Lesson: How To Play 30 Years of Rock and Metal

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The past 30 years have seen an explosion in guitar technique, an advancement that is greater than in any time in the instrument’s history. When Eddie Van Halen showcased his exciting new style on Van Halen’s 1978 debut album, modern rock guitar was born. Over the next years, tapping, hot-rod repetition licks, wide vibrato, harmonics and colorful flash whammy bar antics became part of every notable guitarist’s trick bag. In the Eighties, neoclassical virtuosos like Yngwie Malmsteen and shredders like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai emphasized speed and legato-driven fluidity, while thrash acts like Metallica took the instrument in a more extreme direction. The Ninetes brought a push toward more progressive influences, leading us to the present day and our well-stocked arsenal of guitar techniques.

In this lesson, I’ll reflect on the main technical phases of development in modern rock guitar playing over the past three decades, with an insight into the players, techniques and bands that have contributed to the evolution of rock guitar. Check this month’s CD-ROM for this feature’s audio examples, demonstrated at slow and standard speed, and try to take each area and learn to memory very slowly, applying speed gradually over time.

To get the modern rock tone, it’s ideal to have a guitar with high-output pickups, low action and light string gauges. Most players of this style would be using .009–.042 or .009–.046 guages. On the amps, modified high-gain Marshalls, Ibanez Tube Screamers, Boss DS-1 distortion pedals and Boss DD-3 delays were a poplular choice for a lot of the Eighties players, with Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifiers providing the chunky low end for a lot of the post-Nineties riffage. To record the sound files for this lesson, I used an Ibanez J Custom with .009–.046 gauge strings with a DiMarzio Tone Zone pickup in the bridge and an Air Norton in the neck, through a Marshall JCM 800/Tube Screamer–type sound on AmpliTube v2.

At home, any high-gain amp will suffice. For leads, set the EQ flat (“12 o’clock”) with a slight boost on the treble and midrange. For chunky thrash riffs and modern metal rhythm playing, decrease the midrange to nine o’clock, and boost the bass and treble to three o’clock. For leads, a touch of delay low in the mix would be ideal.


Here we have the half-roll tapping technique that stunned the world and redefined rock lead guitar in 1978 with the release of Van Halen. This example progresses through a succession of classical-style triad arpeggios. Technically, it is a great way to start moving the fretting fingers around while tapping on one string, and you’ll see that the tapped note is also moving melodically. Notice that, on the downbeat of beats one and three in each bar, a note is being tapped as the fret hand shifts down one fret, which conveniently prevents an audible squeaking sound and makes for a fluid transition from one arpeggio to the next. WIth the fret hand, follow the rule that the tip of the index finger always mutes the string above the one being played, so that it lightly touches the next lowest string as it’s fretting the one you’re playing on. The remaining lower strings are muted by lightly resting the heel and thumb pad on them.


Also inspired by Eddie Van Halen, this example demonstrates the full-roll version of the single-string tapping technique, wherein the fret-hand pinkie stays pressed down as the right hand taps and pulls-off to it. Again, classical-style major triad arpeggios are employed. Be aware of the anticipation into bar 2, with the last note of bar 1 setting up a smooth harmonic transition from the A triad to F. Also notice in bars 2 and 3 how the tapped melody notes move in anticipation of the following chord. The lick exits with another common EVH trademark, the displacement of the final tapped note by the fret-hand, via a quick ascending slide into the note, to which a hearty vibrato is then applied. I would use the ring finger for this final note, as it is better suited to perfoming the vibrato technique.


This next example is a rapid-fire EVH-style half-roll string-crossing lick in E minor, demonstrating the “reverse-pattern-to-bend” exit phrase. Again, remember the importance of effective left- and right-hand muting techniques in order to keep the execution clean and prevent idle strings from ringing. For a clean exit bend, once the final note has been struck, move the pick up into the string above and damp the bottom four strings with the side of the pick- hand thumb.


