Extreme Metal Bass Is Alive & Thriving
In The Frenetic Hands - And Restless Mind - Of Alex Webster
For the past 22 years, Alex Webster has pretty much been doing two things: anchoring
the seminal death metal band Cannibal Corpse, and pushing himself to wreak technical havoc on
the bass guitar. This isn’t just garden-variety shredding, either: Here is someone deeply versed in
theory, songwriting in every time signature under the sun, and applying advanced modal scales to
death metal. Someone who transcribes his bandmates’ guitar parts so he can conceive boundarypushing
lines on his own time. Someone who actually cares enough to write his own metal bass
instructional book detailing a groundbreaking three-finger technique and other tools for anyone
seeking metal mastery. Someone who now has a signature Spector bass. Quite simply, at 42, he’s
at the top of his game.
Maybe you didn’t notice because, well, he’s in a
band called Cannibal Corpse. As such, Alex’s typical
interview starts like this: Let’s talk about the censorship
problems you’ve had in Germany. What is
this bloody, gory album artwork all about? That’s
okay—he’s used to it. “I’m like, ‘Well those things are
cool, but most of the day I’m thinking about bass and
how it works with the band.’ Anything that’s emphasizing
music as opposed to controversy is always a
welcome question. I mean, I do love horror movies
and everything, but the imagery of our band, to me,
is absolutely secondary to the music.”
Hailing from Buffalo, New York, Webster took
only intermittent private lessons as a teenager,
citing a single high-school music theory course
that piqued the curiosity of his arithmetic-oriented
brain. “It was my favorite class—I totally
loved it. I’ve always been pretty good at math, and
I could then see how math could be applied to
something fun. Since taking that course, I’ve really
seen a connection between math and music.” His
musical numbers fetish was eventually realized
in collaboration with math-metal master guitarist
Ron Jarzombek. Their band, Blotted Science, just
released an album of too-impossible-to-describe
material that embodies Webster’s desire to keep
pushing. His main bass influences—Billy Sheehan,
Geddy Lee, Steve Harris, Cliff Burton, and
Steve DiGiorgio—are all groundbreakers in
their own right. And Webster’s instructional
book, Extreme Metal Bass [Hal Leonard],
could only have sprung from the mind of
someone unable to quit while he’s ahead.
But his life’s work (as in literally over
half his life) is Cannibal Corpse, which he
co-founded at age 19 “to be as extreme as
possible—to be the heaviest, the fastest, most
over-the-top death metal band we could be.”
Their 12th studio album, Torture, is chockfull
of extremely challenging technical passages,
while at the same time delivering the
blunt brutality of a classic death metal outfit.
It’s tight as nails yet still organically loose,
and somehow, always, terrifying.
We talked to Alex just as he was leaving
for a European tour. The perhaps predictable
irony is that he couldn’t be a nicer,
sweeter guy. Just, you know, don’t tell the
What do you remember most about your
early years as a bassist?
I couldn’t hear the bass in a lot of the
thrash [metal] I was listening to. It seemed
like the bass was doing exactly what the
rhythm guitar was doing, so that’s what I
tried to do. I think that shaped my righthand
technique, having to learn how to
play the really fast stuff with three fingers.
I didn’t realize a lot of these guys were cutting
things in half [playing half the notes]
or doing something a little different. I’ve
always played fingerstyle since we got Cannibal
going, just trying to keep up with the
guitar players. In thrash, there’s not as much
of a bass–drummer connection as there is
a bass–guitar connection—at least I didn’t
see it that way in the beginning.
Did you always play with three fingers?
When I started, I played fingerstyle with
two fingers, and not very fast. I could get
going to a respectable speed, but not something
crazy like Jeff Berlin or Juan Alderete.
But then we did a show with Cynic and
Malevolent Creation. Cynic’s bass player,
Tony Choy, played with three fingers, and
Malevolent Creation’s bassist plucked with
four. I said, “I have to be able to keep up, and
I’m not going to use a pick. I have to be able
to figure out how to do it with my fingers.”
