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Djent: How Low Can You Go?

Djentstick

You know those times when you’re trying to describe the sound of a band to someone and you just can’t nail it down?

“Ok, so think if DragonForce and Bob Dylan had a baby”, or “They’re like CCR, but both heavier and more southern”, or “It’s basically Floyd meets Tupac”.

Imagine describing the sound of an entire genre with just one word—a mere syllable alone.

Imagine, if you will, Djent.

Djent: the Genre, the Sound, and the Scene

Like most things heavy metal and all things enjoyed by young people, there’s resistance and contention surrounding djent. It’s frequently roasted in memes and has at least twice been publicly disavowed by its very creators.

Nevertheless, there remains a growing community of talented musicians dedicated to pushing their fingers to the limits while exploring the craziest of dropped tunings in their quest to answer the question, “Does it Djent?”

Defining Djent

/dʒɛnt/, or [jent], or [dih-jent]

Depending on who you ask, djent can mean a lot of things—by various metrics, it’s a metal subgenre, a playing style, or simply a specific guitar tone.

For example, if you ask Dictionary.com, they would say:

Djent is a subgenre of heavy metal characterized by low guitar tunings, string muting, and heavy syncopation. Djent also describes the guitar sound used in this style of metal.”

Well, that way easy! But if you were to ask us, it’s a lot more complex.

Even the pronunciation of the word is debatable (it depends on which part of the riff you’re verbally transcribing). But the general consensus suggests it rhymes with “gentle” or “agent”. At any rate, this lends itself much better to the common “Djentlmen” pun.

According to Meshuggah guitarist Mårten Hagström, the word djent can trace its origins back to his bandmate’s drunken description of their guitar tone. In this origin story, lead guitarist Fredrik Thordendal was telling a fan that Meshuggah aims for a “dj- dj- dj-” kind of sound. The concert-goer apparently heard “djent” in this slurring description, assumed it to be a Swedish word, and began passing this factoid along to others in the Meshuggah fanbase. 

Eventually, this onomatopoeia made its way into online Meshuggah message boards and was picked up by a talented guitarist by the name of Misha Mansoor. Mansoor, founder of the self-described “progressive aggressive” metal band Periphery, is often cited as one of the creators of the style. 

This is a title he has denied on multiple occasions—not for disdain of djent-y music, but rather as a rejection of any limitations a narrow genre categorization might place upon his songwriting. 

Mansoor has explained that the word djent was always meant to describe a particular heavy-handed palm mute chug heard in many Meshuggah riffs. Specifically, he refers to the opening chords of the song “Aztec Two-Step” as a perfect example of the djent tone and technique.

Photo by Vladyslav Dukhin from Pexels

Meeting of the Metalheads

These forums were not just a place for Misha to ask if a particular pickup would work for djent or not (colloquially, ‘does it djent?’); they were an online gathering place for amateur music producers to share their songs as well as their knowledge.

So it was that Mansoor came to meet like-minded guitarists seeking a similar Meshuggah-inspired tone, namely Acle Kahney and John Browne, who would respectively go on to form the djent-associated bands TesseracT and Monuments. As the three helped each other in their quest for dialing in the perfect djent tone, their self-produced djent guitar (with distinctive automated accompaniment, of course) records and EPs gained a steady following online. The early days of the genre (djenre? anybody?) even look Mansoor’s production as an official seal of approval before they could prove themselves – look at Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders for a great example of that.

In time, these prog-metal masterminds got the means (as in, other musicians to play those previously automated accompniments) together to take their tunes out of the studio and onto the stage. As their first albums were released and they headed out on various tours, the concept of djent grew stronger in the collective consciousness.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at Google’s data on djent’s search history—it correlates almost perfectly to key events in the Periphery timeline, with the first big jump occurring right around the time of their self-titled album debut. From that point, the upward trend continued, largely bolstered by the 2010 announcement of the League of Extraordinary Djentlemen tour.

Google Trend’s search data for ‘Djent’, which was searched most frequently around November of 2011.

What had started as a kind of inside-joke among the Meshuggah fanbase was well on its way to becoming the next big thing in metal. 

DIY Inspiration

Since its beginnings, djent has revolved around talented self-starters. It’s a realm where the homebody hobbyist and the aspiring pro are equally at home. Its novel and experimental nature, along with the boundary-pushing attitude of its forerunners, make it a welcome style for those musicians with a mindset for discovery and a drive to become an ever-better player.

