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.

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;




21st Century Upright Arco Metal

OVER THE LAST SEVERAL DECADES, the technique, technology and musical applications of the double bass (contrabass, string bass, doghouse—call it what you will) have changed and expanded rapidly. In this and future columns, I will be exploring the evolving roles of the double bass in contexts where the instrument hasn’t typically been heard. If you’re curious to hear what all this sounds like, I have employed these and other approaches on recordings by Good For Cows, the Nels Cline Singers, Law of the Rope, and under my own name.

Producer-Bassist Tommy Sims Getting A Master’s From Jamerson U. On Michael McDonald’s “All I Need”

IT’S MASTERCLASS, EVERYONE, WHICH means a detailed dissection of a bass line played by a high-level pro, along with insight from the player who gave us this amazing thing to learn from. But this one’s different in that our featured artist, Nashville-based A-list producer/bassist/ songwriter Tommy Sims, consciously sought to emulate someone he’d been studying for years: the immortal James Jamerson. And when someone who’s written, played, and produced for Eric Clapton (“Change the World,” anybody?), Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Kelly Clarkson, CeCe Winans, the Neville Brothers, and Garth Brooks says he’s studying someone, it’s best to just listen to what he has to say in full.

Alex Webster: To The Extreme

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.

Steve DiGiorgio, Extreme Metal Session Ace

 I just gradually became this “session player.” I love it. I don't care what it's called, I'm just so happy to just plug in and jam with somebody else. ‘Cause everyone has killer ideas, no matter what level of musician or what age of band they are, there's always something new and killer about playing with someone different, and as long as they keep giving me the chance to keep doing it, I'll keep doing it.


Lesson: New Jaco Early Years Discs

WHEN 17-YEAR-OLD JACO PASTORIUS laid eyes on his buddy Bob Bobbing’s Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder, he saw musical possibilities with unlimited potential. Fortunately for us, Bobbing had already recognized those same qualities in Jaco. Lugging the unit to Jaco’s initial gigs or loaning it to him for a sound-on-sound home version of “The Chicken” was the cornerstone of Bobbing’s 2002 landmark CD box, Portrait of Jaco: The Early Years. Ever since that superior sampling of pre-Weather Report Jaco, Bobbing has been eager to launch Jaco: The Early Years Series, featuring full CDs by the bands in which Jaco forged his seminal style. The first two releases, Woodchuck and Tommy Strand & the Upper Hand, have officially arrived [available on jacotheearlyyears. com and]. Both live recordings are raw, revealing, and riveting, and serve as worthy style studies. Bobbing used the same taping method for each disc, setting up his Sony deck at a table in the cl