Heavy Metal Open String Riffs...

Heavy Metal Open String Riffs...

Pretty much every Metal band will use the open position to create those classic heavy riffs we all know and hear so often. 

From Megadeth to Anthrax open position riffs work perfectly for developing really heavy sounding ideas in both the keys of "E Minor" and "A Minor."

When building riffs in open position, the phrases will almost always involve the open strings of 6th and 5th, (E and A). If we decide to use other strings alongside of the common open bass notes, we need to plan for how the extra open strings will be included. However, even more important than planning, is testing to find out if we're happy with the sound.

Luckily, the keys of both, "E Minor," and "A Minor," both have minimal accidentals. This means all of those; open 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st strings should fit perfectly into the, "E & A Minor," key signatures.

And, any riffs we create using those open strings should easily operate within the key we select. However, once again, we'll never know for sure how notes interact until we start to test each phrase.

Since many of the examples that we can create in the key of "E" can be quite easily transferred to the key of "A," I'll be sticking to the key of "E" for our riffs.

In the first open string example riff, I'm starting out from an open "E" string and moving through some scale tones mixed with chromatic ideas. I've decided to maintain both a similar rhythm pattern, as well as, a similar upper open string repeating phrase. Check out the idea below...

Listen to the audio for example one and then study the riff until you can play the idea smoothly in time along with the audio example track.


In the next example I'm focusing on the drone of an open "E" bass note. This bass drone promotes a big sound out of the interaction of scale tones used around the bass note and it's all held together with unique perfect 5th intervals.

The geometry of the 5th intervals (power chords) applied in measures one and two are unlike the typical power chord pattern widely applied on the neck across two adjacent strings. These 'perfect 5th' shapes are wider and skip over a string. Their neck pattern remains the same in each measure. At the end of the phrase we hone in on the strength of another larger voiced, "E power-chord."

In measure three of our second riff, we are bringing in more open strings. Strings 4 and 3 (D and G) are included against the "E Drone" and the "C" note off of the third fret of 5th string. It all comes together to create an interesting "Cadd2" chord under the drone "E."

Listen to the audio for example two and then study the riff until you can play the idea smoothly in time along with the audio example track.


My final example of applying open strings within Metal riffs is a really heavy one with lots of emphasis upon traditional power chord patterns.

 The riff once again plays off of the open "E" power chord. It however moves quickly through "B and C" power chords (in measures one and two) ascending along the neck into the seventh fret 5th string "E." Once this octave of "E" is reached at the seventh fret, two more open strings (open G and B), are used to add a higher register sound effect to the riff.

More power chord ideas are applied in measure three with an open "G" 3rd string coming in to wrap everything up through two 5th string "D and B" power chords. It all adds up to offer a nice chugging heavy sound similar to what we might find in a Metallica or Megadeth number.

Listen to the audio for example three and then study the riff until you can play the idea smoothly in time along with the audio example track.


Heavy Metal riffs are dynamic guitar parts that generally require a good deal of technique to both control and play smoothly in time. One thing to keep in mind is that this style requires a deliberate execution of the parts. So, pay a lot of attention to how the picking hand strikes at each string. Make sure that both hands are very close to the strings and any unwanted noise is taken care of with either left or right hand muting technique.

Metal riffs need to sound big and tight, so listen closely to how the parts are coming across when you perform them. And, try them with both distortion and without. Remember that a big part of this style is to play the guitar parts with confidence. If the parts are performed weak, without focus to fretting and picking detail, they'll very likely come across and not having enough dynamics.

Thanks for checking out this week's Blogger Lesson.

- Andrew Wasson