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The Top 10 Best Tool Riffs Ever

An in-depth exploration of some of the band’s standout moments.

On April 6, 1993 Tool released their impeccable debut album proper, Undertow, setting them off on a run of releases without peer in the rock and metal world. While we’re eagerly awaiting their new album, we decided to take a deep delve into the catalogue to pick out their greatest riffs. And if you know Tool, you know there are a lot of incredible riffs to choose from. So we tasked our resident axe-master Amit Sharma with whittling them down to the very best. Disagree? Well, you’re wrong, aren’t you?

Flood (Undertow, 1993

Buried near the end of Tool’s debut full-length, Flood’s main hook could indeed be one of the ugliest the band have conceived to date. The pounding drums and haunting vocal chants make its doomy post-rock all the more unsettling – and just when you think you’ve heard it all, the atmospherics morph into a stonery grunge masterpiece. 

Forty Six & 2 (Ænima, 1996)

The repeating motif that runs through most of this six-minute epic is Tool doing what they do best – hypnotising the listener through a rhythmic displacement of bass and guitars in 4/4 while drummer Danny Carey plays polyrhythms in 7/8. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the song also includes measures of 3/8, 5/8 and 9/8 – as any ode to theories on our genetic evolution should. 

Third Eye (Ænima, 1996)

There’s a lot more to Third Eye than any of its standalone riffs, but the violent single-chord stabs that appear halfway in and again at the conclusion of its 14-minute journey bring a fitting end to Tool’s second full-length head-melter. Decaying from rumbling feedback and echoing squeals into the quietest of whispers as Danny taps out the seven syllables of Prying open my third eye’, these are some of the most musically intense moments in a career littered with them. 

Jimmy (Ænima, 1996

Though Jimmy may be one of the lesser-known tracks from their 1996 mainstream breakthrough, its brain-haemorrhaging stoner/fuzz heaviness could be closest thing this band have come to sounding like Led Zeppelin. Other than, of course, their eyeball-dissolving cover of No Quarter on 2000’s live/B‑side Salival release. 

The Grudge (Lateralus, 2001

After a four-minute build-up, third full-length opener The Grudge erupts with arguably one of the greatest riffs ever to be written in 5/4. Guitarist Adam Jones pulls off onto open strings to throw listeners off-balance while Danny Carey goes into a half-time groove and Maynard sings of Defining, confining, sinking deeper!’ Some fan theories suggest the song is about relieving ourselves of emotional baggage in order to achieve Christ Consciousness – the next stage of enlightenment – while others insist it’s the band moving from previous legal struggles. 

Schism (Lateralus, 2001

Though it may feel like one repeating bass line virtually throughout on first listen, some studies have found nearly 50 different time signatures encased within Schism’s six minutes and 46 seconds. Whether you see it as one riff or multiple ideas chained together in a brain-bursting display of musical mathematics, the Lateralus lead single is also, in many ways, Tool at their catchiest. It won them a Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 2002, and helped clinch Album Of The Year in Kerrang! on year of release. The progressive rock-inspired reverie halfway in is remarkably transcendental, its reverberated and palm-muted guitars trickling against droning feedback and pitch-shifting bass notes. Like The Grudge, Schism seems to address past mistakes in its lyrics: The light that fuelled our fire then has burned a hole between us so.’

Lateralus (Lateralus, 2001

The way Tool fade in their rhythm section against Adam Jones’ lonely guitars is masterful, as is how they reconstruct the same opening riff in the song’s breakdown – building it back one piece at a time. Equally as impressive is how Maynard James Keenan manages to sing his syllables in the Fibonacci sequence linked with sacred geometry once those delicate guitars detonate into muscular math-metal heaviness. According to drummer Danny Carey, the song was originally titled 987 because of its time signatures and then it turned out that 987 was the 16th number of the Fibonacci sequence… so that was cool.” 

Ticks & Leeches (Lateralus, 2001

Before the howling winds and soft guitars in the spine-tingling breakdown of Ticks & Leeches is a riff that cycles between counts of seven and eight on unsuspecting ears without losing its natural pulse. It’s the same kind of thinking that has also made Swedish progressive metallers Meshuggah – who opened for Tool on the Lateralus tour – world-conquering masters of time. 

Jambi (10,000 Days, 2006

Using a similar pull-off technique as he did in The Grudge but this time as triplets, it’s guitarist Adam Jones working as the engine at the heart of this track. Its 9/8 meter gives the feeling of continuous triplets in 3/4 time, though the groupings of its eighth notes change through the track. When it all hits boiling point three and a half minutes in, there’s no stopping them – using the teleporting rhythms of a single open-string note to blow our minds in place of melody. 

Right In Two (10,000 Days, 2006)

The further you get inside any of Tool’s albums, the more experimental they become – most recently on 10,000 Days trading the kind of metallic crunch the band started out playing for cleaner fretwork, bubbling Indian tablas and clocklike harmonics. While there’s much to be said of the stoner fuzz that emerges in the latter half, it’s Right In Two’s echo-ridden intro and outro that demonstrate Adam Jones’ and Justin Chancellor’s knack for channelling the ultimate trance-inducing noise. 

Words: Amit Sharma

Posted on April 6th 2018, 11:22a.m.
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