Discover how such bands as Death, Decide, and Morbid Angel crafted a singular sound that influenced legions of extreme-metal bands.
• Learn how to craft warp-speed riffs that combine octaves, tremolo picking, and chromaticism.
• Improve your alternate picking technique.
• Understand how to work chromatics into virtually any riff.
In this installment of Mort, we are going back to the beginnings of death metal in the mid ’80s in humid Florida. Mostly based in Tampa, the bands from the Florida scene built the foundation of their music on European and American thrash metal and then took it to new extremes. Due to the thematic focus on death, decay, and horror movie-style violence, this new style was first played in its defining form by Death, Deicide, Morbid Angel, and Obituary.
Possessed are cited by many fans to be the first death metal band to use the genre’s name in a song—specifically “Death Metal” from the 1985 album Seven Churches. In my opinion, Possessed sounds too much like thrash metal to qualify for this distinction, yet the tendencies towards what would become death metal are clearly there, and that made them one of the most important influences on the then-emerging Florida scene.
After this first wave of bands started to pick up steam across the country, other death metal bands began to flock to Tampa, which was considered the epicenter of the scene. Specifically, Morrisound Recording quickly became the go-to studio for Scott Burns, the producer who played a significant role in creating the Florida death metal sound. Most of today’s more extreme metal styles such as black metal, metalcore, and djent can in some way be traced back to the Sunshine state.
Most of the bands have evolved over the years—some more than others—so I’ll focus on the early years of the Florida scene and discuss some of the elements used by the four aforementioned pioneering bands on their earlier genre-defining albums. As this is an overview, I’ll inevitably leave out more than I'd like to, but this lesson will give you some tools to help you achieve an old-school death metal sound.
For starters, I’d recommend an amp like a Marshall Valvestate 8100, which Death had been known to use throughout their career. These amps might have a bad reputation within contemporary metal circles, but for the scooped, sludgy sound of those early death metal albums, they work great. Other good options would be Marshall JCM800s and older Mesa/Boogie models. We’re looking for loads of gain combined with a high-output humbucker.
Note: In this lesson, all the examples are notated as if they’re in standard tuning, although for the audio clips, I’ve tuned down a half-step or whole-step for sonic authenticity. If you want to play along, simply look at the upper left-hand tuning instructions in each example’s tab and music notation.
Okay, let’s dive in. Ex. 1 is a mid-tempo riff in the style of Obituary, who are the least “technical” of the Florida bands and are known for their groove-oriented playing. It’s a simple riff that uses tremolo picking on the open 6th string that’s intersected by some quarter- and eighth-note power chords. Harmonically, it’s somewhat based around E Phrygian (E–F–G–A–B–C–D), but adds the 3 and a b5 right before the riff repeats. (The formula for Phrygian is 1–b2–b3–4–5–b6–b7, relative to the parallel major scale.) The use of the 3 and b5 in a Phrygian context is quite popular among thrash metal, old-school death metal, and even contemporary hardcore bands. The last measure features a syncopated rhythm for the chord changes that consists of two punctuated quarter-notes and one regular quarter-note. This rhythm can be found in many Obituary songs. It’s sometimes played with open chords, like in this example, but is also combined with tremolo picking where the notes change on the “and” of beat 2 and beat 4.
Ex. 2 is a sludgy riff that’s typical of Obituary’s slower songs. Again, the riff is centered around E Phrygian, but with a natural 2 in the last measure. Note the use of the inverted power chords, which let you play a power chord on the 5th string while retaining the thick sound of the 6th string. There’s also an added level of dissonance due to the use of a fourth instead of a fifth. Moving power chords in tritone intervals using inversions is very common in Obituary riffs. It’s part of their typical sound, as is the simple rhythm that alternates between 16th-notes and eighth-notes.
With Ex. 3, we move into Morbid Angelterritory. The band’s sound has been described by fans as a stream of lava because of how they play at relatively high speeds. This riff uses a lot of tremolo-picked 16th-notes at 210 bpm (!) and only a few power chords and octave dyads, which is one of their trademarks, for rhythmic accents. Since the riff stays on each tremolo-picked section for a couple of beats, it creates a rather static feeling, especially if combined with a fast double-bass drum and a snare that accents the power chords and dyads. Make sure to properly palm-mute the tremolo parts—this enhances the feeling of the riff.
Ex. 4 gets slow and heavy with a riff comprising octaves, power chords, and palm-muted single notes. Harmonically we are in E minor with some added chromatic notes, the typical use of the 3 in a generally minor context and the b2 at the end of the last measure adds a little Phrygian flavor. The important thing in this riff is the phrasing. The dyads ring out longer and you slide into the first one from a half step below. Morbid Angel were one of the first extreme metal bands to utilize these octaves in slow riffs like this one adding an eerie vibe to their sound. The chromatic power chords use slides to create a slurry effect that is another trademark of Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth’s unique style.
Ex. 5 explores the style of Death—a band that has not only pioneered the genre as a whole, but also lead the way for more progressive styles before mastermind Chuck Schuldiner sadly lost his battle with cancer in 2001. The riff is a slower and based on a triplet rhythm that sounds like the chorus to one of Death’s earlier songs. The riff is loosely in E minor, but the chromatic ideas make it a bit ambiguous. The alternation between rhythmic accents, held quarter-note power chords, and tremolo picking is also common on early Death albums.
In Ex. 6, we have a faster Death-style riff. A typical harmonic move that Schuldiner used in his early recordings is playing two major thirds a half-step apart. Here, they occur as descending melodic major thirds (based on A–C# and G#–B# intervals—the latter written enharmonically as G#–C) that are split apart by a short 16th-note burst on the 6th string. Using F#5 as a theoretical target, the figure starts the major third movement on the 5 of the power chord and then moves down a half-step while being played against the insistent, recurring F#. This is quite typical of Chuck Schuldiner’s riffs from that era.
The second part consists of a tremolo pattern with rhythmic eighth-note accents on the 5 of the power chord of the moment (F# accenting B5, A accenting D5, G# accenting C#5, and E#—enharmonically written as F—accenting A#5). This figure is a signature pattern that can be found in many Deathsongs.
The last band we’ll look at in this lesson is Deicide. Ex. 7 is a triplet-groove riff inspired by the band’s early work. Even though it’s rather chromatic, we’re using E as the tonal center. Pay particular attention to the sound of the figure on the first two beats of each measure. You’ll find it in many Deicide songs in different rhythmic variations, but it’s always a descending minor second followed by a descending major third. You can move this figure around chromatically and even shift it to different sets of strings.
Ex. 8 shows a fast tremolo picking riff using the chromatic scale. Deicide’sguitar duo of that time, Eric and Brian Hoffman, liked to move chromatic patterns to different sets of strings using the same frets. Here, the chromatic movement going from B to Bb at the end of measure two is moved to the 6 string (Gb to F) at the end of measure four.
In this example, I combined this idea with the Hoffmans’ fondness of rhythmic displacement—especially in tremolo picking riffs. While the riff is in 4/4, it features groupings of two and three notes with accents occurring in the form of larger interval jumps or changes from ascending to descending groupings.