Obsessive Progressive: Periphery
What do you get when you combine three fiercely unique metalheads with a love for down-tuned guitars, crushing rhythms, and a passion for odd-meter time signatures?
• Develop a better sense of composition by layering guitar parts.
• Understand how to imply harmony by adding notes to power chords.
• Learn how to incorporate jazz sounds into your shred solos. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Formed in 2005 by guitarist Misha Mansoor, Periphery started life as a vehicle to perform Mansoor’s material. Influenced by such bands as Meshuggah and Sikth, Mansoor initially gained notoriety on the internet metal scene working under the moniker Bulb. He’s now one of the most influential and important progressive metal guitarists this side of the millennium, and one of the main faces of the “djent” movement.
Periphery has always been a three-guitar band, and since 2011 the lineup has consisted of Mansoor, Jake Bowen, and Mark Holcomb. With five years under their belt as an ensemble, the musicians now function more like a band rather than one member’s solo project with hired guns. As the band evolved musically, each member brought increasingly diverse influences to the table, and this has helped Periphery develop a unique, identifiable sound. They’ve released five full-length studio albums, and although 2016’s Periphery III: Select Difficulty is a fine offering, I’d suggest anyone new to the band start with 2015’s double concept album, Juggernaut: Alpha and Juggernaut: Omega.
One of the biggest hurdles in learning to play like Periphery is getting the band’s sound. The group uses a huge array of tunings across 6-, 7-, and 8-string guitars. For the sake of consistency, I’ve opted to record all the examples in C–G–C–F–A–D, which is dropped-D tuning, but down a whole-step. While these could all be played in dropped D, one of the big features of Periphery’s sound is the low tuning. On a 6-string, Mansoor often tunes the lowest string down to A; he keeps his 7-strings tuned to G# and 8-strings in F#. I’ve recorded everything in the lesson using Toontrack’s EZmix plug-in with some of Misha’s own presets. These have been EQ’d a little bit and enhanced with a little more noise gate in places—an important part of the sound. You need plenty of midrange crunch and an almost unnatural gate effect where your chain is silent between chord stabs. For this lesson, I’ve composed a handful of examples that demonstrate how Mansoor, Bowen, and Holcomb integrate their parts.
Ex. 1 is a triplet-based idea fitting loosely around a Locrian sound, though in concept it’s really about playing in C minor and adding notes that contrast it, like the Db and Gb. To play this cleanly, pick the notes on the 6th string, then use your third fretting-hand finger to sound the notes on the 4th string without picking them. This is often called a “hammer-on from nowhere.”
The final aspect of this riff that’s common in Periphery’s writing style is the use of tapping. Because you don’t want to interrupt the flow of the pick, use your picking hand’s middle finger to tap the notes.
In our next group of examples, we’ll begin to delve into how the three guitarists use some rather extreme dissonance. In Ex. 2, you can see a short triplet-based lick that combines traditional tapping with some hammer-ons from nowhere. Ideas like this will feel alien at first—it’s all about synchronization and building speed over time.
It’s hard to rationalize the notes in Ex. 2 from the standpoint of music theory. While one might argue similarities to the diminished scale, in essence this is really about channeling some unusual Holdsworth-inspired sounds. (Allan Holdsworth was another of Mansoor influences.) Ex. 3 repeats the basic pattern down a half-step, while Ex. 4 is down a whole-step.
Now, let’s up them all together. Take a listen below.
Our next piece features two guitar parts. The first (Ex. 5) is a low-string riffer that features some pre-bends and string skipping. Periphery is fond of such riffs because they sound extremely heavy. The secret is making sure everyone in the band is in tune and releases the bends consistently. The band isn’t afraid to use unconventional techniques like this, or even slap-guitar technique. I’m using hybrid picking to pluck the notes on the 4th string.
The second guitar part (Ex. 6) uses a jarring minor second interval that rings out. This is then moved up and down the neck to create something that’s between a melody and a fit of anxiety!
Now, here’s the sound of Ex. 5 and Ex. 6 together.
Ex. 7 introduces a simple time signature change that shifts between 3/4 and 4/4. The riff begins with a grace-note bend on beat 1. Notice how the motif is displaced by a single 16th-note on beat 2 before heading into the measure of 4/4. The more you listen to Periphery, the more you’ll discover examples of complex rhythms that take several measures to resolve, which is a classic trait in Meshuggah’s music.
After the riff is played twice, it’s followed by a scalar passage that includes a slide and moves across strings to allow the notes to ring out. This juxtaposition of crushingly low riffs and crisp, ringing melodic ideas are another aspect of the band’s signature sound.
Our next riff (Ex. 8) is inspired by Periphery’s 8-string tunes and again features a blend of heavy riffs and single-note melodies. The key part here is the chord voicings played at the end of the first measure and at the start of the second. These four-note voicings are just power chords, but rather than playing just the root, 5 and root an octave higher, another 5 is added on the 3rd string. When played with a heavy palm mute, these are the classic “djent” chords.
The final example comprises four guitar parts: one rhythm, two layered clean parts, and one lead guitar. What I find interesting in parts like these is that it demonstrates a clear appreciation of chord changes and how to outline them with melodies. The band often abandons conventional major scale harmony, as the changes are predictable. In Ex. 9, you can hear an Eb5 power chord played for two measures before we add a Gb (b3) into the mix.
The first clean guitar part (Ex. 10) holds a major chord shape (in this case, Eb major) and picks it with an intriguing rhythm before switching to a minor voicing with a major 7.
Our second clean part (Ex. 11) has a slightly different rhythm, and uses open strings for a distinctive timbre.
The final part (Ex. 12) showcases an almost jazz-like approach, using the Eb major scale (Eb–F–G–Ab–Bb–C–D) over the first two measures before shifting to the jazzier Eb melodic minor scale (Eb–F–Gb–Ab–Bb–C–D) over the final two measures. This makes perfect sense since the first clean guitar part hints at the minor/major 7 sound.