Leper Messiah Intro: The Right Way

Leper Messiah Intro: The Right Way

Full disclosure: this rabbit hole was prompted by the work of Ben Eller on YouTube and his video showing the correct way to play this intro on the guitar.

It got me wondering what Cliff was up to…

After doing some more digging I found a video with the audio of Cliff’s bass part isolated from the original recording here, on KayJay(kjl3080)‘s channel, and it was clear as day what he was doing: there’s some serious stuff we’ve been getting wrong about this for a loooooooong time!

Also, in my transcription I’ve omitted Cliff’s handling noise at the very beginning before Lars counts it in; this is not musical and is a-tempo anyway so it’s not part of the song in any way even though everyone else includes it. If it came after the count as a slide into the first notes of the riff, I’d include it.

If you were tabbing out the drums, you wouldn’t transcribe the sound of Lars picking his sticks up off the snare!

How we've always thought it was played

Like many riffs, this has been tabbed out wrong and played wrong for a very long time.

Below are some screencaps illustrating just how deeply entrenched the idea of how it’s played is. (side note: UG has ammended it’s guitar tab to reflect what Het’s actually playing, probably after watching Ben Eller’s video, but hasn’t adjusted the bass part!)

Let’s unpack what we’re looking at here.

Picture 1 is the guitar tab from the official SheetMusicDirect score and is available for sale. So far so familiar.

Pictures 2 & 3 are from Ultimate-Guitar.com. As mentioned above, the guitar tab now shows the correct part (most likely altered after watching Ben Eller unpack what’s really happening) but they’ve left the bass part the old way…

Realistically, if you play the traditional bass part against the correct guitar part, it will sound “right” even though it’s not what Cliff is playing…

Next up we have the Songsterr.com version. Same as the rest albeit with some interesting time signature jiggery-pokery.

The remaining 4 images are screencaps of 4 randomly selected YouTubers (not throwing shade at anyone for their content, I just searched “Leper Messiah Bass Tab” and these 4 were randomly selected).

Interestingly, one of them was clearly aware that something wasn’t quite right but they still got it wrong.

Let’s take a quick look at it the right way.

Below is Het’s guitar part based on the findings of Ben Eller and then Cliff’s bass part based on what’s audible in the isolated bass part.

Each tab is followed by an audio clip of the instrument on it’s own with a click so you can feel the weight of the real tempo and see how clean and easy it is to read in the JTR tab.

Can you feel the weight of it now? How, when you get past Lars counting it in in 5, it naturally feels like a lumbering beast of a riff? Think Sad But True levels of sludge!

So let’s take a deeper dive into why this intro is actually the way it is.

What uncle ben found...

Ben Eller did some sleuthing and found out what the hands of Het’ are actually playing and it wasn’t what we all thought. Here’s my hot take on it all.

chord types

Most rock and metal makes liberal use of the legendary powerchord: root and 5th played together to give a massive and harmonious sound.

However, music theory isn’t so clean cut. It’s possible to rearrange the notes in a chord to create a different sounds and textures, different tonalities and moods.

Still using the same notes, an E5 powerchord (E and B) can still technically be an E5 powerchord if you play it B and E instead. This is what’s called an inversion.

This kind of thing is most common with 3 note chords (triads) and more complex voicings like 7ths, 9ths, 11ths etc where you might often hear people talk about things like X chord over Y note.

All this means in our E5 example is that the 5th note of the scale (B) above E has been moved from ABOVE the root note of the chord to BELOW it.

Time Signatures

This song is famous for Lars’ 5 count at the beginning which has led many a tabber to try and shoehorn this into all manner of odd times to account for this. You can completely ignore this 5 business 😂

I suspect that Lars counts it in in 5 because there are what feel like 5 beats to get you onto the A5 chord (1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5) and that’s what makes sense to the band, but after that the whole idea of it being in 5/4 literally falls apart like a wet cake.

It’s in 4/4 and the only “odd” time signature is the last bar which is a bar of 7/8 but, due to the tempo, you can easily count this (or not, just play it and feel it) without developing a nose bleed…

Next we move on to:


As with a lot of music, how it sounds, how it feels and how it reads are often not the same.

It’s super tempting to write this up as 130bpm (or thereabouts) and use 8th notes. However, I contend that it’s actually at 65bpm, using a 16th note feel and it’s actually as slow and heavy as you know it feels.

I appreciate that this might be splitting hairs for some people and I totally respect that.

It would work perfectly well as 8th notes at 130bpm (and clearly does for a lot of people) but instead of a neat 5 bar phrase of mixed 8th and 16th notes it would be an 9 bar phrase of mixed quarter and 8th notes!

Economy and clarity should be the watch words when transcribing music.

There’s also a tendency in Rock and Metal to assume that all songs must be using fast tempos. Don’t be afraid of slow and sludgy; if the pulse of the song feels longer and heavier than the music sounds on the surface then sometimes it just is what it is… For more on this, see my thoughts on tempo.

