I know, everybody says that. It’s super clickbaity.
This song is, at time of writing, 39 years old. In those years millions of musicians, pro’s and bedroom (now YouTube) players, have tried to dissect and understand how it works.
Literally hundreds of thousands of tabs have been crafted and handed around at band practices and sheet music books have been published showing how “official” people think it works.
And: they’re all wrong.
You’re right: that is a bold claim. I appreciate that.
I mean no disrespect to anyone who’s tabbed this out, who’s created an “official” licensed version of this and had it sell loads of copies, to any musicians out there or YouTubers and teachers who offer lessons on how to play this.
The simple truth is that people have spent nearly 40 years trying to put a square peg into a round hole.
Many of them may have all the right notes in the right order but literally every single tab I’ve seen, every single lesson I’ve watched on YouTube is wrong because they all make the same fundamental error from the outset and suffer from the same cognitive biases.
As with all things in life, if you get the first thing wrong and then apply biased thinking to what follows, you’re going to be in serious trouble!
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got all the right notes in the right order, if you’re forcing yourself and your students to understand something wrong you’re just making it hard for all concerned.
Before I get into how it really works, I need to explain why people have had this thing so wrong for so long.
It’s all to do with our brains and our cultural expectations.
[if you’re not inclined to wade through 2,500+ words on this subject, click here to get the short version! I won’t judge you…]
We all have preconceived notions about the music we listen to, how it works, what comes where and when etc, and this song is literally a perfect storm of all of them wrapped up in a tempo that makes orienting yourself akin to trying to hang on to a kite in a tornado.
Here they are in reverse order, the last being THE most important.
Way back in the day the Ride The Ligtning tab book was published and the first mistake was codiefied for all time.
This book, despite all of us knowing that most tab books are hot garbage, has been unconsciously accepted as gospel where this song is concerned. All subsequent tabs for this song are based either directly on this book or on the memory of this book.
But it’s wrong…
Thanks to popular music we’ve all been conditioned to expect the backbeat to be Kick-Snare-Kick-Snare.
And thus we think of it, when it occurs at the beginning, as being the very beginning.
This is a common thing in music where the lowest note of a piece is considered Home. It’s often where the song starts and even if the end is in a different key, the last note is often the root/tonic note of that key.
At the end of a song or piece of music, this makes us feel a resolution; at the start it makes us feel grounded for the journey ahead.
This is the most important bit. Get this wrong and the entire song is “off”…
Unfortunately, this is what everyone has had wrong for all this time and it’s why all the tabs and scores and lessons are wrong.
Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the prevailing wisdom for how this riff starts, how it’s commonly accepted to be.
Here are the UG and SheetMusicPlus versions (remember, these are based on the official tab book or the memory of it):
UG Tab of the one
SMP tab of the one (bit blurry, sorry...)
If you look closely at the details you’ll see that the UG tab is essentially a copy of the retail version.
Bar one starts on the cymbal choke/E5 power-chord played by guitar 2 and the drums (not shown above) while guitar 1 (Het’) is off to the races with 6 16th notes and an 8th note on the off/upbeat of beat 2.
This off/upbeat rhythmic motif carries on throughout this riff forcing you to count:
1 – 2 & – 3 – 4 & 1 – 2 & – 3 & – 4 & at 204bpm!!
This is incredibly lumpy, inelegant and not what’s really happening.
This is the square peg into a round hole. What we’re seeing here is a convergence of both our need for the first, lowest note to be our “home” AND for it to be the one/downbeat.
I’ve included a few screencaps below from random YouTube lessons to illustrate just how widespread this conception of the song is.
We as musicians and fans are prone to mythologising our musical idols, imbuing them with theory chops they don’t have because what they’ve played is really complicated.
Metallica aren’t Rush or Dream Theater or King Crimson. Back in 1984 they were 4 young lads on the upward trajectory of fame and enjoying all that brings with it (booze, drugs, women etc).
They weren’t spending their down time studying the intricacies of big band syncopation and how to map it to their music.
Yes, Cliff had some theory knowledge but they were 4 drunken metalheads intent on writing the most “metal” album they could to bludgeon their equally drunken fans into a circle pit of death!
I put this out there because so many people over the years have tied themselves up in theory knots trying to explain how to play this song with the accents on the offbeats and all kinds of other shenanigans.
I put it to you that ALL the tabs and the prevailing idea of how this song works are wrong and invite you to reconsider it in light of what follows…
Remember our preconceptions that colour our perceptions of what we’re hearing:
The cymbal and guitar swell that leads into the choke is a-tempo; it’s just kind of there until someone says, “GO!”
It could go on for a second or 10 seconds or even more depending on how much tension they wanted to extract from the build up.
If we take the cymbal and guitar 2 choke that we hear (and the 2 16th notes that Het’ plays under it) and move them OUT of what is currently believed to be bar one and put them into a bar of their own everything else thereafter moves up half a beat and then FALLS SQUARELY ON THE BEAT.
