In previous columns I’ve mainly focused on metal lead guitar – scales, arpeggios, sweep picking, tapping, etc. While this is all well and good, to be a great player in any style, you need your rhythm guitar skills to be just as strong as your soloing talents. After all, there’s nothing worse than jealous guitarist’s saying, “Yeah, his solos are great, but he can’t play rhythm!”

Metal rhythm guitar can be a whole different beast to lead and a variety of different techniques are used. One of the most important (and hardest) aspects of metal rhythm is down-picking. Instead of picking down/up as you normally would a lead line (alternate picking), you pick only with down-strokes. Combined with palm-muting, the consistent downward force of the pick onto the strings creates a heavier, tighter, and more aggressive sound than if you were to play riffs using only alternate picking. Due to the hard-hitting nature of down-picking, it is used frequently in heavy metal – particularly more traditional forms like thrash and death metal. Notable exponents of this technique include Metallica’s James Hetfield, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, and Testament’s Eric Peterson.


At first glance Exercise 1 doesn’t look too hard. It’s simply a steady stream of eighth note E5 power chords. There are, however, two important points to note. Firstly, palm-muting is used throughout. This involves resting the palm of your right hand lightly on the strings and slightly forward from the bridge. When done correctly, it stops notes and chords from ringing out, creating a percussive ‘chugging’ sound. Second and most significantly, take a look at the tempo – it’s at 220 beats-per-minute. This is very fast! I don’t expect you to play at this speed straight away, but it’s there as guide for what you should be aiming toward. Instead, start off slowly with a metronome (around 60-100 bpm) and then gradually build up the tempo. This will take time and endurance, and you will definitely ‘feel the burn’. As you get faster, try not to tense up. It could take months or years, but when you get down-picking mastered, your rhythm playing will be much tighter and heavier. As a general rule, try to always use down-picking wherever it’s physically possible to do so.

Hear Exercise 1


Once you’re starting to get the hang of it, try moving some power chords around the neck and onto different strings, as in the riff from Exercise 2. The key is to keep the right hand down-picking consistent, even as the left hand is moving around.

Hear Exercise 2


Another thing you should practice is down-picking single notes on adjacent strings. Changing strings while down-picking can be slightly harder than just staying on one string. This riff plays a melodic line on the A string, while pedalling the low E. It also throws in some hammer-ons and pull-offs.

Hear Exercise 3


This riff mixes different picking styles together and features down-picking along with alternate picking (for the galloped sixteenth notes), tremolo-picking in the last bar (where you alternate pick notes as fast as possible), as well as hammers/pulls.

Hear Exercise 4

Mastering down-picking requires a lot of time and patience. While the exercises I’ve provided will get you started, probably the best (and most fun!) way of working on this technique is to learn the rhythm parts of songs and then practice along to the CD. Two songs I’d recommend would be the title track off Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ album and ‘Tornado of Souls’ from the Megadeth classic ‘Rust in Peace’. If you can play along to these two thrash metal masterpieces without missing a beat, then you’ll be well your way to getting down-picking down pat!