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The classic side of heavy metal

With classical music and heavy metal increasing in popularity among the youth in South Africa, Creative Feel decided to find out if there is any link between the two.

     When one talks about a potential link between classical and heavy metal music, guitarist Yngwie J. Malmsteen often springs to mind. In the liner notes to his 1988 album Odyssey, Malmsteen thanked JS Bach, Nicolo Paganini, Antonio Vivaldi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore, implying a musical genealogy that extends beyond the blues and rock ‘n’ roll heritage that is so typically ascribed to heavy metal.
     While heavy metal owes its biggest debt to African-American blues, evident in the use of pentatonic scales, classical music has been an important influence right from the very beginning. Since its beginnings in the 1960s to today, some of heavy metal’s most influential musicians have been guitar players who also studied classical music. Robert Walser, author of Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity, writes, ‘Their appropriation and adaptation of classical models sparked the development of a new kind of guitar virtuosity, changes in the harmonic and melodic language of heavy metal, and new modes of musical pedagogy and analysis.’

     This link between heavy metal and classical is an unlikely one, particularly as classical music is considered a high form of art, heavy metal not so much. If anything, progressive and art rock of the 1960s seem to be a better fit, such as The Moody Blues’ collaboration with the London Festival Orchestra for Days of Future Passed (1968), while groups like The Who, Yes, The Kinks, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) all composed classically-influenced rock songs, rock concertos and rock operas. Deep Purple, now recognised as one of the founders of heavy metal, was diverted off the path of fusions (such as keyboardist Jon Lord’s ambitious ‘Concerto for Group and Orchestra’ 1969), by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore.

classic heavy metal
Eddie Van Halen

     As lead guitarist for Deep Purple, Blackmore was one of the most influential guitarists of the 1960s and ‘70s. While he is hardly the first guitarist to employ classical sentiment, his was an impressive, compelling fusion of rock and classical music which really affected other musicians. Blackmore himself claims that ‘the chord progression in the “Highway Star” solo is a Bach progression’ and that the solo is ‘just arpeggios based on Bach.’ In general, the members of Deep Purple ‘abstracted and adapted a particular set of classical features: repetitious melodic patterns (such as arpeggios), square phrase structures, virtuosic soloing and characteristic harmonic progressions, such as descending through a tetrachord by half-steps, or cycling through the circle of fifths. The harmonic progressions, as Blackmore asserted, are typically Baroque, as are the rapid, flashy sixteenth-note patterns organised symmetrically through repetition and phrase balance,’ writes Walser.

To read more about how guitarists continued their experimentation with fusions of heavy metal and classical music throughout the 1970s through to now, purchase our June 2018 issue or continue supporting the arts and culture sector by subscribing to our monthly magazine, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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