Learn Metallica Songs on Guitar
Metallica are one of my favorite bands for quite a few reasons. There’s plenty of variety in their songs across their albums, the riffs and solos are great fun to play, and there’s a lot we can learn from the songwriting.
In this article, I’m going to give you an overview of the skills, techniques, and concepts you need to work on to learn Metallica songs on guitar. This article gives you a glimpse at the type of things I work on with my students in our Skype guitar lessons.
If you want to learn how to play Metallica songs on guitar, read through this guide before you start looking up song tutorials or TABs. While a song tutorial helps you get started with learning a song, the skills and ideas covered in this article will help you get better at all of Metallica’s songs.
Techniques to Learn
There are some guitar techniques that appear over and over across Metallica’s songs. The more you practice and improve these techniques, the easier it will be to learn their songs. Each time you learn a new song, you’ll recognize these techniques and find it a lot easier to practice the song.
James Hetfield is well known for his down-picking technique. While other guitarists might play rhythm parts using alternate picking, James tends to play almost everything using only down-picking.
The reason he uses down-picking is for the powerful sound it creates. By picking every note with a down-stroke, it creates a consistent sound. You can try this out for yourself to hear how your picking style changes the sound of a rhythm part.
Try playing the below exercise:
If you’re unfamiliar with the picking symbols, the first bar is played with all down-picking, then the second bar uses alternate picking (down up down up). You should notice the difference between the two picking styles. With all-down-picking, you get a consistent sound across all the notes. With alternate-picking, you can hear the difference between a down-picked-note and an up-picked-note.
While playing all-down-picking tends to sound better, it can be a challenge to build your picking speed and endurance up if you’re not used to it. Some of Metallica’s songs are fairly fast, so you want to work your down-picking up until you can consistently play at a high tempo.
Here is an example of a riff to work on using all-down-picking:
The above riff is from Master of Puppets. That song is at 220bpm, which is quite high when you’re trying to play every note with down-picking.
Once you can play the above riff with ease at 220bpm using all-down-picking, you should be able to use down-picking on pretty much any Metallica song without problems.
Metallica songs using all-down-picking:
- Master of Puppets
- Creeping Death
There are a lot of Metallica songs that mainly use all-down-picking, but if you can play the above songs at full speed, you’ll find all the rest to be easy.
While James Hetfield does mainly use all-down-picking, there are times when he does use up-picking. A good example of this is with something called ‘gallop’ rhythms.
Check out the first few bars from ‘Hardwired’ for a simple example of a gallop rhythm:
It’s easy to develop a strong gallop technique after you’ve built up your down-picking technique. If you have trouble playing the down-picking parts of the above riff at full speed, then take that as a sign you need to spend more time working on that technique before working on your gallop technique.
Metallica songs with a gallop rhythm:
- The Four Horsemen
- All Nightmare Long
If you need a break from practicing furious down-picking or gallop rhythms, here’s something a bit easier to work on. A lot of Metallica songs have clean guitar parts that make use of arpeggios.
An arpeggio is a fancy name for when you play a chord by picking the notes individually instead of strumming them.
The verse to Fade to Black is a good example of the style of clean parts Metallica write:
For an easier example to get you started, try working on the main riff to One:
Make sure each note rings out clearly. If your fingers are positioned wrong, they might touch adjacent strings and stop one of the open notes from ringing out.
Metallica songs with clean arpeggio parts:
- Fade to Black
- Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
- The Day That Never Comes
- Nothing Else Matters
Pentatonic Scale Based Solos
Kirk Hammett loves the Pentatonic scale. While he doesn’t use it for every solo, it is a key part of his style. Once you learn the first Pentatonic ‘box’ shape, you’ll start seeing it everywhere in his solos.
The good news is that the Pentatonic scale is incredibly easy to learn. Once you learn a few basic scale shapes, you’ll find it a lot easier to learn and memorize Metallica solos.
To give you an example of the Pentatonic scale in action, here is the first ‘box’ position:
When this shape is used on the 12th fret of the guitar, we call it the ‘E minor Pentatonic’. A lot of Metallica songs are in the key of E minor, so this is a useful position to memorize.
So you can see the Pentatonic scale in action, here are the first few bars of the solo to Enter Sandman:
Look closely at each note and think about which of these notes fit into the Pentatonic shape shown above.
