Thrash Metal: What Is This Genre Of Music And How Did It Originate?

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 24, 2022

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Thrash metal is a style of heavy metal music that was originally developed in the early 1980s, primarily by bands from the United States and the United Kingdom. There are many different subgenres of thrash metal, each with its own characteristics and influences.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of thrash metal and discuss some of the key aspects of this genre, such as its sound, lyrics, and performers.

What is trash metal

Definition of thrash metal

Thrash metal is an extreme form of heavy metal music characterized by its intense and vigorous sound style, often played at a high speed. It originated in the early 1980s where musicians merged the power and aggression of hardcore punk with rhythmically complex and highly energetic lead guitar lines. Thrash typically makes use of heavily distorted guitars, double-bass drumming, fast tempos and aggressive growling vocals. Popular bands within the thrash metal genre include Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth.

The origin of thrash metal can be traced back to 1979 when Canadian group Anvil released their debut album Hard ‘N Heavy which featured a more aggressive sound than other hard rock bands at the time. The early years of thrash saw many bands heavily influenced by punk, often appropriating elements of its energy and speed with technical proficiency combined with furious screaming vocals. Early innovators such as Motorhead, Overkill and Venom provided a heavier sound than most rock or pop music at the time yet came off sounding much more melodic than hardcore punk.

The term “thrash metal” was first used by Dee Snider in 1983 when his new band Twisted Sister released their debut album Under the Blade. Later that same year Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All was released which is widely credited as being one of the cornerstones for thrash metal’s popularity throughout the 1980s. From there many other bands entered different subgenres such as speedmetal, deathmetal or crossover thrash fuelling a movement to create even more extreme varieties within this youngest form of heavy music by expanding boundaries set forth by those who had come before them while still adhering to the same core principles created during Thrash Metal’s humble beginnings in Canada decades prior.

History of thrash metal

Thrash metal began in the early 1980s and was heavily influenced by the new wave of British heavy metal, punk rock and hard rock bands. It is a genre characterized by fast tempos, aggressive technical playing and a driving rhythm section. Thrash metal exemplifies a very specific sound that relies on powerful riffs combined with distorted vocals and lyrics that often deal with social issues such as war and conflict.

The genre was popularized through thrash bands such as Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax which all had their heyday in the 1980s, during what is considered the “Big Four” of thrash metal.

The emergence of this musical style can be traced to the Hardcore punk scene of California in early 1982. Bands such as Exodus were pioneers in thrash metal, setting the tone for much of what would come after them. Another major influence on thrash metal came from underground Bay Area punk scenes where bands like Possessed brought a more metallic sound along with their searing vocals and terror-filled lyrics. Other notable names which helped shape this genre include Destruction, Kreator, Overkill and Testament who all made significant contributions to the creation of what we now think of as thrash metal music.

Main Influences

Thrash metal is a subgenre of heavy metal that developed in the early 1980s and is characterized by fast tempos, aggressive lyrics, and fast guitar and drum riffs.

Thrash metal was influenced by a number of genres, with punk and hard rock being the core influences. Both punk and hard rock had a major impact on the development of thrash metal, providing the key ideas and techniques such as fast tempos, aggressive lyrics, and speed metal guitar riffs.

Heavy metal

Heavy metal is a genre of music heavily related to the formation and development of thrash metal. It evolved in the early 1970s with bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. They were among the first to have a hard-rocking sound and heavier instrumentation, with hypnotic rhythms and distorted riffs that made them instantly recognizable from earlier genres.

Heavy metal music expanded with bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Megadeth and Metallica in the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Although thrash metal was heaviest on the scene in this period, bands like Motörhead and Slayer which started out playing speed or thrash metal soon exploring heavier sounds. These heavy metal groups helped set apart thrash as a distinct genre because they established an expectation of intensity both musically and lyrically which is still present today.

The growing popularity of heavy metal further influenced two subgenres; speed metal and black/death metal. These two genres had different approaches to heavy music: speed used higher tempos, simpler instrumentation combined with intense vocals; black/death’s compositions were characterized by dissonant guitars, slow tempos paired with lower frequency growls with infrequent screams. Bands like Venom, Celtic Frost and Possessed began playing faster songs that incorporated elements of doom/stoner rock mixed with extreme styles – effectively giving rise to what became known as thrash metal by the end of 1983.

