IMPROVISING IN A METAL STYLE
By JJ Wheeler – musician, teacher and record producer
Metal is a genre of rock music developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in the United Kingdom and United States. Often viewed as the more extreme end of the scale of rock styles, metal takes many features of rock music to their upper limits, including volume and aggression. Heavily distorted guitars, extended solos, driving drum beats and relentless energy are all closely associated with the style, which was initially given exposure and popularity through bands such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.
Though the metal genre is rarely lauded by music critics, many metal bands have achieved great success and a lasting legacy throughout the decades following its inception – including the likes of Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Rush, Slayer and more recent acts like Slipknot and System of a Down. Followers of metal music are often dubbed ‘metalheads’, usually donning the status with pride and wearing dark clothes, band t-shirts and other more gothic styles of fashion. The metal movement is a large and thriving community, with music at its heart and metal-dancing or ‘mosh-pits’ commonplace at concerts.
Improvising in a metal style
When deciding how to improvise in the metal style, it is important to think about the nature of the music. Themes of metal songs are often dark and angry, performed with aggression and extreme volume. Therefore, it is important to try to reflect this in your tone, volume and delivery. Guitarists would be advised to utilise heavy distortion or overdrive, if they have the capabilities. Vocalists might explore ‘belting’ or ‘screamo’ techniques (although make sure you always explore these techniques with your teacher, as if done incorrectly they can damage your voice).
Bassists generally receive less attention in metal music, often adopting a supporting role, but you can still think about creating a rhythmically driving and consistent bass-line, which is going to help push the song forward. Like guitarists, keyboard players should think about the voice they choose to utilise; this should be loud and harsh to match the style of the genre. Keyboardists and guitarists could also explore common metal techniques such as bends, slides and hammer-ons, which regularly feature in improvised solos.
Drummers play a key role in metal, often choosing big, open sounds to ‘ride’ on, such as open hi-hats or even a crash cymbal. This is usually played alongside strong and clear bass drum patterns and snare drum back-beats. Fill-ins are often elaborate and employ most or all of the tom-toms available.
Whatever instrument you are improvising on, be sure to maintain the high levels of energy and forward motion of the piece. Unlike some other genres, you should try to be either precisely on top of or in front of the beat to create tension and drive. It’s also worth checking out the key of the section and chord changes within it so that you can choose your notes and melodies accordingly.
Example improvising video
Watch this video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner JJ Wheeler for tips and ideas on how to improvise in a metal style:
There has been a plethora of great metal bands over the years, many boasting careers that span several decades, such as Iron Maiden. Their anthemic songs such as ‘Run to the Hills’ still rock festivals and stadium tours to this day. Metallica took the world by storm in the 1980s and 90s with songs such as ‘Seek & Destroy’, from their debut album Kill ‘Em All, and the metal classic ‘Master of Puppets’, which is now entrenched in metal history.
As with most genres, many bands have injected their own influences into the music to create distinct musical flavours. One example is Slipknot, whose extreme heavy style and expressive performances (complete with costumes and face masks) helped them to stand out from the crowd. Check out their single ‘Wait and Bleed’.
Another example is System of a Down, whose music is influenced by a range of unexpected styles, most notably Armenian folk. Since coming to fame with songs such as ‘Chop Suey’, they have taken more of an openly political stance, with their latest tour named Wake Up The Souls, to commemorate and raise awareness of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
This cross-pollination and development of particular stylistic features has led to the further growth of many sub-genres of metal, such as death metal, nu metal, black metal, punk and thrash metal.
Metal Spotify playlist
We've pulled together a playlist of metal songs that appear on our Rock & Pop 2018 syllabus as well as other great metal songs for further inspiration and ideas. Follow our Spotify profile and playlists to easily find the playlists whenever you want to have a listen.
About JJ Wheeler
JJ Wheeler is a professional touring and session drummer and percussionist, teacher and record label producer. He has worked with artists such as Celine Dion, worked on West End musicals including The Bodyguard and regularly performs in a range of bands across the UK and abroad. JJ runs workshops, clinics and masterclasses all over the world, and is also a Trinity Rock & Pop examiner.