Here are the hardest songs to play by each of the Big 4, as chosen by one of thrash metal’s greatest drummers

Thrash metal drummers Gar Samuelson, Lars Ulrich, Dave Lombardo and Charlie Benante
(Image credit: Ross Marino/Getty Images/Miikka Skaffari/George De Sota/Redferns/Future/FilmMagic)

There are few metal drummers with a CV as impressive as that of Jon Dette. The San Diego native has played with Testament, Volbeat, Iced Earth and Heathen, as well as stints with two of thrash’s Big 4 – namely Slayer and Anthrax.

Dette moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, where he was playing in his own band, Evil Dead. After then-Testament drummer John Tempesta left to join White Zombie, Dette was recommended for a job with Chuck Billy’s Bay Area bangers by none other than Tempesta himself, who stumbled across Jon pummelling through Testament’s Practice What You Preach in their shared rehearsal studio. “He went outside to the payphone, called Chuck and said, ‘I just found your new drummer,’” says Dette now.

Jon left Testament in 1995 and joined Slayer, spending two years with them (though he didn’t appear on any studio albums) before returning briefly to Testament. In 2012, he was asked to fill in on tour for Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante, who was battling carpal tunnel syndrome. Lately, Dette has been working on filming professional drum playthrough videos of Big 4 songs that he posts on his Instagram page.

“I’ve got all this knowledge and experience and I feel like I’d be selfish as fuck if I just held onto it all to myself. I feel this need to gift this to the next generation of musicians and drummers out there,” he says. “What better way than for people to be able to go out onto YouTube or Instagram and see a Big 4 drummer performing a Big 4 song?”

With plans to release a full thrash drumming instructional course, we figured Dette is the man to tell us the most difficult song to play from each of thrash’s Big 4 – Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth.

Metal Hammer line break

Slayer – Angel Of Death (1986)

Jon Dette: “I’ve got to preface this by saying that my interpretation of the most difficult song to play, because it’s so physical, is usually one of the first three songs in a set – especially if it’s a fast song. So with Slayer – this comes as no surprise – it’s Angel Of Death. If it’s the first song in the set, it is by far, the hardest song to play. If it’s the last or even second or third-to-last song, it’s much easier to play than it is as the first song out of the gate. When we toured the States, we opened with Angel Of Death and then went into the song Killing Fields. That was by far the most challenging. It’s got a high tempo and naturally, I’d always want to cook that tempo a little bit faster live – about 212 BPM – but really it’s the double bass consistency that goes through the choruses and the intensity needed for hitting the drums.”

Anthrax – A Skeleton In The Closet (1987)

Jon: “It’s got a high tempo and a long, consistent double bass burn. You’ve really got to be careful. It’s like a workout. You want to maintain that consistency with volume on the drums. I can come out of the gate hot and hit really loud and then eight measures into that double bass, I can get gassed and that volume can come down, so when I go into those parts, I have to pull back a little volume-wise. I’d stay at around a seven out of ten, rather than come out of the gate swinging at a ten and then dropping down to a five.

“Playing with Frank (Bello, Anthrax bassist) is amazing. I was talking to Robb Caggiano about this. As a musician, it’s interesting to gauge the performances of other musicians onstage and how effortlessly they can play their instrument. Some guys seem like they’re so comfortable that they’re thinking about everything but their instrument and I think that Frank epitomises that. He’s a great bass player and deserves to be recognised as one of the best.”

Megadeth – Devil’s Island (1986)

Jon: “I haven’t played with Megadeth but if I had to pick a difficult song of theirs, I’d have to say Devil’s Island [from 1986’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?], just because of Gar Samuelson’s unique style of groove. With Gar’s style, if a drummer is going to be challenged by learning a Megadeth song, it’s going to be because of that groove that Gar throws down.

“I think that’s something that a lot of heavy metal drummers miss. Most of the time, the music is so intense that it’s right on top of the beat; they neglect those times where you need to play a little behind the beat. Of all the drummers of the Big 4, Gar epitomised the groove like no one else. Listen to Peace Sells... and you hear so many great, amazing grooves on that record. And, might I add, there’s no click track, no throwing the drum tracks onto a grid, no ProTools.”

Metallica – Dyers Eve (1988)

Jon: “The people that criticise Lars today are looking at his current physicality onstage. Look, we’re not twenty years old anymore. If you watch Lars back in the 80s and 90s — that guy was a force to be reckoned with onstage. On the Black Album tour, they had two kits set up. They had no opening band and they played for three hours.

“I saw them at the San Diego Sports Arena. He had two drum kits set up — one on the left and one on the right, with a riser running along the entire length of the stage. After an hour and a half, they go into The Four Horsemen and at that breakdown part, that little fucker hit that beat. Most drummers would then be sitting there, holding their sticks up high until coming back in. Not Lars — he jumps away from those drums, runs across the stairs, across the entire length of that ramp, down the other stairs and jumps behind the other drum kit just in time to hit the next beat. Lars was an incredible performer. The drumming that he wrote and created stands the test of time. He deserves nothing less than complete respect.

Dyers Eve has that speedy tempo with the fast double bass. I used to practise that song and I could never make it through the whole song. I’d try playing Dyers Eve in the early-90s and I remember that it was about the third verse where my double bass would just go kaput. It would start sounding like a car with a bad muffler! Haha I’d go down to Cardiff and jog on the beach to build up my calves until one day, I finally got it. So at least for me, that’s been the most challenging Metallica song. We could certainly pick apart songs on ...And Justice... that are pretty intricate but if there’s one song that stands out for its difficulty, it’s Dyers Eve.”

Check out Jon Dette’s drum tutorials on Instagram.

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.