Continuing on from our look at metal guitar conventions last month, here’s a look at something that strikes at the black heart of what metal guitar is all about: evil. More specifically, the kind of evil-sounding intervals that propel songs like ‘Black Sabbath; by… some bunch of dudes from Birmingham. There are certain intervals (relationships between two notes) that just sound more metal than others, and can be used to conjure anything from a feeling of dread to a feeling of terror to a feeling of horror. Here are some of them. Now, the major scale is going to come in handy here in remembering what the notes are called, so if you haven’t learned the Major Scale yet, grab a copy of last month’s issue for a refresher. We’ll do this in the key of A, and each interval will be expressed in single notes and then played in the context of a riff with chords. Play each of these at around 94bpm for a creepy Alice In Chains kind of feel or speed them right up for more of an Anthrax vibe.
Play the first and second notes of the major scale. Sounds pretty happy, right? Well let's drop that second note back one fret. This is called the Minor Second (because it's taking the second note - or degree - of the major scale but shifting it down one note). Sound evil now? Hell yeah! You can also get a lot of mileage out of bending a note up to the minor second, or by pre-bending it up to the minor second, striking it then releasing it.
Now we'll play the root and third notes of the Major scale. Again, sounds pretty happy. You might even say majorly happy. But flatten that Major Third into a Minor Third by backing it off by one fret and it starts to sound pretty imposing - especially if you add a little microtonal bend to it right before going back to the root note.
Flat Fifth - Diabolos In Musica
Now this is where it gets really good. In the Middle Ages this particular interval (one note lower than the Fifth that we've already learned about from the power chord) was considered so evil that it could actually summon Satan him/herself. It's the building block of such classically creepy riffs as Black Sabbath's ‘Black Sabbath’ and Sepultura's ‘Dead Embryonic Cells’.
The Seventh is a very dramatic-sounding interval that works great in breakdowns prior to an all-out chorus or something similar. It's sort of like the ‘Diabolos In Musica’ but less ominous and more alarming. Depending on how you play it, it can sometimes take on a bit of a weirdo Frank Zappa kind of vibe.
Of course, these intervals aren’t the only way to impose some evil will on your riffage. Sometimes just playing with a pissed-off, brutal attitude will do it. But they are another handy tool to have at your disposal for when you need to write something real brutal, real fast. Try combining all of these into one riff and you’ll open a portal to hell itself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.