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The silhouette of Cliff Burton has loomed large over rock since his playing burst onto the scene with Metallica’s ‘Kill ‘Em All’ in 1983. Burton’s tragic death in Sweden in 1986 (aged only 24) brought an untimely end to his career, but he did release three albums with Metallica: Kill ‘Em All (1983), Ride the Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986).

His legendary stage presence revealed an aggressive and technically adept attack combined with a keen attention to harmony and composition. This propelled Metallica’s music to heights beyond their peers with Master of Puppets regularly featuring amongst the best thrash metal albums ever recorded.

So how can we bring some of Cliff’s approach to our own playing? Burton’s style had much more to it than simply brute aggression, and to get a full measure of the man we need to examine his influences and how he started on the instrument.

History and Influences

Born on February 10th, 1962 in Castro Valley, California, Clifford Lee Burton’s first exposure to music came from his father’s introduction to classical music. Piano lessons quickly followed, and Burton progressed quickly. It was the death of his older brother to a brain aneurysm at the age of 16, however, that brought 13-year-old Burton to the bass, telling people that ‘‘I’m gonna be the best bassist for my brother.”

Burton threw himself into the instrument and he soon became more able on bass than his early teachers, leading him to take lessons with jazz teacher Steve Doherty. It was Doherty that encouraged Burton to read music and study the works of classical composers.

Gigs with his first bands across the Bay Area and a short tenure at college studying classical music and theory (before quitting to become a full-time musician) brought a fully formed Cliff Burton to the attention of Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. He joined Metallica in March 1983.

As a listener to music across many genres, Burton has cited Geddy Lee, Geezer Butler, Stanley Clarke, Lemmy and Phil Lynott as influences and these are evident in his note choice, technical prowess and aggressive tone. Let's have a closer look at some of Cliff’s signature and iconic techniques.

Signature & Iconic Techniques

Anesthesia

Geddy Lee and Geezer Butler’s influences upon Cliff have been evident from the very beginning of Metallica’s discography. ‘(Anesthesia)—Pulling Teeth’ from Kill ‘Em All is a four-minute-long bass solo, containing a compilation of solos across Cliff’s live performances. The first two and half minutes is purely Cliff, before Ulrich joins in on the drums and allows the listener the perfect insight into Burton’s approach. The tone is huge, especially when he really opens up the wah at around 00:37, provided by his Morley Power Wah Boost pedal. His Rickenbacker bass is run through an EHX Big Muff to give his signature biting growl.

The piece starts off with a series of major and minor pentatonic arpeggios, diatonic to the key of D Dorian before moving into time signatures that shift between 3/4, 5/8, 5/4 and 11/8 (00.56). Counting these changes is not easy, but the use of arpeggios gives the part an inherent pattern which we can rely on to get us through them. Count the repetition of the shapes as opposed to the number of beats in a bar - I’m pretty sure this is how Cliff counts his way through.

The solo then progresses through passages of triplets, chordal playing, tapped harmonics and fast melodic lines. There is plenty of material to look at, but I suggest that you cherry pick your favourite passages and work on these in isolation, at a variety of keys and tempos. This will really embed the phrases into your muscle memory and enable you to play them effectively at your next gig.

Orion

Orion from the 1986 album Master of Puppets is another Burton piece that lets us have a look at his composition and band arrangement skills. It’s the second longest track on the album and is full of nice moments from Cliff, including arpeggios, chords and a bass solo double tracked with a harmony part. The bass often takes the lead role (that’s Cliff you can hear playing the melody at 01:42), but it is the chordal section at 03:59 that I would really like to focus on.

Moving from the big riffs in 4/4, the arpeggios are played in 6/8 which gives the piece a more relaxed feel. Again, Burton uses his theoretical knowledge to ensure that the chords all belong to the key same key - F#m in this case. The bass line is a lot of fun to play, using root and fifths to create a flowing line. Make sure that all the strings ring over each other to allow the lister to hear the chord in its entirety. The dotted notes need to be played precisely at this moderately fast tempo and there are some nice minor pentatonic fills interspersed between the arpeggios. This requires a different hand position, so make sure you are prepared for them!

