Metal Harmony and Chord Structure

In this lesson I am going to discuss different ways to go about composing/creating/thinking about functional harmony for the "metal" genre, including little tips and tricks to help connect your chords.

Ultimate Guitar
This lesson will be focusing on minor keys, I am not arguing that metal can't be written in major keys, it can, i just think it is easier to get that bone crushing evil sound with minor keys. This lesson is intended for those with some knowledge of harmony, but have trouble making it work with metal.

The first tip we'll be based off altering chords, focusing on ways to get chords to sound more intricate and "crunchier" than your standard triads and seventh chords. You can do this a number of different ways, I will try to keep it limited and i won't go into extensions too much here. It is important to note you do not need to alter all chords, but there are certain chords that work very well when altered and sound great.

In the key of G minor normal chord structure w/out alteration or 7ths would be something like this below. This is structured for natural minor, i know a lot of you already use harmonic or maybe even melodic minor, kudos to you, some of the alterations will draw from those keys, and others can be applied to them.


i ii III iv V(7) VI VII
  Gmin    Adim*  BbMaj   Cmin    Dmaj(D7)  EbMaj    Fmaj.

Now lets change some of them, we will alter the one chord: G minor; the two chord: A diminished; the five chord: D major/D7; the six chord: Eb major; and the seven chord: F major.

Altered they should look something like this below, I will explain where these alterations are coming from below the tablature.

i ii V7? vi vii
  Gmin6        Adim7        Ebdim7       Emin         F#dim7

The G minor has been changed to a minor 6 chord, drawing from the melodic minor key, Minor 6 chords are AWESOME for metal you get a sweet tri-tone from the 6th and the third, working this into your riffs will definitely give it more edge.

The two chord is now a fully diminished, this is coming from the harmonic minor key, diminished chords in general give great crunch to your music, tri-tones everywhere and they can be "planed" easily on the guitar.

Now we get to the good stuff, the five chord is now a fully diminished chord a half-step up from its original position. I have arrived hear by first adding a common extension to the V7, a flat 9, you will see this in jazz a lot. It looks like this on the fret board in the key of G minor.
This chord is practically a diminished chord, all i did from here was make the flat 9 the root, thus
The six chord (Ebmaj) is now minor and a half-step up from where it was originally, how the heck does that happen. Well this is simply a "borrowed" chord, stolen from the key of G minors little brother G major, in the key of G major the six chord is E minor, we simply take it from the major key and plop it into the minor key, yeah you can do that if you want. In this instance it works well because then your altered five chord, the now Ebdim7 has the choice to instead of going to G minor, it could easily slide up to the six chord, E minor.

The seventh chord (Fmaj) is also a half-step up from its original position, and is now fully diminished. Again it is a borrowed chord, grabbed from its parallel G major.

I mentioned earlier that diminished chords can be "planed" easily. When you "plane" a diminished chord on the guitar you are cycling through its various inversions. This is illustrated below.
These are all the same chords, essentially. This makes diminished chords very flexible in terms of accessibility.

So those were some examples of how to alter your chords to get more crunch, a lot of emphasis put on tri-tones and borrowed chord usage. You can also alter almost any chord using extensions. You should consider getting more familiar with jazz theory if you wish to learn more about extensions, it is highly complex and i wont get into it too much for this lesson.

The last part of this lesson will focus on chord movement, investigating the question how do i get my chords to flow well and interestingly without sounding like I am playing straight out of a theory book?

1. Chromatic Movement: This is also drawing off of a bit of jazz theory and is a great way to pull into the next chord. This is an IDEA to help you make your music sound less rock more metal. Here are a few examples of regular progressions, then altered via chromatic movement ideas.
e|------------------------------| e|------------------------------|
B|------------------------------| B|------------------------------|
G|------------------------------| G|------------------------------|
D|-----------------7-----9------| D|-----------------8-----9------|
A|-----7-----7-555-5-777-7------| A|-----7-----7-666-6-777-7------|
E|-555-5-555-5------------------| E|-555-5-555-5------------------|
Simple example, again emphasizing the tri-tone relationship, the second chord approaches the third chromatically. This idea comes jazz theory idea of tri-tone substitutions, which I won't get into because it is not exactly the same. Another, different example of chromatic approach usage would be something like this.
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
Another simple riff, over d minor, the chromatic movement here is in descending major thirds, going from F, E, Eb, back to D minor. These two examples were very simple applications of the idea of moving to chords chromatically as opposed to standard movement.

Another way to mix up your chord movement is to "plane" or shift minor chords in thirds, similar to "planing" a diminished chord. This is a common move you will hear all the time, catches the listeners ear. In this last example I am going to attempt to apply all of the techniques and alterations in one piece in the key that the alterations are shown in (G minor), and I will explain/point out what I did afterwards. Again this is just an example i came up with on the spot demonstrating some of the techniques previously mentioned. Obviously when you write your own material it would be vastly different, the whole point of this lesson is to get people thinking about different harmonies that are useful in metal.

 Gmin6 Ebmaj* D7 Gmin Gmin6
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & tri & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
Ebdim7 Gmin. Gmin6 
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
Ebdim7 Emin
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
Cmin Emin
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
Cmin B7 B7(aug.)
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
B7 Transition Gmin. 
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
Basic structure with intro and ending, simple rhythm that you can change easily if you like, again this was just to illustrate harmonic techniques. We see use of the min6 chord "alteration," the altered V7 chord: Eb fully diminished; the altered six chord: E minor, planing minor chords by, in this case, major thirds: Emin to Cmin, chromatic movement in multiple spots, and a few augmented extensions (raising of the fifth a half-step): *Ebmaj was augmented in the intro, and the B7 chord was augmented for a measure.

