Metallica and Riff Variation

[The following is based on Raymond Aglugub’s master’s thesis, Shape Shift: Riff Variation and Development in the Music of Metallica (Boston University, 2007)].

Shape Shift: Riff Variation and Development in the Music of Metallica

Metallica_Black-AlbumOn August 13, 1991, Metallica released its fifth studio album with a title (Metallica) and cover concept (nearly solid black) of such utter simplicity so as to completely betray the transformation that was taking place.  The album, popularly known as the Black Album, was highly anticipated, for the band was on a meteoric rise. From Metallica’s debut album Kill ’Em All (1983) through Ride the Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986), the band helped exemplify the burgeoning genre of thrash metal and also introduce levels of sophistication that at the time were rarely matched in metal music.  Their fourth album, …And Justice for All (1988), continued that trajectory to what was considered tremendous popular appeal for a thrash metal band: it reached #6 on the Billboard charts, achieved platinum record sales, earned a Grammy nomination, and was lauded by fans and critics who were drawn by its technical virtuosity and songs of uncommon maturity for a metal outfit.

Yet in spite of the band’s success, the band members were growing dissatisfied with the ever-increasing length and complexity of their songs, a trend that had reached its peak in Justice and one that was impacting live performances and marketability.   As drummer Lars Ulrich described, “I was sitting there playing these nine-minute songs thinking, why am I sitting here worrying about how perfect these nine-minute songs have to be when we play [a shorter song] like ‘Seek and Destroy’ or ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and it has a great fucking vibe?”[1] Guitarist James Hetfield further explained, “We’d record a song that people liked and wanted to hear on the radio, and the radio bastards wouldn’t play it because it was too long.  Or they would want to edit it, which we wouldn’t allow.  But radio airplay wasn’t the whole idea behind our writing shorter songs.  It just seemed to us that we had pretty much done the longer song format to death.”[2] Hence, when Metallica entered the studio in the fall of 1990 to work on the next album, the objective was clear: write shorter, more concise, and by extension, simpler songs.

Metallica responded with the Black Album the following summer.  Its commercial success was obvious: the album exploded onto the Billboard chart at #1 and was followed by hit singles, Grammy awards, record-setting album sales, and the achievement of a mainstream embrace that few other rock and metal bands have ever received.  The band’s leaner approach to songwriting was also evident.  “A lot of the songs on this album are more simple and concentrated,” observed Hetfield.  “They tell the same story as our other shit but don’t take as long.  There aren’t a hundred riffs to latch on to—just two or three stock, really good riffs in each song.”[3]

Hetfield’s statement glosses over one of the key components of the shift in their songwriting.  There aren’t, as is literally stated, only two or three riffs in each song on the Black Album—in many there are over a dozen distinct riffs, similar to the earlier albums.  The difference is that instead of several ideas at work, there are simply two or three themes from which many other riffs are spun.  These themes are extended by different versions of themselves through variation, so even though the character of the theme is maintained there are enough changes to it to keep it fresh and seemingly evolving.

The Black Album is saturated with variations that revive the original riff through numerous modifications.  Many of the songs rely on just one theme to generate via variation almost all of a song’s multitude of riffs—an impressive display of compositional acumen.  Hence, much of the Black Album’s success may be attributed to the band wielding riff variation with uncommon mastery.

Such mastery was earned through practice.  From the band’s inception, Metallica’s use of variation increased gradually in frequency, quantity of variation techniques used, depth of transformation to the original riff, and degree to which the variation impacted the compositional structure of songs.  And though the frequency of the usage of variation peaks in the Black Album, it remains a staple of Metallica’s songcraft in the albums that have since followed: Load (1996), ReLoad (1997), St. Anger (2003), and Death Magnetic (2008).

In a 1996 interview with Guitar Player magazine, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett explained his approach to riff variation:

“I tweak [riffs] a lot.  When I’m writing a lick or riff, I’ll play it like 50 times, but, say, change it every fourth time.  Maybe I’ll alter it rhythmically, or go from a minor 3rd to a major 3rd, or sharp the 4.  Maybe I’ll add drone notes or play it on the upbeat.  I might chop it in half, add bends—there are so many different ways of doing it.”[4]

Hammett’s process appears to be casual—he simply plays an idea repeatedly, making small changes on a variety of elements until, presumably, he finds one or more versions that he likes.   It is also clear that he consciously considers a full range of possibilities when creating variations.  The generic examples he gives in the article related to the above quote refer to a number of different musical elements—melody, harmony, rhythm, key, meter, dynamics, and motives—and he implies making structural changes to a riff such as shortening the phrase length and removing material.

Indeed, the band uses countless variation techniques.  Along with the growing frequency and thoughtful application of variation from Kill ’Em All onward, Metallica has continuously explored different methods of variation.  Though the stylistic differences between their albums are partially defined by the usage of variation techniques, other techniques are common throughout the band’s compositional eras.  Furthermore, the use of variation in serving compositional functions has run the gamut of mere surface effects (such as the basic continuation of a riff through new forms) to practices that permeate multiple layers of the compositional fabric, tying planes of key and meter and definitions of sections together through the reworking of a theme.

Riff variation has thus served as a defining aspect of Metallica’s style.  Yet in spite of the abundance of articles, analyses, and books concerning the band, very little regarding this aspect of Metallica’s music is discussed.  The article from which the above quote is derived is one such study, yet the jargon that is used  (“tweaking” riffs and “riff mutation”) in lieu of the standard term “variation” illustrates the degree to the topic of variation is not top-of-mind in much of popular discourse.  In reading metal histories, academic studies, and countless guitar magazine articles and analyses of the band’s songs, one would find occasional references to variation and get a glimpse of how masterfully it is used in Metallica’s music. However, like the proverbial tip of the iceberg suggests, there is a great deal more lurking beneath the surface.

The following series of posts presents an exploration of riff variation in Metallica’s music.  To fully gauge the breadth and impact of riff variation, it is necessary to examine numerous excerpts from Metallica’s music and also dive deeply into songs that are greatly affected by the use of riff variation.  The following examples establish the following: (A) that Metallica’s use of variation permeates their entire output, with the inclusion of examples from all nine of the studio albums to date; (B) that Metallica’s variation techniques are themselves varied and reveal a particular attention to the motive structure of riffs; and (C) that variations are often used as part of the exposition, evolution, and interrelation of themes and hence impact the compositional logic of the structures in which they appear.



[1] Malcome Dome and Mick Wall, The Complete Guide to the Music Of Metallica (London: Omnibus, 1995), 58.


[2] Jeff Gilbert, “Black Power” Guitar World Presents Guitar Legends 20 (1997), 22.  Reprinted from Guitar World, October 1991.


[3] Jeff Kitts, “Prime Cuts: Metal Reflectors,” Guitar World Presents Guitar Legends 20 (1997), 30.  Reprint from Guitar World, October 1991.

[4] Joe Gore, “Tweak Show: Hammett on Riff Mutation,” Guitar Player, October 1996, 65.