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Heavier Than Hell

Dive into the moshpit with 10 ultra-heavy riffs...
as appeared in the August 1998 issue of GuitarOne Magazine

The task is clear: root out some of the deepest, darkest, heaviest riffs ever to fill a CD's sample-bits. With the abundance of sonic mayhem currently available on record-store shelves, the job of selecting only ten finalists is decidedly difficult--many promising entries must be omitted. And to complicate matters, there isn't just one stylistic category that can lay claim to this arena.

Today, heavy riffs can be found lurking anywhere across the modern metal/postgrunge/thrash/death/grindcore spectrum, where drive and intensity just keep pushing the limit to new, ever-more-crushing levels.

In a moment, we'll dive in and see just what kind of musical savagery takes the coveted prize of "most heavy" this time around. But first, let's set down a few entry parameters.

What makes for a heavy riff? Key ingredients may include low tunings, a dark tonality, dissonant or surprising melodic turns, a tempo in the moderate range (not too fast), some good rhythmic punches (usually juxtaposed against a palm-muted pedal tone), and of course, the guitar tone--preferably a raging, full-tilt distortion.

Bind all these ingredients together with a little creative brilliance and you most likely have a contender. Or, to put it plain terms, these are the riffs that reach out of your stereo and grab you by the throat, demanding to be learned and learned now!

And if they're really good, they just might keep squeezing until your lifeless body crumples to the ground, only to raise you up from the dead forevermore to walk the earth as a rotting, zombiecorpse.

Now that you've been forwarned of the danger, let's get down to it!

Megadeath - Slayer - Sepultura


Megadeth is one of the few successful heavy metal bands of the previous decade to survive the grunge epidemic and make the transition into the '90s, becoming more popular then ever. Their uncompromising style has produced a number of gems, but perhaps their heaviest offering is "Symphony of Destruction", the title track from the
band's 1993 release.

The riff is masterful in its simplicity. A wall-of-sound guitar tone is counterbalanced with effective use of space and silence. Make sure you stop all the strings appropriately in the rests. Note the characteristic half-step melodic pull exerted by the F5 to E5, suggesting an E Phrygian tonality. Economy fingering is the most efficient method here. Use your first and third fingers to play the F5 chords, then use your second finger to play the fretted portion of the E5 chords. The tuning is down 1/2 step.

Symphony of Destruction
Tune Down 1/2 Step:
1 = Eb 4 = Db
2 = Bb 5 = Ab
3 = Gb 6 = Eb
Moderately Fast q = 142 - Midi file

Key signature denotes E Phrygian


One of the progenitors of '80s thrash and death metal, Slayer offers several ultra heavy moments interspersed sporatically between high-speed, double-time thrash grooves. Witness the intro riff of "Postmortem".

Here, sliding power chords punch against a palm-muted open E string in a moderately fast triplet-based rhythm. While the first indication seems to again suggest E Phrygian (with F5-E5), the riff progresses into an ever-more twisted tonality, spinning out a half-whole diminished scale in measures two and three (harmonized in fifths), and ultimately delivers a complete diatonic meltdown in measure four with the sick and unnatural presence of D#5. Clearly a joy to behold. The tuning is down 1/2 step.

Tune Down 1/2 Step:
1 = Eb 4 = Db
2 = Bb 5 = Ab
3 = Gb 6 = Eb
Moderately Fast q . = 140 - Midi file


Sepultura takes the diminished approach of Slayer one step further in "Dusted", from the band's 1996 release, Roots, by dropping the tuning all the way down a full 2 1/2 steps (a perfect fourth) for all strings across the board. This turns the sixth string into a super low B.

As with all "across the board" tunings, however, we continue to refer to the notes using the original names assigned in standard tuning--we simply add the caveat that the strings are tuned lower. In this extreme tuning, the strings rattle so deeply that the pitches are somewhat hard to discern until you grow accustomed to it. (If you're going to play a lot in this tuning, it's a good idea to put on a heavier-gauge set of strings.)

For the riff, Sepultura utilizes the first four notes of the half-whole diminished scale starting on E (E-F-G-Ab) and harmonized as power chords--as in "Postmortem"-- but without a pedal tone and in an entirely new rhythmic context.

It appears written in eighth notes with a tempo marking of 216 bpm, but the half-time feel of the drums makes those eighth notes sound like sixteenth notes with a perceived pulse of 108 bpm (a moderate tempo).

Tune Down 21/2 Step:
1 = B 4 = A
2 = F# 5 = E
3 = D 6 = B
Half - Time Feel q = 216 - Midi file

Korn - Metallica - Death >>