Despite its origins from Heavy Metal it quickly developed an original style setting itself apart until this day while incorporating aspects from its precursor to give shape to one of the most powerful genres ever created!

Punk rock

Punk rock has been described as “the youth explosion born out of bile and sheer frustration; a reaction against the pompous, overblown rock of the 70s“. It is one of the main influences for the creation of thrash metal.

Influential punk bands such as The Ramones (1974), Sex Pistols (1976), and The Clash (1977), set new standards for aggressive, alienated music with their excessive guitar distortion and fast paced tempos.

In the 1980s, thrash metal musicians such as Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer and others took these elements of punk rock to another level by blending them with hard hitting heavy metal drum beats. By combining distorted guitar riffs that weren’t usually found in punk music with traditional heavy metal practices like double-bass patterns and melodic solos, these pioneering thrash bands created a whole new genre of music.

Thrash metal went on to become immensely popular worldwide in its own right.

Hardcore punk

Hardcore punk was an important influence on the development of various thrash metal subgenres. Although there is debate over whether or not hardcore punk or heavy metal came first, it is clear they both were deeply rooted in each other’s musical sound. Hardcore punk was extremely loud, fast, and aggressive; many of the same trademarks as thrash metal.

The most influential bands to come out of the hardcore punk scene in the ’80s such as Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Suicidal Tendencies, and Black Flag all had a unique sound based around fast-paced aggressive music along with political lyrics that carried a strong message. These bands pushed their sound to further extremes which included fast tempos along with numerous guitar solos inspired by their own individual influences such as funk and jazz music. This then laid the groundwork for thrash metal to emerge and become one of the most popular genres of heavy metal in the late ’80s.

Key Bands

Thrash Metal is a heavy metal subgenre that has evolved from various influences since its inception in the early 1980s. This genre of music has become increasingly popular in recent years, and its influence can be seen in many modern bands. The genre is characterized by a fast tempo, aggressive vocals, and distortion-heavy guitar riffs.

Key bands for the thrash metal genre include Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Let us delve into the history of this influential genre and explore the bands that established and popularized it:


Metallica, or commonly known as The Black Album, is considered one of the pioneering ‘Big Four’ bands of thrash metal alongside Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax.

Metallica formed in Los Angeles in 1981 when lead guitarist and vocalist James Hetfield responded to an advertisement placed by drummer Lars Ulrich looking for musicians. Metallica went through numerous personnel changes over the years, eventually recruiting former Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted to fill out their lineup.

The band released their first album—Kill ‘Em All—in 1983, launching a legendary career that included groundbreaking albums such as Ride The Lightning (1984), Master Of Puppets (1986), and …And Justice For All (1988). Metroplis Records offered Metallica a multi-million dollar record deal after the release of their fourth album —the self-titled Metallica (also known as The Black Album)—and it became a massive success selling over 15 million copies worldwide. It solidified their status as one of the most popular thrash metal bands of all time. Songs such as Nothing Else Matters, Enter Sandman, and Sad But True became instant classics.

Today, Metallica continues to remain relevant with original fans and new listeners alike by pushing boundaries with their music while honoring their classic game-changing style—making them an essential name within thrash metal. The band has since won nine Grammy Awards while they continue to tour Europe and North America extensively every year ensuring they remain justifiably at the vanguard of heavy rock music.


Megadeth is one of the most iconic bands of the thrash metal movement of the 1980s. Started in 1983 by Dave Mustaine, it is one of the handful of very successful bands to originate in early ’80s Los Angeles.

Megadeth released their highly acclaimed debut album, Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!, in 1985 and has since become one of the most influential and commercially successful thrash metal bands. Their releases combine intense guitar solos, intricate rhythms and aggressive songwriting style creating a dense soundscape for their listeners. Songs on this album include “Mechanix” and “Rattlehead” which both be became instant fan favourites.

