If you wanted to pick one modern heavy metal band that embodied all the different hard rock branches, Mastodon certainly fits the bill. They use a mix of progressive, sludge, and groove metal styles that are incredibly popular since their start in Atlanta in 2000. One of the reasons Mastodon has such a catchy style is because of their rhythm guitarist, his particular approach and the way he learned how to play guitar. Here are a few pointers on how to play guitar in the style of Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher.
A Little Bill Kelliher Guitar History
Bill grew up with the normal classic rock playing on the radio, and he was a fan of Eddie Van Halen like many of his contemporaries. However when he first started playing guitar those fast shred styles were not really that interesting to him, he discovered 80’s punk like the Dead Kennedy’s and sludge like the Melvins, a band that would later help create the grunge genre. Bill Kelliher preferred these rhythmic guitar riffs as opposed to the math rock of some heavy metal.
This makes sense as to why his playing is so perfect for a rhythm guitarist, often when learning heavy metal we take a lead approach and focus on solos and perfection, but the Mastodon rhythm playing is all about keeping a great and memorable riff going. One reason Mastodon is so popular is that they have mixed many genres including basic popular appeal into their music.
In the 2000’s Mastodon became associated with Adult Swim shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and they even toured with Dethklok. To this day members like Bill Kelliher have made appearances on shows like Game of Thrones, their brand and music goal has always been to play the heavy metal that suits pop culture. Bill Kelliher’s variety of a musical background helps him provide the right rhythm guitar for Mastodon’s signature sound.
How to Play Guitar Like Bill Kelliher
Besides cameo appearances in famous shows, Bill Kelliher is also known for providing regular online guitar lessons. So if you want more of his style, it is always easy to find examples, even by his own teaching. He makes it abundantly clear that he is not playing anything special, sometimes just simple power chords and other guitar chords you hear in metal. His playing is more about getting the right riff and vibe as opposed to complexity.
First you need to know the alternate tunings most often used by the band Mastodon, so grab your guitar tuner! One is D Standard or D G C F A D which is a whole step down from normal standard tuning. A variation on that tuning is A G C F A D which provides an even heavier sound with the very low bass. And the Drop C tuning of C G C F A D, which as you can see is also heavier than standard D with the lowered bass note. Keep in mind you may need special strings to attain these lowered tunings on your guitar. The wrong kinds will not lead to the correct heavy dissonance and overtones.
Bill Kelliher Chords and Rhythms
The key to his playing style is simple dissonant riffs often played in a staccato style. It’s obvious that he had interest in 80’s punk and funk bands as he uses a similar staccato approach to his guitar playing. He is basically playing those similar basic riffs but with added dissonance to provide more tension for the Mastodon heavy metal feel. The hard part about his catchy riffs is just getting the right vibe, which will require playing along with the music often.
He is known for hitting the open strings around chords that are usually avoided or muted. Normally this is not wanted, but when you are basing your riffs around dissonance, this is not a mistake. His main process for creating riffs is to start with classic chord progressions and then add in extra pieces that sound off and provide more tension and aggression.
While he uses all the main techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends in his playing, they are supplemental to him keeping a good underlying rhythm. When he does chord slides he first anchors his thumb on the back of the neck and then rotates his wrist to do the sliding, this makes it easier to move up and then return. With rhythm guitar we must keep the groove of the song always going or it quickly devolves into a math rock and less riffy feel.
His picking style has evolved over the years as he has taken his playing more seriously, he now focuses on more efficient styles, but also is known for picking and fretting what feels right. He’s such a great guitarist for students to follow because his laid-back approach to guitar matches the average player. His styles are very accessible for beginner guitar players and the better you get at playing Mastodon songs the more you can focus on the picking or licks. First just focus on getting the basic rhythm right!
If you want to do more than just play Mastodon songs, perhaps write a song like Bill Kelliher, you need to start with a simple power chord riff in the tunings above. Bill doesn’t take a music theory approach; he adds in dissonant licks to power chords until he gets a riff that is catchy. He has said he can spend up to 5 hours trying to flesh out a good riff. People often see lead guitar as more complicated as there is more to practice, but initially building a great riff with the perfect amount of dissonance can be difficult.
Bill Kelliher Equipment and Effects
He has always been a fan of Gibson Les Paul’s and other Gibson models as he prefers their neck styles for playing. He also uses the regular Marshall and Orange style amps as is common in the heavier metal styles. At this point he is famous enough to have his own Gibson and ESP guitar models along with his own amplifier series from Friedman Amplification and his effects are simple with digital boards like a Line 6 and JamMan Looper pedal.
If you are looking for the sound with other equipment it is still possible to get, a lot of his heavy tone is in the tuning and playing method so you do not have to go crazy in replicating his effects on pedals or amps. He doesn’t necessarily use the max gain and scooped mids of the past, he uses a little less gain and more mids to get a better tone to mix with the band better. He also isn’t worried about too heavy a bass sound as that is the job of the bass!
Bill Kelliher isn’t just known for great heavy metal riffs; he is known for being a modest guitar player. He will tell you that his playing is nothing special and accessible to most students taking guitar lessons. This is helpful and encouraging to players who may have been pushing for lead guitar goals that may be too far out of reach. Anyone can come up with a catchy dissonant heavy metal riff like Bill Kelliher if they just focus on their rhythmic playing and overall guitar tone!
Editor’s Note: Bill works with ESP and MojoTone to craft guitars and pickups that have become a vehicle for his inner tone nerd. So if you really want to sound like the man himself, have a look at his signature ESP guitar and Hellbender pickups.