Metallica “Master of Puppets”

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Metallica’s song “Master of Puppets” has extremely powerful and driving momentum, which is especially impressive given that it is riddled with meter changes and thrashes on for almost nine minutes. The 1985 album of the same name, on which the song was released, was praised by all sorts of critics, and is commonly described as one of the best metal albums ever released.1 The title song in particular is a fan favorite, and is a staple of the band’s live sets. “Master of Puppets” is also one of Metallica’s most popular songs among aspiring guitarists, and the number of home-made transcriptions of this song available online is simply staggering — for example, ultimate-guitar.com has at least 45 separate tabs of this song alone, not including tabs of the whole album.2

But I feel kind of funny every time I look at a transcription of “Master of Puppets.” There’s a lot of changing meter in this song, and there’s one riff in particular in the verses which has several measures of 4/4 followed by what is usually transcribed as a single measure of 5/8.

from a transcription published in 1988 by Cherry Lane Music Company, copyright owned by Creeping Death Music

from a transcription published in 1988 by Cherry Lane Music Company, copyright owned by Creeping Death Music

The problem is that on the album version of the track and in some live recordings, it doesn’t really feel like an even 5/8 — the rhythm is consistently off enough that if you try to tap out really strict eighth notes, you end up not being with the band when you get through to other side. There’s a lot of research literature within the fields of music theory and music cognition which focuses on such “microtiming deviations,” but most of this research deals with rubato (slowing down and speeding up in the course of a phrase) or differences in timing between a solo instrument and the accompanying ensemble.3 That doesn’t seem to be what is going on here.

To get a better understanding of what was happening, I opened up the album version of the song in Audacity (a free sound-editing program) and started measuring the timings of Metallica’s performance. In the spectrum viewing mode, it is very easy to see the drum articulations in most rock recordings, and with close zooming it is fairly easy to place a label on each important beat with an accuracy around 2 or 3 thousandths of a second. The status box at the bottom of the window tells you the exact timing of this label down to more decimal places than could possibly be practically useful. Subtracting the timing of one label from the next previous label calculates what music scholars call the “inter-onset interval,” in other words, the duration between the start of one note and the start of the next. This method makes it easy (although a bit time-consuming) to closely study the rhythmic feel of any recorded performance with drums or some other instrument with clear articulations, such as piano or guitar.4

masterofpuppets_audacity

I wanted to be thorough, and measure enough timings of this pattern to get a good average, but I do still have a life outside of music research, so I only looked at the occurrences of this pattern in the first verse. That still gave me eight instances of the 5/8 pattern to study. I measured the surrounding quarter note beats for comparison, which are mostly clearly marked by the drum pattern.5 If you look at the chart below, there is a clear and surprisingly consistent pattern to how Metallica performs this rhythm.

Timings from the first verse of the album version of "Master of Puppets."

Timings from the first verse of the album version of “Master of Puppets.” Each column corresponds to a note or pair of notes with a red number beneath it in the above transcription.

As you can see, Metallica’s timing keeps pretty consistently to .15 seconds for an eighth note and .29 seconds for a quarter (or two eighth notes), except for the middle of the 5/8 measure. After the first three eighth notes of this measure, you can hear a brief pause before the last two eighth notes, a pause which is almost always .04 or .05 seconds (about a third of an eighth note), and which makes the measurement of these two eighth notes grouped together .34 or .35 seconds. What makes this rhythmic idiosyncracy different from what has been studied by most music theorists is that this slightly attenuated beat is performed by the whole ensemble in unison, and it’s not a delay that is “made up for” right afterwards. In other words, it’s not a local deviation from the beat that maintains the pulse over a longer span of music, but a permanent shift of where the beat occurs.

This 5/8 measure deliberately disrupts the song’s pulse as much as possible. Even if the band played the eighth notes in straight timing, the quarter note pulse and half note pulse would both be disrupted by the odd length of the 5/8 measure. The 5/8 measure places accents on the second and fourth eighth notes, against the pulse of the preceding 4/4 measures, but then the following measures continue to reinforce this new location of the beat.6

For a long time, I thought that the transcriptions I’d seen were all wrong, that this riff did not have a 5/8 measure in it, but until I measured it I wasn’t sure if my ears were fooling me or not. I still think this is a valid question; 5/8 is “supposed to be” five equally timed eighth notes, so does this performance of “Master of Puppets” count as 5/8 when one eighth note is regularly 30% longer than the rest?