You’ll notice that almost all of those notes perfectly fit in the Pentatonic scale shape. The only note that stands out is the 10th fret on the A string, which is the same note as the 15th fret on the E string. So even that note is part of the Pentatonic scale.
The point to remember here is that Kirk writes most of his solos using the Pentatonic scale as his starting point. By learning how the Pentatonic scale works and when to use it, you can come up with your own solos in the same style.
Note: while the Pentatonic scale is used often and is easy to learn, a lot of guitarists get stuck in a rut after learning it. I’ve helped countless students over the years who were stuck in the ‘Pentatonic box’. It happens so often, I wrote an article explaining how to deal with the issue.
Palm-muting is an essential technique to master when playing metal or rock. Trying to play Metallica riffs without proper palm-muting will just sound and feel wrong.
Most Metallica songs use palm-muting, so it’s easy to find examples of it in action. Palm-muting allows you to tighten up rhythm parts to give them a chunkier or more percussive sound.
As a general rule, whenever you see an open string in a Metallica riff, it’s probably played with palm-muting.
Let’s have another look at the intro riff to Master of Puppets for a good example of how Metallica use palm-muting:
Try playing the riff without palm-muting. It won’t feel right. The notes will sound a bit messy at full speed. By muting the open strings and not muting the fretted notes, it completely changes how the riff sounds. Instead of every note being equal, the fretted notes stand out. All the open string notes have punchy sound to them, which make the fretted notes sound louder and clearer.
Palm-muting is a great way to change the feel of anything you’re playing and to emphasize different notes. This is something I often help my students work on with their own riff writing. Changing the notes you palm-mute can completely change any riffs you write.
There’s no point listing songs that use palm-muting, because almost all of them will use it at some point.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when you learn and practice any Metallica songs:
- Use a metronome: this style of playing works the best when the rhythm parts are played with spot-on timing. Practicing with a metronome will help you tighten-up your rhythm. It might not feel as fun compared to jamming along with the song, but it does wonders for your rhythm skills
- Gradually build up the tempo: a lot of Metallica songs are fairly fast, so it might sound strange to practice playing the parts at a slow tempo. But working on fast parts at a slow tempo helps you build up your control and accuracy. As a guitar teacher, I hear sloppy covers of Metallica songs all the time. Practicing these parts at a slower tempo and gradually building the speed back up will help you avoid ending up with sloppy technique
- Practice with a drum machine/backing tracks: a metronome is a great practice tool, but it can get boring pretty quickly. Practicing the parts along with a drum machine or a backing track will give you the same benefits of practicing with a metronome while being a lot more fun
- Don’t use too much distortion: if you want to get a good Metallica tone, don’t crank up the distortion. While it might feel fun to crank the gain up, you’ll end up with a messy tone. You want to get a nice crisp and punchy tone. To get that, you need less distortion. Less distortion gives you more definition. Dialing in the right level of distortion and getting a good tone is something I explain in my Guitar Effects Course.
Easy Metallica Songs To Learn On Guitar
If you’re wanting to get started with learning some Metallica songs, there are some songs that are very easy to learn. Starting with these songs will help you get used to the techniques before you move on to more complex songs.
Check out these songs for some easy rhythm parts to learn:
- For Whom The Bell Tolls
- Enter Sandman
- Sad But True
If you want to start learning some solos, these Metallica songs contain the easiest solos and lead parts:
- For Whom The Bell Tolls
- Master of Puppets (the middle lead section and first solo)
- Nothing Else Matters
- Fade to Black (intro and middle lead parts)
Even if you feel like you’re ready to take on more complex solos, I highly recommend starting with the easier solos. Learning how to master an easy solo is a lot better than doing a mediocre job at a hard solo. Start with the easier solos and get really good at playing them. Then when you do go on to more complicated solos, you’ll have far more skill to work with.
Want a Helping Hand?
If you’re stuck with a song or solo, you’ll figure it out if you give it enough time and practice. There are plenty of self-taught guitarists who make it to advanced levels.
But having a helping hand from a teacher can make a big difference. Having a teacher can halve the time it takes for you to learn new songs or master a solo. If you feel like you’re struggling or just can’t seem to nail that riff or solo, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and energy with a teacher helping you out.
Check out my Skype Guitar Lessons if you want to dig deeper into Metallica’s songs.