The Basics of Metal Bass Lines

by David Marvuglio ’05

David Marvuglio is a performer and an instructor in Berklee’s Bass Department. He authored Metal Bass Lines, published in 2015 by Berklee Press.
David Marvuglio is a performer and an instructor in Berklee’s Bass Department. He authored Metal Bass Lines, published in 2015 by Berklee Press.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple defined the metal genre. Their music stemmed from the blues. In blues, there is a basic form that often includes a riff, typically two to four measures long, and often transposed to different pitch levels. Examples 1 and 2 are blues-based riffs that are emblematic of early heavy metal. The first is a two-bar riff based on the blues pentatonic scale that is repeated to become a four-bar phrase. Example 2 is a two-bar sequence that transposes up a fourth.

Driving bass lines are the essence of metal bass playing. They are what make listeners want to bang their heads and mosh. A driving bass line has a repetitive rhythmic pattern based on consistent triplet, eighth- or sixteenth-note rhythms. Many times, combinations of these rhythms create a pattern, which can also include rests (see examples 3 and 4). The bass player pumps it out, driving the beat, and leading the band.

A galloping bass line is also a form of driving bass line that consists of an eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes. These lines may appear in duple and triple meters. They come from the classical tradition and were made popular in metal by Steve Harris of Iron Maiden. Example 5a gives the basic galloping rhythm and the retrograde gallop rhythm. Example 6 is a variation on the pattern with an octave displacement.

In modern metal, it’s common to play odd meters. We’ll close this lesson with a metal etude that goes through various meters and rhythms.

This is a brief sample of the bass lines found in metal. I hope this lesson gives you ideas for creating your own bass lines.

Example 1, blues-based riff
Example 1, blues-based riff
Example 2, riff sequence that modulates
Example 2, riff sequence that modulates
Example 3, driving bass line in triplets
Example 3, driving bass line in triplets
Example 4, driving bass line in 16th notes with rests
Example 4, driving bass line in 16th notes with rests
Example 5a, standard galloping rhythm, retrograde gallop rhythm
Example 5a, standard galloping rhythm, retrograde gallop rhythm
Example 5b, galloping pattern with octave displacement
Example 5b, galloping pattern with octave displacement
Etude: “Yeah, I Can Count That” By David Marvuglio
Etude: “Yeah, I Can Count That” By David Marvuglio

 

This edited excerpt is from Metal Bass Lines, reprinted with permission of the author and Berklee Press.