Burton’s impressive playing can really be heard clearly in the two passages’ details above, but it’s in his more traditional bass role that I feel he really shines, providing the rhythmic and harmonic link between Ulrich and Hetfield. Creeping Death, from the 1984 release Ride the Lightning is played at a blisteringly fast 198bpm. Burton was never known to use a plectrum, but this did not hold him back from keeping pace with the guitarists, throwing in high register fills and huge sounding chords for good measure.

The riff at 00:30 of the title track Master of Puppets is another good example. Listen carefully and you can hear that Burton doesn’t play a note-for-note version of the riffs with the guitarists as you would expect him to. He approaches the part with a more harmonic sensibility, using his note choice to create the chords F5 and Db/F instead. Apart from making the part more interesting, the chord changes make the riff sound more sinister and menacing.

Legacy

Despite holding the bassist role for the shortest time, Burton’s presence is still profoundly felt with Metallica, and across the world of metal as a whole. A reader poll organised by Rolling Stone magazine placed him as the ninth greatest bass player of all time and his hometown of Castro Valley pronounced his birthday of February 10th as ‘Cliff Burton Day’.

When asked for his advice to young musicians, Burton replied: “When I first started, I decided that I would devote my life to it.” Devotion, he said, was the key. “To absolutely devote yourself to that, to virtually marry yourself to what you’re going to do and not get sidetracked by all the other bulls**t that life has to offer.”  We may have been stripped of the chance to see how Burton’s talents may have developed over the last 35 years, but he achieved remarkable highs tirelessly working on and pushing his craft to the limits - this is how his legacy truly remains.

Gear

Basses

1982 - Burgundyglo Rickenbacker

Neck position pickup: Gibson EB ‘mudbucker’ humbucker

Bridge position pickup: Seymour Duncan Stacked Jazz Bass pickup

Third stacked Seymour Duncan Stratocaster pickup installed in place of the Rickenbacker’s foam mute and activated by a push-pull knob

1985 - Aria SB Black N’ Gold (Cliff Burton signature bass)

Occasionally used: Alembic Spoiler II (stolen from Burton's car in 1985 and never seen again)

Amps 

1983 - Sunn Beta Bass Amp and a Peavy Mark IV Series 400 head with stock cabs

1986 - Two valve powered Mesa Boogie D-180 heads, with one being used for a clean signal and the other processing the effects chain.

Speaker cabinets: Mesa Boogie 4″x12″ in conjunction with a 1″x15″

Effects 

Morley Power Wah Boost

Boss CS-2  Compression Sustainer

Electro-Harmonix Russian Big Muff

Ibanez HD1500 Harmonics/Delay Rack Unit

To find out more, check out our courses here.

When I started to teach privately I was surprised by the amount of students who wanted a short cut to the mastery of the bass guitar. I was asked about the quickest way to understand the fretboard, to get chops like Miller or if there was a machine that would take care of all the right hand fretting needs so the player would only need to worry about the left hand. Although I marvelled at the creativity of some of the suggestions I was amazed that so many students were searching for the “golden bullet” to take their playing to new heights with little effort. The long short of it is there is no easy way to become the next Jaco, Claypool or Wooten. However we can take from the journey’s of these virtuosos and learn the processes the greats took to master their craft.

One reoccurring theme in all the virtuoso players across disciplines is unparalleled dedication to their passion and a singular purpose to be the best than can humanly be. We, as players should strive for this. “Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” So before diving into the more technical aspects of bass playing, I would like to start by introducing the above quote from Greg Anderson (founder of Cancer Recovery Foundation International). This ethos is incredibly applicable to the musician’s journey.

We strive for perfection in a competitive goal orientated industry and sometimes its easy to forget why we got involved in the first place. In our rush to learn our lydian we forget that we were originally learning to recreate a personal moment we shared with music, the way it warped time, expressed something to us or just made us feel connected to life. Music took us on a journey of our own mind and emotions. I suggest you try to connect with the perfecting of your craft in the same way and enjoy the journey of practising. If you can achieve this, then whatever journey music takes you on you’ll always have a sense of fulfilment and enjoyment from your craft. This to me is so important, that if it’s your only takeaway, writing this blog would have not been in vain! Now with the affective out of the way, lets get down to the technical tips of improving your playing and supercharging your practice routines.

