What is Heavy Metal music and where does it come from?

Heavy Metal is a musical style featuring distorted electric guitars. The music often sounds aggressive and often has dark themes.

Introduction

The most fascinating aspect of music to me has always been how significantly it has evolved over time. Just as western classical music evolved from renaissance to baroque, to classical, to romantic and beyond, the evolution of the popular music we listen to today can be traced back through generations. While some changes in style happened due to cultural change (such as the anti establishment sentiment of punk rock in the 70s), some changes happened for technical reasons too (like how microphones and amplification helped make crooning possible).

As I write this in 2021, heavy metal music is such a broad genre with so many different sub genres still massively popular, that it's incredible to think the branch we're on can be traced back to just one tree. With some new players being so far from where we came that it's hard to believe they're from that same tree!

Early beginnings

Scholars of popular western music widely acknowledge the significance of blues in the development of metal music. The African inspired rhythms being taken from their home to the Americas and developing aurally over generations while capturing some of the sorrows of the harsh conditions these communities were forced to live in resulted in something so far removed from western classical music of the time.

While the sound might be very different, it's impossible to ignore the folk lore influences of some early delta blues artists. Aside from the obvious fact that secular music was frowned upon, there are many stories on this scene of deals with the devil, and the celebration of a less than holy lifestyle.

As this music began to spread across the states, each new area would put their own twist on things, with Chicago blues having a major difference in sound from what you were likely to hear in Texas. This was still all very much the blues though, and it would take this music coming over to Britain for things to really start happening.

60's England

During the 60s, bands like The Yardbirds, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Ten Years After, and Cream took the old blues record they'd fallen in love with, but played it in a post rock and roll world (itself an evolution of blues music!), with loud amplifiers which facilitated overdrive and suddenly the British Blues Explosion took over the world.

It was the late 60s when a new sound began to emerge. The argument has gone for decades on whether it was Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath who pioneered the sound, but for me I have to give it to Sabbath. While no one will argue that both had heavy moments, and both still also played a lot of blues, to me Sabbath were about more than the music, steering into the dark imagery and playing on the occult. There was something exciting about this to rebellious teens of the time, and it quickly caught on.

It's for this reason we have to mention Black Sabbath's guitarist, the godfather of heavy metal, Tony Iommi. As a working man growing up in Birmingham, Tony's whole direction in music would be changed forever when a machinery accident happened, severing the tips of his fingers on his fretting hand. Rather than walking away, Tony fashioned caps to put on his fingers and often tuned his guitars lower so the strings weren't so rough on his fingers. This helped to create a lot of the heavy sounds we associate with Sabbath. And while the self titled track Black Sabbath would be a great example of the slow brooding sound they were capable of, for me, it's all about Children of the Grave.

The dawn of Thrash

While there are many bands who thrived in a post Sabbath world, such as Deep Purple, Judas Priest, and Deep Purpule, for me the next big step in the evolution of the heavy metal sound comes from back in the states, when bands in California started to popularise a more up tempo sound blending the darker elements of heavy metal with the more punk and hardcore elements of bands like the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. The bands we're talking about are of course Metallica, Slayer, and Testament, and their contribution to the world would be known as thrash.

Now thrash music is all about speed, aggression, and accuracy. And nothing is a better example of this than Metallica's Battery. With the relentlessly tight combinations of 8th and 16th notes, this was metal, but not as your grandad remembered it! There's more distortion, the vocals are harsher, and there's a tightness to the drums not really heard in earlier forms of metal as the double bass drum comes to the front, perfectly in sync with the guitar rhythms.

While I cover a many of these 8th and 16th note combinations (often known as gallops) in my Metal Rhythm module one of the most incredible aspects of guitarists from this era is the sheer stamina they showcase with the picking hands. When you take a song like Metallica’s Creeping Death, you’ll find it clocks in at about 210bpm, so when playing 8th notes at this tempo you’re having to play 7 downstrokes per second, and keep that up for over 6 minutes with almost no parts that give you a break. This is the type of thing that even with 20 years of playing experience you won’t just be able to pick up and do. This is a very special kind of endurance that needs to be worked on over time. At my own thrash peak this wouldn’t have been a problem, but there’s a reason James Hetfield is often listed as one of the best metal rhythm players of all time… getting up and doing this on stage for almost 2 hours!

Around the turn of the century

As metal moved into the 90s, the impact of bands like Nirvana was everywhere and grunge really started to influence things with bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden being hugely popular. At the same time the post thrash scene was going strong with bands like Sepultura making waves and Pantera taking on a whole new sound which would see them grow to be one of the biggest cult metal acts. Aside from his legendary lead guitar playing, Dimebag Darrell’s rhythm playing was extremely influential with his chainsaw tone and relentless gallops on songs like this:

As rap began to exert influence on the metal scene with bands like Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello playing some of the most unique riffs the guitar has seen, a new form of metal began to come about… aptly named nu metal.

The 2000s was an interesting period. While bands like Korn began popularizing 7 string guitars, and Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit took creativity in rhythm guitar to a while new level, few bands of this era have the staying power of System of a Down and their guitar wizard Daron Malakian.

It was also during this period that metalcore picked up huge following, with bands like Killswitch Engage, Trivium, and Lamb of God making serious waves that are still going strong today.

As I tried to explain at the start of this article, metal is such a complex genre with so many sounds, it’s almost impossible to cover them all. We’ve not mentioned any of the black or death metal sounds that blew up during this period, or the frankly glorious melodic death sound (melo-death) coming out of Sweden at the time, with Arch Enemy being a particular favourite of mine. Then there’s the whole progressive metal scene where it’s impossible to miss the impact of John Petrucci and his band, Dream Theater.

Enter Djent

During the 2010s the biggest new sound in metal was undeniably djent, a modern taken on some of the earlier progressive sounds, but taken to the extreme. While it’s fair to say that this sound was really pioneered by the likes of Meshuggah and perhaps Sikth, it was really bands like Periphery hitting the scene that changed things forever. This entire genre is a fascinating sub culture characterized by tight syncopated rhythms, low tuned guitars (often playing 8 strings and beyond!) and the juxtaposition of brutal distorted parts and layers of clean guitars with reverb. This is a hugely popular sound currently, and one that’s ever evolving, but I can’t recommend the bands Tesseract and Monuments enough.

Conclusion

As you might expect, we’re only just scratching the surface of metal guitar here, in fact you could easily have articles twice this length on each of these sub genres. But most exciting of all is that as a genre, metal is one that constantly seeks to push boundaries and evolve, so who knows where we’ll be in a decade or two? I genuinely can’t wait to find out!