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Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel, who doesn't tune lower than Eb | Photo: Wikipedia
Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel, who doesn't tune lower than Eb | Photo: Wikipedia
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Downtuning: Is It Worth It?

What do you think is the essence of rock and metal? You can play fast, you can play virtuosically, you can have the darkest lyrics, but still you're always waiting for that riff that twists your guts, shatters the windows, and blasts the neighbors off the couch. So I hope we can agree that heavy riffs is what it's all about.

Nowadays there is a huge amount of new rock and metal genres that are built on the brutal sound of downtuned guitars. They drop down to D, C sharp, C, B, A, or even F#. Forget seven- and eight-string guitars—nine- and ten-string monstrosities and baritone guitars are being manufactured, and guitarists are already turning to bass players for spare strings.

But is there a point to all this downtuning? Is the heaviness and aggressiveness of the riffs really hidden in flopping anchor cables and guitars with the scale length of a double-bass? Let's take a look at five examples of bands that managed to make extremely hard and heavy albums in normal E tuning (yes, the one that even Buddy Holly used).

1. Sepultura – Arise

On their fourth studio album, the Brazilian metal band did a decent job. It was still a death/thrash uncompromising style, but already elements of industrial, hardcore, punk and Latin American percussive rhythms were starting to show. The musical rawness and unyielding attitude can be felt in every riff, as everything was recorded live—no metronome or special software treatment. Listen to the end of Dead Embryonic Cells at 3:25, when you get proof that heavy playing has nothing to do with tuning.

2. Megadeth – Peace Sells... But Who´s Buying?

Dave Mustaine has been playing in standard E tuning his whole career (except for the album Youthanasia) and even though Megadeth are a machine built for speed rather than being heavy-duty, on this album and especially the title track Peace Sells (kicking out one of the best bass lines in metal) they saddled up their typical thrash horse, switched gears to a trot instead of a gallop, and the result is proper heaviness. So, have you cancelled your order for that seven-string already?

3. Metallica – Ride the Lightning

Okay, you can argue that Master of Puppets with its fleshy Mesa guitar riffs is heavier, but thanks to The Thing That Should Not Be, the hardest track on the album, it drops out of our mini poll. Why? Because it's in Drop D tuning. But that's definitely not the case with For Whom the Bell Tolls, which relies on the heaviness of standard E tuning. To this day, people are looking for riffs this heavy, or once upon a time there was a chromatic scale.

4. Black Sabbath – Paranoid

The forefathers of metal and heavy riffs in general must be in our chart. Their first two albums were in standard tuning. Immortal tracks like Iron Man, War Pigs and the title track Paranoid are not only a riff textbook, but also a new era of density and heaviness in metal music.

5. Pantera – Cowboys from Hell

If the previous four albums didn't convince you to tuck your baritone away in a corner, this album will knock all the pro-downtuner's arguments right out of their hands. Just mention one track. The final massacre in Domination, when the slow-impact guitar bombs start to drop. And the reverb on the little drum? Ahhh, heaviness needs space.
An interesting additional fact is that even such black priests and lords of hellish darkness as Deicide, Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel didn't stoop lower than Eb.


So, you still think you're a wimp if you don't have a seven- or eight-string? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.