Here we have an EVH-style lick that applies a full-roll major arpeggio pattern symmetrically across the neck and includes the use of the open strings. It also entails the use of fret-hand taps when crossing to each succesive lower string. Also commonly refered to as “hammer-ons from nowhere,” these fret-hand taps are indicated by an “H” above the tab number and may feel weak at first, so isolate this technique and make sure that the index finger hammers down onto the string firmly and quickly. The exit is another displacement involving a tap, pull-off and quick slide. You can slide either the second, third of fourth finger of the fret hand and then add tone-wide “pull-down” rock vibrato.

FIGURES 5 and 6

Here is a trio of scalar half-roll double hammer-on exercises to be practiced and mastered separately on different string sets. We’re in the key of G major, although we are referencing this scale to the root note of A, therefore we are in A Dorian, which is a common mode for rock improvisation and a convenient key for us to study technique. As regards the fret hand, you can keep the technique clean by making a habit of using the tip of the first finger to mute the string above the one you are playing, and lay the finger flat enough to also mute all the strings underneath.
The general fret-hand position will be dropped and square, the thumb in the middle of the back of the neck, and with plenty of space from the bottom of the neck to the cup of the hand. Between the fingers, there should also be space. Try to make your pick strokes light, and repeat each fragment for five minutes as continuously as possible, making sure to shake off any tension as soon as it arises. This type of technique was used to great effect in the early Eighties by players like EVH, Randy Rhoads and George Lynch.


In FIGURE 6, we connect the three previous patterns into one long, fluid run, with each two-string pattern repeated. The finishing note should receive a tone wide “push upward” rock vibrato. The linking together of symmetrical shapes is common in modern rock as it facilitates longer fretboard coverage and lends itself more readily to faster runs than asymmetrical scale shapes.


This is a double hammer-on run that travels across and up the neck by shifting between two overlapping scale positions per string. As usual, learn and memorize the example slowly, then gradually increase the speed once you can play the run perfectly and smoothly at a given tempo. Measure your improvement of quality of tone and control, rather than speed itself. Aim for the feeling of machine-accuracy before applying speed. Speed is the by-product of good inner timing, which comes from regular practice.


This is a rapid-fire static rock legato repetition lick in the style of George Lynch that uses the first three fingers of the fret hand with some wide stretches and double hammer-ons and pull-offs. (Highly recommended is Lynch’s album with Dokken Back for the Attack, released in 1987.) This choice of fingers rotates the hand at more of an angle and provides good finger alignment for third-finger bends. The last bar is slightly rushed to help place the bend on the beat. I’ve transcribed it as a group of seven, although the intent is to rush the phrase and target the exit bend on the downbeat. When crossing to a lower string in this kind of context it’s very common to use a fret-hand tap (the “hammer-on from nowhere” again) instead of picking the first note, for the sake of providing a smoother attack and faster speed potential. Try at first to hit the fret-hand hammer-ons hard, hitting down on the note from a height of at least half an inch. As the speed develops, the movement will refine.


FIGURE 9 is a sweep arpeggio run in the style of rock guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen, who released his highly influential debut album Rising Force in 1984. The recurring pattern is a downstroke followed by a pull-off and a brief (two-string) upstroke sweep. The melody initially descends through inversions of A minor (A C E), then ascends symmetrical inversions of A diminished seven (A C Ef Fs).
On the upstroke sweeps, try to feel the pick pulling up through the strings, like a stick being dragged across fence railings, all in a single motion. The fret hand should articulate each note individually, rather than holding down a chord shape. The concept is finger on, finger off, and you should strive for clean note separation.

FIGURE 10 is a Malmsteen–style sextuplet lick that utilizes a quick succession of ascending A minor sweep arpeggio inversions that lead up to a high bend up to the root note A. Follow the picking directions, gently palm mute each sweep downstroke and target the first note of each beat by very quickly sliding the pinkie into position.

