A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Alex Webster – Extreme Metal Bass (book & cd)

Apologies in advance for what turned out to be a lengthy write-up, but I was really excited to receive this book. I’ve been looking forward to it as soon as I heard that it was being written, and it makes me regret more than ever the months that I took off from practicing.

So, I preordered Extreme Metal Bass by Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse from Amazon in July, and today, it arrived! It was supposed to get here in September but was pushed back for some reason. Anyhow, I put off answering some client emails for a bit this morning and read the book (I got back to the emails afterward). I really like what he’s done. Here’s an overview:

Introduction: Some background on why he wrote the book (much of it has to do with a lack of material covering this genre of metal as a whole). He also speaks about how the techniques used in metal bass playing aren’t defined by hard-and-fast rules and encourages experimentation.

Notes: This goes a little into genre and the umbrella term “extreme metal”. It describes extreme metal as originating in thrash and moving on to death and black metal, and even deathcore and metalcore, but also says not to get hung up on any of this – the techniques are applicable to many styles of metal (and I’d hazard to guess other kinds of music as well in varying capacities).

Its important to point out here that a section on How To Use This Book does say that it is designed for standard-tuned 5 string basses, but that 4-stringers can also practice many of the exercises detailed within. Alex also explains that he’s primarily a fingerstyle player, and as such will not speak directly to any topics specifically about pick-style playing, but says to still practice the exercises using a pick if that is the reader’s preference, or a combination of pick- and finger- styles.

The Rhythm Section in Extreme Metal: Here, Alex addresses several ways of playing bass including what he calls “traditional drum/bass”, “guitar/bass” and “guitar/bass/kick drum”. He says that these are three of the most common ways of playing, but that its not an exhaustive list. Some of the exercises follow one specific approach, and others mix 2 or even all 3.

Notes on Practicing: Like most other sources, practice with a metronome or drum machine is encouraged. However, the book goes one step beyond, in an interesting sign of the times, by including MIDI tracks so that readers who have access to digital audio workstation (DAW) software such as Pro Tools, Garageband or Cubase can practice using software. This gives them the ability to easily speed up or slow down the tempos of the songs and/or exercises to suit their capability and practice needs. Additionally, many of the exercises are presented on two tracks, one with full accompaniment and one without the bass (guitar & drum only).

Part 1: Technique (about 20 pages in length)

1. Important Scales, Intervals and Chords for Extreme Metal: This section reviews scale patterns, discusses interval theory and gives a good overview of chords which Alex says are used frequently in the metal genre. He describes the sound, gives the history of use for some and makes other correlations between chords, scales and their use in music.

The scales which are covered include the Natural Minor (Aeolian mode), Harmonic Minor, Hungarian Minor, Diminished 7th Arpeggio (not a scale but included because its used in several of the scales presented), Diminished Scales, Minor Pentatonic, Blues Scale and Whole-Tone Scale.

Intervals and Chords include the ever-present Perfect 5th, Diminished 5th (Tritone), Augmented 5th, Minor 3rd, Octave, Power Chord, Diminished 5th with Octave, Augmented Triad and Minor Triad. Again, he describes the sound of each and gives other details.

2. Right-Hand Techniques: This chapter covers two-finger plucking and two types of three-finger plucking. Two-finger plucking is the kind of attack most often seen in bass playing. Alex calls it the “meat and potatoes” of bass playing. There are exercises in this chapter to help develop plucking technique including string-crossing exercises and exercises incorporating arpeggios. He gives advice on how to play and lets the reader know the scale which is being used for each exercise.

Next comes “Three-finger plucking: Galloping and triplet patterns”. In this section, Alex says that for bassists new to three-finger techniques, his recommendation is that they begin with this method, and explains why. There are “galloping” and triplet exercises, along with an explanation of the differences between the two (it has to do with note duration). Exercises include string-crossing and string-skipping.

