Tosin Abasi is one of modern metal's most forward-thinking and creative minds – and his groundbreaking techniques will really test your abilities

Tosin Abasi performs onstage at the 2020 NAMM Show at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California
(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

Tosin Abasi was born 40 years ago in Washington DC. He is best known as guitarist for instrumental progressive metal band Animals As Leaders, alongside fellow axe-smith Javier Reyes. 

Tosin’s excellent playing can also be heard throughout the 2020 movie Bill & Ted Face The Music, as he was the real guitarist behind those bogus air guitar riffs and licks. It’s no surprise that Tosin was chosen for the role, as he is regarded as one of modern metal’s most forward-thinking and creative minds. 

One of the early adopters of eight-string guitars, his music draws rhythmic influence from the likes of Meshuggah and King Crimson, and the harmonic nous of Allan Holdsworth, performed with modern production and perfect execution. Tosin’s technique is a big characteristic of his music, and he employs some fascinating and idiosyncratic approaches, which we’ll look at in this lesson.

Selective picking is a technique that permeates the first three examples. You can think of it as a halfway house between alternate picking and legato, with some notes being picked and others played using fretting-hand taps.

This allows for seamless streams of notes to be played in quick succession, but the speed of motion is shared between the hands, rather than both hands moving simultaneously, as when using strict alternate picking. 

Example 1 acts as an introduction to selective picking. The constant 16th notes are split between the picking hand and fretting hand with two notes per hand. First pick two notes, then hammer-on two notes, starting the string with a fretting-hand tap.

Example 2 combines fretting-hand tapping with another Abasi approach known as ‘thumping’, to which Tosin attributes bassist Victor Wooten as his inspiration. The technique here is a double-thumb slap and pop which is performed by percussively striking through the string with the tip of the thumb, then pulling the thumb outward through the string to create a second note. 

This riff is followed by a first-finger pluck for a total of three notes played with the picking hand. Add this to the initial two fretting-hand taps and we have a super five-note pattern. 

Example 3 is performed mostly with fretting-hand tapping, with some selective hybrid picking on the second string. Tosin would pick this repeating note with his second finger. The picked notes and fretting-hand taps should be played at the same volume and, when coupled with palm-muting, the effect is a continuous stream of muted arpeggios.

Our next idea combines sweep-picking with hybrid picking to create ‘swybrid’ picking. This allows for sweep picked arpeggios to be played with atypical phrasing and even string skips for an expansion on a decades-old concept.

Our final example uses two picking-hand fingers to create melodies against a held chord. It’s a fantastic way to explore chord tones and melodies within different modes.

Play each example slowly and accurately at first. Only when you can sense that muscle memory and hand synchronisation is attained should you gradually speed up, but only in small increments. Good luck! 

Get the tone

Amp Settings:

Tosin plays his signature Abasi Concepts Larada eight-string guitar with Fishman Fluence pickups into Axe-FX and, more recently, Bad Cat amps, as well as his Neural DSP guitar VST plugin suite. His sound is a tight, tube distortion which allows the tone and pitch to shine through, while also allowing for crushingly heavy riffs. Just add some nice, ambient reverb.

Example 1. Selective picking #1

Pick the open second string with a down and up stroke, then use your first fretting-hand finger to tap at the 5th fret, followed by a fourth-finger hammer-on. Repeat this motion as you ascend the fretboard throughout the B Half-Whole diminished scale (B-C-D-D#-F-F#-G#-A).

Example 2. Selective picking #2

Use your first and fourth fretting-hand fingers to tap the initial two notes and hold the 7th fret while using your thumb to slap and pop the fifth string with an inward and outward motion. Next, pluck the string with your first finger to complete the first five notes. Maintain this five-note rhythmic sequence throughout the riff.

Example 3. Selective picking #3

Position the side of your picking hand across the strings at the bridge to create a light palm-mute throughout. Use your fretting-hand second finger to pluck the second string on each downbeat and use your fretting fingers to hammer-on arpeggio shapes in-between to create a seamless sextuplet rhythm.

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Charlie Griffiths

Charlie Griffiths plays guitar in acclaimed prog-metal outfit Haken, and has a wealth of experience handling corporate and session gigs for genres as diverse as rock, heavy metal and pop. He has been a regular contributor to Total Guitar, Guitar Techniques, and Guitar World for over a decade, and released his debut solo album Tiktaalika in 2022.