May 16


Guitar Techniques for 9 Metal Subgenres

By Jason Stallworth

May 16, 2024

The most amazing thing you can do as a metal guitarist is create your own riffs. That’s a skill that will take you to the next level faster than learning someone else’s music.

There are some basic guitar methods that metal is built on. But we’re going to dive deeper into the guitar techniques for metal subgenres.

This is going to help you if you desire to:

  • Learn how guitar techniques are used in different subgenres
  • Develop new ideas if you feel like all your riffs are sounding the same
  • Create your own style and even subgenre by combining the techniques used across different subgenres
  • Enhance your metal songwriting skills, overall
  • Just want to watch a cool video about metal subgenres!

Basics Guitar Methods for Writing Metal Songs

writing metal music for different subgenres

Before we get into the subgenres and their techniques, let’s quickly cover the foundation of writing metal riffs. These are basic guitar methods used across metal, in general.

  • Power chords
  • Palm muting
  • Down picking
  • Alternate picking (including galloping and tremolo picking, all forms of alternate picking)
  • Riffing (or single-note riffs)

***If you’re a beginner metal guitarist, you may want to read this first: How to Play Metal Guitar: Everything You Need to Know

You’ll notice that each subgenre uses some of the guitar techniques more than others, and in different ways. This is part of what separates each metal subgenre. We’ll also talk about how to get the variety of feel and style for each.

Classic Heavy Metal

This is where it all started. Once classic heavy metal was introduced, the underground fanbase quickly grew as did the creation of different subgenres.

Here are the dominant guitar techniques for classic heavy metal:

  • Power chords
  • Palm muting
  • Down picking
  • Catchy and memorable riffs

Though guitar technique plays a tremendous role in this style, it’s not as virtuoso-driven as some of the other subgenres we’re going to get into. Classic heavy metal is more about attitude. You could even mark it as a musical rebellion.

Here are some classic heavy metal albums for reference:

  • Heaven and Hell – Black Sabbath
  • Screaming for Vengeance – Judas Priest
  • Ace of Spades – Motorhead
  • The Number of the Beast – Iron Maiden
  • Holy Diver – DIO

Of course, these are just a few of many classic heavy metal albums (mainly from the early 80s). You can go back to Black Sabbath’s 1970 album, Paranoid, or Rainbow’s 1976 album, Rising.

Thrash Metal

Thrash metal was the next extreme birthed from the classic metal bands. The music and riffs are faster and the music overall is more aggressive.

Here are the common guitar techniques for thrash metal:

  • Fast down picking
  • Alternate picking (and galloping)
  • Faster moving power chords and riffs

The music became faster when the first series of thrash metal bands hit the scene. There was also the attraction to a group of people who felt left out or did not fit the mold of mainstream society.

Here are some notable thrash metal albums:

  • Kill’em All – Metallica (and all of their albums up to Justice)
  • Reign in Blood – Slayer
  • Practice What Your Preach Testament
  • Among the Living – Anthrax
  • Rust in Peace – Megadeth
  • The Years of Decay – Overkill
  • Bonded by Blood – Exodus
  • Alice in Hell – Annihialator
  • Act III – Death Angel

Many of these albums are from the 80s, some of which trickle into the early 90s. There are many other awesome thrash metal albums from this era but you’ll also notice this is thrash metal started to expand into more extreme subgenres. And we’re getting to that next.

Death Metal

Now we’re taking metal to another extreme from classic heavy metal to thrash metal to death metal. Much like thrash, death metal uses the same guitar techniques but with a couple of caveats.

Here are the core guitar techniques for death metal:

  • Faster alternate picking
  • Palm muting
  • Power chords, and often a variation of power chords
  • Wicked sounding riffs and obscure choices of notes

The main element that defines death metal is the vocal style. You could even mix death vocals with some thrash metal songs, and call it death metal as the guitar styles are close. This is, however, more obscure notes found in death metal (to match the extreme and dark vocals).

Here are some killer (no pun intended) death metal albums:

  • Butchered at Birth – Cannibal Corpse
  • Slowly We Rot – Obituary
  • Human – Death
  • Seven Churches – Possessed
  • Covenant – Morbid Angel
  • Heartwork – Carcass
  • Blood Oath – Suffocation
  • Vile Nilotic Rites – Nile

You’ll also notice different vocal styles in the albums listed as well as guitar techniques. Death metal opened the floodgates to the other extreme metal subgenres that followed.

Melodic Death Metal

What’s the difference between death metal and melodic death metal? Both have heavy guitars and extreme vocals but death metal seems to have more wicked-sounding and obscure note choices where as melodic death metal contains more guitar melodies.

