This post validates the last part of the subheader of this blog.
Everyone knows metal guitarists play a lot of crazy leads. The bar for us is set rather high and nothing gets a metal fan’s goat (‘s head) like some pop/rock song with a solo that an arthritic no-armed colobus monkey (the tail is arthritic too) could play. Thinking here of that Natalie Imbruglia song.
An overlooked part of metal playing though is rhythm. It’s kind of funny that this is overlooked, since playing in the pocket is such a huge part of the group of sonic phenomena collectively referred to as “heaviness”. When you enjoy the feeling of a wall of sound falling on top of you, the timing of the rhythm guitar is the mortar that keeps it from just being a bunch of loose bricks.
So here are some of my favorite rhythm guitarists from rock and metal.
Eddie Van Halen
Like drummer Brann Dailor of Mastodon, Eddie plays virtually the entire song as if it were a solo. This sounds like a recipe for chaos (the bad kind), but in Eddie’s hands it means that every note has meaning, and everything from the beginning to the end of a song is played like it matters. A rather unpopular Van Halen song that really tuned me in to this aspect of Eddie’s playing is Amsterdam from Balance, basically the last album the band produced as a band.
Here’s some crucial historical context: Guitarists play upstrokes and downstrokes. Also Mustaine used to be in Metallica and has recently become part of the right-wing rock clique with Ted Nugent. The important part of this is that downstrokes, where the pick moves downward, are the first picking attacks that guitarists learn, and alternating them with upstrokes are like when drummers first learn to alternate between their left and right sticks. The two almost never sound identical; that is why drum simulating software uses different sounds in alternation for rapid drum hits and presumably, guitar software would do the same. A song without noticeable 1-2 alternation in the sound of picks hitting strings is probably played all with downstrokes, a la Master of Puppets. This is harder, same as a one-handed roll is harder for drummers. What makes Mustaine special is that his up and downstrokes sound much more similar than average, probably due to the way he chokes up on his picks and keeps his fingers in tight. That gives even his very fast alternate-picking riffs the same flat, even sound as riffs that other bands play all with downstrokes.
I don’t have anything particularly clever to say about him, but I will say that playing riffs with those little 16th notes hiding in them and building a groove is extremely tough. Eric Peterson is one of a few metal rhythm guitarists (he’s the one stage left) who are instantly identifiable and even more important to the band’s sound than the lead guitarist, who in Testament is also ridiculously skilled.
Dimebag was the kind of player who renders his songs uncoverable. Like Eddie Van Halen, another guitarist playing his band’s songs sounds so different it’s often hard to even identify the song. Consider how the deeply in-the-pocket groove drives the entire song here:
And now listen to another group of very skilled players trying and failing to play a convincing version of it after Dimebag’s death:
A case of too many cooks spoiling the broth perhaps. I think we can agree they would make the Natalie Imbruglia song much more interesting though.