This is a common musical device called an anacrusis. I often call it a pickup note.
I have no idea why no-one has spotted this in 39 years. Forcing yourself to count off/upbeats when all you have to do is move one note and everything lines up perfectly… Baffling.
Below is guitar 2 swelling into the choke CORRECTLY.
This pick-up note is, if the drummer were to give a 4 count on the hi-hats during the swell, the & of beat 4.
Why is this so important? Well, it’s what it does to the rest of the riff.
By relocating this note to its proper place outside and ahead of the riff, everything that comes next gets nudged up by an 8th note and now sits on the beat.
Below is the traditional tabbing of the riff using 8th notes to make it easier to read:
And then the JTR (correct) rendering.
This one note and its historical misplacement in the riff is the one thing, the very first assumption, that everyone has had wrong from the beginning.
You can see, in the traditional version, that the stabs are on the & of 2, 4, 2, 3, and 4.
When we place the choke in it’s own bar (where it belongs!), the stabs line up PERFECTLY on beats
2, 4, 2, 3 and 4!
These riffs are easier to grasp if we clear away some of the noise.
The song starts at 204bpm and with Het & Hamm really tremelo picking rather than using genuine 16th notes all wrapped up in the murky 80’s production, it’s really hard to work out what’s happening.
If we strip things back and change the subdivision from 16th notes to 8th notes, what’s happening becomes crystal clear.
Grab your guitar and just take a moment to play this yourself using 8th notes at a slower tempo; I’m sure you’ll find it a lot easier to get the feel of what’s really happening.
Here’s the audio of these 6 bars at 204bpm using 8th notes:
Below is an audio clip from the swell through the stabs all the TRADITIONAL way on the off/upbeats (the wrong way). Notice how wrong it feels against the click
Below is an audio clip from the swell through the stabs all ON THE BEAT the right way.
Can you feel how much more elegant it is when everything is on the beat versus trying to stick the landing of the stabs on off/upbeats?
When listening to this and playing it yourself, really lean into the click until it beds in because the one will try to slip away from you. Your brain is naturally going to try and make you feel the stabs as the ones and if you let it you’re going to be in deep trouble very quickly!
Concentrate on the stabs, where they land and really learn and feel where they are.
Now that they’re on the beat they’re sitting squarely on 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.
Use this count of 2, 4, 2, 3, 4 on the stabs to anchor yourself while getting to grips with finally hearing and seeing it the right way…
I think you’ll agree that having the stabs land on the beat instead of on the upbeats is not only easier to read it’s easier to play and understand.
Because it’s right…
I mentioned earlier that the choke at the start is an anacrusis, a pickup note that sits at the end of it’s own theoritcal bar on the & of 4; well at the end of every set of 3 stabs once the riff has a pickup note that performs the same function as the choke.
You’ve always felt this riff correctly, felt that low E as a weak note, NOT a strong downbeat but again, thanks to decades of conditioning and received wisdom, you’ve ignored what you feel and know to be right and favoured what everyone believes is right based on an old mistake.
We need to talk about Lars. Remember our preconception about the pattern that drums “should” take? Kick-Snare-Kick-Snare?
Well, Lars is always gonna Lars and he’s going Snare-Kick-Snare-Kick because he’s Lars.
Butt he is very firmly ON THE BEAT. Don’t go looking for any Carey/Portnoy-esque syncopation here: his snare is on the beat.
Here’s an approximation (sorry drummers) of his drum part from the stabs (at 204bpm) with a click so you can see that his snare is on the beat. Remember: the stabs are on 2, 4, 2, 3, 4.
Don’t worry if you get lost listening to it without any of the landmarks that the guitars provide, just notice that once we’re into the riff you cannot hear the click; that’s because the snare is on top of the beat!
Here’s what Lars’ drum part roughly looks like (sorry drummers):
Something else to notice is that he’s playing a cymbal crash with the snare on beat 4 of every 2nd bar. It’s an odd place to play it but it is very Lars…
Lars is also playing pickup notes off the back of the stabs. He’s using them as a run up to get going into the main riff. Listen:
Here’s the drum tab for the last 2 bars:
Next we come to a much discussed riff!
I’m a huge fan of the YouTube work of Uncle Ben Eller and Mike at the Art of Guitar; they and others have all pulled this riff apart and while I’m not a guitarist (bass player here), I’ve listened to the isolated guitar part and watched Het’s left hand and I’ve created a streamlined approximation of what’s happening in there.
I hate to say it but both the experienced and highly talented Ben and Mike have both fallen victim to the “fallacy of the choke” and their riff breakdowns and count explainers are both half a beat wrong…
Remember, we are ON the beat now. This means that the open low E we’ve conditioned ourselves to hear and feel as the downbeat is actually a pickup note from the end of the last phrase of the main riff which puts our G note on the downbeat of this second riff.
