The May 2016 cover of Guitar World magazine features the man himself shoulder-to-shoulder with heavy metal icon Zakk Wylde. Both men spoke to GW on a stop of this year’s Experience Hendrix tour. The featured interview finds the two trading mutual respect for each other both as musicians and as people. When I first saw the cover, a thought struck me that I have had for as long as I can remember: These two styles actually share much more than meets the eye. The blues and heavy metal may seem as far apart musically as night and day. But are they really? Dig deeper and you will find the two have much in common.
The style of heavy metal is often misunderstood, and pages could be written on everyone’s interpretation of exactly what Heavy Metal is and who started it. However, a good place to start would be with the band Black Sabbath. Ask any artist considered to be heavy metal who their influences are and the name Black Sabbath will certainly be on their list. Formed in 1968, Sabbath first started out as an English band called Earth who played–you guessed it–blues. Guitarist Tony Iommi has cited the blues time and again as his primary influence.
If we trace metal’s roots back before Sabbath, we will find rock and what was being referred to as acid rock, such as Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Hendrix may not be the first name in heavy metal, but his aggressive style had a huge impact on bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, who in turn spawned generations of metal bands. It’s no secret that Hendrix was a blues man in every sense of the word, studying the earliest Son House recordings, and sitting at the feet of Buddy Guy, taking notes during his shows.
From a technical perspective, the “blues scale” has been borrowed time and again for countless metal riffs. Cream’s “Sunshine of your Love” may not be considered metal to some, but by 1967’s standards, it was as heavy as they come–and, again, countless heavy bands built on that riff and took the blues into another dimension.
Beyond being bonded musically, the genres of blues and have both reached out to the everyday man. The songs hold up, generation after generation, because they deal in real life. Lyrically, both the blues and metal deal in topics everyone can relate to. From lost love and hard times to suicide, the words may not always be pretty, but they’re real, and that’s why they are timeless.
Musical snobbery can easily creep into certain genres, and I have often heard people dismiss heavy metal as “garbage,” or “talentless.” I strongly disagree. Time and again I have seen different genres of music lead people to the blues–heavy metal probably being the biggest leader. As a music teacher, I often use heavy metal as the gateway to the blues. Many young students will come to me, eager to indulge their love for metal, which I am happy to encourage. Eventually, though, I will also show them where those metal riffs came from, tracing them back to Black Sabbath, Hendrix, Cream, the Yardbirds, and eventually landing on Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and even back to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy if we can. It’s always fun to see their reaction when they realize, as the late, great Willie Dixon always said: “The blues are indeed the roots and the rest are the fruits!”
So the next time you hear someone blasting metal, from Black Sabbath to Slayer, remember that, even if it might not be your cup of tea, it just may lead someone down the path of discovering the blues, which ultimately means the blues will stay alive. That’s what really matters–that the blues (and heavy metal) will remain better off.