Clichés of polyrhythm/meter in metal

Here is my fourth-ever metal post. The others continue to get a few views every day from people who are probably disappointed by the rest of the content of this blog (and vice versa for English teachers who collide with metal posts). Obviously, my music theory metalanguage is quite shabby, but I’m going to try here to describe a few things I’ve heard over and over again in metal bands.


In my estimation, the most common polymeter trick in all of metal, and possibly all of pop, is just to switch between 4/4 or 2/4 and 6/8, i.e. subdivisions of 2 and subdivisions of 3. Most commonly, this is done holding the length of a measure the same, but it’s also done by keeping the length of an 8th note:

(the switch happens at about 1:00)

As in all popular music, playing subdivisions of 3 over 4/4 gives your music just enough complexity to impress teenagers, and it is as common in metal as anywhere else. Gojira is one band to take this principle and run with it for long enough stretches of a riff that you forget what meter it was originally in:

(the main riff starting at 0:32, through the verse and ending at 1:11, are either 12:8 or just lots and lots of triplets)

The opposite, divisions of 4 played over 3, is apparently not uncommon in classical music, and it’s probably fitting that Yngwie is the only one I can remember doing it:

(the solo starting at 3:31, as well as a bit of the intro, has 4 eigths played in the space of 3)

6/8 fakeouts

Bands sometimes throw in a bit of 6/8 that surprise you, either because the changeup occurs when you were expecting something else based on patterns established in the song or the genre or because the meter is “hidden” until other instruments come in and make it clear. This is distinct from the switch that Ghost pulled in the above video, as a true 6/8 fakeout fools you into thinking a 6/8 section is in some other meter at first rather than just changing suddenly.

The first 6/8 fakeout is common enough to warrant a name – I call it the boom-chick trick. It is a switch from 4/4 or 2/4 to 6/8 while maintaining the tempo of the eighth note as well as the drum pattern, creating what I’m told is called a hemiola (an odd pattern of rhythmic emphasis). The hemiola comes from what used to be a snare hit on 1-and, 2-and, etc. in 4/4 falling on 2, 4, and 6 in 6/8. Here is a song from a band (that used to have many more musical tricks than production tricks) with the bridge and chorus in 6/8 after verses in 4/4:

(the first change to 6/8 happens at 0:38, then back to 4/4 at 0:51)

Killswitch Engage has something similar which doesn’t have the boom-chick lead-in, but just snare hits on 1, 3, and 5 of the 6/8 section. I don’t know if this was meant to evoke a blast beat, but it is where a (slow) blast beat might normally be.

(switch at 0:28, just for the first part of the bridge)

The first time many of us heard a band sneaking subdivisions of 3 in where we expected 2 was the Dream Theater song The Mirror which we are led to believe is going to have a 4/4 riff consisting of 3 eighth notes and an eighth rest (and it does, after throwing you for a loop and reminding you that you’re listening to Dream Theater):

(Apparently guitarist John Petrucci is a fan of Donald Trump, which is ironic because Petrucci’s playing really is like the 4-dimensional chess Trump’s fans keep comparing his politics to. Trump’s actual politics, or course, are more like the $80 guitars that punk musicians buy just to break on stage at the end of their set.)

Speaking of right-wing musicians, one of my favorite Megadeth riffs, from one of their post-breakup, pre-reunion (of Daves) albums involves a 6/8 fakeout – the riff seems to start with eighth and sixteenth notes in a slow 3/4 before the drums and second guitar place those eighth notes on odd beats of a more traditional 6/8 riff.

Breakdowns and speedups

A breakdown is basically a half-time riff, different from the main riff, often played at first in isolation before the drums come back in, accompanying a throng of sweaty dudes throwing elbows. They’re so common, especially since the 90s, that giving examples is a pointless – but Sepultura had the first that I remember hearing.

You occasionally find the opposite too – a double time riff used to break up the monotony of the song. Folks a bit younger than me will find the end of Toxicity (apparently inspired by Pantera’s Mouth For War) a memorable example.

Drums steady, riff dissonant

Meshuggah has some kind of polyrhythm in almost every song, but many of them fall under a particular pattern: everyone but the drums plays one oddly divided pattern while the drums play the actual meter. Or, more accurately, one or two of the drummer’s hands play the actual meter while his feet play along with the guitar and bass. The riffs are often just a few notes or even one note, rarely chords, partly because chords sound terrible with low tunings and partly I’m sure because it’s hard enough to play single notes with these weird rhythms. The winds of history blowing in sometimes unpredictable ways, this style of riff would become the foundation of an entire subgenre of metal called djent (Google it and prepare to see lots of guitars with more than 7 strings).

Speaking of dissonance, here’s what I consider the default Meshuggah riff:

If you want a transcription of the drums where you can see the eighth-and-sixteenth pattern of the bass drum (as well as the guitar and bass) against the quarter notes in the cymbals, check of this guy’s page:

Certain bands can lead you to expect weird meters so consistently that a 4/4 riff over 4/4 drums leaves you smiling in amazement over something incredibly technical that you’re sure must be happening somewhere – like watching Will Ferrel give a 100% non-joking interview with his default mannerisms and just laughing out of habit whenever he finishes a sentence.

Here is one I will give you, just because I like it, and it’s a good example of how hemiolas can trick you into thinking a song has a different meter than it actually does. I was tapping out the main riff and was actually amazed it came out to 2 4/4 measures. Naturally, the song doesn’t stay that simple.

Next post will be something language-y.

2 thoughts on “Clichés of polyrhythm/meter in metal

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