Watch Buzz Osborne share the secrets behind his Melvins riffs, playing style and how he gets his tone

Buzz Osborne has appeared on the latest episode of GibsonTV’s Riff Lords, offering an in-depth look into his playing style and lessons in how to play some of the Melvins’ biggest riffs.

Playing his black Les Paul Custom through a Mesa/Boogie Fillmore head and matching cab, Osborne walks through riffs for Queen, Billy Fish, Amazon, The Bit, Evil New War God, and Honey Bucket, playing them at full and half-tempo – and at half-volume – to give you a bead on what’s going on. 

You want all those atonal things going on at once so it doesn’t just sound like a normal riff

And what’s going on is typically weird. King Buzzo’s taste for the surreal lends a sense of anarchy to Melvins’ sprawling discography, and his perspective on the art of riff is invaluable for any player operating in the sludgy alternative rock / metal space with designs on sounding different.

No one writes riffs like Osborne. As he admits, his style is “fairly uncommon” and even when at their most accessible, his Melvins riffs turn convention on its head; like on Queen, which as Osborne explains, is essentially a rockabilly riff but by playing open strings he makes it dissonant. 

“I wanted to make it more atonal than that, so that’s why you leave in the open notes that sound bad,” explains Osborne. “That’s what you want in there. You want that bad [sound]. You want all those atonal things going on at once so it doesn’t just sound like a normal riff.”

Honey Bucket is another doozy. Using drop D tuning – tuned by ear because Osborne says whenever he does so with a guitar tuner it sounds sharp – it is all about the picking, with the opening riff performed with a sort of choked strumming style with upstrokes just as important as downstrokes. 

Nailing the rhythm on these tracks is not easy. Likewise the tunings. Some, such as Evil New War God, use alternate tunings that were found by “screwing around” – in this case with the 6th and 5th strings tuned down to C and G with the rest at standard tuning. 

In recent years, Osborne has mostly been using custom built aluminium electric guitars made by Kevin Burkett at Electrical Guitar Company, but the Gibson Les Paul has been key to developing his tone. In this video lesson he explains how the three-way pickup selector switch is key to his tone, using it as a three-stage gain switch during a song. 

The latest Melvins’ record, Five-Legged Dog, however, doesn’t need all of that; is the band’s first acoustic album, comprising 36 tracks of Melvins classics and covers arranged for acoustic guitar. And you can pick that up direct from Ipecac Recordings, with a four-vinyl release available in the new year. 

You can check out what else is on GibsonTV over at YouTube.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.