This week we’re looking at Cliff Burton, the late, great, legendary bass player from Metallica. I’m going to breakdown the main riff from the song Battery and we’ll take a look at how Cliff’s approach to creating a bass line around a quick fire guitar riff can be effective in establishing a more groove oriented feel.
Isolated Tracks & The Mythology Of Cliff Burton
I’ve had so many requests for a Cliff Burton bass line and this is a song I hinted at in my breakdown of Slayer’s Raining Blood (click here). But before we get started, I have to mention that while performing a little research into Cliff’s playing I was amazed by some of the attitude and commentary I uncovered.
There’s an isolated track of Cliff’s line taken from the song and so many of the comments are derogatory ranging from accusations of him being a sloppy player to more specific technical details about how he doesn’t play the gallop along with the guitar. You can hear the isolated track here.
I love Cliff’s playing and he was a real hero of mine when I was getting started in the late 80s early 90s. But I think all of this blind, over the top worship of past icons can ultimately lead to disappointment. At the end of the day, Cliff was a just a guy that played bass in Metallica. He wasn’t superhuman and I think anyone looking for technical perfection in a heavy metal bass player should possibly reign some of those expectations in. That’s not what the music is about.
Personally, I think the bass line sounds fantastic. Awesome tone. Great driving feel and one thing you have to bear in mind with these kind of isolated tracks is that you’re hearing the bass played solo. You cannot judge the timing and feel of a bass line played alongside real instruments – without those instruments being present. There’s no point of reference.
This goes for any bass player you hear in isolation. Timing and groove within a band is organic and based on the overall group feel. Tempo can move around, musicians can play around the beat and when you hear this away from the group setting it makes no sense. Groove is not about rigid metronomic timing. It’s actually the opposite and when you factor aggression and attitude into the equation things are never going to be perfect.
Perfection is pretty much the antithesis of attitude.
A Better Metal Groove
Now let’s have a look at why I think Cliff’s line for Battery is a great example of metal groove. I talked about this in the Slayer video, and the concept is the same. Anytime you hear high speed 16th note gallops in the guitar, the temptation may be to double it. But when you do this, the overall feel can suffer.
It doesn’t have to. A guy like Alex Webster doubles many riffs in this way but Cannibal Corpse have a totally different feel. Most death metal bands are much more frenetic and spiky. It’s much more on edge. Bands like Metallica, Pantera, Megadeth and Anthrax have a much more groove oriented feel. The riffs are much smoother and have a more rolling feel.
When you play a galloping bass line at high speed there are a lot of repeated notes going by very quickly and the envelope of the bass sound has no time to sustain and release. It’s all attack. This means the bass becomes very percussive. Obviously, this might be the effect you’re going for. It’s not a bad or wrong. But if you want a better bottom end and a rounder more flowing bass line it’s better to limit the number of plucks and smooth out the envelope.
Looking at the riff from this perspective, whether or not Cliff could play that guitar riff is irrelevant. Maybe he could. Maybe he couldn’t. That’s not an indication of anything. The point is that the line he plays is appropriate and correct for the song.
This is why I think Cliff Burton is a great bass player. It’s not because he’s a technically brilliant player. A guy like Hadrien Feraud is obviously light years ahead of pretty much any metal or rock players in terms of technical facility. But it’s missing the point entirely. He was perfect for Metallica and gave those songs the groove, feel and that X factor that made them such a great band.
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