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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


Korn has taken the concept of low-tuning and plunged even further into uncharted depths on both their 1994 debut release as well as their popular follow-up effort, Life is Peachy.

Guitarists Shaffer and Welch play Ibanez seven-string instruments which include a low B string (B-E-A-D-G-B-E), then tune all seven strings down one whole step (A-D-G-C-F-A-D)!

Since most of you don't happen to have a seven-string guitar lying around, this presents a bit of a problem. The most convenient and workable option is to simply tune all six strings down one whole step (D-G-C-F-A-D) and alter the riffs when necessary by transposing the lowest notes on the B string up an octave.

At least the general essence of the riff is maintained. Check out the pre-chorus section in "A.D.I.D.A.S." which incorporates rhythmic displacement and ear-twisting chromatic movement. The power chords appear as fourth dyads since the low root notes which fall on the lower B string have been omitted for six-string playability.

A LA KORN (Seven-string gtr. arr. for six-string)
Tune Down 1 Step:
1 = D 4 = C
2 = A 5 = G
3 = F 6 = D
Moderate Rock q = 114 - Midi file


Where would heavy guitar be today if not for Metallica? Yeah, I know, I know...their newer style isn't as heavy as in the good 'ol days. So we'll just have to step back a few years to 1986 and take a retro look at "For Whom the Bell Tolls".

This masterful sonic embodiment of doom contains numerous riff highlights, but none are more compelling than the song's central riff, shown here. Notice the driving triplet-based palm mutes, power-chord jabs, and odd melodic leap from Bb5 (bV) to F#5 (II). It should be in every rock guitarist's riff vocabulary. Enough said.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Tune Down 1/2 Step:
1 = Eb 4 = Db
2 = Bb 5 = Ab
3 = Gb 6 = Eb
Moderately q = 120 - Midi file


Death is among the handful of bands that helped create came to define the style we know as death metal. Closely allied with thrash, death metal often employs hyper-speed double-kick and double-time grooves, and is rife with such themes as death by knife, death by suicide, death by rotting, death by nuclear war, mutilation, corpses in all manner and form, and other charming themes.

Ultra-heavy grooves also show up from time to time--one killer example is "Spiritual Healing". It opens with a four-chord progression centering on A, but the unusual sequence defies easy key-categorization and gives an odd, nearly atonal sound. (It could also be described as the second mode of G# Phrygian-dominant, if that helps at all.)

Over this progression, Gtr. 1 engages us with a two-handed tapping phrase which moves in parallel with the chords, further reinforcing the atonal aspect. Then the main riff kicks into a super-heavy death-metal dirge.

Notice the diminished scale in power chords with textbook pedaltone palm-mutes and upbeat chord attacks. Also consider how the six-beat-per-measure timing keeps you slightly off balance, and makes the riff sound just a little harder to grasp. The tuning is down one whole step.

A La Death
Tune Down 1 Step:
1 = D 4 = C
2 = A 5 = G
3 = F 6 = D
Intro q = 102 - Midi file1 - Midi file2

Canibal Corpse - Pantera - Sevendust


This over-the-top death metal group has a penchant for exploring thoroughly repulsive and violent subject matter, including murder in full gory detail. For the most part, one cannot understand the lyrics and for that, we are probably all better off.

Nevertheless, some of the riffs are right there. "Hammer Smashed Face", which appeared in both the movie and soundtrack Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, is uptempo and perhaps more aggressive than "heavy" in the conventional sense, but the strong tonal center welded to E and unabashed, repetitive rhythms help drive it home--and right into a spot in our top ten.

The intro consists of a four-measure phrase repeated four times in various altered states. The first time it contains "on-off" chord punches and rests, the second and third times build with thrash "down-up-down" picking gallups, and the last phrase strips away all elegance--straight down and mean--with high-speed, single-note
picking on the low E string. The tuning is down 1/2 step.

