With its evil atmospheres, buzzy lo-fi recordings, striking costumes, and lurid history filled with arson, Satanism, and murder, black metal has long been one of the most polarizing of metal’s many genres. The genre has its roots in a loose collection of widely spread European bands, which were retrospectively named first wave black metal and included such bands as Switzerland’s Celtic Frost, Denmark’s Mercyful Fate, and, perhaps most significantly of all, England’s Venom. However black metal did not evolve into a self-identified movement until the early 90s, when a small and close-knit community of Norwegian bands codified the genre into the distinctive sound widely associated with it today. Since then, black metal has evolved in many different directions, including into such subgenres as war metal, symphonic black metal, and blackgaze, among others.
Black metal’s lo-fi audio aesthetics and focus on atmosphere over raw power have made it one of the few metal genres to lend itself well to solo artists, although the full black metal band is well established as well. This fact, teamed with the genre’s deeply devoted cult following, has led to many musicians trying black metal on for size. If you’re looking to try your hand at black metal but unsure where to start with the highly codified genre, then this article may help. Below are three easy but important tips to start playing and writing in the style today.
So grab your spikiest armband and your guitar, put on your corpse paint, and let’s get started!
Although not used quite as frequently by many more contemporary chords, one of the key sounds of early Norwegian black metal is sliding chords played in tandem with a static open string. The open string is typically the 6th string, although any of the thicker strings on your guitar should do the trick. The open string is then played with a chord whose root note is on a higher string, thus creating a slash chord. The chord in question is usually either a power chord or a barred minor chord, although that is far from a hard rule.
As the guitarist strums the chord and the open string together, they then create a riff out of sliding the chord up and down the fretboard (typically in parallel movement, meaning that the chord shape remains unchanged as it moves) while keeping the open string as is. This creates the dark, somewhat ambiguous harmony that gave many classic black metal songs their spooky vibe. These kinds of riffs also serve the dual function of providing a chord progression, something that is taken for granted in many genres but is often absent from metal.
Written below is an example riff that uses this technique. Try playing through it, as it may help you get a hang of the concept.
The above riff is based upon sliding a five-string minor barre chord shape while the E string rings out open. The chord shape stays exactly the same throughout the riff, meaning that all you have to do is slide it up and down the fretboard. When you see all those lines connecting the notes in the music, that means it’s time to slide. The rhythm mostly follows the pattern of alternating quarter notes and three triplets, a fairly common rhythmic figure in black metal.
It’s also worth noting that while the above example is in standard tuning, these kinds of riffs work great with alternate tunings. This is particularly true if you adjust the tuning of the string that remains open throughout, which can create some really interesting harmonies when done right.
Although in no way unique to black metal, tremolo picking is probably the single technique most associated with the genre. Tremolo picking is a technique that involves alternate picking a single note (or sometimes a couple of notes) very quickly, thus creating the trembling effect more broadly associated with the word tremolo. This trembling effect is great for creating the dark textures definitive of black metal, which has led to the technique being used throughout the genre.
There are several ways to tremolo pick, but the one we’re going to go over is the most common and arguably easiest. First, rest your forearm in a secure, locked position across the front of the guitar. If positioned correctly, your forearm should form a loose diagonal line with the neck pickup, but the most important thing is that you’re still able to easily reach the strings without muting any of them. Once your forearm is in position, start tremolo picking by moving your wrist up and down with quick, concise movements. The motion is all in the wrist, so if find yourself having trouble with tremolo picking then that’s where you should place your focus. Tremolo picking can be tricky to start, but once you get the hang of it then it’ll start to feel pretty natural.
It’s also worth noting that while it’s possible to tremolo pick with any pick (or even no pick) if you try hard enough, it’s much easier to pull off the technique if you use a pick that’s on the smaller side in length and on the thicker side in width. A lot of picks on the market fit this description, with Tortex Jazz III picks being a particularly popular pick of this variety. If you’re interested in learning more about picks in general, you can read about it HERE.
In black metal, guitarists will tremolo pick all over the fretboard. Tremolo picking on the lower end creates a cavernous, rumbling sound that’s great for hard-hitting riffs, and tremolo picking on the higher end creates a shrill in-your-face texture that’s aesthetically similar to the screeching sound many black metal vocalists employ and is great for playing lead lines and solos. Written below is an example of a black metal riff that makes heavy use of tremolo picking.
As you probably noticed, each individual note is only written once in the above notation. That’s because if every little tremolo note was written out individually, the staff would be very cluttered with notes and hard to follow. So instead, the note value is written for the amount of time spent on that particular pitch before moving on, and then ornamented with those thick lines. One line means that you tremolo pick at an eighth-note speed, two lines (as shown in the example) means that you tremolo pick at a sixteenth-note speed, three lines means that you tremolo pick at a thirty-second-note speed, and so on.
Black metal guitarists often create riffs out of the harmonies on two adjacent strings, often employing this trick during a song’s more melodic moments. The riffs are constructed from notes on two adjacent strings played in unison, and the harmonies the two notes create are what give each riff its distinctive character. These riffs are usually built on the notes along the three thickest strings of the guitar and tend to be mostly diatonic, meaning that all of its notes are in the same key. As you can tell from the number of accidentals in the two examples above, black metal tends not to be very diatonic, which makes these kinds of riffs an exception to the rule.
Below is a tablature depicting all of the notes along the bottom three strings that are in the key of E-minor. Any key will work for this kind of riff but, for this example, we’re going to stick to E-minor.
Try playing through the above tab. If you were trying to create this sort of black metal riff in the key of E-minor, you would do so with the above notes. Below is an example of a two-note harmony black metal riff that uses the above notes.
The above riff uses two-note harmonies culled entirely from the notes in E-minor, set to a steady eight-note rhythm. It’s mostly in the same position on the neck, with the only required shift coming at the very end of the riff. Try playing through the pretty simple above riff. Once you feel like you’ve got the hang of it, try writing your black metal riffs using the same guidelines.
Once you’ve done that, feel free to try writing using these guidelines that mix up the key or that use some notes from outside the key. These two-note riffs can be a bit easier to write than many other kinds of riffs in the black metal style, so they’re a great place to start. But once you feel ready, you can totally try your hand at writing riffs either with sliding chords or with tremolo picking, as discussed earlier.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to black metal guitar than what was discussed here, but these three topics are all great places playing the genre with. Some other common black metal guitar tricks that can be great to try out include playing power chords with moving fifths and tremolo picking with triplet rhythms. But at the end of the day, as long as it’s heavy with a deliciously evil atmosphere, whatever you play can make for good black metal.
I hope you learned something from this article! If you have any questions, comments, corrections (I have been known to commit the more than occasional type or notation mistake), or requests for future articles like this one, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.