Palm Muting and Heavy Metal
Before we start, if you’re looking for a more basic, beginner’s guide to the palm muting technique Go Here.
In addition, this lesson covers an extension of this playing style, scratch guitar, often referred to as “machine-gunning”. If you need a quick intro to this, please Go Here.
Otherwise, follow the audio exercises on this page for a more advanced look into palm mute techniques used by so many heavy metal bands. It’s just part of the style now.
First, Getting the Best Sound
When positioning your palm just over the bridge so it touches the strings, you’ll find the further you rest your palm towards the neck of the guitar, the thinner and sharper the muting will sound, eventually becoming just a percussive noise (ala Meshuggah!)
Try the exercise below to warm-up and try to keep the 1st and 3rd beats dominant in your mind when playing. This helps segment the riff more clearly in your mind for more accuracy (try “1 and 3 and 1 and 3 etc.)
We are in drop D tuning for this,
Now, palm muting is easy enough like that, but the exercise below will help you practice changing chords quickly up the freeboard whilst still muting. This means you have two things to think about, well, 3 actually – the rhythm you are trying to keep, the accuracy of the chord changes and changing the root string for each chord…
Your palm should be stationary the whole time, covering the bottom 3 strings at least, only your pick has to jump strings when changing the chord.
Start slow and build up your speed using a metronome!.
Palm Muting – Using Mutes more Aggressively
You can use palm-muting to create more harsh sounding riffs. It is, after all, a strong percussive technique in heavy metal.
The main thing is to hold that accuracy, no matter how much the guitar strays from the regular timings of the drums you need to know where “1” lies in the beat. Again, a metronome will help this in the absence of drums.
Starting slow and then speeding up gradually is the key.
So we’re using that root E string as a percussive base (represented by the “p”) – it fills the gap between the chords, but the human ear simply hears a violent riff. Add staccato drums and it becomes typical thrash.
Playing fast riffs that change position up and down the neck can boggle the mind, but speeding up gradually will sort this out in surprisingly little time.
Palm Muting – Irregular Fills
Commonplace in metal are small fills amidst a riff that stray from its regular rhythm. The most common is 3/4 time with the drums doing a regular 4/4. Look and listen at the example below for a clearer explanation.
Now let’s try this kind of “1 2 3 1 2 3” fill in a proper riff.
Notice how the 3/4 rhythm kept tight against the drummer’s regular 4/4 rhythm. This is where keeping the drummer’s first and 3rd beats dominant in your mind pays off, because these are the two beats your muted strokes coincide with.
A very effectively used technique with palm muting in most forms of heavy metal.
Let’s move onto some machine-gunning techniques!
Palm Muting – The Rule of 3
Well, OK, it’s not a rule, but in thrash and extreme metal, alternate picking is commonly used in groups of 3 strokes – up down up.
Still resting your palm just over the bridge to partially mute the strings, use this alternate picking in bursts of 3…
Slow Faster Faster Still
Simple, 1 2 3 alternate pickings, but there are 4 lots of “1 2 3” if you understand what I mean, 1 for every beat of the bar.
Keep your picking hand relaxed and make sure, only the nib of the pick scrapes over the string so its movement isn’t obstructed too much.
This is the foundation of a rhythmic scratch guitar – it takes some practice, but uses that metronome gradually build up speed like in the examples above (I am starting to sound like a broken record here).
Palm Muting – More Complex Rhythms
We are still using that foundation 1 2 3 alternate pickings, but this time, to create a more intricate rhythm we’ll position the odd downstroke to juxta the rhythm a bit. Very hard to explain in words so see and hear below…
Used in Slayer’s Payback, and a few others, it incorporates that same 1 2 3 grouping technique but by adding those odd single downstrokes, the rhythm gets blown out of regular timing.
If playing in a band, the members need to work very tightly together on timings like this to make sure everyone knows when the bar starts and ends.
Palm Muting – Galloping Guitar
Galloping?! This technique does sound like it. It’s just another way to use the 1 2 3 machine gun like before, but this time it’s amidst a regular riff.
Just Guitar Guitar With Drums
One of Sepulture is many great riffs.
If you look at the tab, you will see those “up down up” symbols again to show you where the alternate picking comes in. This is also when the palm muting should engage.
Keep your palm in position ready for engaging, but raise it only slightly when not used so it can quickly apply again.
What you get is a galloping effect coincides with the dominant beat, which is most often in thrash, and in this example, the snare drum. You can hear the snare drum as the dominant beat to attack with your scratch guitar rhythms.
Palm Muting – Dealing with Slower Tempo
It’s just as important to have accuracy and control with slower rhythms. The example below is a brilliantly simple Machine Head riff that uses the slow tempo to create a weighty atmosphere.
In a way, this requires more accuracy because the ears pick up errors more efficiently at slower tempos!
This riff also throws in an irregular fill – you probably noticed it. It hangs on to one of the bars adding an extra beat. Good practice for accuracy and rhythmic discipline.
Finally, Palm Muting and Lead
Dampening simple lead riffs (or single string riffs) creates a different atmosphere.
Keep strict alternate picking and make sure your palm is stationary.