Heavy metal is based around two things; harmony and melody. You may think that all music styles use both, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but none use them in the fashion that heavy metal does. In heavy metal, the melody comes to the forefront. Leads and melodic passages are used to draw our attention, whether they are aggressive or passive.
But how exactly do we come up with these melodies? How do we create melodies that are catchy, yet don’t sacrifice the integrity of our song? First off, you need to understand a few things before you worry about creating a melody. If you know your scales and can discern keys qualities, then you are golden.
If you have trouble with one or the other then you should take some time to practice scales and learn guitar scale qualities (i.e. sad for minor, happy and powerful for major) because in order to create a good melody, you need to understand why it will work or will not work. Unlike jazz, chromatics do not play a large part in heavy metal. In fact, many of the bands you love use either the major, minor or pentatonic scales.
Next, before you can approach creating a melody, you need to fully understand what a melody is. Melody isn’t following the rhythm of a song in a pleasant manner. Many players claim their writing to be melodic when in fact they are using techniques such as harmony or dissonance. Melody is a linear ascending or descending pattern.
Put simply, melody follows one direction at a time, one note at a time. This doesn’t mean you can only play in one direction, either up or down the neck for the entire song. It means that if you are playing two notes back and forth then you have lost all melodic qualities as you are no longer playing a linear pattern.
Now that you have a better understanding of what melody is, we can approach ideas for creating melodies within the context of your own music. Keep in mind that most forms of metal use odd chord progressions that, when studied, make very little sense.
That being said, you have to take into consideration the overall quality of the progression. Is it ascending or descending? Are the drastic intervals between chords tied together by notes that have shared qualities with the chords?
If you know that your chord progression will be playing E5 to F5, back to E5 and then to Bb5, you will need to study the three chords, discern their notes, and compare similarities. When you find the similar notes, tie them to a scale which contains the most used notes (in this example E) and work from the scale.
Because heavy metal bands have a tendency to change keys fairly often and in unruly manners, the best thing you can do as a guitarist is study the progressions being played and then dissect the chords note by note. Not only will this give you a better understanding of what is being played, but it will help you to derive similar qualities from seemingly odd progressions.
Heavy metal is a hard genre to master, but studying it will get you that much closer. As always, practice hard and have fun, but remember; stay linear!
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