Riff Lords

James HetfieldHeavy metal has a lot of amorphous qualities that people attribute to what defines its signature sound. However, there is a single feature that is consistent across all groups,regardless of the sub-genre, and that is an emphasis on chunky rhythms. If there is one thing that is able to separate music with an edge from decidedly more lighthearted affairs, it is the presence of the mighty, palm-muted riff. Simply put, if your music lacks this distinguishing quality, then the adjective “heavy” or “hard” cannot, in good conscience, be associated with your band.

In the world of heavy music, rhythm guitar playing is the one of the least appreciated and least glamorous aspects of the genre, beaten, perhaps, only by the bass guitar. Despite this, it is the core component of any such band, anchoring the drums and indeed the entire song with its hefty presence. That said, this list is an ode to the most underrated and overlooked heroes of the music that gets our heads banging.

  1. James Hetfield

    James Hetfield is best known for his singing and songwriting in Metallica, but amongst those in musical circles, the man is equally, if not more revered for his god-like right hand. James Hetfield is the conclusion of the evolution of metal riffing whose lineage started with Tony Iommi. The man is almost single-handedly responsible for the sound of modern metal, both extreme and radio friendly; his preeminent “chugging” often emulated but never matched. Accept no substitute.

    Hetfield’s style cannot really be described in any way other than “muscular.” Through palm-muting and almost an exclusive use of down-picking when feasibly possible, he is able to create a consistent, angular rhythm assault that acts in a percussive role more than it does one of melody. Though that is essentially the formula for thrash metal playing in general, Hetfield added variety and complexity to his riffing, often comparing some of his parts to a “rhythm guitar solo.”

    James Hetfield’s influence as a rhythm player cannot be understated. If you listen to heavy metal from roughly 1985 until now, the core pillar of articulate riffing pioneered by Hetfield has changed very little. Death metal has sped it up and thrown in some tremolo picking for diversity, but the sound heard on the early Metallica records continues to be the template for bands seeking to elicit a sense of heaviness, influencing aggressive bands in the most concrete, opposite of “The Beatles influenced all of rock” kind of way.

    Rifftracks: “Disposable Heroes” (Master of Puppets); “The Thing That Should Not Be” (Master of Puppets); “Blackened” (…And Justice for All); “Creeping Death” (Ride the Lightning)

  2. Hank Shermann
    (Mercyful Fate, Force of Evil)

    When people think of Mercyful Fate, guitar playing is not usually the first thing that comes to mind, much less ryhthm guitar. Hank Shermann was the next logical step in the evolution of metal rhythm playing, from the dirge of Black Sabbath to the taut riffage of heavy metal proper in Judas Priest, to Mercyful Fate. Shermann’s playing combines the raw, groove of Iommi with the sense of melody and hooks of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing of Priest.

    It’s no secret that Mercyful Fate was a huge influence on Metallica. Although only forming Metallica a few years after, it’s easy to see where a young James Hetfield picked up much of his chops and playing style from. Though not as fast as his contemporaries in the Bay Area, Shermann makes up for it with sheer amount of quality riffs. In a time when thrash was in its infancy, the predominant use of  machine gun, palm-muted guitar playing was largely unheard of, with this man laying the groundwork for a decade’s worth of aggressive music.

    Rifftracks: “Crossroads” (Dead Again); “A Dangerous Meeting” (Don’t Break the Oath); “The Night” (Dead Again)

  3. Tony Iommi
    (Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell)

    What can be said about Tony Iommi that hasn’t already been covered before?  The man is almost ubiquitously considered the father of the metal riff, and is credited largely as the primary influence for everyone on this list – nay – nearly every guitar player in heavy metal and hard rock worth mentioning. To paraphrase Rob Zombie: “You can speed it up, slow it down, and play it backwards, but every good riff has already been written by Black Sabbath.”

    Ironically, the guitar player of Black Sabbath developed his style out of utility rather than purpose when he famously lost the tips of his fretting hand fingers in an industrial accident shortly before starting with Sabbath. The injury forced him to tune his guitar lower both to reduce the tension on the strings and facilitate playing certain chord patterns easier. The result was an imposing, methodical riffing that shirked the flamboyant guitar playing of other ’70s guitar players.

    Needless to say, Tony Iommi’s playing has never been about shredding solos or especially melodic leads, which was no doubt influenced by the nature of his damaged hand. With Black Sabbath, he was a champion of the groove, opting for dirty, fuzzed out jams that utilized blues and acid rock stylings as much as it did the emerging proto-metal aesthetics. The man was ahead of his time, having written rhythm parts in whose timeless is still felt today, including arguably the first thrash metal riff ever in the form of “Symptom of the Universe,” in the mid-seventies, no less.

    Rifftracks:“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath); “Hole in the Sky” (Sabotage); “Symptom of the Universe” (Sabotage); “Into the Void” (Master of Reality)

  4. Jon Schaffer
    (Iced Earth, Demons and Wizards)

    If Metallica had a baby with Iron Maiden instead of making alternative rock records in the mid-nineties, Iced Earth would have been the result. Jon Schaffer continues the aggressive approach of Hetfield in his prime and marries it to the triplet patterns of Steve Harris’s bass playing, resulting in some of the most dexterous rhythm parts known to man. The man’s playing set Iced Earth apart from European power metal by providing a thrashy edge and attitude lacking in their more melody-focused contemporaries.

    What Schaffer might lack in songwriting or subtlety compared to the company kept on this list, he more than compensates for with the sheer angularity of his playing. To put it plainly, the man’s right hand is a machine. It is nearly impossible to find a non-ballad/instrumental on the first four or five Iced Earth records that does not get your headbanging. Up until his uninspired output after the turn of the century, Jon Schaffer was one of the last of a near extinct breed of proud rhythm guitar players with enough skill to craft heavy riffs that were not unnecessarily brutal or predictably banal in their execution.

    Rifftracks:“Damien” (Horror Show); “Brainwashed” (Burnt Offerings); “The Hunter” (Dark Saga); “Stormrider” (Night of the Stormrider)

  5. Jerry Cantrell
    (Alice in Chains, solo)

    Jerry Cantrell is possibly one of the most underrated guitarists of the modern day, and short of that, definitely one of the most underrated songwriters. It may seem strange to have a grunge alumn like Cantrell on a list full of heavy metal guys, but he worships at the altar of Tony Iommi just like everyone else. And let’s be honest; Alice in Chains was really a metal group masquerading as a grunge act at the right place and the right time, anyway.

    Alice’s music lends itself particularly well to crafting infectious grooves. Jerry’s never been an overly flashy guitarist, but the downtempo dirges that AiC is known for offer a lot of breathing room for opening up with some riffs that you can really sink your teeth into. Though they sometimes sound like they could have been taken right out of a more traditional metal tune, Cantrell’s parts mostly eschews the typical staccato, palm-muted nature of more typical rhythmic riffs.

    Ironically, it is the drum parts that really anchor and accentuate Cantrell’s greatest headbanging moments. Not confined to the lack of bass in more typical heavy bands, the rhythm section takes what might be a basic progression and makes it something more than the sum of its parts. Luckily, the man has had some quality skinsmen (Sean Kinney, Mike Bordin) behind the kit to make his minimalistic ingenuity shine.

    Rifftracks: “We Die Young” (Facelift); “Pro False Idol” (Degradation Trip); “Spiderbite” (Degradation Trip)

Honorable mentions:Jeff Waters (Annihilator), Mark Morton/Willie Adler (Lamb of God), Chuck Schuldiner (Death), “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott (Pantera), Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Rudolf Schenker (The Scorpions)


~ by Dux on January 7, 2011.

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