Finally comes “Three-finger plucking: Sixteenth notes”, which Alex says is what he gets asked about the most. He begins with right-hand exercises that do not include adding tones (fretting). The left hand is used to mute the strings for the initial exercises. He talks about creating a “feeling of four” for these beats, differentiating them from the triplet and galloping exercises in the previous section. Exercises incorporate string crossing, multiple notes per pitch (hitting the same note more than once before going on to the next one) and playing scales using this plucking technique. He then discusses a different process of plucking which focuses on the order/pattern of fingers used and explains why and when this method can be advantageous to the bassist. He calls it the “return to the middle” technique.

3. Left-Hand Techniques: The focus of this chapter is building finger independence and strength in the fretting hand. The one-finger-per-fret method is suggested. As offered in the past, Adam Neely has created a very intriguing video critique of this method. A small write-up of it can be found at the bottom of this post. All of the initial exercises use two or three strings. String-skipping is included, with the caveat that, once these exercises are mastered, normal scale patterns will seem easy. 😉

The chapter closes with an exercise employing legato technique. My understanding of it is that a string is struck and then multiple notes are played on the same string without attacking the string again for any of the subsequent notes. Caution is advised to avoid injury and to slowly build up hand strength for the technique.

4. Tapping: Alex opens the tapping chapter with the disclaimer that these techniques were introduced to him via instructional materials from other bassists including Billy Sheehan, Stu Hamm, Beaver Felton and Wally Voss. “Hammer/pull tapping” is credited to Billy Sheehan and “press tapping” is credited to Stu Hamm. They’re both cited as examples of players to emulate when practicing these techniques. “Three-string sweeps” is then covered, and Alex attributes Billy Sheehan with their invention. Notes on how to execute each technique are included as well as exercises which include arpeggios and other chordal and scalar patterns.

Part 2: Application (about 37 pages)

5. Rhythm Exercises: This chapter begins with a short discussion about the importance of a strong sense of rhythm in the plucking hand vs. practicing scales. I found it interesting in light of Carol Kaye’s video interview on the merits of chordal patterns vs. scales. Alex advises practicing each exercise using both two- and three-finger technique, as well as combinations of both and listening to how the resultant sounds are affected. He also says that many of these exercises can even be practiced without having a bass, by tapping out the rhythms on a hard surface. I’ve seen this same advice mentioned elsewhere… once I remember who else suggested it, I’ll link to it here.

Exercises include combinations of triplets, galloping, 8th and sixteenth-note patterns, two- and three-finger technique and note groupings I’ve not seen on paper before, but have heard on numerous songs including “16th/8th/16th” note groupings (which he says have the same note values as a gallop but with a more syncopated feel). Other note groupings which are explored are “8th/16th/16th/16th” and “8th/8th/16th/16th/16th”. He also explains how some of these exercises feature polymeter and gives advice on how to listen for this and how to practice it.

6. Triplet Grooves: In this chapter, three riffs based on triplets are explored. The first is a “simple 8th-note triplet groove”. The 2nd introduces a new rhythmic unit – a triplet containing an 8th note, two 16th notes and another 8th note. Alex notes that this unit creates a gallop feel within the triplet. Finally, an exercise is given which can be played under a “bomb blast” drum beat (a beat involving blast beats and double bass drumming). Alex says that it actually sounds faster than it is, because of some things happening with the drumming and discusses some interesting things, like whether or not to try and match the guitars in speed or to use a slower rhythm (which is the route he took) and what these choices affect when supporting different parts of a song. He also mentions the importance of knowing the scale in which the guitar parts are written in, so that basslines with harmonic interest can be created which branch out from what the guitarist is playing. Like with most of the book, he lets the reader know what scale the exercise is written in, so that experimentation can be more easily conducted.

7. Sixteenth-Note Grooves: This chapter opens with the statement that a 16th-note groove accompanied by a double-bass kick drum pattern is one of the most common musical ideas in metal. After contrasting the feel created by patterns using triplets with those created by patterns using 16th notes, several exercises are explored. Some of the thoughts discussed are the use of sustained notes in parts and dynamics of unison playing with the drums or guitar for build-up.