Through their hard work and love of the craft, Mansoor and his fellow ‘Djentlemen’ demonstrated to thousands of forum-reading bedroom musicians the possibility of going from home-tracking on a Line 6 to touring with John Petrucci (and an Axe FX.)

The musical and technical quirks of this new take on progressive metal, along with its online origins, made it prime meme material. As a result, djent went viral. United by the world wide web, a more focused community began to grow around the idea of djent. 2010 saw the formation of the Reddit r/djent forum, currently boasting nearly 26 thousand members.

In short order, YouTube was blossoming with videos asking the question, “But does it djent?”, in which gear nerds of the same rank as the original ‘Djentlemen’ test the limits of equipment both good and bad—oftentimes with a comedic twist, and nearly always with a hefty serving of djent puns. As an incredibly accessible in-joke with fun music to back it, the ranks grew quickly.

Considering the speed and extent of djent’s spread—from forum chit chat to global phenomenon within a few years—it seems somewhat counterintuitive that it’s generated as much controversy and derision as it has. Even now, there seems to be no conclusive answer as to what is or isn’t djent; or even if it exists at all…

Is Djent a Genre?

There’s a lot of craziness in the world of djent, apparent at both first glance and first listen:

For starters, to djent guitarists, 6-string electrics are basically the new lute. The affinity for 7- and 8-string guitars held by Meshuggah and their descendents has since mutated into increasing interest in electrics with about as many strings as possible. In any compilation video of these downtuned guitarists, you’ll see an eclectic variety of axes that hardly resemble what we’ve always known as the electric guitar. Headstocks are optional, and the go-to number of strings is generally anywhere between 7, 8, and 9 on a multiscale guitar, unless you’re having fun. and then it is 20.

Djent has also changed the entire structure of the modern band—namely in removing all but one musician from the mix. The bulk of djent-related music is independently produced by solo artists. They collab with one another from time to time, and 5-piece (also 6-, 7-, and 8-piece) bands still form to tour, but most djent tunes are done at the desk by tech-savvy metalhead composers.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo from Pexels
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo from Pexels

Here, I would start to talk about the sound and structure of djent music, but before I can do that, we have to touch upon the main controversy of this topic: is djent a genre?

Misha Mansoor himself has denied the existence of djent as a specific style of music, saying, “It started as what I knew as being like a palm mute that was started by Meshuggah, but now it’s like this big umbrella term for any sort of any sort of progressive band and also any band that will just kind of do like off time chugs.”

And indeed, a listen through any list of “djent” bands has a spectacular difference in sound, style, and, I would say, overall metal factor.

Take for instance the Australian prog guitarist, Plini. Often associated with djent, Plini’s atmospheric shred orchestras are as similar to Meshuggah as Buddy Holly is to Kurt Cobain. Yet, from time to time, he does utilize the aforementioned off-time chugs, as well as a complete arsenal of high-class technique worthy of Steve Vai’s own commendation

Now, compare Plini with Hacktivist, a British group combining the heavy, drop-tuned, djenty grooves of prog metal with aggressive rap vocals. Again, worlds apart from Meshuggah and Plini and Periphery, but lumped in with djent bands nonetheless.

This contrast in sound and style among djent-related acts seems to be the main argument against djent’s being a genre in its own right, and is a sentiment I largely agree with. It’s somewhat of an orphaned style, disowned by all credited with its creation, wherein the controversy always circles back to djent’s original use as a palm-mute’s onomatopoeia.

Fans of the style may (do) argue that there is enough to set djent apart as its own category—atypical tunings on many-stringed guitars, heavily syncopated rhythms, frequent use of polymeters. Coincidentally, these are all elements of the more broadly accepted progressive metal genre, but maybe djent makes more frequent use of the Meshuggah-like chug.

Djent now, Djent then, Djent tomorrow

In my own opinion, the debate surrounding djent’s veracity as a genre is ultimately a meaningless one. Djent began as a concept built on a network of online connections and has now transformed into something larger than Fredrick Thorensdal or Misha Mansoor could have predicted.

Whatever djent is, this new metal phenomenon has a dedicated fan base supporting a slew of amazing artists, and I’m excited to see where it will go in the coming years.

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One Response

  1. With the right strings and a baritone guitar, I can get a 200 gauge string on a 30″ or 28″ scale to play a D0 at 18Hz. With a reasonable amount of string tension. (18 pounds)

    Right now, I have a 10 string guitar that can handle an E0 at 20Hz with 168 gauge string.

    My latest basses can go down to 14Hz with the right sized string.

    I just wish you guys could make some of those strings for me.

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