FIGURE 11 begins by repeating the sextuplet patterns in A minor from the previous example in descending order, then ascends F diminished seven (F Af B D) arpeggio inversions, which may be played over E, E5 or E7 to create an E Phrygian-dominant sound (E F Gs A B C D, intervallically spelled 1 f2 3 4 5 f6 f7) and an E7f9 arpeggio (E Gs B D F, spelled 1 3 5 f7 f9). E Phrygian-dominant is the fifth mode of the A harmonic minor scale (A B C D E F Gs, spelled 1 2 f3 4 5 f6 7). Remember as a formula that you can play a diminished seven arpeggio a semitone higher than the root note of a dominant seven chord and will achieve the 7f9 and Phrygian-dominant sound. This is because the notes of F diminished seven heard against an E bass note sound like an E7f9 chord, which is the V chord that compellingly yearns to resolve to A minor. When practicing this example, try to tap your foot and sync-up the metronome clicks to each downbeat, which, with the exception of the very first one, has you picking an upstroke.


This next example is a progression of sweep picked triad arpeggios played across the top five strings. The pattern is effective for further developing the sweeping technique. Memorize and master each bar individually, then try stringing them together, first in pairs (bar 1 then bar 2), then all together. Each pair of triads begins on the same note, and as individual sets, they make great development exercises. For the G triad in bar 2, roll the fret-hand middle finger across the D, G and B strings. When sweeping, feel the pick push through the strings in a single motion when ascending and dragging or pulling up through them when descending. On the fretting hand, remember to play one note at a time—finger on, finger of—in order to ensure distinct note separation.

Our next example is in the style of Jason Becker, whose breathtaking neo-classical lead style was showcased on his solo debut album Perpetual Burn, released in 1988. This example is based on full six-string arpeggio sweeps applied to four different chords, which are connected via legato finger slides on the outer strings. Be sure to use the fret-hand fingerings indicated below the tab to ensure smooth transitions from chord to chord.


Here we have a different style of technique for executing arpeggios that was popular from around the mid to late Eighties. This example is in the style of Tony MacAlpine. Highly recommended is his amazing 1987 release, Maximum Security. The example incorporates fret-hand tapping (hammering on from nowhere), applied when descending across the strings, and a pick-hand tap on the high E string, used to extend the arpeggio’s range. The arpeggio in this case is G major seven (G B D Fs), and the lick gradually unfolds in range with the extra tapped notes until it is extended harmonically to G major nine (G B D Fs A, intervallically spelled 1 3 5 7 9). Without the sweep on the descent at the end of bar 2, it has a smoother articulation compared to regular sweeping, and allows for right-handed extensions without the need to resume picking. BE sure to hammer the strings firmly in order to attain sufficient volume note to note


This is a classically influenced strict alternate-picking run up the high E string in A Dorian, beginning on the seventh (G) and culminating with a half-step bend from the ninth (B) up to the minor third (C), which is then held and adorned with some wide rock vibrato. It is very common in Malmsteen’s playing, and the neoclassical metal guitar style in general, to extend the range of positional runs by continuing an ascent on the high E string.


This lick is in the style of Paul Gilbert. Highly recommended is his work with Racer X, in particular the 1987 release Second Heat. The run requires the use of both “outside” and the more arduous “inside” picking motions when crossing from the B string to the high E and back as it ascends the fretboard and is a good, challenging overall developmental exercise. The picking motion should feel relaxed and come from the swing of the wrist over the string, aiming for the slightly downward angled tip of the pick. Practice slowly and accurately before applying speed.


Here we have another Paul Gilbert–style picking run, this time played across all six strings. You’ll find that bar 2 is more demanding on the pick hand, as inside picking is required when crossing strings. Make sure the motion is from the wrist and that there is no tension or muscular upwards movement in the area between the upper forearm and crook of the elbow. Lightly palm mute the bass strings and gradually “open” the notes as you move to the treble strings. You will want to keep the angle of the pick the same on each new string, but be aware that although the individual pick strokes come from the wrist, the arm does move down slightly to maintain consistent pick angle and mute unwanted string noise. The fret-hand index finger mutes the string above the one being played with its fleshy tip. So between the two hands, the run should be clean and defined.

