This one could be a bit controversial.
Most musicians who know this song have a defined way of feeling and playing it fixed in their bones. I’m coming in with a whole new take on it and that could rub a few folks up the wrong way.
That’s not my intent at all but when it’s a song as beloved and complicated as this, it’s something that can’t be avoided.
I’m going to challenge the tempo and the time signatures of this song and it’s riffs. Something to bear in mind as you listen to the snippets of this song below: it’s been reproduced digitally and as such it cannot accurately represent the hesitations and light/heavy handedness of live performers so the scores below are the “absolute” values of the riffs minus the human nuance…
Remember, the boys in Metallica are NOT theory nerds; they weren’t sitting about saying the main riff would be alternating 3/4 and 4/4 bars with a 15/16 bar into the verse riff. They played what felt good and added or chopped bits off to make it sound more interesting.
Brace yourself if you think you “know” this song already…
Over the years there have been plenty of tab sites and everyone and their dog has tried to tame this beast on the page.
Even I had a go a few years ago but I was following the same faulty logic and feel that everyone else has been using and relying on my memory of that fatally flawed tab book.
I wasn’t trusting my ears, my experience and my sense of musical feel.
From the very first bar this song has been confusing people for over 30 years
It’s most often written as a bar of 5/4 at a tempo of between 182bpm and 190bpm. This is also what I remember from the tab book so that could be where this persistent idea comes from.
Below are two screencaps of “officially available versions” of this song.
One is from Sheet Music Direct and the other is from Ultimate-Guitar.com but it’s the “official version” one created by the UG in house team so it’s top of their list of tabs.
As you can see they’ve used exactly the same idea, most likely taken directly from the “official” tab book from back in the day, but with slightly different tempos.
Put simply, in my opinion, they’re both wrong…
About the time signature, the tempo and also what Jason’s actually playing.
I’m transcribing the bassline directly from the original bass recording by Jason Newsted (thank you YouTube!) and you can clearly hear the notes he’s playing.
I’m not sure whether it’s a mistake or deliberate but he’s dropping in an A♭ where Het’ and Kirk are Playing the F natural on Fret 1 of the low E string. I mean, technically it is a minor 3rd but it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be there…
If it’s a mistake, it’s lucky that it’s buried in the mix and so it’s inaudible (it’s not harmonically unpleasant, it’s just odd); if it’s a deliberate choice, it’s an odd one…
As with everything about this song, it’s easier to “hear” it and “feel” it with a click or the drum part. Here’s the opening bar played with click and an opening bar of just click just to give you context.
Can you hear/feel it?
Now, you may have noticed that lonely looking 16th note at the end of the bar… That 16th note is KEY to the whole riff and mechanics of the whole song.
It’s a pickup note.
Metallica uses these a lot, no doubt an artifact in their song writing that they picked up listening to NWOBHM acts that came out of the more blues rock inflected sounds of the late 60’s and the 70’s.
Understanding the pickup note and how it functions in relation to “the one” of a riff is key to Metallica and many other bands and artists beyond the realms of metal.
Much like the very first bar of the song this riff has been confusing people and played/written wrong for years.
The general thinking about this riff is that it starts on the open low E string, it’s in 7/4 and still at 182bpm.
Again, in my opinion, this is wrong.
We saw that the first bar of the song ends with a pickup note (the low E) and that means that the downbeat, the ONE of the riff sits on the 7th fret E on the A string instead and NOT on the low E as everyone hears and feels it!
Furthermore, we are still in the 92bpm range that we established in the first bar and the time signature is NOT 7/4, it’s alternating bars of 3/4 and 4/4.
I know, that adds up to 7 so why isn’t it in 7/4?
Well, because there are clear downbeats that outline two defined bars.
What makes things trickier is that the accent in the 4/4 bar switches in the middle! (See below)
The 7th fret A string E in this accent switch is a very, VERY weak note (it’s almost a dead note!) as you need to get down to the B♭ at the 1st fret A string super quick and hit it really hard to make the accent land.