I feel like that isn’t a question that can really be answered completely — on the one hand, 5/8 is probably the easiest notation to read when learning how to play the song yourself, but on the other hand it’s not exactly what’s in the recording, and the shift makes a big difference in how the riff feels. If you don’t believe me, try playing the eighth notes as straight as you can, and you’ll quickly see that the sudden lurch this extra time adds to Metallica’s performance is really significant. Every time I get up and headbang to “Master of Puppets,” I get a sudden burst of adrenaline when I hear this riff. This kind of visceral reaction entirely depends on the “inexact” timing Metallica uses, and the way it upsets with the movement of my headbanging body, for its effect.

If meter is defined as how you feel the beats of a measure, the last measure of this riff is certainly not 5/8, just because it feels very different. I’m not sure I could put another set of numbers into a time signature that would work better, but I think it’s important to recognize that this rhythm has a very different shape and physical implication than a straightforward measure of 5/8.

  1. See Steve Huey’s review of this album for All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/album/master-of-puppets-mw0000667490 []
  2. At the time I’m writing this, 911tabs.com lists literally hundreds of “Master of Puppets” tabs hosted on other webpages, but a lot of those are redundant copies of the same transcriptions. []
  3. In some styles of jazz, especially, the lead player can be as much as several beats off from the rhythm section. See Richard Ashley’s article “Do[n’t] Change A Hair For Me: The Art of Jazz Rubato” in Music Perception Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring 2002). []
  4. This method is notoriously unhelpful for measuring sounds made by the human voice or bowed string instruments, which have less sharp attacks. []
  5. In all but the first two cases, the boundary between the first and second duration in my chart was not clearly visible. For the latter six rows of the chart, this combined half-note duration was exactly twice as long as the quarter-note duration I expected, so I gave the first two columns half the value of the larger measurement. Although some people might argue I’ve “fudged the numbers,” it doesn’t affect the result that the second duration measurement of the 5/8 measure consistently is longer than the average quarter note. []
  6. A couple of scholars have observed this “new pulse location” effect before me, especially Glenn T. Pillsbury in his 2006 book Damage Incorporated: Metallica and the Production of Musical Identity. []

15 thoughts on “Metallica “Master of Puppets”

  1. Hi:

    Just discovered your website. Cool! Appreciate your analysis. I have posted a slightly different version of my comment here on my wordpress site and have included a link to your website. Hope that is OK. I’ve been thinking a lot about Master of Puppets album, and particularly the title track as I want to make a full arrangement for piano (some of the songs would be great as duets or 2 piano arrangements) (hopefully ones that aren’t lame sounding). Anyway, my take on the changing meter in the verse sections of “Master of Puppets” has been for a long time now been the following: 3 bars of 4/4 plus 1 bar of 3/4 – so really just a slightly unconventional 4 bar phrase. You can also hear it as a longer 2 part chunk as well: 8 + 7. I just picked up a published guitar transcription of the album at and I see the 5/8 written in there as you mentioned; it also is written with all this syncopation, which is weird because the drums clearly are hitting on downbeats and the vocals come right in on the 1st beat, so I don’t get the written transcriptions. Seems overly complicated, but I’m not hearing it as that complicated – it’s just uncompromisingly aggressive and propulsive which equals awesome! But I agree with you – that it doesn’t sound like 5/8 at all and I think your original assessment remains correct – it isn’t 5/8! What is suspicious is that in addition to the 5/8 bar is written all this syncopation. That is a clue to me that something is amiss here and the meters and written rhythms are being forced into a pattern that doesn’t really exist. It doesn’t sound anything like the way it looks. Anyway, I’m open to being convinced otherwise but I’ve been listening to the song with pretty focused intention for the last year or so and feel pretty comfortable with my assessment. Part of what gives the song its intensity and drive is not only the shortened 3-beat measure (as I’m hearing it) at the end of those verse phrases, it is also that it does not breathe at all – there is no “musical” space or relaxation between phrases like you hear in more traditional pop song (and classical) song performances. I think it’s worthwhile to point out that the typical liberties and relaxation of tempo (rubato?) in phrasing are rarely, if ever (that I know of thankfully) written into scores (except as a direction for a ritard) as a changing time signature or extra beats or syncopation. If they were it would be ridiculously difficult to learn and be really confusing. Regarding Master of Pupptes performance on the studio album, it sounds like sometimes there is a push to the downbeat. It’s on the verge of being out of control which is one of the really exciting things about it. But I wouldn’t put that on paper. I acknowledge that I could be incorrect; just seems like the 4+4+4+3 (or 8+7) pattern works consistently for those recurring verse sections of the song. Especially if you beat super strict “human” time (as opposed to a computer analysis) with absolutely no hesitations between the 8th notes. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been hearing. Open to further enlightenment on the subject. Best,