FIGURES 18 and 19

The next two examples are odd note groupings played through with the full-roll legato technique and are in the style of highly influential rock virtuoso Joe Satriani, particularly on his legendary 1987 guitar instrumental debut, Surfing with the Alien. FIGURE 18 is phrased in quintuplets (five evenly spaced notes per beat), and FIGURE 19 is played in septuplets (seven evenly spaced notes per beat), with a phrasing scheme that encompasses a roll and a half. Listen to the slow audio demonstration of these examples on this month’s CD-ROM to feel the timing, and learn and memorize both runs slowly with good tone and timing before applying any speed. Try to keep all notes equal in velocity and even in tone.
This style of legato phrasing requires more fret-hand stamina and “traction” than our earlier half-roll examples and will require short, but regular, daily practice sessions for about a week to gain familiarity and control. When any tension builds up in the forearm, it is critical to shake it off immediately. Both licks finish on a bend from the f7 (G) to the A root note.


Here is a 16th-note legato phrase that incorporates ascending finger slides every two beats. The slides enable us to seamlessly glide through positions while maintaining an unbroken flow of notes. Strive to pick with as light a touch as possible and maintain an even velocity through the positions. An effective way to help you perfect your timekeeping here is to play along with the slow demonstration on the recording for this example, building speed gradually over months of daily practice. I have recorded the remaining lead examples firstly at our slow “learn” tempo of 60 beats per minute, then at standard top 16th-note speed of 160 bpm. Then, to demonstrate the freeform effect, I have kept the tempo at 160 bpm and played as fast as possible trying to feel the nearest and most convenient target exit note. This may seem haphazard, but most modern rock players use this technique as a “fifth gear” and are often more focused on the overall effect that it creates rather than strict rhythmic subdivisions. Once you can play 16ths at 160 bpm, you’ll find that you can easily accelerate the technique and play freely over the pulse while still being aware of the underlying beats.


This next example is a descending run in the style of Steve Vai. Highly recommended is his instrumental album Passion and Warfare, released in 1990, as well as his earlier albums with David Lee Roth. The example moves down through the positions using full-roll legato and descending finger slides. Notice the absence of pick strokes on the way down as fret-hand hammer-ons from nowhere initiate the first note on each successive lower string. This technique makes for a very smooth, fluid sound and became widely used among modern rock players from the mid to late Eighties. Try to strive for an equal balance in the velocity and volume of the hammer-ons and pull-offs. When pulling off, you’ll need to yank the string slightly in toward the palm before releasing it in order to keep the string vibrating and ringing.


This next example uses right-hand tapping to extend our full-roll legato concept in an A Dorian run and is in the style of late-Eighties rock virtuoso Reb Beach (Winger/Dokken/Whitesnake), who was well known for this particular style of tapping. Highly recommended is the 1990 Winger release In the Heart of the Young. The example uses pick-hand tapping to extend the conventional three-note-per-string phrase, with fret-hand tapping employed as a means to descend the pattern, rather than picking the first note per string, as in conventional legato. This technique will provide a fast, fluid articulation. Clean execution will depend on diligent muting between the two hands and an even velocity and volume among the notes, so practice slowly at first, striving for evenness.

FIGURE 23 is another A Dorian legato/tapping example in the style of Reb Beach, this time ascending. As we are beginning fairly high up the neck, in 12th position, it is common for most rock players to use only their first three fret-hand fingers this particular shape. As explained earlier, this rotates the hand at more of an angle to the neck, which in turn sets up a good position for a finishing bend. The traditional classically based “correct” fingering of one, two and four should also be developed, as you will see both commonly used in different circumstances. Regardless of the fingerings employed, I would advise that the exit phrase uses the ring finger for the fret-hand tap (hammer-on from nowhere), setting the hand up at an angle for the final bend.


