You know that riff-heavy, groove-soaked sub-genre known as southern metal? The one filled with incredibly influential bands like Mastodon, Pantera & Black Label Society? While many metal bands toe the line between aggressive, low-tuned guitars and Texas two-step, only a handful of metal bands have actually been able to incorporate elements of southern rock in a meaningful way.
Those that have can attribute a lot of their success to adding just the right amount of twang to their songs. As any modern country engineer can tell you – that’s not easy. Producers need to make the tough call between what’s adding a good stylistic change to the song and what’s going too far and coming across as cheesy.
When you can find the balance between the two, you’ve got a recipe for success in a genre that has just a few major players in the industry – meaning a lot of market share is wide open for you.
Twang is just like any other buzzword thrown around in music to describe an unnatural sound. Other people might use terms like funk, drawl, slur or phrasing, but they’re all inherently about bending a traditional sound to your will.
In vocals, twang is easy to define – it’s anything that sounds like a southern accent on a word or phrase. Usually focused on the vowels, twang is created in a voice by holding a vowel longer than usual, pronouncing something differently, or even just bending/sliding the pitch of the sung word mid-phrase.
Just like the voice, other instruments can bend or slide notes to create twang as well. Most often, this happens with guitars, where players are already more likely to be bending notes or sliding between them. The real effectiveness in guitars comes in the rhythm parts though. Bending lead-in notes to create tension. Playing notes one at a time in a riff, slowly bending as much suspense and grit as you can out of those progressions.
Twang is one of those things that many people just define by saying “you know it when you hear it”. For us, the balance between too much twang and just enough comes in that gray area where listeners start to hear it, but not enough to be distracted by it.
Southern Metal Riffs
If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll know that everything tends to sound huge and impactful when played just right. Take Dimebag Darell’s tone for example. He wasn’t doing much that other metal bands aren’t but the way he played was what set him apart. To get the Pantera guitar tone, he’d use low tunings and standard chromatic riffs, but he’d often go off key or bend into/out of notes as he played.
Stylistically, you can tell a guitar performance that’s distinctly his. That’s all part of the twang in his tone.
Stack & Succeed
Aside from the lower tunings, one of the biggest places where metal gets a little more from it’s twang than other genres is with the common “stack & conquer” approach to rhythm parts. What I mean by that is we’re rarely hearing a single guitar with twang – we’re hearing a wall of them. For other genres, the lead often takes the twang, whether that’s a vocal, guitar, or other lead instrument.
Since we’re talking about the most aggressive of mainstream genres though, it’s more common to find stacked rhythm guitars or stacked vocals to help build up and cut through a dense mix. This provides a very unique result when you’re literally hearing your entire mix bend and move with the twang.
To control some of the craziness that can happen with all of that going on at once, it’s essential that southern metal engineers maintain control over their mix using tools like bus compression. This is going to keep everything sounding smooth and even, even if everything’s getting bent out of shape and pulled back in again.
As the video showcases, having that dynamic control with the option of adding additional saturation or limiting to your guitar bus can really help showcase the twang in the guitars without it becoming an overpowering element of a riff or song.
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