Few things in life are certain, but one thing you can be confident is always true: James Hetfield is the goddamn balls when it comes to rhythm guitar. He’s a fantastic songwriter, singer and frontman, but for me, the magic of James always resided somewhere in his right hand and his uncanny ability to down-pick almost anything, seemingly effortlessly.
I mean just watch this:
It’s fast, tight and he makes it look easy. And Kirk Hammett looks like he’s struggling to keep up.
Palm-muted, down-picked rhythm guitars truly are the bread and butter of heavy metal. Tight, chunky, and most importantly fast down-picking is one one of the key elements that sets metal apart, as a genre, from, say, hard rock, and the undisputed king of down-picking is surely James Alan Hetfield.
“I don’t know any guitarist who can down-pick like Hetfield” – Dimebag Darrell
Skeptics are welcome to conduct a test themselves. Take the opening riff from Blackened (off 1988’s …And Justice for All) and try down-picking every note:
And that’s a 195 bpm, yo. Quite the arm workout.
“It’s not hard for me to play fast,” Hetfield told Guitar World in 2012. “It’s just not. And I love that. It might take a little while to warm up to certain songs, but the fast down picking—the really fast double picking in the riffs, especially when I pick up the beat—is just fun.”
It sure is, but before we get down to the nitty gritty, one more example (the metal starts at 2:05).
Look at him go. Kirk Hammett would have slept well that night.
So what’s the secret to super fast right-hand righteousness?
The secret is that there is no secret. The best way to good at bike riding? “Ride a bike, ride a bike, ride a bike”, as they say. And that’s the secret of James’s formidable right hand technique.
“It was always a kind of contest – who could down-pick the fastest – and mostly it was a battle between me and Lars, actually,” Hetfield told Music Radar in 2008. “It’s a hard thing to do well, because your timing has got to be dead on.”
“If you’re playing eighth or sixteenth notes then you’ve got to get cooking. A lot of practice is called for to build up your strength. A lot of wanking too!”
From the horse’s mouth: practice, strength and getting things tight.
“James is extremely exact,” says engineer and producer Flemming Rasmussen. “He’s the best rhythm guitar player in the world, by a mile. There’s no one better than him when it comes to down-picking. It’s unbelievable. He’ll do eight tracks and it’ll sound like one guitar.”
If there is a ‘secret’ to lightning speed down-picking, it’s the idea of focusing on stamina, not speed. The fact is, anyone can down-pick two or three open E notes is quick succession. But fast down-picking isn’t about one or two notes played quickly, it’s about hundreds, or thousands of them. You may think you’re pursuing speed, but speed comes by way of stamina.
It’s that simple.
You wanna play like King James? Get a metronome and get a timer.
Exercise: Set the metronome to 90 - 100 bpm, and down-pick on the open E string for two to three minutes. At the end of three minutes, stop, stretch and rest for a minute or two, then repeat with the metronome bumped up a couple of bpm, etc etc.
That is, literally, all there is to it. Now it may not happen overnight of course, but if you put in some consist practice, it will happen.
A word of warning however: Make sure you rest fully between ‘sets’ and when things start to hurt, you’re done for the day. If you push on through pain, you run the real risk of developing tennis elbow, perhaps the least metal ailment in existence.