• Learn to toss out the rules in pursuit of a great riff.
• Develop a keener rhythmic awareness.
• Understand how to create biting, heavy riffs—without tuning down.
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Formed in 1989 in Sweden, Opeth has been the creative outlet for progressive maestro Mikael Åkerfeldt for almost 30 years now. As a band, Opeth has worn many hats. Although its music fits comfortably under the label of progressive death metal, the group has flirted with Celtic folk, black metal, jazz, and most recently ’70s prog. It’s incredible how many times the band has reinvented itself. Listen to the sprawling, progressive sound of 2016’s Sorceress compared to “The Twilight Is My Robe” from their 1995 debut album, Orchid. Quite a difference!
Mikael’s trademark sound can be traced to his openly admitted lack of theoretical understanding or formal musical education. He has simply played guitar for over 30 years and found all the things that sound good to him. He still claims he can’t name any of the chords he uses, and even if this is an exaggeration it still teaches you an important lesson: There are no rules in music. Limiting yourself to the things you understand and can explain is to put yourself in the smallest box of all.
This idea of musical freedom is paramount in Opeth’s music. Very rarely can you look at one of the band’s songs and explain it using just a few words. Plus, it’s not uncommon for a riff to draw from a multitude of scales. So when investigating the sounds in this lesson, don’t get too bogged down trying to understand things from a theoretical perspective. Instead, use these examples as a reminder that it’s okay to be musically free. Explore. Find the things that you like. Use them.
Guitar-wise, Mikael has used PRS guitars for many years, so any decent humbucker is going to get you in the ballpark. I’ve played all these examples in standard tuning, as Mikael is a big believer in not needing to tune down to be heavy. A good riff will sound good in standard tuning. When you tune down it’s easy to play something that sounds heavy, but it may lose its charm when tuned back up. There are just a handful of times the band has used drop D, or something more exotic like open D minor (D–A–D–F–A–D).
Ex. 1 consists of some simple octaves that could be seen as being taken from F# Phrygian dominant (F#–G–A#–B–C#–D–E). These octaves are brought to life with the addition of the ringing open 3rd and 2nd strings. The final measure doesn’t really make any sense from a theoretical perspective—it’s a note salad—but the unconventional note pool does have the effect of creating an uneasy tension before resolving to the original chord.
We switch to 6/8 for Ex. 2, which contains a combination of chord stabs against fast-picked bass notes. If you were to analyze the chords, you could call them Em/G, Em(maj7)/G, Dsus2, and perhaps, A5/D#. But in reality, they’re simply chords that sound cool. Notice how the chord in the last measure is identical to the one in the previous measure, except for the lowest note moving up a half-step. It’s all about having something that sounds dissonant, rather than something that makes a whole lot of sense.
Ex. 3 continues in 6/8, but this time offsetting single notes against chordal ideas. The motif in the first measure has a dark, brooding quality due to the use of the b9 (F). This use of a note one fret above the root is common in Mikael’s writing style, and it creates a Phrygian vibe, no matter the setting.
The chord stabs are a little more colorful than the typical power chords heard in metal. Also, they’re all minor chords: Bbm, Gm, C#m, and Am, respectively. It’s common in darker styles of metal—notably black metal—to ignore the expected harmony and make chords minor. This results in a doom-like quality, and you can hear it in everything from Emperor to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings soundtrack.
Ex. 4 uses more octaves and open strings to create dark textures that ring into each other. If you attempt to name these, you get Abm(maj7), and Gmaj7/F#, but again, that’s not the point. The final measure features some chromatic descending tritones, which are made more interesting by the rhythmic aspect, as each new arpeggio is syncopated.
The next example (Ex. 5) mixes time signatures, going between 4/4 and 3/4, without ever feeling “odd” because of the flow of the rhythms. The names we give to the time signatures are largely irrelevant because it could just as easily be one long bar of 13/4!
Here, we’re expanding on this idea of the b5. The basic chord takes an F# and stacks a b5th on top (C), then another b5th on that (F#), and then another b5th (C ). It’s hard to give a chord like this a conventional name, but that’s okay—it’s an unconventional chord. The idea is that the b5th interval sounds “dark,” so let’s play several at once.
Ex. 6 features a few more traditional chords put together in a less traditional way. This is typical for the rhythm part Mikael might put behind a guitar solo for a solid backdrop. The interesting part here is the repeating rhythmic motif in the first two measures that’s altered slightly later in the riff.
Opeth’s newer material provides the inspiration for Ex. 7. When Heritage was released in 2011, it felt like all of the “death” and “metal” had gone, and suddenly there was a shift towards authentic ’70s rock with lower-gain tones and organ parts. The writing approach didn’t change though, as demonstrated in this riff. In my mind, this is more of a geometric shape that’s played on a Bb and E. It’s a little “triangle” shape that sounds cool … so it is cool. It certainly doesn’t fit in an obvious scale, but it makes total sense when you hear it.
The final example (Ex. 8) is a tricky idea played mainly on one string. I love when Mikael writes long, complicated lines that feel like they take ages to resolve and make sense. The harmony can be seen as many things, but in my mind it’s all about E, and everything else is an added color on that. Bb is the b5—it’s dark. F is the b9, and it’s even darker. G and F# are the b3 and 2, they’re brighter.
Take this slowly and make sure you’re playing the position shifts correctly.
This is really just scratching the surface of what’s in Opeth’s sound, and we didn’t even touch the lead guitar found on their albums (lead guitarist Fredrik Åkesson is no slouch), so head on off and do some listening!