What gives the heavy metal music its distinctive ominous vibe is most definitely the crunching guitar tone chugging along the bashing drums and loud vocals. As one of the younger musical styles, heavy metal guitar roots can be traced to a time not too far from the genre’s early beginnings.
Roots and early beginnings
What is often considered the very first heavy metal riff remains to this day somewhat of a relatively unknown tune – released in 1968, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vidda” featured a distinctive fuzzy guitar hook and a tone never quite heard before. It had that gritty, distorted vibe highly unusual for the psychedelic bluesy era it came out in. Little did the group know that it was the beginning of an entire new genre they just kicked off.
The following year marked the release of yet another crucial album for both rock history and the emergence of heavy metal – the second studio effort from hard rock icons Led Zeppelin, simply titled “Led Zeppelin II.” A tune titled “Whole Lotta Love” was especially singled out as a crucial track, as it brought the world yet another step closer to heavy metal with its chugging groove and sturdy drum beat from the late great John Bonham.
Metal in ’70s
Finally, on February 13, 1970, heavy metal guitar was officially born. The date marked the release of eponymous debut record from UK metal pioneers Black Sabbath. The axeman’s name is Tony Iommi, and the gloomy feel and low tuning he brought to the table changed the rules of the game for good. The album’s title track summed up the upcoming genre’s basics in a concise way throughout its entire length. Clocking in at 6 minutes, the song featured the sinister, yet simple two-tone riff that expressed the frightful side of metal, while the upbeat charging riff in the second part demonstrated the pure bashing power that drives young metalheads into a headbanging frenzy to this very day.
The second Black Sabbath record, the globally renowned “Paranoid,” cemented the group’s title of definite metal pioneers with the title track hit single and the iconic “Iron Man.” The latter tune’s riff became nothing short of the epitome of a heavy metal riff, so if you ever need to describe to someone what heavy metal is in the most concise way, just pop “Iron Man” into the nearest music player. During the recording sessions, Iommi used his Gibson SG guitar that actually had slightly malfunctioning pickups, resulting in that distinctive fuzzy sound.
The real explosion of metal music occurred several years later, with the emergence of the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene, or NWOBHM. Bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Saxon based their sound upon the foundation laid down by their metal predecessors, but added their own sonic expression and a slightly different, one might say sharper, tighter and faster sound. The implementation of twin guitar passages was yet another of the genre’s distinctive features. Although bands such as Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash and southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd have previously implemented the guitar duo approach, it was metal that took it to a new level and turned it into a distinctive style of its own.
Another landmark track dropped in 1978 from a young upcoming band called Van Halen. Featuring guitar prodigy Eddie Van Halen demonstrating his guitar skills, “Eruption” managed to deliver in two minutes what many axeman couldn’t do throughout their entire lifetime. The song marked the major emergence of double-handed tapping guitar technique, guitar shredding and neo-classical guitar rock genre. With such a late ‘70s introduction, it’s no wonder that metal bloomed throughout the following decade.
Although the ‘70s marked the formation of the genre’s most influential acts, it was in the ‘80s when the metal giants mentioned beforehand reached their absolute peak. Such monumental releases as “British Steel” and “The Number of the Beast” spawned some of the greatest metal songs of all time, demonstrating in a unique way what the heavy metal guitar was all about. Notable mentions also include a band called Quiet Riot and their 1983 effort “Metal Health” which became the first heavy metal record to reach the top of the US Billboard 200 chart.
One of the most influential guitarists of all time and possibly the ultimate metal axeman, Randy Rhoads, made an enormous impact over a relatively short period of time before perishing in a plane crash in 1982. Although it lost one of its titans, the metal genre wasn’t about to stop, not by a long shot.
A musical shift that occurred around mid ‘80s started taking shape during the decade’s early years under the name of thrash metal. As a combination of traditional NWOBHM and the raw hardcore punk sound, thrash metal revolutionized the metal guitar, basing it on even more aggressive approach and charging triplet riffs clearly influenced by the work of Iron Maiden and their galloping groove. Prominent guitarists such as James Hetfield, Dave Mustaine and Jeff Hanneman were all brought together by the ominous vibe of Black Sabbath, charging power of British heavy metal, raw punk attitude and their own individual influences, resulting in several unique mixtures never seen before.
Metal in the ‘90s and beyond
Although the ‘90s were dominated by the Seattle grunge scene, they were also the time that gave birth to several greats of metal guitar. Most notably, there was the legendary Dimebag Darrel whose massive sound marked the beginning of the groove metal genre. Clearly influenced by both thrash metal and the NWOBHM scene, Darrel and his group Pantera also gave the massive guitar tone a proper sturdy rhythm section, resulting in a much tighter and stronger groove, hence the subgenre’s name.
Another notable ‘90s emergence includes the progressive metal genre led by Dream Theater and guitarists John Petrucci. Apart from implementing a seven string guitar in the group’s music, Petrucci and the band also ventured into uncharted territories by crossing the metal sound with some of the prog rock giants’ influences, resulting in a unique music brand.