Note that I did not use the altered chords exclusively and there is plenty of stock stuff in there unchanged. Altered/borrowed chords and extensions should used with moderation. One more thing to mention is that when you construct songs and riffs, arpeggios are great and extensions and altered chords work amazingly when building riffs, in the last example a lot of the chords were just barred, but you can deconstruct them, and chords in general, into arpeggios and altered arpeggios which really gets at the heart of metal. Hope this was interesting and got you thinking about metal harmony.

20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Thanks for the feedback everyone, this is my first lesson and i realize i may have imbued it with more of my opinion than i should have, i now realize, as theogonia777 mentioned, that this lesson does not describe harmony rules for all metal and perhaps the title was misleading, but hopefully it got you thinking about different ways to use chords. Also i think it is fair to note that it would be very difficult to quantify the influence that jazz and metal have on each other, that being said i think it is naive to assume that jazz and metal do not have at least some degree of influence each other.
    I really don't like that the author keeps trying to relate everything to jazz theory when metal really has nothing to do with jazz. The use of chromaticism and tritones in metal in particular is not drawing from jazz theory since the two developments are complete independent, like the growth of wings in birds and bats. Also despite a couple of bands like Opeth using chords like these, they are by and far not used in metal, and so it seems ridiculous to write an article like this built entire around the exceptions rather than the rules. And really, the idea of "metal harmony" itself is kind of pointless since there really is not a single anything really that encompasses all subgenres, and in fact the rules for harmony in each is vastly different. For example, stoner metal draws more from psychadelic rock and blues rock. Death metal is more chromatic and atonal, and folk metal draws from the traditional modal harmonies of that countries ethnic folk music... or the sounds of sea shanties in the case of viking metal. Even among many subgenres, such as black metal, have radically different styles that use completely different rules in terms of harmony. In fact, many of the ideas presented in this article are completely irrelevant to a number of different subgenres.
    Jazz theory? Metal theory? Music theory applies to the same rules no matter what. Harmony is also not dictated by sub-genres, its up to the user to dictate what kind of harmony they want to use. This article is his first, and IMO its actually quite good, very little mistakes, furthermore this is the writers interpretation of information they want us to compute. Maybe their experiences are different. TONS of musicians in metal use these approaches. King Diamond, King Crimson, Dream Theater, Megadeth, Symphony X, Death, Iron Maiden, cannibal corpse. Just to name a few. Black metal bands may have a different take on harmony but I have seen thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, and seventh harmonies, this is true for all of metal and jazz. I see a direct correlation from jazz to metal in the free form approach as well. Look up chris poland, ex megadeth guy but a true jazz musician. Listen to him and tell me he isnt applying jazz to metal concepts and making it work quite well.
    This kind of thing is very pervasive in prog metal, more interesting black metal, more interesting Death Metal, etc. Just because there's a lot of cookie-cutter bands that don't use these techniques doesn't mean it isn't used a lot.
    I am going to try this as soon as I get home but I have to say I agree with both the opinions of theogonia and notmyusername due to past experiences. These chords are rather big and complex for metal, usually they are used very sparingly as opposed to a stock standard power chord. If you use too many tetrads( and bigger chords) it has been my experience that you will struggle to produce something definitively metal. I agree that the chord tweaking to create tritones is a great idea but will this actually make my attempts at metal more metally? I doubt it, but then again I have written a metal riff based off of 4 tetrads being tremolo picked so I will have to see. I like the idea though but I will have to see these concepts in action before I believe except for chromatic movement, that for sure makes your music more metal than rock
    When applying this kind of thing in your writing you don't have to use the full bar, in fact i would only use the bar in a few instances, i had most of the chords barred in the lesson to show the structure easier, i would recommend when using these types of alterations to build riffs around the chord tones, as opposed to just playing the chords barred.
    some of the terminology is incorrect. like for example harmonic and melodic minor are not "keys" they are "modes"
    My guitar can't sound good with distortion and those full barre chords. Does anyone in metal use chords like this? (Not sarcasm)
    With the right setup, yes. But the tone needed to pull these off might lack a lot of depth and fatness when playing tight rhythms and fifths.
    Black Metal guitarists do this a lot, boost the treble, cut the bass and put the mids around halfway or lower. The bass makes it muddy, when I mean cut I mean Bass at 0. Most Burzum and Emperor riffs are based on Barre chords.
    Turn the distortion down. As a guitar player, your job is to let the bass bring crunchy low end. You bring the mids and highs. If you EQ your amp properly, you can get good tight, fat "riffage" while still playing those barre chords without issues.
    also, IMO the muting and pick attack help. try to be less aggressive, strive for clarity to hear each individual note in these chords. Palm mute the bass notes when chugging but open up when striking all the notes. These chords can be played through a clean channel as well, maybe try that and then switch to your distorted tone for select chords which you really dig.
    All I gathered from this is...if you use Minor keys and follow all the generic rules that apply to will be able to make generic metal sounding stuff. With chords using more strings than usual for metal, and some tri tone stuff. What has this to do with metal specifically?
    Opeth uses chords like these all the time, in Ghost of Perdition the opening has a sweet minor chord-not minor six but its got that raised 7th and the rest of the song has all sorts of diminished riffs in it, maybe Necrophagist-Stabwound, Dream Theater uses a plethora of altered chords, Megadeth uses the minor 6 chord a lot-High Speed Dirt etc, also i kind of touched upon this a little, but mostly you will see these chords used in riffs, deconstructed-more like arpeggios than the full barred chords
    Nice lesson. It's cool to see someone else using that trick with the V7b9, that's a sound that i like as well. But can you give some examples of metal songs that make use of these altered chords?