Metallica and the Case of the Missing 32nd Note


One of the most-read posts on my blog is this one about the microtiming in Metallica’s masterpiece “Master of Puppets.” Every few months I run across new discussions on different forums or subreddits where someone drops a link to that post. But the most exposure that piece has gotten by far has been very recent, from an excellent video made by one Jake Lizzio who runs Signals Music Studio in a suburb near Chicago. He gives an insightful discussion of the rhythm timings I describe and a great explanation of the stakes of the issue, and I’m amazed and honored that my post inspired him to put that together. Definitely check out some of his other videos if you have a chance! As of today, this video below has over 300,000 views, way more people than I ever could have imagined would be interested in the minute timing details of Metallica’s riffs. (And certainly a bigger audience than I will ever get in an academic music theory journal.)

By far the coolest thing about seeing my research get shared, though, has been reading the discussion it generates. Apparently the idea of microtiming analysis struck a nerve among lots of internet commenters. Many of the posters are hashing out the same stakes about the validity and purpose of music notation that ethnomusicologists and music theorists have been writing stuffy 50-page-long journal articles about for decades. But of course, net denizens get to the point faster (when they don’t go off topic) and are a LOT more colorful.


On the Metallica subreddit, drixhen gives an insightful explanation for the riff’s timing:
“It’s the downstrokes. I’ve found when others play this song using some alternative picking they get messed up but if it’s exclusively downstrokes (the way James plays it) it feel more natural. Exhausting but natural”


On Ultimate Guitar, Dr. Cheese says:
“It’s only confusing when you try and write it down. There’s no notation for “slightly rush this beat”.”


On youtube, there was some dubious speculation by Acid CH:
“I disagree that it wasn’t written in 21/32 intentionally, but I can see it being practiced in the way you described.
Cliff Burton was an unusual member of Metallica because he was a multi-versed musician, enjoying jazz and such too. He was an incredible composer who wrote and influenced a lot of Metallica’s earlier albums. That’s why there was a large music direction change after his death.
I don’t doubt some of them probably didn’t get the time signature and just timed it, but Cliff probably knew exactly what was going on in that little section”

This was quickly shot down by lots of others, including ThePisslord:
“Nah, Cliff Burton knew more music theory than the other members of Metallica… that’s about it. Funny how the term “classically trained” is abused so much in genres like this.”

Others in that same discussion pointed out that the riff was actually written by James Hetfield, so whether Cliff had a time signature in mind might not be relevant.


Again on Ultimate Guitar, qrEE sparked off quite an argument by saying:
“this is because Lars is terrible at timing and most likely wasn’t playing to a click. Not some deep music theory genius on the part of Metallica.”

A swarm of fans rose in the defense of a perceived slight of Lars Ulrich, including korinaflyingv:
“If he was terrible at timing the timing wouldn’t be so consistent. It’s just a rhythm they came up with without considering time signatures.”

In a later response to qrEE, Jehannum says:
“And James has described that riff as “pretty messy”, so I think he instinctively knows it doesn’t fit into the neat borders of basic time signature theory.”

In the middle of a pages-long back-and-forth that even I found confusing, over whether the rhythm was essentially 4/4 + 7/8 or something involving 5/16 or 13/16, and what difference it makes if you feel the riff at full speed or in half tempo, theotherlebowsk says:
“… BUT if you’re going to transcribe it and average out the rhythms, tempos, time sigs etc into something that is 98% right and most importantly, useable, you’re going to have to sacrifice those fractions of a fraction of a second oddities otherwise it will be an unreadable pile of balls.”

All these arguments rejecting time signatures inspired one commenter named Maggamarine to make a defense of music theory itself:
“So what? A lot of musicians write some weird shit that they didn’t really thoroughly analyze. They just wrote something that sounded cool. But this kind of analysis just makes other people understand what’s really happening in those weird sounding parts.
Theory is descriptive. It describes what’s happening in music and that’s the whole point of it. What was mentioned in the article was a very accurate description of what is happening in the riff.”


On the music theory subreddit, folks were having the same discussion about whether Metallica played these same time signatures “intentionally,” and some of the stakes were clarified by jaykzo:
“The point I was trying to make is that rules can limit you. I mention this in the video- if a theory nerd (like me) was in the band, the riff would never have been written as it is, and would likely lose some originality. But theory can help determine wtf was performed.”

Don’t miss the great rebuttal by othersuper:
“Would you really not write something you couldn’t fit in a theory box even if it sounded really cool?”


To wrap it up, I’m proud of the internet for having a some really passionate, insightful discussions about what music theory is really good for, what it means to say a musician did or didn’t use a weird time signature on purpose, how metronomes or click tracks make rhythm more accurate or kill the feel, and whether or not there is something ineffable about musical timing that can never be analyzed or explained. And I’m impressed by the obsessive level of detail about the band that they collectively mustered to defend their points. I recognized some quotes and references I’ve found in my own research, but enough was new to me that I suspect random commenters on Ultimate Guitar collectively know more about Metallica than I ever will, no matter how much time I spend on my research.

If a few references to scholarly books and articles were added in, this all could have made a great doctorate-level music theory seminar or panel discussion at a music theory conference. Well, excepting the digressions about manboobs and who is more drunk. 🙂

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