If you’re someone like myself who enjoys perusing YouTube for guitar covers of popular metal tunes, you’re always bound to find something like this when you scroll down a bit:
Most of the time, the musician that filmed that cover employed a similar set of skills to what you’re going to learn about in this article. Transcribing a metal song can be a daunting task when presented with face-melting riffs and blistering solos, but this fear is overcome when you take a deep breath and break it down piece by piece. Although it may contain more notes, metal music is still just that – music!
In this article, I’ll use my personal transcription method to break down the popular metal song “Marigold” by the band “Periphery”.
Step 1: Identifying Bass Lines
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you try to digest a complex riff all at once. A more manageable way to handle this is to break it up into smaller pieces. My favorite place to start is by listening for the bass line of a section.
You can decipher the bass line of a metal riff the same way you decipher the bass line of a pop song. Riffs are still chord progressions, except these chords are presented in the form of fast, single-note passages. Eliminating some of the “information” from the riff and picking up just the bass line gives us a solid foundation and allows us to fill in the blanks later.
This also reveals the tonality of the song. Using contextual clues and a basic knowledge of music theory, we can infer a few things from our transcribed bass line.
For those of you unfamiliar with all those leger lines, by measure:
- F, G
Based (no pun intended) off of this, our I chord is “C”. Since C major has no sharps or flats, the note “A♭” tells us that we’re in some sort of minor key. Once we complete the next step in the transcription process, we can determine whether it’s Harmonic Minor or Natural Minor (Aeolian).
Step 2: Viewing Riffs and Solos as Chord Scales
Once we have our bass line in place, we can focus on determining the individual chord quality of each section. Now that we know we’re in some sort of C minor, we can use our theory knowledge to determine the chords from that key as a guideline while we play along to the riff.
From there, we can use trial and error to find the proper chords. I prefer to play along to the song with either a major or minor chord and see which fits the section.
It’s totally fine to be vague in this step, as we will come back and reference it again after completing the third step. This is what our rough sketch of the progression looks like at this stage:
Step 3: Using Technology to Decipher Individual Notes
Now that we have a rough sketch of our progression, we can move on to transcribing the individual notes. Since most metal riffs are a little too fast to comfortably digest, we can use technology to aid us.
Most DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) have a feature that allows you to slow down an MP3 or WAV file. Alternatively, you can download specialized software like the “Amazing Slow Downer” .
Another trick to get more clarity out of a guitar riff when using a DAW is to pan the track 100% left or right. This is because commercial metal mixes commonly double track their rhythm guitars and pan them hard left and right. As a result, panning the master track will reveal less of the other instruments and more of the guitar riff.
Using these tricks, this is our updated riff with individual notes:
Flexing our theory chops once again, we can build chords off of these passages to reference against and make sure the notes make sense.
Here is our updated progression:
Step 4: Recognizing Patterns and Cadences in Metal
One of the most useful tools in my ear training process is to reflect on and learn from patterns that exist across all styles of music. Since minor keys are especially prevalent in metal music, we’ll focus on patterns in Harmonic Minor and Aeolian (Natural Minor) progressions. Harmonic Minor is also a popular tonality in jazz music, so you can easily apply jazz harmony principles when transcribing or writing your own metal riffs.
We can determine the minor scale by extracting all the pitches in our transcription and comparing them to the scales we already know:
The B♮ tells us that this is harmonic minor.
ii-V and V-I
The first of these patterns evident in our Marigold riff is the “ii-V” (two-five) cadence, a staple in jazz music. In the harmonic minor, the ii chord is diminished.
In our Marigold progression, our ii diminished chord (Ddim/F) appears in first inversion with F in the bass and then moves to our V chord (G7).
When the riff repeats, the G7 returns back to the Cm. This V-I movement on its own is the most common cadence in Western music. As we recognize this and familiarize ourselves with the V-I sound, picking it out of progressions becomes second nature.
The second pattern present in this riff follows immediately after the ii dim-V: the V chord does not resolve to I, but rather to the ♭VI chord. This is a minor key version of a “deceptive cadence”, in which a V chord in a major key resolves to either the iii minor or vi minor chord rather than the typical I chord resolution.
In Marigold, our V chord (G7) initially resolves to the ♭VI chord (A♭Ma7). Traditionally a deceptive cadence in C major moves from the V chord (G) to the vi minor chord (Am). Since we’re in C harmonic minor, we have a ♭VI chord (A♭) in place of a vi minor chord (Am), so that is where our V chord moves to.
Shred your way to deeper understanding
These decisions are effectively shred “licks” in the form of harmonic progressions. By studying and familiarizing yourself with them, you gain a deeper understanding of harmony as a whole – just as practicing technical licks to a metronome beefs up your shred chops.
You can apply these same transcription tricks to all styles of music. A human being and a cactus have their anatomical differences – yet they both are made up of the same base elements. It follows that even though various genres of music can sound completely different, all music is organized by similar principles.
I hope you’ll be able to take the principles expressed in this article and apply them to any style of music you’d like to transcribe. As you practice and develop your skills, you can create your own method that works consistently for you!
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