Black Metal Magic Tricks

“Your problem,” preaches a man outside San Jose’s HP Pavilion wearing a “Trust Jesus” t-shirt and Birkenstocks, his voice bellowing loudly through a bullhorn, “is that your parents didn’t discipline you enough.” A disciple stands nearby, holding a gigantic sign that reads, “Forgiveness is Wonderful.” But the thousands of metalheads lined up in front of the arena for the latest installment of the Unholy Alliance tour only groan. Then they shout down the would-be sidewalk savior by loudly chanting the name of the tour’s headliner.

“Slayer! Slayer! Slayer!” is the rowdy mantra, and while the concert’s main attraction is indeed the “heaviest band on the planet” (as Zakk Wylde described Slayer in his June GP cover story), there are other influential head-bangers on the bill, including a younger band that has been helping set the course for (and, for that matter, bring killer solos back to) thrash metal in the new millennium: Finland’s most exciting guitar band, Children of Bodom.

Led by 27-year-old lead singer and lead guitarist Alexi “Wildchild” Laiho, Children of Bodom (COB for short) is a black metal fivesome that, with the departure of co-guitarist Alexander Kuoppala three years ago, now also features one of Finland’s most respected and innovative metal players, Roope Latvala—who, born a generation ahead of Laiho, is one of the younger guitarist’s chief inspirations on the guitar. (“It’s always educational playing with him,” says Laiho. “He’s no wuss on the guitar. He’s super musical.”) In the pages that follow, the fleet-fingered Finns take a break from their grueling schedule of gigging and partying to show you some of their favorite licks, tricks, and techniques—many of which you can hear on COB’s crushing new album Are You Dead Yet? [Spinefarm].

Sparking the Blaze

It’s the crack of 3:00 pm, and Alexi Laiho has peeled himself out of his bunk on the Bodom bus and trudged through the near endless bowels of the arena past racks of guitars being tuned, mobile drum risers in mid-assembly, and doors marked “Slayer” and “Lamb of God,” before finally entering Children of Bodom’s dressing room. He’s wielding his dangerously pointy ESP Alexi Laiho signature model—a sleek, shark-tail-shaped 6-string that takes direct inspiration from the Jackson Randy Rhoads models that were his go-to guitars before being stolen.

“Um, I kind of just woke up,” says Laiho, plugging into a battery-powered Marshall MS2 Mini amp and cranking the tiny half-stack to within a micro-decibel of its battery-powered life. The heavily distorted tone bounces around the reflective cinderblock walls and the little speaker, miraculously, fills the room. “I need to warm up,” says the guitarist. “Here’s one of my favorite warm-ups—a two-string exercise that I got from Paul Gilbert [Ex. 1]”

As Laiho plays the descending A Aeolian (natural minor) pattern and branches out into dive-bomb, locking-trem harmonics and warped-sounding, bluesified pentatonic tapped licks such as Ex. 2, Roope Latvala, his partner in guitardom, swiftly and silently breezes into the room on a tricked-out street bike. Latvala plugs his custom ESP Random Star into his own Marshall Mini, and contributes to the cacophony. “I don’t have any warm-up exercises,” says Latvala. “I just play whatever comes to mind. Actually, sometimes I’ll warm up on little Bach or something. It really gets me focused.”

Ex. 3—the opening to Musette in D major (a keyboard piece transcribed for guitar) from Bach’s Notebook II for Anna Magdalena—is a perfect example of the type of piece Latvala typically plays. For one, it engages multiple picking-hand fingers (you can pluck the piece fingerstyle or use a hybrid pick-and-fingers approach to sound the notes). Secondly, it employs the one tuning that is a staple of both classical and metal guitar: dropped-D (spelled D, A, D, G, B, E, low to high). On Are You Dead Yet?, Laiho and Latvala often employ dropped-C tuning (the same as dropped-D, down a whole-step), which makes for intensely brutal power chords through 4x12 cabinets. For the purposes of keeping this lesson simple, however, most examples are notated in standard tuning.

Sweeping Up the Ante

There’s nothing like a friendly head-cutting guitar duel before the “morning” coffee and Gatorade (and vodka?) have even kicked in. (“How to drink,” Latvala interjects wryly when Laiho is asked if he has learned anything from playing alongside Latvala.) All warmed up, Laiho proceeds to test-fire a few sweep-picked licks, including the brightly major Ex. 4, which is based on the simple fourteenth-position D fingering shown in

Ex. 5. To play the complete lick [Ex. 4] with the right spirit, don’t worry too much about phrasing the note values (or that pesky quintuplet at the end of bar 1) exactly as written. Just go for an explosive yet flutey sound in which the pitches don’t overlap too much, and add the 22nd-fret tapped notes on the high string as shown. (Laiho generally taps with his middle finger so that he can conveniently maintain his thumb/index grip on the pick.) Sweep instructions are provided between staves, but in this example, pick direction should be pretty obvious.

As if to up the ante, Latvala sees Laiho’s tap/sweep lick and raises him a dose of legato by playing his own “arpeggios from hell” riff—an evil D minor phrase that sounds “swept” but actually features no use of the plectrum. The secret of Latvala’s approach lies in the fully legato Dm arpeggio in Ex. 6. Notice that that every note in this repeating exercise is slurred (i.e., hammered or pulled), including the first note (the fifth-string D), which is hammered with the 1st finger—a slur tactic few guitarists explore. The complete lick involves switching to a triplet- sixteenths feel and extending the Dm arpeggio using notes tapped with the middle (m) and ring (a) fingers [Ex. 7]. Extra credit: Continue with Latvala’s cool 1st-finger-hammer/ middle-and-ring-tap approach by trying Ex. 8, a satisfying chromatic tapped lick based on the middle part of Ex. 7. (Note that in this lick, only the tapping hand changes positions.)

It’s Gonna Blow!

Not to be outdone, Laiho launches into the volcanic series of rising slur/sweep three-string arpeggios in Ex. 9—a menacing diminished line similar to a blistering ascent you can hear Laiho play starting at the 3:50 mark of “Living Dead Beat” (from Are You Dead Yet?). The musical cherry on top is the final note—the high-altitude tapped D held at the 19th fret of the pre-bent first string. Gradually release the bend and the tapped note will drift down a minor third to B.

Pent-up Rage

Latvala closes out our session with an interesting take on the pentatonic scale. In the key of D at the fifth position, most rockers would play the minor pentatonic scale using the traditional, two-scale-tones-per-string “box” fingering in Ex. 10. But Latvala gets a more mysterious sound by playing the same notes with a three-scale-tones-per-string approach [Ex. 11]. Ascend and descend this fingering and you’ll hear the sound Latvala loves—notes that are repeated back-to-back, but are sounded on different strings. (For more info on this type of approach, see Mike Stern’s Jazz Guru appearance in last month’s GP.) Apply a simple pattern to the scale

[Ex. 12] and you’ll get a sense of how Latvala includes this approach in his solos. And don’t forget to try expanding the world’s favorite pentatonic box [Ex. 13] to a three-notes-per-string fingering [Ex. 14]. “Then,” says Latvala, “you can add tapped notes [Ex. 15] and do four notes per string.”

Shred ain’t dead!