The downpicking technique is something that helped define thrash metal as a genre and Exodus axeman Gary Holt is one of the best at it. However, Holt admits that there’s some “cheating” involved here and that everyone who does it “cheats” one way or the other.
Downpicking is the picking technique that utilizes downstrokes only. Basically, when the hand moves upwards, the plectrum should not hit the strings. So it’s all about the fast movement of your picking hand while only picking the strings when the hand is going down. This results in a more specific and aggressive sound.
And in his recent Q&A organized by EMG, Holt discussed the incredible importance of having tight picking hand skills in metal music. In fact, he’s so into it that he’d rather prefer to play riffs ’till the rest of his life rather than solos (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):
“Right-hand picking it’s an art form. It’s more important to me than anything else, as soloing shit. If someone said you could play rhythm for the rest of your life or leads and be really good at one and terrible at the other — get rid of the solos. I don’t care.”
“You know, it’s all about the riffs and it’s all about learning how to apply maximum velocity with technique still.”
But, as Gary admits, doing so much intense thrash metal riffing isn’t what it used to be for him. After all, he’s not getting any younger, and aggressive downpicking does require some physical strength:
“And as I get older, things are harder for me to do. I’ve suffered through really horrific tennis elbow on both arms, like countless cortisone injections and arthritis and all that.”
Of course, there are plenty of examples of Gary’s intense and tight picking technique. Be it Exodus or his time in Slayer, he’s always been up to the task, delivering some of the heaviest we’ve gotten the chance to hear.
But as he also said during the Q&A session, when it comes to the downpicking, even the ones who are best at the technique are actually cheating. Yes, even Metallica frontman James Hetfield who’s widely accepted as the champion of downpicking. After showing some of his examples, Holt then offered:
“Everybody cheats, even Hetfield cheats, and he’s the best out there. When you see a guy in the middle of a down pick, baddest riff ever and he throws in one of these… [slides down the fretboard] That’s the reset, that’s all you need.”
“And he’s the best that ever lived to do it. And he sings at the same time, which is fucking ridiculous. I can’t sing and play at all. Not at all. I mean, I’d lose it, one of them’s gotta go.”
And Gary’s “cheating” is just a specific pattern of combining downstrokes and upstrokes:
“But my cheat is like down-up-down-down. And that literal up and down, also live, allows me to rock really hard when I do it. If I want to really just all down pick a part… Sometimes I gotta like, kind of not move too much.”
Another approach for Gary is what he calls “waltz picking.” It’s nothing too fancy as its name would suggest, just counting it in groups of three notes:
“And then another thing I do is I call it my waltz picking, you know, like, like, on ‘Postmortem,’ Kerry [King] downpicks that whole fucking song. It’s like a jackhammer. I do this, this [counts] 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3… Because it’s just way I’ve always done those kinds of riffs.”
Well, this might imply that Gary Holt believes that Slayer’s Kerry King is even better at downpicking than James Hetfield. But that’s a discussion best left for some other time.
In 2011, after Jeff Hanneman was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, Gary Holt was announced as his replacement in Slayer. Although Hanneman was a crucial member in terms of songwriting, crafting some of Slayer’s biggest songs along with Kerry King. A couple of years later, in 2013, Hanneman, passed away and Holt was accepted as a permanent member.
During another exchange with fans from earlier this year, Holt discussed a potential Slayer reunion. On many levels, we know how odd it would be — Hanneman is no longer among the living, Tom Araya simply isn’t into it, and original drummer Dave Lombardo has been out of the picture since 2013. Only Kerry King might be up for it but, realistically, there’s really no point without Tom Araya’s vocals. Although he replied, Holt wasn’t able to give a definitive answer, saying that it’s out of his pay grade. But according to him, that’s probably not going to happen:
“Look, if anybody ever asked me to do it, of course I’d be down to do it. But I don’t think it’s *ever* gonna happen. I think the band’s ended. Unlike all the other farewell tours that started five years ago and are still continuing, I think this one’s over.”