You are here

The Doom Generation: The Art of Playing Heavy

The Doom Generation: The Art of Playing Heavy

Reprinted from Maximum Guitar, July 1997 What do Mountain, the MC5, Motörhead, Metallica, Megadeth, Ministry, Marilyn Manson and Machine Head all have in common? Besides the obvious fact that these bands’ names all begin with the letter “q,” they are all purveyors of heaviness. In fact, heaviness forms a common bond between bands from genres as disparate as hard rock, heavy metal, punk, classic rock, grunge, grindcore, N.W.O.B.H.M. (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), thrash, alternative, industrial, death metal and so forth. Despite whatever differences may lie on the surface, bands from Black Sabbath to White Zombie, from the Sex Pistols to Slayer, from Soundgarden to Sepultura, all play guitar-based music that’s heavier than a hippo. Yes, “heavy” is the common thread here, and, consequently, that is the subject of our discussion. Aside from balls-to-the-wall power chords and angst-ridden minor scale riffage, a vital ingredient of all heavy rock is a dark and distorted guitar tone that goes straight for the jugular. Many rock historians, not to mention the editorial staff of Maximum Guitar, consider “Rumble” to be the first rock and roll record to display a truly heavy sensibility. Released in 1958 by the living legend Link Wray, “Rumble” was not only a million-selling instrumental, it was the first appearance ever of a distorted power chord. “Rumble” predated the first Marshall stack by at least five years and was released long before fuzz pedals came into being. How in Hades did Mr. Wray (that’s Mr. Guitar to you!) manage to distort his sound? By poking a pen through his amp’s speaker and cranking the amp sky-high! Link was looking for a sound nobody else had and, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Although “Rumble” is nowhere near as brutal or as brooding as say, music by Judas Priest or Machine Head, it definitely qualifies as a heavy-as-granite historical landmark. Like all great heavy moments, “Rumble” caused teenage fans and guitarists to scream with glee while leaving parents, teachers and ministers in a state of shock and utter despair—and without the help of shocking lyrics, no less.


The next pivotal moment in heavy distortion prehistory came in 1964 via the Kinks’ classic “You Really Got Me.” This simplistic, but supremely powerful, piece of power-chord brashness once again featured a nice n’ nasty distorted guitar tone. No doubt inspired by Link Wray, the Kinks’ lead guitarist, Dave Davies (who was only 17 at the time), created distortion by slicing his amp’s speaker with a razor blade. The heaviness of “You Really Got Me” remains timeless, proven by the fact that Van Halen’s metalized cover of the song was their first breakthrough hit in 1978. FIGURE 1 shows the original version of the opening riff. Fortunately, you no longer have to take a knife to your speaker cab in order to get an in-your-face distorted guitar tone. There are two simple, puncture-free ways to achieve such a sound: a distortion, overdrive or fuzz box and a high-gain amplifier. The preamps in many modern amps have sufficient gain to give you all the distortion you need, and then some, without the aid of an external device. While we’re on the subject of crunch, remember that, although distortion is a fine and wonderful thing (it sounds cool and can mask crappy playing), beginners tend to use it far too much. Distortion overkill causes uncontrollable feedback at higher volumes and can make your sound so mushy that it becomes a cluttered mess. Your crunch tone should have clarity and cut, and achieving this might require you to back off the distortion a hair. Heavy rock has always been associated with excessive volume levels that make ears bleed, break windows and kill birds flying overhead. The godfather of modern metal, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, revealed the reason for his band’s high volume to Guitar World in August, 1992: they wanted the audience to pay attention! “To be honest,” Iommi said, “we became so fed up with people talking while we were playing that we said, ‘Screw it, let’s turn it up, so they won’t be able to chatter.’ ”


High volume doesn’t miraculously turn a flaccid riff into a heavy one, though. As Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains pointed out in GW, January 1996, “there’s something about having strength and not flaunting it. Being heavy has nothing to do with how many speakers you blow or how many decibels you play at.” A heavy riff will always be a heavy riff regardless of volume, but sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than cranking a 100-watt Marshall stack to the max and letting ’er rip. But be warned: repeated exposure to ear-shattering volumes will damage your hearing, so be careful. The building blocks of heavy music are, of course, power chords. A power chord is a two- or three-note sonority consisting of the root and fifth notes of a chord. A power chord is neither major nor minor because the third is required to determine either of these qualities (more about this later). Power chords are easy to play, easy to move around the neck at high speeds and, most importantly, sound great with gobs of distortion, as the riff in FIGURE 1 proves. FIGURES 2 - 5
show movable forms of the four most commonly used two- and three-note power chord shapes. In these four power chord shapes, the root note is the lowest in pitch. However, many classic riffs, such as the intro to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” employ inverted power chords. Inverted means the lowest note is the fifth instead of the root, as shown in FIGURES 6 - 8. Inverting a power chord makes it sound darker and also makes it even easier to play—each of the inverted shapes shown in FIGURES 6, 7
and 8 can be fingered using a single digit.