Here are some guitar techniques for melodic death metal:

  • Steady alternate picking, tremolo picking, and galloping
  • Heavy, often downtuned power guitars (power chords)
  • Melodic riffs and progressions

You may find that some bands have an overlap between death metal and melodic death metal (Carcass is a great example). Another differentiation is that melodic death metal may not come across as aggressive.

Here are some choice melodic death metal albums:

  • Twilight of the Thunder God – Amon Amarth
  • Moment – Dark Tranquility
  • Dooms Day Machine – Arch Enemy
  • Wintersun – Wintersun (self-titled)
  • The Nightmare of Being – At the Gates
  • The Ride Majestic – Soilwork
  • Follow the Reaper – Children of Bodom
  • Come Clarity – In Flames
  • Prisoners – The Agonist
  • Shadows of the Dying Sun – Insomnium

Melodic death metal has somewhat of a broad range of styles within. And again, there’s an overlap with some bands crossing into death, black, and symphonic metal.

Power Metal

Power metal stands apart from the other subgenres. The defining elements come from the anthem-like writing styles and major chord progressions used. There’s also greater sense of mysticism, folklore, and medeivil themes.

Here are the guitar techniques in power metal that stand out:

  • Chord progressions in major keys
  • Super fast alternate picking
  • Power chords ringing out
  • Fast riffs

Power metal is sometimes referred to as speed metal. At least this is the case for some bands (like the first one mentioned below).

Here are some essential power metal albums:

  • Extreme Power Metal – Dragonforce
  • Keeper of the Seven Keys (Part II) – Helloween
  • A Twist in the Myth – Blind Guardian
  • The Great War – Sabaton
  • Underworld – Symphony X
  • Threshold – Hammerfall
  • Diamond Handed – Seven Kingdoms
  • Theater of Salvation – Edguy
  • Master of Confusion Gamma Ray
  • Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked, Part I – Iced Earth

It’s important to note that not all power metal bands are based on progressions in major keys. There are some darker power metal songs and bands. But you will still notice a common theme, much of which is found in the clean vocals of power metal.

Another important note is that many power metal bands have a progressive approach to guitars with fast, complex riffs.

Black Metal

Black metal is one of the darkest and most obscure subgenres. It takes the elements and techniques from death metal and applies another layer of evil, both lyrically and musically.

Here are the common guitar techniques in black metal:

  • Fast alternate, tremolo picking
  • Obscure note choices
  • Chords and progressions that seemingly do not fit other genres (heavy use of diminished chords)

Extreme vocals are a defining element of black metal, especially fry and false chord singing. The choice of notes also differentiates black metal from other subgenres.

Here are some black metal albums to listen to:

  • Black Metal – Venom
  • Nymphetamine – Cradle of Filth
  • Rebel Extravaganza – Satyricon
  • Northern Forces Over Wacken (Live) – Dimmu Borgir
  • Sons of Northern Darkness – Immortal
  • De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas- Mayhem
  • Transylvanian Hunger – Darkthrone
  • The Somberlain – Dissection

Black metal also has a heavy influence on gothic rock and metal bands like Lacuna Coil and Paradise Lost. The music in these bands is more melodic but carries a similar theme.

Symphonic Metal

Symphonic metal is where orchestration meets heavy guitars. Although it’s not as riff-driven as other subgenres like thrash and heavy metal, this style could prove to be just as if not more challenging for a guitarist.

Here are some interesting guitar techniques for symphonic metal:

  • Riffs that fit or compliment other instruments and the orchestration
  • Power chords and progressions written to support and blend with orchestration
  • Palm muting

We could expand more on these techniques listed above. But you get the point. It’s not just about guitars being in your face. It’s much larger than that. And this can really stretch your skills as a guitarist as your working with many layers of instrumentation.

Here are some amazing symphonic metal albums:

  • Once – Nightwish
  • The Diving Conspiracy – Epica
  • The Human Contradiction – Delain
  • The Unforgiving – Within Temptation
  • The Wonders Still Waiting – Xandria
  • Perils of the Deep Blue – Sirenia
  • Sign of the Dragonhead – Leaves’ Eyes
  • Silence – Sonata Arctica
  • The Nexus – Amaranthe
  • The Shadow Theory – Kamelot
  • Shangri-La – Edenbridge

Another element you may notice is that many symphonic metal bands are female-fronted. Not all, but many.

Also, progressive metal could be considered symphonic metal’s twin. We also mentioned progressive metal when we talked about power metal earlier. There’s a clear overlap within these styles which an be heard in the guitar work and orchestrations like Evergrey and Sonata Arctica.

