In retrospect, two installments of a column about great metal riffs without featuring a Black Sabbath tune is probably two too many. My bad. Today, I make it right. In this lesson we go back to the dawn of metal, to the womb from which our beloved genre was torn, bloody and screaming, to the root of all evil: “Black Sabbath”. The first track on the band’s first album was the first song the four Birmingham blokes wrote when they collectively decided: Fuck the blues; let’s scare the shit out of people.
Since the riff in question runs, in some form, for most of the song, take the opportunity to enjoy this master work in full.
The riff is simplicity itself: one power chord, and two single notes. It is the choice of notes, however, that makes this riff such a crucial metal touchstone. After the ominous thunderstorm intro, Tony Iommi starts the riff with a thunderous G5 power chord of his own, followed by a g note one octave higher. The final note in the riff, however, is the coup de grace: D-flat! What’s the big deal, you say? Well, class, in the key of G, D-flat is the diminished fifth, the dreaded diabolus in musica (it’s not just a mediocre Slayer album) – the evilest of all musical intervals.
For centuries the diminished fifth was avoided in western music, as it was considered the height of dissonance; unsettling and unpleasant to the ear. In other words, it sounded evil, hence the name diabolus in musica, which is Latin for “the devil in the music”. This, of course, makes the diminished fifth an absolutely perfect musical device for Black Sabbath to exploit. Unsettling and evil is precisely the vibe the band is going for in “Black Sabbath”, which also just happens to be a song about the devil.
Note choice alone does not tell the whole story of the “Black Sabbath” riff. Tony Iommi’s nervous trilling on every other run through of the riff ratchets up the tension and sense of paranoia. The rhythm section of Geezer Butler and Bill Ward also plays a huge part in this song, particularly in the verses, where Tony dials down the distortion and plays the riff using only single notes. Where Tony’s playing is spare, Geezer and Bill are busy with a rumbling, ever-threatening undercurrent that foreshadows, none too subtly, the song’s protagonist’s impending doom.
Ominous, thunderous and frightening, “Black Sabbath” is in many ways the most important song and most important riff in metal, metal’s equivalent of the big bang. The band’s willingness to embrace the forbidden, both lyrically and musically gave its music a depth and power unmatched in rock at the time. And thank Satan, Sabbath used that power for evil. Black Sabbath, by using “the devil in the music” to put the devil in its music, paved the way for future metal bands to explore the dark side of life and the dark side of music. So, the next time you glance at the little horned fellow we keep up in the corner here at MetalReview, remember: Black Sabbath put him there. Black Sabbath put me here, and for that I cannot thank them enough.
In the lashes, post a riff that prominently features a diminished fifth in the melody.
Blacks Sabbath – Black Sabbath
Learn to play “Black Sabbath”. No tab this time; use your ears.