Have you ever found yourself confused when trying to understand where the riffs are coming from in some of your favorite stoner doom songs? Do you wonder why the notes seemingly drift around chromatically without sticking to a single scale? Or, oddly enough, why many of atonal notes seem to “work”? If so, please read on.
In music theory, an interval is the difference between two pitches. Throughout this guide we will refer to intervals as being measured from the root note. The root note, or tonal center, is the note about which a given song is based, forming the reference point for all remaining notes. Although it can vary significantly, even within a single song, the most common tonal center in stoner doom is that of the open 6th string, so that is what we will consider our tonal center for the remainder of this discussion.
I like to consider most stoner doom riffs to be rooted in the 7-tone (diatonic) Natural Minor Scale, also known as the Aeolian Mode,which contains the following intervals: R (Root), ∆2 (Major2nd), ♭3 (Minor 3rd), p4 (Perfect 4th), p5 (Perfect 5th), ♭6 (Minor 6th), ♭7 (Minor 7th).
Note that the 5-tone Minor Pentatonic Scale is a subset of this scale, achieved by removing the ∆2 and ♭6 intervals: R, ♭3, p4, p5, ♭7.
In order to add further dissonance to the mix, we next need to consider what I call The Four Intervals of Doom: ♭5, ∆7, ♭2, ∆3.
♭5: The Diminished 5th (Tritone)
The ♭5 interval is typically associated with the 6-tone Blues Scale. The Blues Scale is achieved by adding the ♭5 to the Minor Pentatonic Scale: R, ♭3, p4, ♭5, p5, ♭7.
The ♭5 is a moderately dissonant interval that is fundamental to the stoner doom genre. In fact, if we add it to the Natural Minor Scale we arrive at the 8-tone Minor Blues Scale: R, ∆2, ♭3, p4, ♭5, p5, ♭6, ♭7.
Countless songs across the entire genre can be constructed using the above scale alone! Pick a Sabbath riff and give it a go. Often times it will work, but if not, just keep reading—stick with me here; I promise I’m not trying to get you to memorize a bunch of scales.
∆7: The Major 7th
Drawn from the Harmonic Minor Scale (R, ∆2, ♭3, p4, p5, ♭6, ∆7), this interval is located a half step below the root, producing another moderately dissonant tonality, and often used as a passing tone in the stoner doom context. Notice that the Harmonic Minor Scale is simply the Natural Minor Scale with the ♭7 interval raised a half step to the ∆7.
♭2: The Minor 2nd
Drawn from the Phrygian Mode (R, ♭2, ♭3,p4, p5, ♭6, ♭7), this interval located a half step above the root is often considered the most dissonant in all of western music. The lack of resolution and uneasiness produced are perfect for stoner doom. Notice that the Phrygian Mode is simply the Natural Minor Scale with the ∆2 interval flatted a half step to the ♭2.
∆3: The Major 3rd
Typically viewed as a “happy” sounding interval associated with the Major Scale, this interval sounds unresolved and ugly in a pre-established minor context. The reason it is ideal for doom is exactly the reason we’re told not to do it in classic music theory: It sounds “bad”. If we raise the ♭3 of the Phrygian Mode a half step to the ∆3, we arrive at what is termed the Phrygian-dominant Scale: R, ♭2, ∆3, p4, p5, ♭6, ∆7.
If we combine the Natural Minor Scale with The Four Intervals of Doom, we arrive at fret board that looks like this: R, ♭2, ∆2, b3, ∆3, p4, ♭5, p5, ♭6, ♭7, ∆7.
For completeness, we can also include the final interval, which is the Major 6th (∆6). This interval is taken from the Dorian Mode and is located a half step up from the Minor 6th (♭6) producing a happier sound. Typically used as a passing tone, this interval can be used to brighten up a riff on occasion, usually in preparation for the additional dissonance that lies ahead.
With that in mind, we arrive at the Chromatic Scale, which includes 12 intervals and covers the entire fretboard: R, ♭2,∆2, ♭3, ∆3, p4, ♭5,p5, ♭6, ∆6, ♭7,∆7.
I tend to think of everything in terms of the Natural Minor Scale with intervals either subtracted out (dropping down to the Minor Pentatonic Scale by subtracting out the ∆2 and ♭6) or added in (including the ♭5 from the Blues Scale and the ♭2 from the Phrygian Mode, for example) and rarely in terms of the other scales that have been discussed. I recognize, however, where the additional intervals come from and why they make sense in the context of which they are applied.
Now I’m not advising that you attempt to cram the entire Chromatic Scale into every riff, but rather that you base your riffs around the Natural Minor Scale while freely employing any of the remaining intervals for additional dissonance and color. The Natural Minor Scale will always remain the foundation about which your riffs can be anchored and resolved. The important thing is to remember the relationships between the intervals and the root / tonal center of the song or riff. The key is to understand that you can mix and match these intervals in the construction of any riff and it will sound correct in the context of the minor keys used in stoner doom.
For an applied example of The Four Intervals of Doom, check out my in-depth lesson on Baghdad by High on Fire here:
In addition, here is a list of example Black Sabbath / Sleep riffs for several different interval combinations. Note that each riff does not use every interval within each list, but typically some subset of those listed. Oftentimes the Minor Blues Scale could be viewed as simply the Blues Scale with added intervals, but the full list of intervals is included for completeness.
Natural Minor Scale: R, ∆2, ♭3, p4, p5, ♭6, ♭7
Iron Man, Snowblind, Children of the Grave, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, A National Acrobat
Minor Blues Scale: R, ∆2, ♭3, p4, ♭5, p5, ♭6, ♭7
Electric Funeral, Black Sabbath, Hand of Doom, Symptom of the Universe, Sonic Titan, Holy Mountain
Minor Blues Scale w/ ∆6: R, ∆2, ♭3, p4, ♭5, p5, ♭6, ∆6, ♭7
Killing Yourself to Live, After Forever, Into the Void, Under the Sun, Dopesmoker
Minor Blues Scale w/ ♭2: R, ♭2, ∆2, ♭3, p4, ♭5, p5, ♭6, ♭7
Cornucopia, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (breakdown), Giza Butler, Dopesmoker
Minor Blues Scale w/ ∆3: R, ∆2, ♭3, ∆3, p4, ♭5, p5, ♭6, ♭7
Sweet Leaf, Dopesmoker, Holy Mountain
Minor Blues Scale w/ ∆7: R, ∆2, ♭3, p4, ♭5, p5, ♭6, ♭7, ∆7