But let’s not forget the importance of the first few chord shapes every guitarist learns, namely those good ol’ open chords, A, D, G and E. Never dismiss these “cowboy chords” because the open-string and low-position notes that comprise them exude a full, resonant tonal quality that’s essential to heavy rock. The fact that the vast majority of AC/DC’s repertoire is made up exclusively of these shapes is proof positive. In fact, when Van Halen covered “You Really Got Me,” Eddie utilized an open A power chord when playing the main riff to add extra balls, as shown in FIGURE 9. Part of the secret behind the aforementioned “Rumble,” too, is open chords; in this case, E, A, D and B7. The roots of heavy music can be traced back to the blues. Many of the greatest heavy riffs are based around the two blues staples: the minor pentatonic scale (FIGURE 10) and the blues scale (FIGURE 11). Classic examples that immediately spring to mind are the intro riffs to Cream’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” from The Very Best of Cream (G minor pentatonic: G Bb C D F); Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” from Paranoid (E minor pentatonic: E G A B D); Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” from Metallica (E minor blues: E G A Bb B D); and Pantera’s crushing “Cowboys from Hell” from Cowboys from Hell (E minor blues). FIGURE 12 shows the intro riff to “Cowboys from Hell.” Just about every note of heavy rock is written in minor keys. Why? Because major keys sound just too damned happy. Heavy music is tinged with a brooding darkness courtesy of the inherent quality of minor keys. In order to add extra heaviness to a riff or chord, many guitarists, especially those with metallic tendencies, frequently employ a technique known as palm-muting (P.M.). To palm-mute a chord or note correctly, lightly rest the heel of your picking hand’s palm on the strings just in front of where they go over the bridge. Doing this creates a chunky, percussive sound whenever the muted strings are picked. Don’t mute too far in front of the bridge, or you’ll end up with a dull, percussive thud that isn’t recognizable as a specific note. Also, if you’ve got a floating vibrato bridge (where you can pull the bar up as well as push it down), be careful not to lean on the bridge too hard or you’ll push it down and, to quote Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, “it’ll sound like shit because your strings will go sharp.”


“To attain maximum balls you’ve gotta pick using downstrokes only—it just sounds tighter, chunkier and more rhythmic,” continued Hammett. “Playing really fast riffs using all downstrokes is something James [Hetfield] and I have been working on for years.” Don’t fret though, as even the mighty Metallica can’t down-pick everything they play. “We play the intro to ‘Master of Puppets’ using all downstrokes, and although that riff isn’t our absolute limit, it’s definitely getting there! As for a riff like the one at the front of ‘Whiplash’ from Kill ’Em All, alternate picking [down, up, down, up]is a must!” To get an idea of just how much power palm-muting and down picking can add to a riff, play FIGURE 13 using both techniques. You may only be repeating an F#5 power chord, but it sounds a lot like the intro to Judas Priest’s gigantic early-Eighties hit, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” from Screaming for Vengeance. Such is the power of a single, palm-muted power chord played with downstrokes, a goodly amount of distortion and the right attitude. Another common method of adding more oomph to a part is to pedal, or continually repeat, the root note in between the chords or notes that make up the riff. Check out the simple E minor power chord progression in FIGURE 14. How can you make it heavier? Pedal a palm-muted low E string root note in between the chords as shown in FIGURE 15. This simple ploy definitely takes the riff to a heavier place. Now you know why E minor and A minor are the most common keys in hard rock and metal — it’s easier to pedal an open-string note between power chords than a fretted one. The reason why power chords are used more in heavy music than regular major or minor chord shapes is simple: Excessive distortion makes regular chord shapes sound like crap. When a major or minor third is added to a high gain, root/fifth combination, the result can be an undesirable mess. However, to quote Mr. Hammett again, “If you ditch the fifth and play just the root and third together, you can get away with it, even with mondo distortion.” Hammett is correct. FIGURE 16 is a moveable minor diad (two-note chord) shape and FIGURE 17 is a moveable major one. Now let’s hear them in action: FIGURE 18 shows the E5, D5, C5, B5 riff from FIGURE 15 using Em and Bm diads instead of E5 and B5 and major diads in place of the C5 and D5. When used in moderation these diads can definitely add color and contrast to a part. When should you use them? As Dimebag Darrell once said, “I don’t follow any rules when it comes to using these diads. I go with the one that sounds best. It’s always worth that extra second to see if the minor third sounds better than the major. For the demonic stuff the minor wins every time, but I always run through my options before going with it. Sometimes it’s cool to play major third and minor third diads back-to-back, or a minor third followed by a root/fifth diad—whatever combo sounds good.” For an explanation of playing “chromatically,” Dime offers this: “In case you don’t know what ‘chromatic’ means, let me explain: it means every note! So, to play chromatically, all you do is move up and down a string one fret at a time. Simple shit, huh? I use chromatic thinking a lot in my songwriting. I dig chromatic passages because they can add mood and aggression to a riff. If you’ve never dicked around with this idea, then check it out. It’s simple but it kicks ass.” FIGURE 19 is a killer chromatic ascending riff taken from the start of Korn’s “No Place to Hide” from Life Is Peachy. It also features inverted chord shapes. Other great examples of chromatic riffage include the intros to Pantera’s “New Level” (Vulgar Display of Power), Alice in Chains’ “Them Bones” (Dirt), and the crushing riff that appears at 0:57 in Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ride the Lightning). Dimebag continues with an explanation of syncopation: “All syncopation means is accenting beats that you don’t normally accent. Let’s say you’re chugging out a simple eighth-note pattern like the one shown in FIGURE 20a. The notes you’d normally accent would be the ones that fall on counts ‘one,’ ‘two,’ ‘three’ and ‘four.’ This is shown in FIGURE 20b (the accented notes are indicated by the symbol >). All we have to do to make this basic rhythmic idea syncopated is accent the notes that fall on the ‘and’ counts instead (FIGURE 20c)—the eighth-note upbeats. I know this is a real basic illustration, but remember, simple is bad-assed if done aggressively. So, attack those accents, because that’s where the magic is!” One very effective way of creating syncopation is by employing rests (i.e. not playing anything) on some of the prominent beats, as this forces the listener’s ear to focus elsewhere. Creating such “holes of silence” can have a very dramatic effect, especially in an otherwise busy song. A great example of rests is found between 0:39 and 0:51 in Metallica’s “Leper Messiah” (Master of Puppets). FIGURE 21 is the opening riff to the song that launched Alice in Chains to superstardom, “Man in the Box” (Facelift), and it illustrates the power of a hole-filled, syncopated groove perfectly. Although the majority of the riff features a repeated diad, the resulting rhythmic groove is both memorable and instantly recognizable because most of the accents fall on an eighth-note upbeat. Other great examples of unforgettable rhythmic grooves based largely on one note include the intros to Pantera’s “Psycho Holiday” (Cowboys from Hell) and White Zombie’s “Thunder Kiss ’65”(La Sexorcisto). The most disturbing interval (an interval is the “distance” between two notes and is measured in tones or steps) in Western music is the tritone (the infamous “flat five” interval, E-Bb for example). In fact, this interval is so inherently immoral that it was dubbed “Diabolus in Musica” (Latin for “the devil in music”) in the Middle Ages and outlawed. “They used to hang you for stuff like this,” remarked James Hetfield. Not surprisingly, the tritone appears frequently in heavy music.


