Death Metal Composition Techniques

In this lesson, we approach techniques and theory to build Death Metal licks and riffs.

11
Death Metal is one of the genres with the most sophisticated harmony and scales in all music genres, and this is no faint affirmation, so congratulations if you, like me, is a fan of this genre! Indeed, in many aspects it rivals Jazz, Progressive and contemporary classical music, and paraphrasing Dante's Inferno sign: "Abandon every traditional tonality, who enter here." It is a passionate genre, full of energy and speed, and it inspires all of us in many aspects. This leads us to the subjective question: how to get inspiration to write Death Metal music? For me, the real pleasure of listening and writing Death Metal relies on discovering new musical landscapes, that are rarely touched by other genres. To start this voyage, we have first to build our ship, and it'll be made, among other things, with some scales, techniques, and a bit of theory to glue everything up. I'll assume you already know the Major/minor scales. So, let's start to collect items to bring to our travel. In this Death Metal village, let's stop by the Scales Store to buy some useful items.  

Item 1 - The diminished scale

The diminished scale are made of the alternation of whole tones and semitones, thus making 8 notes per octave. It can start with a whole tone or with a semitone. The diminished scale:
|-------------------------------------------1-2---|
|-----------------------------------1-3-4---------|
|---------------------------1-2-4-----------------|
|-------------------1-3-4-------------------------|
|-----------2-3-5---------------------------------|
|---2-4-5-----------------------------------------|
The diminished scale, only chord notes:
|-----------------------2---------------------1-4---|
|-------------------1-4---------------------3-------|
|---------------2---------------------1-4-----------|
|-----------1-4---------------------3---------------|
|-------3---------------------2-5-------------------|
|---2-5---------------------4-----------------------|
Inside of the diminished scale you'll find a lot of tritones. A tritone is an interval of three whole tones, it divides the octave in half, and it is the most dissonant interval in the octave. In other words, it sounds mean. Some tritones inside the diminished scale:
|-----------------2-----------------4-|
|---------------1-----------------3---|
|-----------2-----------------4-------|
|---------1-----------------3---------|
|-----3-----------------5-------------|
|---2-----------------4---------------|

Item 2 - The melodic minor scale

You can think of the melodic minor scale as the major scale with its third degree lowered a semitone, or as a natural minor scale with its sixth and seventh degrees raised a semitone. One of the main characteristics of this scale is that it has a succession of 4 whole tones (the major/minor scales have only 3), and so it can produce more of a sensation of floating or suspension. This sensation of floating comes from the fact that these 4 whole tones makes the melodic minor scale more akin of the whole-tone scale, which itself has no tone center and is pure suspension. The melodic minor scale, in C:
|----------------------------------7-8---|
|-----------------------------8-10-------|
|----------------------7-8-10------------|
|---------------7-9-10-------------------|
|--------6-8-10--------------------------|
|---8-10---------------------------------|
We can feel more of this floating sensation, when starting the scale in its third degree. Here is the same C melodic minor scale, but starting in Eb:
|------------------------------------------10-11---|
|---------------------------------10-12-13---------|
|---------------------------10-12------------------|
|------------------10-12-13------------------------|
|---------10-12-14---------------------------------|
|---11-13------------------------------------------|
(As a side note, this mode is also called lydian augmented) Inside the melodic minor scale you'll find three augmented chords. Augmented chords are chords made of stacking up two major thirds. In our example, in C, they are at Eb, G and B:
|---------------------11--------------------------|
|------------------12---------------8-------------|
|---------------12----------------8---8-----------|
|------------13-----------------9-------9---------|
|------10-14-----------------10-----------10------|
|---11--------------------11-----------------11---|
If the tritone sounds evil, the augmentd chords sounds, let's say... eerie and evocative. For the beginning of our adventure, these two scales will do, together with the major and minor scales. Now let's cross the street and collect some items at the Techniques Shop.  