This legato run is in the style of Greg Howe, who showcased this style of tapping on his 1988 self-titled debut album, and demonstrates the integrated two-hand tapping technique applied to scalar playing in E Dorian (E Fs G A B Cs D), which is the second mode of the D major scale (D E Fs G A B Cs). The concept here is for the pick hand to tap the third note on each string, instead of fingering the note with the fret-hand pinkie, which makes for a comfortable compact fret-hand posture, as no stretching is required. The lick ascends the first 12 notes of the conventional three-notes-per string D major scale shape in 10th position before moving into a six-note phrase repeated in two octaves for increased range.
The finishing note is pulled off from the final pick-hand tap to the fret-hand ring finger, which then applies vibrato. Once the pull-off has sounded and a fraction of a second before the wide rock vibrato starts, I would advise very quickly bringing the right hand back and gently lodging the pick underneath the B string. This will help mute it as the pick-hand thumb leans into the remaining lower strings to mute them. Doing this will facilitate a wide clean vibrato without exciting the idle lower strings.


This is a Richie Kotzen-style two-hand tapping lick that uses an A minor seven arpeggio (A C E G) configured for string skipping. (Highly recommended is Kotzen’s 1990 solo release Fever Dream.) This example incorporates a couple of sliding pick-hand taps on the G and high E strings. Try to hit each of these taps hard and shift up and back from the arm, paying particular attention to the rhythmic timing of the slides. The pad/heel of the pick-hand thumb should still be effectively muting the bass strings as you do this, and you will need to rest it against the strings very lightly so as to minimize the sound of the right-hand mute as it shifts. This lick is demonstrated on the CD-ROM first at “learn” speed, followed by a standard top 16th-note speed and then as fast as is possible using feel to target the exit note on the nearest beat. This is the more common approach in improvisational modern rock. Written solos tend to lean more towards strict rhythmic subdivisions.


Here we have a quintuplet (five notes per beat) run in the style of Dream Theater’s John Petrucci. (Highly recommended are the albums Images and Words, released in 1992, and Awake, released in 1994.) The lick features a shift in position on both the B and G strings to facilitate two quintuplets. This horizontal stacking of two overlapping scalar shapes opens up the potential for serious speed, as the mind and hands can focus on uninterrupted picking for longer durations before having to cross strings. It also helps us move through positions and can extend the range of a run across the fretboard.


This next example continues our study in quintuplets with a string-skipping run in the style of Petrucci. You’ll probably want to break this example down into small sections and master them individually before piecing them back together. Try to use the wrist when picking over two strings, but also notice that in order to keep the same pick angle relative for each string, you will use the arm to simply maneuver the wrist over the strings being picked. This will come from the elbow, but is in no way associated with any tension. Practice slowly and build speed very gradually from week to week.


This is a fast descending septuplet (seven notes per beat) run across all six strings in the style of Rusty Cooley. (Highly recommended is his 2006 release Outworld.) Try to ensure that on the fretting hand, you are aware of the index finger muting the string above the one you are currently playing by stubbing the flesh of the fingertip into the string above. The side of the index finger should also rest flat over any strings underneath the one being played in order to check any unwanted vibrations and noise. Due to odd number of notes, each beat alternates between leading with a downstroke, then an upstroke. To achieve high speeds, the technique needs to be light and focussed on the very tip of the pick; a slight forward angle reduces friction. The run finishes with tone-wide “pull downward” rock vibrato on the low E string.


This is an insane speed drill in the style of Death, the death metal pioneers from Florida. Sadly writer and death metal master Chuck Schuldiner passed away in 2001, but his legacy lives on in the countless bands that cite him as a main influence, and his impact and extensive contribution to the extreme metal style. Death albums released throughout the Nineties were a display of progressive and skilfully played death metal and all are highly recommended.
This example utilizes furious alternate picking in the context of a riff. The higher notes should be open as a contrast to the palm-muted low pedal tones. This type of speed is the result of a complete state of relaxation, the wrist movement being really just a controlled vibration. The timing and tight precision will only come from building the feel of 16ths at the tempo through patient practice over time. Play slowly to memorize, and then practice perfectly for five minutes a day, always observing and halting any arm tension before it causes discomfort.