Doom Metal

Doom metal is dark, heavy, and typically played at slower tempos. It may not be as guitar virtuoso driven but there are specific methods for this subgenre worth noting.

Here are some guitar techniques for doom metal for you to explore:

  • Dark melodic riffs
  • Lower tunings (this is applied across all subgenres, but especially fitting for doom metal)
  • Heavy power chords

The thing to remember about playing doom metal is that it’s more about capturing the emotion of the song, not just the guitar. Its main display is the lyrical message and emotion.

Here are some cool doom metal albums to check out:

  • New Moon – Swallow the Sun
  • Medusa – Fearless Sky
  • Viscera – Strigoi
  • Sweet Evil Sun – Candlemass
  • Prey – Tiamat
  • Tales from the Thousand Lakes – Amorphis
  • Life is Killing Me – Type O Negative
  • A Mortal Binding – My Dying Bride
  • Master of Reality – Black Sabbath

***Some say that Black Sabbath is the originator of doom metal.

Much of doom metal has hints of symphonic metal with a gothic twist. The lyrics are sometimes dark and often carry a message of despair. Many doom metal bands also integrate keys or orchestration. Some doom metal even ventures into the realm of black metal.

80s Metal

Is 80s metal a subgenre? It’s worthy of its own category due to the common guitar methods used and musical themes across even the different subgenres of this era.

You may even say that some of the bands listed below are more hard rock than metal. Having grown up in that era, the term ‘heavy metal’ covered a wide range of music based on distorted guitars. We’ll talk more about that below.

Here are some noticeable guitar techniques in 80s metal:

  • Power chords and notes played on higher strings
  • Variations of power chords
  • Memorable riffs
  • Down picking
  • Palm muting

Let’s clarify what I mean by 80s metal as it can be broad. We’re going exclude bands like Metallica and Testament as we covered those in thrash metal. And we’ll exclude bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden as those were discussed with classic heavy metal. Even though all of those bands were a huge part of that era.

I’m referring to bands that could be anywhere between hard rock and progressive progressive metal, and, yes, even some of the hair metal bands. All of the below bands played an influential role to other guitarists and bands.

Here are some classic 80s metal albums:

  • Operation Mindcrime – Queensryche
  • Pyromania – Def Leppard
  • Dr. Feelgood – Motley Crue
  • Appetite for Destruction – Guns n’ Roses
  • Blackout – Scorpions
  • Under Lock and Key – Dokken
  • Slip of the Tongue – Whitesnake
  • 5150 – Van Halen
  • Stay Hungry – Twisted Sister
  • Night Songs – Cinderella
  • Skid Row – Skid Row (self titled)
  • Invasion of Your Privacy – Ratt

We would be here all day and then some if I were to keep listing 80s metal (and rock) bands. But there’s no arguing that these bands played a tremendous role in inspiring other guitarists. And this was a subgenre where a healthy mix of guitar technique and melody were praised.

Although we’re talking mainly about writing riffs, 80s metal is famous for having tons of awesome guitar solos. Many virtuosos were created during this era.

Guitar Techniques By Meta Subgenre (Video)

How Many Subgenres of Metal Exist and Why They Matter

We covered 9 subgenres but there are many others. Metal also seems to be expanding with new subgenres. Like all subgenres, these are formed by combining styles and techniques.

Other metal subgenres include metalcore, deathcore, melodic black metal, nu metal, grindcore, groove metal, stoner metal, folk metal, industrial metal, and the list keeps growing. We did, however, cover the guitar techniques used in these in the subgenres that we covered above.

Why do metal subgenres matter? Metal music is more than just loud, aggressive, in-your-face guitars and vocals. It’s about the emotion behind the music and relating to specific types of listeners. Going even deeper, eery style of metal music has its own mood.

Of course, many of us metalheads listen to many subgenres of metal. The reason we’re posting this is to encourage you to explore how guitar techniques are used differently by subgenres.

Next Step: Are You Writing Original Riffs?

First, I hope you enjoyed this post and that it helps you with your metal songwriting. If you’ve got this far, I assume you’re either writing original riffs or want to start.

I want to encourage you to go beyond just guitar riffs. Start thinking about the other elements in a metal song like drums, bass, lyrics, and vocal melodies (and orchestration if you’re going for that style).

There are no rules that you have to follow and there’s no right or wrong way to approach metal songwriting. There’s only the awesome music that you want to create and we’re here at Metal Mastermind to help.

Click below to see if our metal songwriting course is right for you:

Jason Stallworth

About the author

Melodic metal solo artist, songwriter, acoustic performer, and co-founder of Metal Mastermind.

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