8. Writing Bass Lines for Speed-Picked Guitar Parts: This chapter discusses the difficulties encountered when choosing what to play during fast guitar parts including those which use tremolo picking or fast 16th-note patterns and options which can be used when responding to them. Playing “half-time” is introduced as an acceptable solution, but is looked on as less-interesting. 16th-note patterns are examined next. Caution is advised here to avoid “flamming” with the kick drums. Flamming is apparently used in a loose sense and indicates not playing in time, and thus adding “accidental grace notes” and making the overall rhythm sound sloppy. Note choice is discussed, as is employing techniques such as tapping (which can keep up with fast guitar speeds more readily). Tremolo picking is then explored, especially in parts of a song in which the melody is slow, and the chapter closes with an example that makes use of several of these approaches in one piece.

9. Doom and Sludge: This chapter focuses on some of the slower variants of extreme metal. Elements of the heavier side of slow riffs are discussed, as are attributes such as the space they open for bass fills and ability to incorporate riffs based on the blues or pentatonic scales. Additional examples include use of trills utilizing the Hungarian and Minor Hungarian scales discussed in earlier chapters of the book.

10. Song Examples: The final chapter takes concepts and techniques introduced from all of the previous sections and uses them to analyze basslines for three short songs. A focus is placed on building endurance to make it through the exercises, and warning is given that even a simple riff can become difficult when played at a high tempo or for lengthy periods of time. Alex states here that playing songs with a goal of reaching the end disciplines musicians in a way that playing open-ended scales (or, I’m assuming open-ended exercises in general) cannot.

For each of the songs examined, a breakdown of the song structures is given. This includes notes about parts like intros, verses, choruses, bridges, reprises and other elements of song structure. The notes explore why parts were constructed the way that they were, transition from one part to another, interplay with other instruments and other details. The final one is aimed to be a workout in the thrash/death veins of metal.

Bass Notation Legend: The last page of Extreme Metal Bass is a bass notation legend. I found this interesting because I’ve not explored a lot of reading yet (I’m still working my way through the Hal Leonard Bass Method Complete book) and it details a lot of musical notation which I’ve never seen or understood (trill, shake, right-hand tap, left-hand tap, etc.). Its eye-opening to see symbols for the sheer amount of different techniques used in the examples from this book alone.

As an aside, Music Theory: A Practical, Easy to Use Guide for Bassists by Sean Malone is recommended by Alex as a reference for those interested in further pursuing theory education.

Also, here’s a link to a little write-up I did about Alex Webster back in March 2011.

[edit 10.19.2011] Alex Webster linked to this review on his Facebook page! Also, you can buy Extreme Metal Bass from BassBooks.com too.

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10 responses

  1. Pingback: Alex Webster (bassist for Cannibal Corpse) « Ugly Bass Face

  2. Pingback: Alex Webster linked to my ugly review on Facebook! « Ugly Bass Face

  3. Favorite plater bass \m/

    October 20, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    • vishalicious

      He’s one of my 3 favorites as well. The other two are Jeroen Paul Thesseling and Steve DiGiorgio. (When it comes to death metal.)

      October 21, 2011 at 1:21 am

  4. Pingback: Classical – GUITAR & BASS INSTRUMENTAL, Hungarian Minor Scale | YouTube Guitar

  5. Pingback: The Hungarian Minor Scale « Ugly Bass Face

  6. austriaal

    I need this. Webster is an absolute boss. Do you think it’d be pretty easy to transpose the exercises to a 4 string?

    August 27, 2014 at 6:49 am

    • vishalicious

      Many of them can be transposed, at least partially, to 4-string. For example, the Hungarian Minor Scale, which he talks about on the 2nd page of Scales, Intervals & Chords (page 10) has a pattern of intervals that can definitely be played on 4-string.

      One of the differences is that he generally covers 2-octave patterns using 5-strings, and of course those would be different on 4-string because you can’t just continue up a string when you reach the end of the pattern – you’d have to actually move higher on the last string that you were playing on.

      Here’s the 4-string version:
      https://uglybass.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/the-hungarian-minor-scale/

      September 9, 2014 at 2:33 pm

  7. Pingback: Alex Webster – Conquering Dystopia “Kufra at Dusk” Playthrough | Ugly Bass Face

  8. Pingback: HLBM 35: Notes on the D-String | Ugly Bass Face

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