Item 3 - Tremolo picking

Tremolo picking is just hitting the same note rapidly several times. Present in all metal genres, and almost omnipresent in Death Metal:
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1---|

Item 4 - Power chords with fourths and tritones

The traditional power chord, as you may know, is made of the root, the fifth, and the root above it. Power chords with fourths and with tritones just exchanges the fifth for them.
| Traditional Power Chord | Fourth Chord  | Tritone Chord  |
|-------------------------|---------------|----------------|
|-------------------------|---------------|----------------|
|-------------------------|---------------|----------------|
|---3---------------------|---3-----------|---3------------|
|---3---------------------|---1-----------|---2------------|
|---1---------------------|---1-----------|---1------------|

Item 5 - Phrasing with interval contrasts

One very important aspect in Death Metal is how you blast your intervals along your lick. A very powerful technique is achieved by intercalating very wide intervals with close chromatic passages. In the lick below, we can see how we leap from A# to F#(!), and then proceed with passages using semitones. This lick uses exclusively the diminished scale we saw above.
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|--------------------0----------------9-10-9-------10----------9------|
|---3----------3-2-3-5----------6-5-6--------12-11--------------------|

Conclusion

This is a riff that brings up the points we saw above, in a very concise manner, and also serves as a recap.
||---------------------------------|----------------------------------|
||---------------------------------|----------------------------------|
||---------------------------------|-----------------4-------6--------|
||---------------------------------|-----------------2-------4--------|
||-------------------------3-3-3-3-|-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-------4--------|
||-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-4-4-4-4---------|----------------------------------|
 
                                                                      2x
|----------------------------------|----------------------------------||
|----------------------------------|----------------------------------||
|-7-------6------------------------|----------------------------------||
|-5-------4------------------------|----------------------------------||
|-5-------4-------7-------5--------|-4-------2-------3----------------||
|-----------------5-------3--------|-2-------0---------------2--------||
a) The first bar is an augmented chord played with tremolo picking, and is part of a melodic minor scale that concludes at the beginning of the second bar. b) In the first four notes, there are contrasting intervals of two major thirds followed by a semitone. c) In the second and third bars there are power chords with fourths to give a different flavor to it. d) At the end of the riff, there's a tritone to recall the first note of the riff. And this ends our lesson. I hope it was helpful. As a last word, don't get too obsessive about elaborated passages. Sometimes just a punchy rhythm in the E string is required for the job at hand.

15 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    lacerated womb
    Well frankly i am pretty bored of these articles on ug nowadays they just give a few ingredients which are certainly used in death metal but they dont tell u as to how to combine them to make an awesome product
    barcode99
    this is a good article. i see some people say its bad, but really, when you are tossing ideas like this, then they are just ideas to help build up your understanding of a genre of music. there is no set all in one guide.
    stoker666
    go to fretjam.com, study a bit on theory, they have great lessons for beginners and for you to 'get' the bigger picture with intervals, where the notes lie on the fret board, and how to visualize them =. check it out, its a great website, it is a lot to take in but it DOES help. keep at it and it will come smoothly in time
    094568029434geo
    I would like to jump in and state that I still dont get it. I've been trying to work out thrash and death metal for over a decade and still fail. Starting with metallica, sepultura and then napalmdeath and suffocation I still don't really see how to arrange song parts in different keys? Is a riff on an "overall" key or does it change every two chords? Do you transpose the next section for the last two chords/notes in the previous? How to resolve a cycle authentically in brutal death metal , one day I will be able to do it I am sure. I am still blind and ignorant to writing. Teachers I ask still say do it by ear :/
    094568029434geo
    do the fourth and triton chords function diatonically within a musical scale or are they only substitutions for 5th and 3rd doubles?
    Vikingcrown
    I have played thrash, death, and groove metal, as well as classical and jazz and actually played in orchestras to metal bands. I must say first off, I think this article is great, specially if you've been jamming for a while and dont need to have your hand held. Second, the melodic minor has everything to do with almost just about every metal band. Its not just the scale itself but how you use it. Good refresher!
    gil.caz
    For everyone saying this is a bad lesson, can I have a link to what you would call good? I'm learning guitar as a whole and this seemed good to me. I like the sounds I'm getting so tell me please what can be better.
    BlackmetalGitar
    what does the melodic minor have to do with deathmetal?? ... if you wanna melo death harmonise the single notes...
    BillR87
    A little bias I found ae but whatever if its your thing man then good on you a good riff is a good riff and vice versa
    xXxA7X~Fan07xXx
    Nice. This will help out alot of melodic death metal guitarist out there just starting out like myself. I've been trying and trying to figure out what to do but I can never get anything that sounds good. I actually play in drop d. Melodic death metal is hard to figure out if you haven't had lessons or can't find any examples. 5 stars from me. =] Can you get more in depth into riffs though for a next lesson?