Hammer Smashed Face
Tune Down 1/2Step:
1 = Eb 4 = Db
2 = Bb 5 = Ab
3 = Gb 6 = Eb
Intro Fast q = 194 - Midi file


Exploring a unique mix of ultra-high energy riffing, complex syncopated grooves, and an in-your-face vocal style, Pantera exploded onto the music scene in 1990 with their debut release, Cowboys from Hell.

"I'm Broken", from 1994's Far Beyond Driven, takes that legacy a step further, incorporating a tastefully heavy Zeppelinesque blues riff in the intro as well as mean syncopations bordering on progressive metal throughout the verse.

If you attempt to play the verse riff with the half-time pulse that is established in the intro and suggested by the drums, each repetition will likely catch you by surprise and you'll lose the correct rhythm. Therefore, try to feel the pulse at double the written speed (double-time) right from the start, so you'll have the right pulse in place when you hit the 7/8 verse riff.

The correct double-time count is written below that phrase, showing that you should count to seven for one full measure. Within that measure, the basic motive is actually played twice, employing a powerful rhythmic displacement-- the first time, all three chords are played on downbeats, then they are repeated but all fall on upbeats. The tuning is actually down 1 1/4 steps--making it a half-of-a-half-step flat from "D tuning" (down 1 step).

I'm Broken
Tune Down 1 1/4 Step:
1 = Dd 4 = Cb
2 = Ab 5 = Gb
3 = Fb 6 = Db
Intro Moderately Slow q = 74 - Midi file


Sevendust are relative newcomers to the metal scene. Their self-titled debut CD, released just last year, has hammered the metal charts and continues to make significant waves. Several cuts offer excellent, ultra-heavy archetypes, including the endearingly titled "Bitch".

The tuning here is that of drop D, then all strings are lowered 1 1/2 steps across the board. So the low sixth string arrives at a superlow B, but the string intervals function as in drop D tuning and therefore we use the note names of drop D.

Note the "one-finger" power chords found in this tuning, which clearly spell out a D minor tonality with D5-E5-F5. Funky sixteenth-note syncopations help provide a rhythmic push. In the riff's second incarnation (measure 2), the chords remain the same, but the articulation has changed--namely, the palm mute is removed from the first four chords allowing them to accent together with the corresponding vocal shouts.

Drop D Tuning Down 1 1/2 Steps:
1 = C# 4 = B
2 = G# 5 = F#
3 = E 6 = B
Moderately Slow q = 92 - Midi file

Deftones and Wrap Up


Deftones are another relative newcomer, their debut Around the Fur also released recently in 1997. The opening track, "My Own Summer (Shove It)", features a prominent and highly magnetic riff which both energizes and teases our ears.

The harmonic minor scale never sounded so appealing--and at such dissonant odds with the NIN-inspired vocal stylings. In the power-chord variation of the original single-note riff, the final F#5 gives us a bit of that odd, out of key flavor that works so effectively, providing a fresh tonal contrast.

Rhythmically, you can see that both the single-note version and the power-chord variation use the same two-beat motive, consisting of a three-three-two pattern in sixteenth notes (beat 4 is slightly altered from this). This is the origin of the riff's catchy offbeat qualities, which seem to emerge through the even sixteenth note rhythm. Tuning is drop D down 1/2 step (Db-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb).

My Own Summer (Shove It)
Drop D Tuning Down 1/2 Step:
1 = Eb 4 = Db
2 = Bb 5 = Ab
3 = Gb 6 = Db
Moderately Slow q = 71 - Midi file

The Wrap-up

That's it for my "Top 10" this time around. I hope you've enjoyed it and that--although commanding--these bad MFs have indeed allowed you just enough breath to remain with the living.

Copyright by Troy Stetina (used by permission)

This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/145
Troy Stetina is a critically acclaimed guitar virtuoso, clinician, and leading author specializing in rock and metal styles. Troy is the author of more than 30 instructional books, methods and videos for the Hal Leonard Corporation. As a solo artist he has released three music CDs. Current project is 'The Troy Stetina Project EP', co-produced by Mark Tremonti. Visit Troy on the world wide web at www.stetina.com

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