How Opeth Tosses Out the Rules
Rhythmic intensity and beautiful, crunchy dissonance fuel the prog-metal stylings of one of Sweden’s heaviest exports.
• 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.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
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.
Click here for Ex. 1
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.
Click here for Ex. 2
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.
Click here for Ex. 3
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.
Click here for Ex. 4
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.
Click here for Ex. 5
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.
Click here for Ex. 6
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.
Click here for Ex. 7
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.
Click here for Ex. 8
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!
Rig Rundown: Olivia Jean
The Third Man Records songstress shows off the lovely Fender and Gretsch "girls" that are her go-tos for eerie garage-rock and psych-pop tones.
While Olivia Jean used a Fender Player Jaguar for recording most of 2019’s Night Owl, this lovely, pink-sparkle Fender Parallel Universe Volume II Maverick Dorado will do the road work when touring returns. The gifted reissue features a custom paint job—mirroring the Night Owl cover—was done by Fender’s Jay Nelson and the build was overseen by Chip Ellis at the Fender Custom Shop. And she calls this beauty the “Holly Grail.” (The original run of the Fender Electric XII-esque oddball was limited to 1969 and it was then referred as the Fender Custom.)
She plays in standard tuning, uses Ernie Ball Regular Slinkys (.010–.046) on all her guitars, and plucks with Dunlop Nylon 1mm picks.
Talk about weird, here’s the Maverick Dorado headstock that shadows the Electric XII silhouette sporting just six tuners.
“Betty” is a Gretsch G6128T-GH George Harrison Signature Duo Jet Electric that was a gift from Jack White. He gave her and bassist Ruby Rogers (Thunder Jet Bass) matching instruments before the band toured in support of 2011’s The Black Belles. She asserts it has a beefier, bassy sound than the Maverick Dorado.
This Fender Hot Rod DeVille 2x12 has been a staple in her touring rig for years.
Olivia is singing and playing throughout the set, so tap dancing on her pedalboard isn’t an option. However, her simplistic stomp station serves up plenty of flavorings. Her two always-on pedals are the Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail and MXR Sugar Drive. The Third Man Bumble Fuzz (a gift from White) stings for soloing and is accompanied with the Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor for lowing the buzz. The pair of tools she has on the board is the TC Helicon Mic Mechanic (allowing her to control reverb levels on her vocals) and TC Electronic Wiretap (for recording ideas/riffs). Everything is powered by the T-Rex Fuel Tank Classic and her guitars are kept in check with a Korg Pitchblack Chromatic Tuner.
Universal Audio UAFX Golden Reverberator Review
Superb Universal Audio effects, now available for all, in stompbox size.
Superb spring, plate, and digital reverb tones. Logical interface. Solid construction. Compact size. Good price.
No MIDI. Power supply not included.
Universal Audio Golden Reverberator
Universal Audio's new UAFX guitar pedal line is genuinely newsworthy. The company's software emulations of vintage analog gear earn near-unanimous praise from producers and engineers. But until recently, UA software ran only on UA interfaces, such as the Apollo line of interface/preamp/convertors. That changed two years ago, with the release of the $1,299 OX Amp Top Box, a load box and speaker emulator incorporating several fine UA effects. And now UA effects are available in a relatively inexpensive stompbox format, thanks to the Astra Modulation Machine, Starlight Echo Station, and Golden Reverberator. Here, we focus on the reverb pedal.
The Golden Reverberator and its siblings share the same dimensions and control layout. The 5 ½" x 3 ½" x 1½" enclosure is slightly larger than a standard B-sized box. It has two footswitches, six knobs, and three mini-toggles. The audio and 9V DC jacks are top-mounted.
The pedal ships with nine reverb algorithms: three Fender-style spring simulations, clones of three analog EMT plates, and room and hall sounds from Lexicon's 224 unit. You can unlock three additional 224 effects after registration. (My audio clips include all 12 tones.) A four-core ARM processor does the heavy digital lifting.
Many reverb stompboxes sound decent enough, but they betray digital artifacts during quiet passages or long, exposed decays. Sometimes they have unwanted resonant frequencies that prevent the wet signal from meshing harmoniously with the dry tone. That's never the case here. Even the longest, quietest reverb tails maintain immersive warmth and detail. These are tones you'll want to bathe in.
The EMT and 224 algorithms sound nearly identical to their UA predecessors—and that's saying something! (I've been using UA's Apollo system for the better part of a decade, and I know these plug-ins well.) UA did an astounding job capturing the warmth and depth of an EMT plate, a huge and expensive hardware beast. In fact, UA based their models on the plates from the old Record Plant studios in Sausalito, California. I worked on many projects using those very plates, and, yes, the Golden Reverberator sounds and feels like a great hardware plate.
The pedal also conjures the sparkle and transparency of the Lexicon unit that helped define the sound of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the spring settings are something new from UA. Some of their amp-model plug-ins incorporate reverb, but their only previous standalone spring plug-in is a clone of the AKG BX20—a vintage outboard spring unit that sounds a little like a vintage-style Fender tank. The Golden Reverberator also nails that bouncy, percussive, and relatively trashy Fender sound.
Just Easy Enough
The controls are identical for all 12 algorithms. There are no confusing secondary functions. You can specify reverb length, pre-delay time, and wet/dry mix. There's bass and treble shelving EQ, plus a pot that adds pitch modulation to the wet signal. You choose algorithms via two mini-toggles. A third toggle lets you store a single sound in memory. That means you always have access to two reverb tones: a stored setting, and one reflecting the current control settings.
For the demo clips, I recorded a clean-toned passage and then re-amped it through the 12 algorithms—twice. You hear each algorithm with the effect in front of the amp, pedalboard-style. You also hear each setting as an effect send within my DAW. Naturally, the post-amp clips are more hi-fi, with greater frequency and dynamic range, plus lovely stereo imaging. These reveal the sheer quality of UA's processing. But the reverbs sound great upstream from the amp as well.
I dialed in "conventional" settings: spring reverb with no predelay or modulation, plate reverb with 20 ms or so of predelay, and Lexicon reverb with predelay and a touch of pitch modulation. But you could also get more creative with these models by, say, adding a long predelay and woozy pitch modulation to a straight spring sound.
The UAFX Golden Reverberator's tones stand head and shoulders above those of lower-priced stompboxes that employ relatively inexpensive "brick"-style processors or Spin FV-1 chips. But the $350-$500 price range includes fine-sounding reverb pedals from the likes of Strymon, Eventide, and Source Audio. Deciding which effect is "best" can be a subjective exercise.
But as someone who loves EMT 140 plate reverb above all other options, I can declare that the Golden Reverberator is now my favorite reverb pedal. Your tastes may differ—some rival algorithm may be closer to your ideal. But you can't deny that this pedal faithfully replicates three beloved retro reverbs. Factor in a lucid interface, solid construction, and a competitive price, and the Golden Reverberator is a total triumph.