Decades later, Megadeth still remains a top performer and continues to keep its signature thrash style alive with timely releases and faithful fans. They have been reported to be working on a new album scheduled for release next year which features several guest appearances from some legendary artists from other musical genres such as Elle King, Disturbed’s David Draiman, Blink-182’s Travis Barker and recent Grammy winner Rapsody backed by heavy hitting drums, tight bass lines alongside piercing guitars handled by Mustaine himself who continues to shape thrash music today in 2020.


Slayer is an iconic pioneering American thrash metal band that debuted in 1981 and had a major influence on the genre. The band founders were guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, along with bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, and drummer Dave Lombardo.

Slayer’s sound is tuned to a very low pitch, usually categorized as “tuned down” or “drop D” tuning (in which all of the strings are tuned down by a whole tone below the standard E tuning). This allows for easier access to more notes and faster playing. Moreover, Slayer made use of intricate guitar riffs and abundant double-bass drumming to create their signature sound with crunchy distortion.

At first, Slayer’s music made headlines because of its violent content. However, what really set them apart from other thrash metal bands was their particular combination of techniques; combining speed metal riffs with classical arrangements, incorporating minor modal scales and harmonies as well as melodic lead breaks that would later be described as “thrash metal”.

Although all members of Slayer wrote material at some point throughout their career, it was Jeff Hanneman who was known for writing most of the songs on their first four albums (Show No Mercy [1983], Hell Awaits [1985], Reign In Blood [1986] and South Of Heaven [1988]). His skillful craftsmanship quickly earned him a loyal fanbase who appreciated his complex technique that incorporated aspects from both traditional heavy metal pioneered by Black Sabbath in 1970s England mixed with punk rock fury from America in late 1970s.

Unlike Metallica who created a more commercial type of thrash metal—which went on to bring days full radio airplay—Hanneman preferred an underground style flavor for thrash-metal music which heavily influenced early generations to keep experimenting innovate within different subgenres within the genre.

Characteristics of Thrash Metal

Thrash Metal is an intense, fast-paced form of heavy metal music. It is characterized by intense riffs, powerful drums and aggressive vocals. This genre is a mix of hardcore punk and traditional metal styles, with a focus on speed, aggression and technicality. The style began to take shape in the early 80s, when a few pioneering bands began fusing elements of punk and metal together.

Let’s explore more of the characteristics of this style of metal:

Fast tempos

One of the hallmarks of thrash metal is its fast tempos. Most thrash metal songs are played with a steady beat, often utilizing double bass drum rhythms, as well as highly syncopated guitar rhythms and aggressive or complex song structures. The fast tempos distinguishing thrash metal from other genres is not only what makes it powerful, but also its ability to stay true to its roots in punk rock and heavy metal.

Many of the artists that influenced the birth of this genre have kept the need for speed in their recordings, helping build the foundation for some of the fastest tempoed music ever made. This significantly sped up sound has become known by many fans over the years as ‘thrash’ and separates this style from classic heavy metal as well as forms hardcore punk bands inspired in part by bands like Slayer and Metallica.

Aggressive vocals

One of the defining characteristics of thrash metal is the use of aggressive vocals. These typically take the form of deep-throated growls, often referred to as death growling and screaming. Though some songs have singing elements, it is more common to find a combination of aggressive shouting and singing within a single performance. The harshness of these vocal styles emphasizes the darker, angry themes prevalent in thrash metal music and serves as an anchor for its raw power.

Other unique vocal techniques employed by thrash metal bands include shouting, screaming, shouting harmonies and overlapping shouts, which can be seen on voluble tracks like Metallica’s “Seek & Destroy” or Megadeth’s “Holy Wars”.

Distorted guitars

The distorted guitar sound characteristic of thrash metal is often credited to Josh Menzer, the guitarist for the legendary American band Exodus, who in 1981 recorded a demo that featured an incredibly distorted sound. The traditional technique used to obtain this sound was to turn the amplifier gain up high and slam the strings of a heavily-overdriven guitar; this technique was often seen at live performances as well.

Distortion and sustain are major elements that define thrash metal sound, as evidenced by solos from Metallica’s Kirk Hammett or Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine. These musicians would often use palm muted notes with vibrato to create an extraordinary sustain effect, which was then combined with fast picking in order to make their playing even more aggressive and powerful.