    • Just re-reading my 5 am, rather rambling “one thought’ comment above. If I may actually boil it down to one thought – it’s that the verse rhythm pattern is indeed 3 bars of 4/4 and 1 bar of 3/4. Today just ran into a Kirk Hammett YouTube video on master of puppet riffs which I believe leaves no doubts about this. https://youtu.be/GaaBtFdetTU

      I’d be interested to know how your interpretation of the Audacity analysis might be affected by an assumption of 3/4 rather than 5/8.

      • Stephen Hudson

        Hi Steve, Thanks for reading my blog, and sorry I didn’t respond to your comment earlier! I had noticed earlier that when Metallica performs this song live, their timing of this riff is quite different from the album recording. Interestingly, in the demo you posted, it sounds like Kirk Hammett is playing another note that is not written in the last measure of the notated example I included in my post. In other words, it looks like he is playing E-G-A-E-G-A as even eighth notes, instead of E-G-A-G-A which appears in the “approved” transcription published on behalf of the band.

        The average timing I measured for a quarter note in the music surrounding this measure is .29 seconds, and it’s a very stable average without much variation. A full measure of 3/4 would then be .87 seconds (.29 x 3), but in my measurements of the studio version on the album, this measure is consistently about .79 seconds. In other words, even if you analyze this measure as 3/4, it’s still consistently about a third of a quarter note out-of-time on the album.

        I measured timings on the version you posted, and in that performance Kirk Hammett actually plays slightly slower than 3/4 (the quarter note in that recording averages .30, and the measure we’ve been talking about takes 1.00 seconds). Definitely a big difference from the timing on the album, which is interesting. Which version do you prefer, the studio version on the album, or any live recording?

        • Patrick

          Hi,

          Cool analysis. The mathematics you’ve worked out kinda answer the question themselves – if, using a bar of 5/8 as a starting point, we need to account for an extra .05 of “clock” time, which using your maths is a third of an eighth note, we’ll never get an accurate transcription of the “true” time of this bar because we simply can’t get a measurement in music which will break our bar length down into thirds of eighth notes. Using your calculations to take 0.8 as the length of this bar, if you get down to a bar of 43/64 (which at this BPM is waaaay past anything you could conceivably count or apply in real life) you’re pretty much there (0.80625), but I think, given that what’s actually going on here is just a well-oiled band feeling an arbitrary pause in the music, you might as well stop the buck at 5/8 or at the very most 11/16, and perhaps notate the brief pause another way.

  2. Steve Ley

    Hi Stephen,

    thank you for your detailed analysis. You saved me some Audacity work!

    I am transcribing this song at present and am not happy with using a 3/4 bar, as it is too long. On the other hand, a 5/8 bar is too short.

    The math:

    If a quarter note is 0.29 secs, then dividing by 4 gives us a sixteenth note rate of 0.0725. Multiply this number by 10 (10 sixteenths in 5/8) and we have a total of 0.725. Quite a bit short of the 0.7975, the average duration of the measure in question. So, 5/8 is too short.

    Alternatively, using a 3/4 measure (12 sixteenths) would give us a total length of 0.87. Too long.

    However, if we multiply the sixteenth note rate by 11 we get 0.7975; a hair’s breadth from the 0.79 average. I have checked this theory with a metronome and believe this to be the most accurate representation of this rhythm.

    The sixteenth notes in the 11/16 bar are grouped 2+5+4.

    There is something special about how Metallica played this figure. I believe it’s worth notating it accurately!

