes."
Thirty seconds into the track, my ears were hit with an incredibly fast and ferocious guitar rhythm:
I was blown away by James Hetfield’s rhythm, and I had to learn how to play it. This was before the days of the Internet, so I headed to the library and got a copy of the sheet music. Even with the sheet music in front of me, I still had no idea how to play the riff. I could see what I had to play, but I couldn’t figure out how to physically do it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d later learn that what I was trying to play was called a gallop rhythm. A gallop rhythm is a three-note rhythm that mimics the sound of a horse’s hooves hitting the ground as it runs, hence the name. It’s an essential component of heavy metal, and if you’re not familiar with the term, it’s more than likely you’ve already heard it on many classic metal songs.
A much slower and simpler version of a gallop rhythm is in the verse riff to Dio’s "Holy Diver." Listen to the palm-muted power chords behind the vocals and you’ll hear it:
As an aspiring guitarist, sooner or later you come across this rhythm and wonder how to play it. Fortunately, you won’t have to struggle like I did. In this lesson, I demonstrate the techniques involved, and show you how to master the gallop rhythm at any speed.
A Gallop Rhythm is NOT a Triplet
Before diving into the details, there are a few things to understand to avoid confusion. First, in heavy metal music, a palm-mute is almost always applied when playing a gallop rhythm. Second, a gallop rhythm is a three-note rhythm, which means that there are three notes (or chords) on each beat of the bar. A common misconception is that because of this, a gallop rhythm is the same as a triplet. It’s important to be aware that a gallop rhythm is NOT a triplet rhythm.
With a triplet, each of the three notes (or chords) are equal in length, and as you’ll see shortly, this is not the case with a gallop rhythm. In FIGURE 1, you play a typical triplet rhythm with down picking and a palm mute applied to the low E string. You can hear that each note is equal in length to every other note in the bar.
Now that you’ve heard and played the triplet rhythm, move on to the next exercise. The gallop rhythm is based on a sixteenth-note rhythm and before you attempt to play it, you should be familiar with the correct picking approach. In FIGURE 2, you play a repeating 16th-note pattern, which has four notes on each beat. The picking pattern is down, up, down, up, and this is played four times to complete the bar.
Basic and Reverse Gallop Rhythms
Once you’re comfortable with the 16th note exercise, it’s time to play basic gallop rhythm patterns. By altering FIGURE 2 slightly, tying the first two 16th notes of each group together, you end up with FIGURE 3. The first note is an eighth-note and the following two notes are sixteenths. This basic pattern is repeated three more times to complete the bar. At this point, you can see that the notes aren’t equal, as they were in the triplet exercise.
The picking for FIGURE 3 is the same as FIGURE 2, only this time you miss out the upstrokes, which you can see marked by parentheses. Performed correctly, the movements of your right hand look identical to what they were in FIGURE 2.
FIGURE 4 is the same as FIGURE 3 but played the other way around. This version is commonly known as the Reverse Gallop. A memorable example of this occurs in the song "Raining Blood" by Slayer after the intro:
The picking for FIGURE 4 is the same as it was for FIGURE 3, only this time you miss out the upstrokes at the end of each beat. This makes the third note in each beat an eighth-note rather than a sixteenth. Again, this missed upstroke is marked in parentheses.
If you’ve ever listened to Slayer or Metallica, you know that down picking is a good thing for heavy metal. Down picking produces an aggressive, biting tone, and when you play metal, you should aim to do this as much as possible. At higher tempos, you have no choice but to opt for the alternate, down/up picking approach as demonstrated in FIGURE 3 and FIGURE 4. However, at slower tempos it’s possible to play these gallop rhythms entirely with down picking.
In FIGURES 5 and 6 you play the basic and reverse gallop patterns in this way.
In the second part of this lesson, you'll learn how to develop these rhythms further and add power chords and single notes to build more heavy riffs and rhythm parts.
Simon Revill is the author of the free eBook Metal Rhythm Guitar: Starter Guide and runs the Metal Guitar Lessons Facebook group. Simon teaches privately in the UK, globally via Skype, and runs a custom music transcription service from his home. Visit simonrevillmusic.com to find out more.