How Cliff handled thrash metal with just two fingers

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I often come across comments like “If Cliff survived, Metallica would’ve never betrayed thrash metal”. Is this truth? (btw, here’s my take on “What if Cliff survived” speculatioln)

Fight Fire with Fire, Metal Militia, Damage Inc – these are one of the fastest Metallica songs. Thus, they are often considered one of the most difficult to play too, especially for finger-style bass. But what if I say it’s only partially truth?

Firstly, the amount of bpm’s is a relative measure of speed. For example, “Master of Puppets” is played at 216 bpm, but it’s mostly 8th notes, and full of 16th’s “Spit Out the Bone” goes at 170 bpm. Which one is faster?

Secondly, when it comes to bass, aproaches to handling the thrash metal pace can vary, depending on a playing technique and specifics of arrangement. So, bass players may “cheat” and take “shortcuts” more freely that drummers and guitar players (well, nobody hears the parts anyway:).

Coming back to the songs mentioned at the beginning. The bass lines are indeed tough, but not as much as it may seem. Cliff didn’t double the insane main riffs with two fingers, since it is not reasonable for his 2-finger playing style.

Human flesh has one trait that significantly differs it from plastic or metal that guitar picks are made of – body gets tired. It’s the price finger-style bass players pay for having a fuller control on the sound.

Anyway, doubling guitar tremolo at 180+ bpm is possible, but it’d be a rapid waste of muscle energy. Even for an extreme, almost inhuman endurance that Burton had inherited and then developed.

Remember that the job of a bass player is to serve as a link between the drums and the guitar, rhythm and melody. And in addition to that, you have to get through a 2-hour live set, holding a high bar of presence and performance during the entire show.

Thereby, tremolo can be replaced with 8th notes and gallops here and there, what Cliff did in “Fight Fire with Fire” and “Whiplash” (we can hear it on the “bass only” tracks). Regarding “Metal Militia” and “Damage Inc”, another ones featuring fast tremolo, the isolated tracks aren’t available, but we might assume that Cliff adhered to the approach in creating the arrangements.

Emphasis on every other note makes the bass parts pulsing, which perfectly locks up with thrash metal drums. And targeted gallops add an extra snap to it and bond bass with rhythm guitar.

Speaking of “Fight Fire is Fire”, the tricky part of the riff is rather shifted accents and transition to the bridge. You ear perceives it differently from the way it actually goes, no wonder you might’ve stumbled upon that section.

Interestingly enough, Burton used the pulsing 8th’s method even when he could easily follow the James’ guitar note for note, for instance, in “Battery”. The main riff’s gallop could be doubled on bass with no struggle, but Cliff had prefered to go with drums in there, accenting every second note to match Lars’ weak-beat snare hit (mentioned earlier as “thrash metal drumming”).

What is the maximum speed at which extended finger-style bass tremolo may be reasonable? It depends. In case of Cliff Burton, I recall him going for it in “Ride the Lightning” middle section (“No one helps me”), which is an ascending chromatic lick with consecutive tremolo bits 5-7 notes each, in tempo ~160 bpm. And yeah, it’s one of the most challenging Metallica bass parts to perform with fingers.

Jason Newsted used a pick most of time, so it wasn’t a problem for him to go full tremolo if guitar did so. There were numerous exceptions, of course.

Robert Trujillo’s case is more nutty. “Hardwired…To Self-Destruct” as well as possible showcases his abilities and aproaches to bass arrangement. The albums starts with a galloping rhythm of drums and guitars in 180 bpm, but Rob’s line was just pulsing 8th.

On the other hand, the closing track “Spit Out the Bone” is primarily build around tremolo riffing in 170 bpm, and Trujillo’s doubling all on his bass with two fingers. According to the bassist, he wanted to challenge himself in this one, that’s why he played the tremolos with fingers. And on Death Magnetic, he used 1(!)-finger tremolo in “All Nightmare Long”. Nuts.

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