    All the best,

  3. Fernando Benadon

    Hi Stephen — Just stumbled on this great post. I’ve been thinking about this riff, too. At first, I was leaning toward the “stretched 5/8” interpretation, but I think there’s stronger evidence for a “shortened 3/4.” The YouTube link that Steve shared gives a pretty clear 3/4 (though slightly long, as you point out), which makes me think Hammett always thought of the figure as having six eighth-notes. This would mean that, in the album version, the second shaded column in your chart is accelerated, which makes sense if we check out the 3+3+2 figure at :25, :30, :39, and :48 — where the middle 3 is consistently short by ~50-70ms. In other words, there’s a precedent for the “rush” approach there. Finally, at 5:46 and 5:59, the guitar solo seems to articulate three beats when playing over the spot in question. A fun puzzle!

    • Stephen Hudson

      Hi Fernando,
      Thanks for your encouraging comments! In re-watching Hammett’s video lesson, I think it’s absolutely clear that he plays the figure in 3/4, especially when he plays a slowed-down version.

      I also agree with what you say about the 3+3+2 rhythm being rushed. I think Metallica rushes these kinds of rhythms a lot, at least in their earlier albums. I’ll be putting up a new post about that soon!

      For those who don’t know, Fernando Benadon is also a music theorist! I read one or two of your articles for a class in my first quarter of graduate school, so it’s an honor to have you visit my blog and share your opinion.

      Best,
      –Stephen

  4. some1

    Hey there! I believe diving into the track at this level is at the point of rubato dealing.
    I think the odd times are actually pretty straight forward.
    People often try to say it’s a sudden 5/8 or perhaps a wierd 11/16 when it’s much more comfortable to count it in the tempo the band is thinking in instead of frantic changes.
    I believe they count in eigth notes – so they don’t even count it as a slow 4/4 and then bam super fast 11/16. it would make much more sense to count it evenly. But how?
    Well simple take the 4/4 precedented to the “11/16” which would make some sort of 15/16.
    I believe it’s actually 15/8. Just count it 8/8 + 7/8.

    I think it really is that simple. It’s like how people thought that OMG sufjen stevens’ UFO Sighting Near … is 18/8 or something, and kept on counting and counting untill they realized it’s some sort of rubato. Later in a documentry he said that the song has no time signature and he switches when he feels like on the album. In the end it seems that live with the band they just play 9/8 and honestly, it’s a very simple song. So we gotta stop get so frantic and just enjoy the music to the extent that is re-playable in an exact manner.

  5. Micah

    I think the most obvious solution to his is that the first note in the “5/8” bar is actually a 16th making the two snare hits on the e of one and the 2 of a 2/4 bar

    This would make the interval of the two snare hits a dotted 8th and account for the “30% longer 8th note”.

    So the last two bars would just be counted “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 E 2” – again with that final E and 2 being the snare hits

    Another reason I lean this direction is that if the 5/8 bar were correct, we should expect to feel the down beat go upside down when tapping quarter notes, but it doesn’t. If you tap quarters along with the tune, the down beat stays in the same spot

  6. Micah

    I’ve yet to come across anyone that is describing what I’m actually hearing.

    I’d write it simply 3 bars of 4/4 and a bar of 2/4 – the final bar counted as 1 e 2 – the two snare hits landing on the e of 1 and the 2 – think of the rhythm of “ba dum bum” when someone tells a joke – that final bar is the exact same rhythm.

    So written all the way out it’d be:
    1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
    1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
    1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
    1 E 2 Repeat

    This is a much simpler solution to the problem and actually corresponds with anomalous .07 second beat (obviously a 16th note).

    Also, if you tap quarter notes to the actual recording, you’ll find the down beat never changes, but if there were a 5/8 bar (or some other variation), we would expect the down beat to switch – but when you tap quarters to the recording, it clearly does not switch.

    I’d love to have someone give that a try and weigh with their thoughts.

    • Stephen Hudson

      Hi Micah! First, thanks for reading my blog! I think what you’re proposing makes sense as a way to count it. You’re right about how one would expect the beat to “switch” if there were a true 5/8 measure, and my ears agree with you that it doesn’t feel like this kind of switch happens in this passage.

      From a clock time perspective I’m not sure your counting any closer than the other options: if you set up a metronome to the tempo of the 4/4 measures, it will definitely be off after that “different” fourth measure (unlike some other places where Metallica uses a 2/4 measure at the end of a 4/4 phrase and stays in tempo). But there’s something about the way of counting you describe, as two beats with a syncopated accent, that makes the extra time feel fairly natural. That’s a very interesting observation and I will have to think about it more! 🙂

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