Around that same time, I was listening
to Sadus a lot, which is the band that Steve
DiGiorgio originally came from. I could
tell the bass was played fingerstyle, and it
was really fast. I managed to track down
Steve’s phone number, so I called him up
and asked, “Dude, how do you do that?”
He explained his technique, which was
going from the ring finger to the middle to
the index back to the middle—there’s your
four notes. I was very grateful, and we’ve
been friends ever since. I tried to learn that
way and got it down, but as I would start
to drift off in doing muscle-memory practice,
my technique would start to fall into a
different technique. That was the one that
I described in the book, where it ends up
being a 12-note cycle [see Ex. 1].
You’re basically playing a triplet pattern, but
it ends up feeling like straight 16th-notes.
So Steve’s tip helped get me started, but I
ended up developing my own thing.
What made you want to do an instructional
There was nothing out there like it.
Instructional books with advanced material
are generally written by jazz-fusion players
or really good session guys. The books
I’d seen about metal seemed really primitive,
and I thought there was a void that
needed to be filled. That was one of the
motivations. Also, I just like working with
books. I would rather have done a book
than a DVD. DVDs are cool, but you can
throw a book in a gig bag and go practice it
in your room. You don’t need something to
watch it on. I’ve learned a lot from videos,
but I always end up taking a book with me.
When I’m touring, I usually bring a book
of scales to work through.
What do you hope players will get out
of the book first and foremost?
I wish I had a book like this when I
started, because we just learned everything
by trial and error. I was thinking, What do
you do when a guitar player is tremolo-picking?
Do you play exactly what he plays?
Do you play half-time? What do you play
when a blast beat is happening? What about
a thrash beat? What’s the best thing to do
during a fast double-bass fill? What if it’s
a little too fast for you to play? Is there a
way you can cut things in half without it
sounding corny? I’m hoping the book spurs
people’s creativity to create more interesting
metal bass lines that pop out in the mix.
How important is theory for metal bass
Probably more important than people
think. It also can spur your creativity. I’ve
found that the guys who don’t know as much
theory tend to write things in 4/4 most of
the time. The guys who know theory are
the ones who end up experimenting more
and having music that sounds a little more
out there, which I like. The more you know,
the more you can mess around.
What separates Torture from Evisceration
Plague  and Kill ?
It’s the third record with the same lineup,
and the third record with Eric Rutan producing.
Even though we record to Pro Tools
with a click track, I think we’ve learned
how to use it in a way where everything
still sounds organic. I feel like we managed
to capture an old school death metal vibe.
It doesn’t sound like one of those modern
metal productions where everything is
overly precise. When you play bass with
a pick, you can keep things a little tighter
with rhythm guitar. Playing with fingers, I
think I keep it pretty damn tight, all things
considered, but there are probably times
when I’m off by a few microseconds here
or there. Quite simply, the attack of fingers
and the attack of a pick are different.
So there are times when my playing is not
identical to the rhythm guitar. With that bit
of human inconsistency, you can tell it’s a
person playing, not something that’s been
cut to ribbons and put on a grid. People
played this music—not a robot.
|Cannibal Corpse (l to r): Alex Webster, Rob Barrett, George Fisher, Pat O’Brien, and Paul Mazurkiewicz.|
I wrote five of the songs on Torture
“Scourge of Iron,” “Intestinal Crank,” “The
Strangulation Chair,” “Crucifier Avenged,”
and “Rabid.” I tried to have a different feel
for each of them. We want each song to be
individual. Even though hardly anyone has
vinyl albums anymore, I say you should be
able to drop the needle on it anywhere and
be able to figure out what song it is within
a few seconds.
In the straight-up thrash groove opening
of “Scourge of Iron,” did you use the 3-2-1,
3-2-1 right-hand technique?
I did. The part is all on the C# string
[E tuned down a minor 3rd], so it’s really
easy to keep it going. Things get a little
trickier when you start skipping strings. I
didn’t think it was necessary for the part
to make it harder than it needed to be, so I
kept it all on the C# string so I could pedal
along nicely. I kept it at a tempo where I
can comfortably play 16th-notes, which is
172 beats per minute. It’s still fast, but once
I start getting past 180 BPM, it gets tough.
