Masterclass, Melodic Metal Breakdowns: Then & Now

WE’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT METAL techniques for a few months now, and it’s been a good ride going over finger-striking, muting, flicking, EQ, pedal effects, and other ways to increase the bass brutality level.
By Bryan Beller ,

WE’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT METAL techniques for a few months now, and it’s been a good ride going over finger-striking, muting, flicking, EQ, pedal effects, and other ways to increase the bass brutality level. Now it’s time to get hands-on and musically technical, as we dive into the time-honored tradition of melodic bass in metal breakdowns. On Facebook and Twitter I asked for reader feedback on which tunes to focus on (those following me already know this!), and I got a mix of classic thrash and more modern extreme metal examples. I thought, why not use both, and examine how melodic-metal bass stylings have evolved over the years?

The most popular classic thrash-metal response was Cliff Burton’s famous arpeggiated break in Metallica’s “Orion” [Master of Puppets, 1986, Elektra]. The most widely recognized section is a series of 4ths, 5ths, and octaves over a four-chord pattern, shown in Ex. 1. But the really interesting part is how Cliff employs gradually intensifying variations on the theme, culminating in Ex. 2 with a sophisticated application of triadic chord tones. He starts on the 3rd of each chord, establishing a 3-1-3-5 pattern with a specific rhythm, and holds off on starting with the root until bar 4. Being a classically trained pianist and having traditional harmony chops certainly didn’t hurt Burton in the construction of this line.

Fast-forward 23 years, and another cutting- edge metal bassist with a classical background is continuing the tradition. Dan Briggs, bassist for the experimental progressive-metal outfit Between The Buried And Me, reaches way back—all the way to the Baroque period—for the lead bass melody in the breakdown of “Obfuscation” [The Great Misdirect, 2009, Victory]. “I’ve loved Bach since I was studying upright in high school and college,” Briggs explains. “He seemed to be one of the only composers of the time who had a great focus on the role the bass could have in a chamber orchestra group. Having the bass take over the melody was pretty unheard of in all of my classical studies, until I developed an intense focus on Bach.”

The result is a metal-singed classical fugue, with the first half providing syncopation and bounce through the periodcorrect chord changes, and the second half plowing through a mighty series of straight 16th-notes. The tab shown in Ex. 3 (written in G for C# tuning) is exactly as Briggs plays it. Some of the fingerings are unorthodox, especially in bar 5 (he cites small hands). Bar 7 contains a difficult register jump, and the tempo is fairly unrelenting. If you’ve been practicing your major and minor 7 arpeggios up and down the neck, this will all feel familiar; if not, get ready for a serious workout. As always, work through it slowly at first.

A note about the tuning: Between The Buried And Me tunes down a minor 3rd, to C# (C# -F# -B-E). You can play this example by itself using this G minor fingering in standard tuning, but if you want to play along with the record, you’ll need to detune like Dan does. Or, you could play it E minor in standard tuning on a 5-string (the lowest note is C# ) and come up with your own fingering, like I did before I found out the song was recorded in C# tuning (d’oh!). So if you’re looking to push yourself, check out my standard-tuning 5-string version of this example at

From Geezer Butler to Cliff Burton to Dan Briggs, metal bass is constantly progressing. Who knows what we’ll hear in a breakdown 20 years from now? That is, if we can still hear anything at all . . . . \m/

Bryan Beller is the touring bassist for the metal “band” Dethklok from the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim show Metalocalypse, and has played with Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Dweezil Zappa, Wayne Kramer, and more. His most recent solo album is Thanks in Advance [Onion Boy]. Follow him on Twitter (@bryanbeller) and find out more at

"Orion" Words and Music by James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Cliff Burton. Copyright (c) 1986 Creeping Death Music (ASCAP) International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by Permission of Cherry Lane Music Company;