Here we have another alternate-picked run in the style of John Petrucci, typically doubled with keyboards for the Dream Theater unison sound and found in many of the band’s instrumental breaks. This unusually contoured scalar run will require slow memorization before speed is applied. The descending portion of the line (beginning on beat two of bar3) is actually phrased in seven-note groups played as straight 16ths and may need to be isolated for separate practice. Again the tone of the picking is crucial to get the Petrucci smoothness, so use the very tip of the pick.


This is an alternate-picked single-note riff in the style of Florida-based progressive death/fusion band Cynic, who released their debut Focus in 1993, and have been highly influential in the post-Nineties technical extreme metal scene. Again, the key is in the consistency with the lightly palm-muted tone and most importantly, an even picking velocity, so listen carefully as you play through the example. Move from the wrist over two strings, and over three strings the arm will move your wrist across to reach the new string at the same picking angle as over the lowest string. Memorize the pattern slowly and build speed gradually over time.


This example is a three-guitar arranging idea demonstrating the multi-layered rhythmic approach used by Swedish extreme metal giants Meshuggah, the post-Nineties band that has been massively influential to metal in general with their unique approach and sound. (Highly recommended is their 1998 release Chaosphere.) This riff is based on seven strings, the main riff intertwined with an octave melody and a close interval clash to create an intensely dissonant atmosphere.


Here we have syncopated single-line groove riff in the style of modern post-Nineties neoclassical band Symphony X, featuring rock virtuoso Michael Romeo. (Highly recommended is their 1997 album, The Divine Wings of Tragedy.) This example features a vibrato-note groove and some open-string alternate picking. When picking, try to move from the wrist and apply light palm muting to bring out the note definition. The pick strokes should be light, but accurate to get an even tone.


This next riff is in the style of progressive death metal band Opeth. Highly recommended is their 1999 release, Still Life, a masterpiece in conceptual and highly atmospheric extreme metal, which uses clean folk-influenced contrasts to the more brutal Death-influenced sections, all played with a very high level of musicianship.

This example has many elements to it, and it requires you to pay particular attention to your fret-hand muting technique. The rule of thumb is that the fret-hand index finger mutes the note above the one being played. If you watch out for this you will also notice that by stubbing the index tip into the string above, the finger will lie flat over the underneath the one being played, therefore muting all them except the one its actually fretting. So in the first bar, the first couple of chords should ring nice and cleanly while the index finger mutes all the other strings. The same will also apply to the octave slides in bar 2. Also notice in this bar that there are a couple of inverted power chords (with the fifth on the bottom), a common voicing in the death metal genre.


Here we have an impressively gymnastic legato riff in the style of the band Nevermore, featuring rock virtuoso Jeff Loomis on guitar. (Highly recommended is their excellent Politics of Ecstasy album from 1996.) This riff utilizes open strings in conjunction with a two-notes-per-string diminished seven arpeggio shape. Use fingers one and four throughout, except for the fret-hand hammer just before beat three in each bar, which is played with the ring finger. Try to strive for an even tone and volume note to note. No note should sound louder or weaker than the next, and the pick strokes should be light, so as to provide the smooth flow of notes. In bar 1, beat four, gently palm mute the notes to give the double hammer-on/pull-off combination a percussive quality.


Our final example is a cool metal riff in the style of the amazing and prolific writer and guitarist Devin Townsend, who has released a succession of highly influential metal albums since the mid Nineties. (Highly recommended is his work with metal band Strapping Young Lad, in particular the 2003 release Alien.) This riff, which is played in open C tuning, uses some very fast low open-string gallops with some natural harmonics before integrating some big-sounding octaves with all other strings ringing out to provide some interesting chordal dissonance. Start the gallops at a very slow pace and practice gradually speeding up the pattern while remaining completely relaxed in the arm, moving the pick through the momentum of the wrist.