And anything beyond 190 is just not advisable
Then there’s “Intestinal Crank,” with its
Like I said, when I was writing the songs
I wanted to have different feels for each
one. “The Strangulation Chair” has a triplet
feel throughout. “Crucifi er Avenged” is
more of a straight, fast 16th feel—it’s got a
more standard 4/4 vibe. So why not have a
song that features some riffing in 5?
There’s a wild riff that starts 30 seconds in.
You’re probably talking about the wholetone
riff. Ever since I learned the whole-tone
scale back in the mid ’90s, I’ve thought it’s
a great scale. So much metal is written with
minor 3rds, and the whole-tone scale is a
way to keep a riff dark and creepy sounding
without having that minor tonality. You
still get diminished 5ths all over the place,
but you get augmented 5ths, as well.
How does the long instrumental chorus
riff on “Rabid” work?
That’s one of the later songs I wrote for
the record. I look at numbers a lot when
I’m writing, and I was trying to think, What
rhythms haven’t I used already? We had
“Intestinal Crank,” which has those fives
at the beginning. Then there’s “Strangulation
Chair”—that’s triplets. “Scourge of Iron”
and “Crucifier” are both more straight four
feels, so how about seven? Each section of
the song has 14 bars of 4/4; it’s 7/8 against
4/4 playing the whole riff twice. It’s fairly
simple. And then in that long instrumental
stretch thing, I end up playing eighth-notes:
it’s 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3. Meanwhile,
the drummer is playing 4/4 on top
of that. Every seven bars it turns around
and hits the point where it starts again, so
I had him just throw a cymbal on that one
to mark the spot.
What’s the biggest challenge of pulling this
stuff off live, versus cutting it in the studio?
You’ve got to nail it live. That’s why Cannibal
practices four days a week, because
we want these songs to be burned into our
brains so that it’s as easy as anything else
we do every day. You brush your teeth every
day, you wash your hair every day; these are
things you can do without thinking about
them. We want the songs to be that way,
too. It’s the old “if you’re thinking, you’re
stinking” thing. You should be able to go
up there and play it perfectly while thinking
about the pizza you’re going to order
when the show’s done [laughs].
What made you want to do another Blotted
Science record with Ron Jarzombek?
Wasn’t the first one torture enough?
[Laughs.] I love working with Ron—he
does not show any mercy! He won’t let me
simplify anything unless it’s literally impossible
What’s the one thing that you get out
of Blotted Science that Cannibal Corpse
doesn’t give you?
There’s more freedom. We impose certain
guidelines on ourselves in Cannibal
Corpse—we want it to be a pure death metal
band. We’re trying to be as creative as we
can within those boundaries. With Blotted
Science, it can be whatever we want it
to be. There are definitely things I’ve written
for Blotted Science that just wouldn’t
work for Cannibal. It can be equally heavy
at many times, but some of it is just a little
too out there. With Cannibal, we want you
to be able to head bang. Blotted is a lot
Talk about “Ingesting Blattaria,” the
opening track from Blotted’s latest. How do
you comprehend a form like that, let alone
We record at home, so I’m able to record
it in sections, as opposed to memorizing
the whole song and playing it from start to
finish. The entire deal with The Animation of
Entomology is that every last bit of it syncs
up with these video clips that Ron found
from various horror movies that featured
creatures and bugs. That’s what the album
is about. So he went through and painstakingly
matched up every measure with everything
that’s going on onscreen. That’s why
the songs are in such crazy structures. It
seemed like trying to memorize them from
start to finish was going to be pretty challenging.
So I recorded it in sections.
What are you most proud of so far in
I guess I’m just proud that we’ve had
such a long career, playing the kind of
music I love, getting paid for it, and doing
it all on my own terms. I’m very fortunate.
I am also very proud of the book, because
the book is my latest baby. I’ve done a lot
of albums and a lot of touring, but writing
a book is different, because I’d never been
a writer before. Any time I’ve challenged
myself with something new and been able
to succeed, it’s something I’m proud of.
