Lots of internet column inches have been written and dedicated to this one single riff; here’s my two cents!
Trust me, this is a necessary little diversion on the subject of tempo…
There are official transcriptions for sale and on the UG site and in both examples below they have the song starting at the tempo of 212bpm.
For sale version
I’ve transcribed it at 106bpm for this reason: in the verse and the chorus the drums are playing double-time feel and during the pre-chorus they’re actually playing at the song’s natural tempo of 106bpm.
To illustrate the tempo correctly, below is the verse riff with a rudimentary drum track behind it (showing it to be the double-time part in the song) and the pre-chorus with the drum track playing the pulse on the quarter notes.
Verse riff with drums (Double-Time Feel)
Pre-chorus with drums (actual tempo)
There is no point in the song where the drums go double the tempo of what they’re playing in the verse and the chorus so that means the verse and the chorus ARE the double-time and the tempo is actually 106bpm…
If it were actually at 212bpm and the song were to double-time from there you’d be hearing Dave Lombardo-eqsue drumming!
You can read more on my thoughts about tempo here.
Here are a couple of the tabs available for this riff:
For sale version
These are not very clear/easy to read so I’ve tabbed them out to make them more legible.
For sale version
Here’s how they both sound. In the UG one you can hear the mental gymnastics that people are going to to try and explain away the skipped feel bar.
More on that in a moment…
Verse riff for sale version 212bpm
verse riff UG version 212bpm
People like patterns and things to be simple and clean.
This way of thinking has been applied to this riff and it’s literally tied people up in knots over the decades since this beast dropped.
The solution really is simple and it’s been staring people in the face but, since the advent of programming in music, people have been desperately trying to map this riff to the “grid” to force it make sense.
There’s no need.
The first thing you need to do is to accept that this was played live by real humans, real 20 something, beer drinking, drug taking humans in a studio, probably with no click and just their gut feel and fire to keep things tight.
Once you’ve accepted that you’re better placed to accept that there was something they were “going for” and due to the enthusiasm of youth and the limitations of human physiology, they didn’t stick the landing exactly to the grid every single time the riff rolled around.
What were they aiming for?
A bar of 4/4 and a bar of 7/8.
Bizarrely, the UG tab and the for sale ones get this right:
1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4-5-6
If you look at this string of numbers, there are 14 notes here.
Can you see where this is going?
14 notes at a tempo of 106bpm equals a bar of 7/8!
The UG tab has a bar of 11/16 (!!!) in the mix to try and account for the “snatched at” feel of the bar but that’s trying to square a circle by drawing a hexagon!
The for-sale version of the tab also has the right number of notes, as above, but they do the sensible (and readable!) thing of NOT trying to account for the twitchiness of the bar and the baked in human error and just spell it out as a bar of 3/4.
Now, the keen eyed among you will no doubt have noticed that 3 bars of 4/4 and a bar of 3/4 at 212bpm is exactly the same as a one bar of 4/4 and a bar of 7/8 at 106bpm.
Well played you 🙂
Remember the aside about tempo at the start?
This song is in 106bpm so the for-sale tabs have the right notes and the right idea but they’ve written it out wrong because they’ve got the tempo wrong (in my opinion).
The low E 8th note in the bar 2, group of four, is almost a throw away note (a dead note or rest, even) that has the effect of stopping the riff in it’s tracks, standing the riff up and pushing the accent onto the offbeat.
All the rhythmic weight is now on the “G5-G5-F#5-G5” 8th notes across bar 2 into bar 3.
Verse riff @ 106bpm with click
So there you have it; one of the most talked about riffs in metal decoded.
There’s no mystery, no shennanigans (Lars isn’t to blame); it’s a simple case of aiming for something and missing it most of the time but by different amounts and in different places each time!
I’ve no doubt that people will disagree with me about this but the simplest solutions are often the right ones.
Is it more likely, do you think, that 4 drunk lads in a studio, even with Cliff’s music theory knowledge, thought, “Let’s write a riff at 212bpm that’s 3 bars of 4/4 and a bar of 11/16…” or did they say, “Here’s the riff, let’s chop a beat off the end to make it sound like it’s skipping and jerky…”
It’s Metallica, not Polyphia.
I know what I believe to be true. I know what makes the most consistent thematic sense and is the easiest to play.
Until the next time, may the riff be with you, always.