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Metal Guitar: An Introduction

A Loud and Proud Metal Primer

The sound is undeniable and has developed a legion of millions of fans for over 40 years. From the late 1960s arrival of the behemoths Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin through its height of popularity in the 1980s and through today, Heavy Metal has carved out a niche in the rock pantheon that will never go away. In this article, we will cover the history of this style as well as the basics of the sound.

Metal shop

Heavy metal, also simply called metal, has its roots in the blues-rock and psychedelic rock of the mid-to-late 1960s. Taking its cue from the loud hard tones of songs like “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks and “My Generation” by The Who, adding in piercing leads influenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Metal songs often express pain, darkness, and general angst. Everything became louder and harder (and by the 1980s, faster).

The first commercially successful metal bands came out of the UK. Fresh from the breakup of the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page recruited session keyboardist John Paul Jones, power drummer John Bonham, and a little-known singer named Robert Plant, and Led Zeppelin was born. Around the same time, a band from working-class Birmingham called Earth changed its focus to darker and heavier themes and renamed themselves Black Sabbath. Deep Purple, which had already had some success as a classically-influenced blues-rock band, made the decision to bring in a new bassist, Roger Glover, along with new singer, Ian Gillan, and to make their sound louder and harder.

At the same time, hard rock bands such as Steppenwolf and Grand Funk Railroad were gaining popularity in the US, and the genres became somewhat intertwined by the mid-1970s. Elements of punk, particularly speed, made its way into the mix as well. The sound continued to grow in popularity, and by the 1980s, it had become a major commercial force in music, led by Motorhead, Metallica, Judas Priest, Kiss, Motley Crüe, the Scorpions, and countless others.

Over the last 20 years, metal has branched into many sub-genres, such as black metal, death metal, and thrash metal. Death metal often uses low-tuned, extremely distorted guitar sounds, while thrash’s sound is more about speed. Black metal uses unusual song structures, and like thrash, emphasizes speed.

Getting the crunch

Perhaps more than any other sound in rock, metal’s sound is heavily guitar-centric. Distortion (particularly in rhythm guitar) and overdriven leads are the backbone of most metal bands’ sounds. Often, if the singer is not also the lead guitarists, the two can inspire each other to greater power in their musicianship, particularly in live settings. And the louder, the better!

Metal guitarists achieve their sounds in a number of ways. Many guitarists drop-tune their guitars, setting one or more strings to a lower key. Almost all use effects pedals and/or software to customize their sound.

This just scratches the bare surface of metal. Check out any recording by the artists listed above — you will be rocked!


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