Additional sounds unique to thrash metal can be produced by utilizing

  • alternate picking techniques
  • tapping harmonics on fretted strings

Some distinct tricks include

  • speed picking
  • tremolo picking
  • string skipping

Additionally, many guitarists employ a great variety of special effects such as

  • wah-wah pedals
  • phasers
  • chorus
  • delay

in order to form a much thicker texture.

Legacy of Thrash Metal

Originally arising in the 1980s, Thrash Metal is a intense, high energy form of metal music that combined elements of punk, hardcore and heavy metal. This genre of music sets itself apart from other types of metal by its raw and aggressive sound that resonates throughout the listener. Its popularity soared in the 1980s, creating a legacy in the metal scene that still stands today.

Let’s explore the legacy of Thrash Metal and how it came to be:

Impact on other genres

Thrash metal has had a profound impact on many other genres, inspiring generations of musicians to take up the heavy guitar sound. By infusing heavy metal with punk rock and creating a faster, more aggressive genre, bands such as Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth helped to revolutionize popular music.

The influence of thrash metal can be heard in virtually all types of heavy metal music today. Bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest have taken the “big four” style elements and integrated them into their own sound. Even death metal bands such as Cannibal Corpse have managed to maintain an unmistakably thrashy vibe in their riffs and structures.

Beyond heavy metal, many punk rock bands cite thrash as one of their main influences – from Green Day to Rancid and from Offspring to Pennywise – every band playing punk-influenced styles today has been heavily influenced by thrash metal’s crossover into mainstream culture.

The impact of thrash goes even further: post-grunge acts such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots owe an obvious debt to the godfathers of thrash who took inspiration from earlier forms of punk music; like Iron Maiden before them they successfully bridged hardcore punk and traditional heavy metal musically. This intertwining of genres provided fertile ground for the creation of exciting new subgenres like nu-metal which have helped shape modern culture as we know it today.

Cultural influence

Thrash metal has had a significant impact on the cultural landscape and continues to be an important influence on the music industry. It is often credited with pioneering the heavy metal genre and spawning numerous sub-genres. It is also highly regarded for its emphasis on technical skill over other types of metal, leading to more advanced playing techniques and quicker song-writing.

The thrash metal sound has also been incorporated into other genres such as punk, hip hop, and industrial. This genre’s influence can be seen in popular culture as well, including feature films such as The Matrix and video games such as Doom II. Additionally, many thrash metal elements were adopted by non-metal bands throughout the years including Metallica’s influence on the band Linkin Park in their early days.

Thrash metal has greatly influenced many younger generations of fans worldwide through its high energy style and innovative riffs, solos, and drumming that have been widely promoted in movies, TV shows, magazines, concerts, etc. Its popularity continues to thrive despite a decrease in mainstream media coverage due to new genres emerging since its peak of fame in the 1980’s. Despite this trend it remains incredibly influential within modern music trends nostalgic fans still carry with them their treasured memories of one of music history’s most memorable genres – Thrash Metal.

Continued popularity

Since its inception in the 1980s, thrash metal has become an ever-popular genre of heavy metal music, with bands from all around the world still producing original compositions and tributes to its originators to this day. In the decades since thrash made its impactful entrance onto the scene, it has managed to not only endure but also maintain relevance and consistently impress a wide range of listeners. The explosive power of this style of metal has helped it remain popular throughout its years and its influence is still felt in many contemporary rock and metal acts.

The “Big 4” bands – Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax – are credited with helping thrash reach a wider audience in North America during the late ’80s, yet fans of this particular style continue to be drawn to different global musical projects around today. The crucial power trio elements that make up modern thrash include crunching guitars, powerful drums & double bass patterns, as well as unforgettable no-holds-barred vocal delivery. It was this combination that characterized earlier artists such as Testament and Exodus who have inspiringly maintained their presence on the live circuit since their early days.

Offshoots of thrash such as death metal (e.g., Suffocation) & groove metal (e.g., Machine Head) have been integral components in strengthening the genre’s mainstream presence over time; proving that despite any change or diminishment in popularity over time they have remained immensely influential within hard rock genres today!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

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