Mark Morton: Farm Aid
Orginally printed in Guitar World, April 2008
Lamb Of God's Mark Morton demonstrates "riff farming", his band's method for weeding out and cultivating stronger and more unique-sounding guitar lines.
"People who make music together tend to create their own language when talking about it with one another. As a result, bands have their own language,” says Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton.
As an example, Morton points to a phrase that gets a lot of mileage around the Lamb of God rehearsal studio: “riff farming.” The concept goes back to the group’s early days in Richmond, Virginia, when its members were heavily influenced by local math metal bands Breadwinner and Slanglouse.
“We weren’t aspiring to be the next Slayer or Metallica; we just wanted to be like Breadwinner and Slanglouse, so we tried to emulate those guys,” Morton explains. “I was lucky enough to be able to go to their band practices and watch how they actually wrote, arranged and constructed songs. They would literally spend hours on a riff, and I was just mesmerized by how they would stretch a riff around to see where it could go.”
Thus was born the concept of riff farming. “The idea is that you come up with a riff and then dissect it and find parts where you can pull notes out of it, as if you’re ‘weeding out’ the riff—we completely stole it from those groups,” Morton says. In the practice of riff farming, the timing of the riff remains the same. “You don’t compress the riff when you take notes away,” he explains. “You just leave a hole wherever you pull out a note or cluster of notes. You can do this in a bunch of different spots in a measure of music, and it has a real cool, choppy, almost awkward effect on the riff. Just pulling a few notes out and adding rests in their places can give a riff a whole different groove.”
For example, he says, imagine a repeating riff that is played four times. “You could play it twice through the same way, then replace a chord or a couple of notes on the third time through with a rest, so it surprises the listeners and gets their attention.” Mark and his bandmates often refer to these holes as “stutters and stalls.”
“Those holes can also make a riff sound heavier, because the parts that come before and after it seem to have more mass. With a bit of thought, you can farm a riff for days and come up with many different variations on it.”
THE RIFF ABOUT TO BE FARMED
To illustrate his riff-farming concept for us, Morton composed the chromatic, 16th-note, drop-D-tuned monster shown in FIGURE 1. The riff cycle in FIGURE 1 is effectively made up of four different sections, each one bar in length. Bars 1 and 3 are identical while bars 2 and 4 are variants of the bar 1 pattern. To be exact, the last two notes in bar 2 are different, and the second half of bar 4 (beats three and four) is different.
Even though this riff is very chromatic, the open low-D note is “essentially the tonic or root note,” Morton astutely points out. “As it’s made up entirely of 16th notes, the riff kind of rolls by you, But because you’re constantly changing the number of fretted notes before each open low D, it rhythmically falls in a different place each time it’s played. This effectively makes the phrasing asymmetrical and kind of trippy and almost hypnotic, which is exactly what I was going for.”
While it may look fairly straightforward, FIGURE 1 is, for the reasons Morton just mentioned, deceptively difficult to play, especially with precision at the breakneck tempo at which the guitarist performs it. Mark suggests that you make sure you master playing the riff slowly “before you start really blazing with it.”
THE FARMED RIFF
“What I'm going to do is play the riff cycle [FIGURE 1] twice and pull the same three notes [E, Ef and open D] from the first and third bars in the first cycle, and then when I come back around again on the second cycle I’m going to pull them out of only the second bar,” Morton says before playing the farmed version of the riff shown in FIGURE 2. “This has a really cool sound, particularly if you’re playing with another guitarist who’s playing all the way through the original, unfarmed riff. It makes it kind of stutter, and that’s the desired effect.”
To demonstrate this effect, Morton “volunteered” yours truly to play the original, “unfarmed” riff while he performed a “farmed-out” version of it. After my initial panic had subsided and 10 minutes of rehearsing and a number of abortive takes, I was able to successfully stumble through the riff while Morton played a farmed version against it. Although I wasn’t able to attain his impressive speed, the “stuttering” effect he was referring to was instantly apparent, as illustrated in FIGURE 3.
“WALK WITH ME IN HELL”
The breakdown that occurs from 2:31–3:23 in “Walk with Me in Hell,” from Sacrament, is a simple example of Lamb of God’s riff-farming technique. But in this example, the band begins with the farmed riff and builds up from it to begin playing the original riff.
The section begins with Morton playing the heavy accents from the original riff. The riff itself enters at 2:49 and is played by Morton’s coguitarist, Willie Adler. Morton continues playing the accents under Adler’s part, and after a couple of repeats he begins harmonizing with him, at 3:07. Morton explains, “We extracted things to get the riff down to a basic version of it and then started adding elements back to give it growth over the course of the breakdown section.”
“Conceptually, if you think you have a cool riff, you probably do,” Morton concludes. “What you can then do is put it under the microscope, so to speak, scrutinize it and try different ways of changing it. So maybe if you’re playing it four times, the third repeat does something slightly different and weird, just to make it ‘wiggle’ a little bit. Some people might not even notice, but we’re talking to guitar players here, so of course you’re going to be paying attention and will notice! All you’ll be doing is merely adding an element or removing one that effectively reinvents the very same riff.”
In addition to Lamb of God, Morton says French progressive death metallers Gojira do an excellent job of evolving and morphing a riff to keep it interesting. “They can play the same riff for four minutes, and it sounds like you’ve just listened to this big orchestra. It’s amazing. They’re definitely on another level, conceptually and compositionally, and it’s really cool stuff!
Swedish metallers Meshuggah are another band Morton points to. “They’ll squeeze every last drop of blood out of a riff, and you’ll never get bored with it because it’s just that smart. They also change meters so much that it can sometimes get confusing, but I have a good time with that. We’re nowhere near as extreme as they are in that regard, but we do have parts where we’ll set up a groove and then we’ll just flip into a weird time signature and then watch people try and bob their heads to it.”
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