Once you get that “riff within a riff” done there’s a low open E note that is the pickup (as we saw at the end of the first bar) to set the whole riff in motion again.
This low E pick up note also a really weak note so don’t worry about really sounding it out too aggressively.
The accent shift from the 7th fret E down to the B♭ is really hard to land so play it slow and gradually speed up until you’ve got it under your hands.
I thought maybe Newsted was fretting this differently, using the 6th fret E string’s B♭ to get down there but after watching video of him from back in the day and up to more recent times before he quit, he’s absolutely playing this riff fretted around that 7th fret E pivot and getting his fretting hand down to the 1st fret A string B♭.
We’ve all just got to suck it up and play it there too!
In the abstract it’s quite hard to grasp this “feel” so here’s 4 bars of it with an approximation of Lars’ Drum part on it too (plus the empty click bar for tempo and time context)
Hopefully, now that you can hear it with the snare hits on the beat you can really feel how the 7th fret A string E note is “the one” and NOT the low E note as per nearly all other transcriptions.
This also gives us the chance to say something that you don’t get to say very often: Lars is on the one! 😂
To show this idea of the intro being in 3/4 and the main riff alternating between 3/4 and 4/4, if we take Lars’ snare hits and extend them all the way back to the beginning of the very first riff we can see exactly where the “one” really is.
For this I’m including a guide guitar part; I’m not even trying to approximate Metallica’s tone here and the B♭’s are probably not in the right octaves, it’s simply to fill in the blanks while Jason isn’t playing.
Pay close attention to the snares and the way they line up on the one of each bar (and on every 8th note) and how that lone 16th note, in both the first bar and in the main riff, is a pickup note that sets it all back in motion.
OK, so we’re now a few bars into the song and we’ve already had a bunch of time changes. Fortunately the tempo has remained pretty consistent!
Now Jason is playing the main riff (and boy is he playing it!) and below it’s tabbed out in full as it approaches the Link Riff ahead of Verse 1.
Notice that the riff is the same the first 3x round (this is impressive at that speed and with the ferocity of his downpicking!) but on the 4th time around things change. There’s a slightly scary looking bar of 15/16 at the end there so we’ll take a look at that shortly…
Below is the audio of this entire passage, bass and drums, at speed and at a reduced tempo.
15/16… How the hell do you count that?!
Well, this bar in isolation is a bit of an odd one to read but in the context of the riff and bar it leads into it makes more sense..
You’ve seen the front end of this bar 3 times already so you shouldn’t be scared of this. Indeed, you should have this nicely tucked away and like a pro by now…
Now we come to the back end which is a slight variation on the back end you’ve already been playing for 3 rounds.
There’s 1 16th note missing and again, the low E is a pick up note into the next bar.
Interestingly, when you examine it closely, this bar sets up Lars to accent switch and come in on the one in the next bar on the KICK instead of the snare because. That low E pick up note falls on a snare hit that would be the 8th 8th note in the bar if it was the normal form.
That’s a bit nerdy but hopefully helps when you’re trying to follow this bar.
Here you can see the 15/16 bar in context leading directly into the link riff.
Below is the audio of these two bars (bass and drums) as they lead into the link riff, at speed (92bpm) and at a reduced tempo (60bpm).
Pay close attention to the very natural way they go together allowing Lars to switch from snare to kick on the downbeat/one.
Obviously this is MUCH easier to hear and feel at 60bpm!
Hopefully I’ve explained things clearly. This is s a complex beast of a track that it’s possible to play right but not really understad. Perhaps you agree or disagree..? That’s the beauty of this kind of music nerding.
Either way, I’m pretty damn sure I’m right! 😎😂
There are plenty more riffs in this song that I’ll be taking a good long look at so this is just part 1 really.
Until the next part, happy riffing.