One of the heaviest riffs known to man, the main motif of Black Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe” (Sabotage) is based around Lucifer’s very own interval (the power chords used, E5 and Bb5 are a tritone apart). This truly evil entity is shown in FIGURE 22. Incidentally, if you’re smart and you finger the open E5 chord and the Bb5 chord as shown in FIGURES 23 and 24, you can switch between the two of them while playing “Symptom” without having to move your left hand up or down the neck. This is called economy fingering and was perfected by James Hetfield and Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine. If you really want to summon Satan, try using the tritone as a power chord (root-flat five). FIGURE 25 shows a movable form of this diabolical diad which is used frequently by the likes of Korn. A great example is found on the opening to “K@#%!” (Life Is Peachy). To add extra low-end grind potential and darkness to their sound, quite a few heavy bands tune their axes down lower than concert pitch (A=440Hz). The relative pitches among the strings remain the same but all the notes are lower. Tuning all six strings down a half-step (low to high: Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb) is a fairly common practice, but more radical detunings are also employed. For example, on Metallica’s ominous opus “Sad But True” (Metallica), all guitars (including bass) are detuned a whole-step (low to high: D G C F A D). Heavy bands such as Black Sabbath, White Zombie and Machine Head have on occasion tuned all six strings down as far down as a minor third (low to high: C# F# B E G# C#), while Type O Negative and have been known to detune a bowel-loosening perfect fourth (low to high: B E A D F# B) Another fairly commonplace heavy tuning, especially in the so-called “grunge” idiom is drop D. This simply involves detuning the low E string one whole-step to D (low to high: D A D G B E). Soundgarden used drop D tuning on “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun,” and Alice in Chains use this tuning often (on axes already detuned a half-step). Like a lot of today’s players, Jerry Cantrell got the idea from Van Halen’s brilliant cut, “Unchained” (Fair Warning), the intro of which is shown in FIGURE 26. Aside from sounding pretty damned heavy, arguably the coolest thing about this tuning is the fact that you can play a root/fifth power chord with one finger, as shown in FIGURES 27 and 28. And, if you want to go heavier still, try using “drop D” tuning on a guitar that’s already detuned a whole step or even a minor third (Warning: you might want to try using heavier string gauges before you start tuning this low, otherwise your guitar will feel like it’s strung with rubber bands). Although we’ve only scratched the surface of this vast subject, hopefully you’ll glean some useful ideas from the ground we’ve covered and will be able to use them to beef up your own playing. As for the future, well, some nay-sayers may have pronounced heavy metal, grunge, thrash and death metal dead, but, thanks to the likes of Pantera, Korn, Tool, Marilyn Manson, Machine Head, Rage Against the Machine and Alice in Chains, the spirit of heaviness lives on and is constantly evolving into new, exciting forms.



Buddy Guy Plays "Mary Had a Little Lamb" with Jack Bruce and Buddy Miles in 1969