Interesting to note: in the traditional tabs that have the chugs in the right place on the pickup note (more on that below) but use the tempo of 136bpm, forcing them to use 8th notes, they end their tabs of the riff with a bar of 4/4 and a bar of 3/4.

This ending is, of course, 7 beats in length so when using 16th notes at 65bpm, we have a bar of 7/8 at the end of the JTR version.

It’s the same but right… and more readable. 😉

what's the key..?

In the spirit of total honesty, I had this wrong. I jumped to a conclusion and had to revise my position after letting the whole thing percolate in my brain for a few days…

Based on the notes being played by Cliff, I had assumed that it was in C Major. Cliff’s part, in isolation, would be in Cmaj but, after careful examination and thought, based on what Het’s playing and not just on what Cliff is playing, this intro is in the standard Metallica key of E minor with the classic phyrigian mode, also known as the Metallica scale E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E.

Het is playing a mix of inverted 5ths and regular powerchord 5ths starting on F5 which is the flattened 2nd of the Em scale, creates the Phyrigian Mode and is the Metallica scale.

So, back to Cliff: he is playing what looks like a root note during the chugs but is actually the 5th of the chords; he’s playing the roots in the regular powerchords though. See Chord Types above for more…

The pickup note (again)

Regular readers of my essays will recall that I’ve highlighted Metallica’s (and many other bands) use of the pickup note to kick off a riff.

This is where you play the first part of the riff at the end of a preceding bar. It gives the riff momentum, it launches it and has the effect of really highliting the downbeat, the one, of the riff proper. 

I’m sure that, like me, you’ve kind of instinctively felt that the big G’s are squarely on the beat; Lars goes big on the cymbals on these notes which gives them added downbeat weight to reinforce that feeling.

All the tabs quoted above get this right which is refreshing but they use all manner of different ways to notate it! Everything from a bar of 4/4 with only 1 beat in it to a 2/4 bar with a rest and a beat.

It’s just a bar of 4/4 with the chugs on the & of 4. Nice and clean and simple: count to 4 and play the 1st 2 notes of the chug on the &.

Let's look at Het's Part

Stop giggling…

This is the JTR version based on Ben Eller’s work. As you can see, the key signature at the start is indicative of Em.

You can see that the opening chugs are on the pickup, the offbeat (the &) of the previous bar and that this offsetting of the chugs leads us to have a bar of 7/8 at the end of the intro. 

No doubt the boys didn’t sit down and plan out this 7/8 bar at the end, even though Cliff knew his theory; in terms of the structure and the math’s of the riff, though, it has to be there. The good news is that you DON’T have to count it…

If you listen to the riff with a click you can follow why there’s a 7/8 bar but if you just listen to it without a click you can just feel it is what it is.

Het’s playing inverted 5ths for the chugs and chunking down on them so much that they’re essentially percussive more than melodic!

He only un-chunks (that’s a word, right?) to sound out the big chords which are traditionally voiced 5th powerchords (A5, G5 and F♮5) with the exception of the chord that falls on the 1st and the 2nd beats which is an inverted C5.

He might as well simply be playing dead/muted strings for the chugs they’re that tonally hard to pick out.

The powerchord 5th’s that come in bars 2 and 4 fall on the offbeat/upbeat of beat 2 but this feels perfectly natural at 65bpm and doesnt force you to count over the bar to keep your place:

&-a  |  1-&-a  – (2& – 3 – 4) -&-a  |  1-&-a  –  (2 – 3 – 4) -&-a  |   1-&-a  –  (2& – 3 – 4) -&-a  |  1-&-a  –  2-&-a 3-e-&-a – tri-pa-let |

Het's Guitar part with NO click

Het's Guitar part WITH a click

Let's move on to Cliff's part

As mentioned earlier, on the surface of things it looks like Cliff is playing the root notes of this riff but he is in fact playing a mix of inverted 5ths and root notes. This really helps to thicken things up even more!

Below is the JTR tab of Cliff’s part.

Below you’ll see the same tab marked up to show the inverted 5ths and the root notes. Inverted 5ths are in the red boxes and root notes are in the green.

Here is Cliff’s part with a click:

bringing it all together

So, thanks to the detective work of Ben Eller and a few intrepid YouTubers who managed to isolate Cliff’s part we now know what’s happening here and it’s nothing like what we’ve thought is was for decades.

Personally this makes me happy; I love finding out new stuff about things I thought I knew!

Het and Hamm are playing a mix of inverted 5th and straight 5th powerchords and Cliff is playing a mix of the roots of inverted 5ths…

All of that sounds a bit complicated but it’s not really when you read it and play it. It’s all theory nerding.

The intro is in 4/4 with a bar of 7/8 at the end but you don’t have to count this to play it because it flows really naturally (and you know the way it should sound anyway!).

It’s slow: really slow. The tempo is 65bpm as opposed to the tempo that’s usually marked of something up in the 130’s.

Below is the audio of the intro with Guitar, Bass and Drums (sorry drummers, it’s a pretty rudimentary rendering of the part) and a click to show you that it has that “Sad But True” or “The Thing That Should Not Be” level of lumbering tempo.