Basses Two Spector Alex Webster signature
5-strings (see page 46), three Spector Euro
LX 5s, all with EMG 40DC pickups
Live rig Two SWR 750x heads with two
SWR Megoliath 8x10 cabs (for Europe); two
SWR SM-1500 heads with four SWR Goliath
4x10 cabs (for North America)
Effects Darkglass Electronics Microtubes
B3K bass overdrive
Strings DR Strings Hi-Beams (.050–.130 for
G#C#F#BE tuning, .025–.125 for A#D#G#C#F#
Other Radial Tonebone Bassbone (clean DI),
Radial ProDI passive DI box (dirty DI, post
overdrive), Monster Cables, Boss TU-2 chromatic
tuner, Gator Cases pedalboard
Recording Torture Two Spector Euro 5
LX basses, SWR 750x head with SWR
Megoliath 8x10 cabinet (miked with an AKG
C-12), Boss ODB-3 bass overdrive, Teletronix
compressor, Avalon U5 DI
Recording Blotted Science Spector Euro
5 LX, Apple Macbook Pro, Avid Pro Tools
8 software, Pro Tools M-Box, Line 6 Bass
With Cannibal Corpse (all on Metal Blade)
Eaten Back to Life (1990); Butchered at
Birth (1991); Tomb of the Mutilated (1992);
Hammer Smashed Face (EP, 1993); The
Bleeding (1994); Vile (1996); Monolith
of Death (live) (1996); Gallery of Suicide
(1998); Bloodthirst (1999); Live Cannibalism
(2000); Gore Obsessed (2002); The
Wretched Spawn (2003); Kill (2006); Evisceration
Plague (2009); Torture (2012)
With Blotted Science (on ElectricElectric)
The Machinations of Dementia (2007);
The Animation of Entomology (2011)
ANYONE STILL UNDER THE
impression that Alex Webster
hasn’t put serious thought into
what he’s doing is in for a very
rude awakening. These four
musical examples will bring
you to your technical limits—
Let’s start with Ex. 1, an
exercise adapted from Alex’s
instructional book Extreme
Metal Bass. This is the essential
primer to learning his threefinger technique. As he suggests,
we’ll start with a single
fretted note, A on the E string.
Note the right-hand fingering
pattern 3-2-1-3, 2-1-3-2, 1-3-2-1.
Says Alex, “This picking pattern
easily lends itself to groups of
three, like triplets and gallops.
Now, for these 16th-note groups,
you’ll need to create a feeling of
‘four’ for each beat. The best way
to do this is to slightly accent the
first note of each group. So this
pattern will cycle every 12 notes,
as shown with accented notes in
bold: ring, middle, index, ring,
middle, index, ring, middle, index,
ring, middle, index, etc.” Once you
master the single-note pattern,
move on to the next three bars,
where the notes start changing,
and prepare to be frustrated at
first. Remember, start slow, and
consider that Alex says he can do
this at up to 180 beats per minute!
How about a two-handed
tapping bit? Example 2, the
break at 2:14 of “The Strangulation
Chair” (from Torture)
will keep you busy for a while.
Alex explains: “I had already
written that tapping stuff for
a later section, and I thought,
Why don’t I bring this down a
bit and put it a little lower on
the neck?” Note the tuning for
playing along: A#D#G#C#F# (all
strings down a half-step).
Webster makes good use of
the Locrian modal flavor and
its inherent b2’s with Ex. 3, the
demonic line from “Caged …
Contorted” (at 1:07 and 3:10).
Alex didn’t write this tune, so
he transcribed the guitar part
and then worked with it for a
while to come up with this line.
Watch out for the hellacious
position switch (at 244 BPM!) in
bar 6, and make sure to tune
the whole bass down a minor
3rd to G#C#F#BE.
Finally, for the truly brave,
there’s Ex. 4, Alex’s distortowah-
drenched solo from the
Blotted Science tune “Vermicular
Asphyxiation” over a
bone-rattling series of timesignature
and chord changes.
“Ron suggested I use F Lydian
dominant for the first half of the
solo and B melodic minor for
the second half, so that’s what
I did,” says Alex. Hey, at least
you’re in standard tuning on
this one . . . . —BRYAN BELLER