1. Get acquainted with the metronome

The metronome is king of the rhythm section. Consider that we are the conduit between our rhythmic brothers behind the kit and harmonic pontificators on guitar we need to be as tight as Gadd and have chops like Vai to really stand out. There are millions of metronome exercises be it the simpler things like running scales and arpeggios to the more advanced time signatures and poly rhythmic exercises. For me, I like to make things functional so I will always start with working on my core rhythmic strength. One exercise I'm particularly fond of is playing 16th notes straight on one note, lets say D. Now whilst focusing on your dynamics and note lengths lets start at medium tempo say 100bpm, keep the 16th notes pumping really nailing that rhythm. Think “What is Hip” by tower of power for a reference. The fun bit comes when you whack the metronome down to a slow tempo like 30bpm and keep the 16th notes going. You’ll find that like in space at a slow tempo no one can hear you scream. The great thing about going slow is that its all about your internal clock, your time feel, where do you feel each of the notes, can you hear/feel a push or pull, are you landing all those notes accurately? Now keep going and try this at a variety of tempos! For an extra layer of complexity why not introduce an accent played as a muted note? Start with it on the down beat, then move it to the off, you can also move that to the second and fourth subdivision of the semiquaver to really work out your rhythm. This will work on your time-feel and is one exercise that will really get you to internalise that click.

2. Economy of movement

Lets start with getting this out of the way, playing an instrument is unnatural, our bodies were not designed to have instruments in our hands and thus our best guesses at getting the most out of the bass may not always be the most efficient way. Working on the way you hold the instrument is paramount for a healthy career as a bass player, no matter how good your chops are RSI will be a showstopper. For the finer details I’d check out Dr. Randall Kertz who is a leading expert in this field. Check out this link

I’m also an advocate of the finger per fret method for playing for most of bass lines encountered. The finger per fret method is a way of organising your fretting hand for maximum reach, ease and fluidity. So if you work on this element of your playing you will have less health problems, more speed and better dexterity, whats there not to like?

3. Functional theory

I like my music theory like I like my furniture, functional. By this, I believe all theory that you learn needs to be applied to the instrument rather than being studied academically. In addition I believe it is salient to understand harmonic concepts and chordal theory, even if we are mainly concerned with playing the root most of the time. One of the best ways to exercise theoretical concepts in a musical context is through the creation and improvisation of walking bass lines. This will require you to play through the chord changes using appropriate arpeggios, scales and passing notes. The beauty of walking bass is it also requires you to understand how each chord relates to one another in order to create smooth transitions that reflect chord changes. Most importantly it makes all that scale/chord/arpeggio knowledge functional and usable.

4. Listen to the greats

So you have chops down, you are able to play the changes and you are solid as a rock. You are trying to write bass lines but something doesn't feel right. It could be you are still in need of expansion of your musical vocabulary. Study and listen to your favourite players, go deep on what makes their sound unique. Is it a Jameson sort of sound with all the raking and Root - Fifth - Octave fills or are you more excited by DFA and Royal Blood where the bass is the lead and takes on the role of a guitar? When you have found your muse, really try to understand the artist, learn all the lines, learn all their influences, analyse their playing, what makes it unique? Then try to incorporate what you like in your playing into your bass lines. For this you could use a drum loop such as this link and try to improvise an appropriate bass line.  When you have done this with a few players I guarantee you’ll be finding you own voice on the instrument in no time. This is postmodernism and the cultural bricolage of music is where we are at!!

5. Gig, play with others

So now you are really cooking on the instrument, not only are you starting to discover your own voice but your hands are dancing up the fretboard like a low end Travolta. The next thing is to take that out of the bedroom and play with other musicians. As a bass player we have the beauty of demand on our side so we can do a lot of band work. When I was younger I had five bands on at a time, this proved to be a brilliant way of taking my bass playing to the next level and understanding where I fit into music as a whole. Playing with other musicians is where we put all those lessons together and create something new. I believe it’s the ultimate test of a player and is of paramount importance for you to understand your role within the band. A final word…. So as final tip, I don't believe any of these things should be practiced in isolation. Practice smart and try to link multiple concepts into one exercise, can you practice walking bass against a metronome using finger per fret and complex chord changes? Can you improvise a bass line of your favourite player at 30bpm click? Can you put your whole band on click, work with a songwriters arrangement and improvise an appropriate bass line on the fly? Try to be lean and efficient in your rehearsal, treat your practice like a buy one get one free offer at the local supermarket. Most importantly remain dedicated, strong and proactive, if you follow all of these tips you will be well on your way to being an excellent bass player.

 

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