Using Fast Down-Picking to Execute Powerful Riffs and Signature Parts

An essential technique aspiring thrash metal guitarists must master is the ability to perform fast single-note riffs and power-chord figures using only downstrokes.

Two classic examples immediately come to mind: Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and Megadeth’s “Hanger 18,” and there are, of course, many more great examples of relentless downpicked fury to be found in the world of metal.

This month, I’d like to focus on the primary riffs I play on “The Hive,” the opening track from Revocation’s self-titled album. The song is built from an array of primary riffs performed with fast consecutive downstrokes, combined with some tremolo picking and other very specific pick-hand techniques.

To me, a relentless downstroke-driven pick attack is the only way to get certain riffs to jump out of the guitar with the aggressiveness necessary to make them sound as heavy and menacing as possible.

FIGURE 1 illustrates the song’s intro, which is performed at a very fast tempo. I begin with an eighth-note pickup on a low F# root note (sixth string, second fret), followed by a pattern of steady eighth notes built from chromatically ascending and descending notes fretted on the fourth and fifth strings that pivot around the low F# note, which serves as a pedal tone. This pattern is played through bars 1 and 2, after which I shift down one fret and perform a similar pattern built around F.

Although one could more easily perform this part using alternate (down-up) picking, the uniform attack created by the use of consecutive downstrokes is much more in line with what thrash metal guitar is all about—intensity. For this figure, one must quickly skip back and forth between the sixth and fourth strings, “hurdling” the fifth string with each pick attack. If this technique is new to you, start out slowly at first and gradually build up speed. Once mastered, the picking pattern is almost like a “whipping” technique, requiring great strength and stamina in the pick hand’s wrist.

On the recording, I overdubbed a tremolo- picked part that provides a higher melody line (see FIGURE 2). Each note is alternate picked as quickly as possible, a technique known as tremolo picking. Usually, most of the pick-hand movement comes from the wrist, but sometimes I’ll use my entire forearm if I’m trying to make the part sound as heavy as possible. FIGURE 3 shows the verse riff, which is similar to the intro. Notice the slight variation in the melodic shape here as well as the inclu-sion of two-note G5 power chords every fourth bar, which serve to punctuate the repeating four-bar phrase. FIGURE 4 depicts what may be thought of as the chorus riff, which alter- nates between 4/4 and 3/4 meters.

Using the open low E note as a jumping-off point, the figure is built from shifting tritones (a tritone is a pair of notes, three whole steps apart) that repeatedly slide up chromatically from first to second position on the bottom two strings, creating a dark, dissonant sound. Notice, as well, the addition of the brief natural harmonic (N.H.) on the fourth string’s third fret. In the last bar of the passage, I cap off the phrase by quickly sliding a tritone shape down chromatically from fourth to second position. All together, this is a challenging part to master, but once you have it down, your thrash-metal rhythm-guitar chops should be up for just about anything.

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