Welcome to the first installment of Mort, Death’s Apprentice! In this series, we’ll explore how to play death metal in its various iterations. We’ll examine different subgenres of death metal and acknowledge some of the style’s pioneering bands. In the process, you’ll develop some serious metal rhythm chops, gain a basic understanding of the sounds that make up death metal, and learn a bit about the history of metal.
As in many other genres, the different styles of death metal emerged in local scenes. In some cases, a style will also carry the name of its geographical origin, much like Delta blues or Chicago blues. For this lesson, we’ll look at the more melodic side of the metal scene that came out of Gothenburg, Sweden. This style makes an excellent point of entry for those who are not yet familiar with death metal, as it borrows many harmonic and melodic elements from traditional heavy metal and hard rock.
This style is also important because of how it helped spawn contemporary metal scenes. Bands like As I Lay Dying, Trivium, Unearth, and Killswitch Engage are heavily influenced by the melodic riffing pioneered by the Gothenburg scene from the ’90s. Also, the bands discussed in this lesson frequently headline some of the biggest metal festivals in the world and, due to their melodic style, are immensely popular—even with people who usually don’t listen to more extreme metal genres.
Let’s look at the three most important bands from Gothenburg that are generally considered to be the originators of this style: At the Gates, In Flames, and Dark Tranquility. I’ll use a few examples to illustrate each band’s sound and approach. This is not a complete breakdown of the bands’ respective contributions, because some of them changed their style dramatically over the years. That said, these examples will show how they used basic musical elements in different ways to shape their unique sound.
To get the right tone, you should use a guitar with high-output humbuckers and a high-gain amplifier (ideally that would be a Peavey 5150/6505 or Rectifier-style head). At the Gates also made use of the infamous Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal pedal to get a more grinding guitar sound on their genre-defining Slaughter of the Soul album. But really any high-gain amp will suffice, as most death metal bands at that time would use whatever amp they could get their hands on.
Important note: All the audio examples in this lesson are played on a guitar tuned to B standard (B–E–A–D–F#–B). However, the shapes and riffs still work in standard tuning—they’ll simply sound a fourth higher than the audio clips. Many of the bands from this scene used several different tunings, but B standard is fairly common and easy to get your fingers around.
Ex. 1 starts with a fast 6/8 riff in B minor that’s reminiscent of something you might hear from Slaughter of the Soul. A large part of this album has a triplet feel, chugs away on that low 6th string, and is extremely fast. Make sure to warm up your picking hand and slowly work up to speed. It’s a typical pedal-note riff with some added embellishments between the two guitar parts. The root movement goes B–G–F# on the lowest string, which you could also think of as Im–VI–V. This eerie sounding progression pops up on many songs on the album. The added melodic notes are either chord tones or scalar motifs. The A# in the next-to-last measure hints at harmonic minor before resolving to B.
In Ex. 2, we stay with At the Gates and explore another triplet-feel riff. Twin brothers Anders (guitar) and Jonas (bass) Björler like to use the b5 to add tension to their syncopated grooves. Again, the riff borrows a note from a different key—this time the C from B Phrygian (B–C–D–E–F#–G–A), which gives it a darker sound. At the Gates songs often borrow notes from other keys for added melodic flavor.
Before we move on to another band let’s take a look into At the Gates’ more melodic side in—yes, you guessed correctly—B minor. Ex. 3 shows a melody played in octaves over changing chords. The melody notes are again taken from chord tones, and, as in Ex. 1, we have a harmonic minor sound in the penultimate measure, thanks to the A#.
Ex. 4 is a riff in the style of In Flames. It is again a pedal-note riff in B minor, but instead of playing single notes over the low note, we have dyads. The band’s former guitar duo of Jesper Strömblad and Björn Gelotte use this technique to create melodies above the pedal point. Another typical element in their songwriting is the phrase played in harmony at the end of the riff. This little flourish is one of their trademarks.
While At the Gates play mostly fast, aggressive riffs, In Flames tend to be a lot more melodic, as demonstrated in Ex. 5. It’s a melody in 3/4 played by both guitars without a rhythm guitar adding harmony—the bass takes care of that. The phrase moves between being unison and harmony and is in E minor.
Our last In Flames-style riff (Ex. 6) is a 3-bar riff in 3/4 that lets the notes of arpeggiated chords ring together to create slow, messy sounds. This type of playing is typical of their early work and can be found on tracks like “Moonshield.”
Ex. 7 moves on to Dark Tranquility and shows their take on pedal-note riffs. Their tempos seem to sit between the examples we’ve already looked at, though this B minor riff feels faster due to the constant jumping between notes.
The melody in Ex. 8 consists of 16th-notes and showcases a technique that some might call double picking, where each note of the melody is picked twice. On their earlier albums, such as The Gallery, Dark Tranquility frequently used this technique when playing melodies, and you can still hear it on later albums, including Damage Done. Again, the melody is mostly taken from chord tones of the underlying rhythm guitar harmony (Bm–Em–D–F#m).
In their later work, the band incorporated rhythmically displaced staccato playing, as shown in Ex. 9. Often intersected by small melodic fragments that are also shown here, this approach usually occurs at slower speeds and in lower tunings.