This will really mess with your noodle if you’re used to hearing the E as the downbeat!
The good news is that once you’ve got to grips with the preceding riff the correct way, this one flows really nicely on the G downbeat.
It all looks like this:
Below is an audio clip of this with 2 bars of the main riff leading into the spiky riff at 186bpm.
Pay close attention to how we’re on the beat going in but there’s what “feels” like an accent switch at the end of each run of the phrase.
It’s not an accent switch, it’s Lars crashing on the pickup note but it’s hard not to hear it as an accent switch due to our preconceived notion of the ol’ Kick-Snare-Kick-Snare pattern…
More on that in a moment.
Because this riff is so intricate and it goes by so quick at 186bpm, here it is again at 130bpm for you (REMEMBER – There’s no accent switch!!):
What’s interesting here, if you’re a theory nerd like me, is that the big cymbal crashes at the end of the riff are on the off/upbeats now that the song is wholly on the beat.
*** Curiously, and perhaps also adding to the reason why this has been transcribed the way it has for so long, in the traditional way, this riff actually ends up on the beat starting with a low E, kick first, with the crashes at the end happening on beats 3 and 4 of the last bar rather than on off/upbeats.
We have clearly seen, however, that we are firmly on the beat from the beginning and so this riff is too and has the crashes on the off/upbeats of beats 2 and 3 and NOT on beats 3 & 4.
It’s subtle and a bit spicy but once you understand it it makes perfect sense. ***
The ending of this riff gives us a sense that the accent has switched thanks to Lars choosing to hit a kick/crash on the & of 4 at the end of the 2nd bar of this phrase.
It hasn’t switched though.
This perceived or felt accent switch “seems” to make things restart on the kick but this last note of the riff is a weak pickup note that resets us back onto the beat with Lars’ snare still firmly on the one where it’s always been (the G for the guitars and bass).
It’s a very Lars thing to do (he does something similar in Blackened), playing with moving the feeling of the accent but still keeping things right where they are.
His style is unique, he rarely keeps a straight beat and when he does he’s often over or short of the bar and switching his lead drum from snare to kick or vice versa.
And then we’re off into the Verse which is the main riff with a truncated version of this 2nd riff so nothing to really deep dive into.
So, in summary, we have several cognitive biases in play that have really undermined how we mechanically understand this song.
Below are two versions of the entire riff from the swell, both the “traditional way” and the JTR (right) way; one set of versions starts at 130bpm and the other starts at 204bpm.
Both have clicks and both are using 8th notes instead of 16ths to make it clearer to hear and read what’s going on.
Hopefully, by listening to the difference you can really feel how completely wrong it’s been taught for 39 years and how, by simply moving one note, everything literally falls into place 😎
Note, as you listen, how jarring the traditional version sounds when you have a click in there for reference to indicate where the one really is.
The tempo changes at this slower tempo definitely feel lumpy but at speed, even though they’re still quite dramatic jumps, they feel less obvious.
Traditional version swell up to Verse @ 130bpm
JTR version swell up to Verse @ 130bpm
Traditional version swell up to Verse @ 204bpm
JTR version swell up to Verse @ 204bpm
As a footnote, just to show that this holds true with the original recording, here’s the audio of the intro with the choke and with the choke removed.
Note how, with the version that has the choke, you have to adjust your perception of what you’re hearing to fit the beat whereas with the version that has the choke edited out you know exactly where you are as soon as it starts and you don’t have to adjust anything.
Audio one: with choke.
Audio two: no choke.
I hope I’ve explained all of this clearly; it’s a riff that’s been on my mind for decades and every time I see a tutorial about it, even though they confidently end with “and that’s how you count and play it…” something has always felt wrong about it.
I’m sure it has for you too. For 39 years everyone has been putting one note in the wrong place then spending their lives trying to get that square peg into a round hole so they don’t go nuts.
If playing it the old, traditional way works for you then keep going with it!
If you’ve always been bothered by this song and how it feels versus how it looks when you see the tabs then I hope that this has cleared it up for you.
I’ll be putting together a YouTube video on this for the JTR channel shortly too, just working on text to have in it so it’s not as wordy as this essay!
Until next time, may the riff be with you.
Well, I respect you for getting down to brass tacks. 👍🏽
Here’s the short answer: the choke at the beginning is NOT the one, it is NOT the downbeat.
By taking it out of the 1st bar and moving it into a bar before the riff starts, everything moves up an 8th note and lands on the beat.
And Lars is playing the snare, NOT the kick, on the beat.
This is how we all “feel” the song and how we all know it really is but due to the tabs all being wrong for nearly 40 years we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re wrong and they’re right!
They’re not right. In fact, they’re all very wrong!
This song is squarely on the beat, the way you know it is, because it’s 80’s thrash metal played by 4 drunken, coked up deadheads from San Francisco, not Neil Peart or Guthrie Govan.
Simple: Choke’s NOT the downbeat and Lars snare is on the one.