Kirk Hammet: And Justice For All
Originally printed in Guitar World February 2008.
With his brand-new signature model Randall amplifier, Kirk Hammett makes the key amp tones from his career available to guitarists everywhere. In this GW exclusive, the Metallica axman tells how Randall’s engineers did right by his collection of vintage amps.
Inside the big recording room at L.A.’s Sound City studios, it looks as if a vintage amp convention is in progress. Nearly the entire studio floor is covered with highly covetable guitar amplification gear: everything from an ultrarare, mid-Sixties Marshall 8X12 “coffin” speaker cabinet to a dusty, yet colorful, selection of small, strange Fifties combos. But this is no amp show, and it’s certainly not open to the public. It’s a rhythm guitar tracking session for the forthcoming new Metallica album. Yes, it takes a ton of gear to produce that legendarily heavy Metallica sound. And not just any gear: lead guitar monster Kirk Hammett is notoriously picky about the amps behind his raging riffs.
I’m all about vintage, bro,” he says, sipping a celebratory Friday afternoon flute of Veuve Cliquot champagne. In matters of the finest wines and tones alike, Hammett is a man of discernment and style. “I have almost every year Marshall that was ever put out,” he elaborates. “I have Kitchen-Marshalls, Parks…I have one of the first Hiwatts, so old that it doesn’t even look like a Hiwatt. I’m a big-time fanatic.
But the amp that has Hammett most excited today is not some eminently collectible old eBay treasure; it’s his brand-new signature model Randall amplifier. “The ironic thing about this is that the very first amp I had, back in 1978, was a Randall bass amp,” he says. “It wasn’t great sounding at all, but it was loud and it was cheap. It was a start. And I could get it to feed back. That’s all I was interested in.
“And now here I am, 30 years later, back with Randall. I was really kind of nervous when we started; this is the fi rst time I’ve really done any kind of amp endorsement. I knew that there’s a lot of work that goes into it, and I’m really picky anyway. But things have turned out great. This is one amazing amp.”
Hammett’s signature model is based on a design by amp guru Bruce Egnater. Having originated in Egnater’s own boutique amps, the model was then modified to form the Randall Modular Tube System, or MTS, Series. This, in turn, was tweaked to create an amp meticulously dialed in to Kirk’s exacting specifications. The design incorporates three separate preamp modules: one for clean tones, one for crunch rhythm sounds and one for super overdriven leads.
“Basically, the modules plug into the main amp head chassis,” Hammett explains. “You can pull them out and put in different modules if you want. You can run up to three modules in a head. After talking to the Randall guys, it turns out they can pretty much get any sound that I’m looking for or copy any sound that I need to get from my setup. I wanted one amp that I could lug around to a friend’s house and play jazz and blues for three or four hours and then take the same amp over to Metallica HQ and rehearse with the band and have all my metal tones in there, too. The versatility of this amp is great.”
The preamp modules are all tube units with two 12AX7s each and analog circuitry tweaked to suit Kirk’s musical needs. The task of tweaking fell to Randall division manager Doug Reynolds, aided by the company’s artist relations rep, Dave Karon. The first module that fell into place was the crunch rhythm unit, the KH-2.
“Kirk told us he loved that old Van Halen tone,” Reynolds explains, “but he wanted something cleaner and with more pick attack so you could hear individual notes more. We had an existing module that makes the most of mid-to-high-gain sounds. We used the same circuit board layout. Then we just put in different capacitors, resistors and pot[entiometer] values to get the exact sound Kirk was looking for.”
“There were a lot of meetings over food and booze,” Hammett recalls, “because we’d generally meet at a restaurant. After talking about what I was looking for in an amp, the Randall guys started sending out modules based on our conversations. I would tell them, ‘We need a little more of this or that.’ They would send me two or three modules a week, and I would pick the best. That became the basis for the KH-2.”
“Once we nailed that preamp,” Reynolds continues, “and once Kirk gave us the green light and we found out he was really liking it, we just gave him a little higher-gain version of that for his lead module, the KH-3. So the KH-2 and KH-3 are roughly the same circuit. The same parts make up the tone circuit. But the KH-3 has an additional gainstage, which gives it a little bit more compression and a little fatter tone, because it’s so much higher gain than the rhythm module.”
As for the clean-tone module, the KH-1, it’s based on a very special old Fender in Kirk’s possession (more on this below). “The KH-1 is similar to our Randall MTS blackface module,” Reynolds says. “But it’s voiced a little cleaner, because the active pickups that the guys in Metallica use have a little more output to them. So we tried to pad the input a bit, so the module will stay nice and clean even at higher volumes. You can play pretty hard on it without distorting.”
The three modules fit into an amp head that has three more 12AX7s that serve as a first amplification stage before the signal hits the modules. The 100-watt power amp stage is fueled by four 6L6 tubes: Kirk’s choice. There are two straight-front 4x12 cabinet options. One combines two Celestion vintage 30s with two 75-watt Celestion G-12T75s. The other cab option is loaded with four 100-watt speakers that Randall co-developed with Celestion.
“The 75/30 cab has about 260 watts of RMS power- handling capability,” Reynolds says, “whereas the cabinet with four 100s is about 400 watts. So it holds a lot more power and a lot more low end, which Kirk really likes. This cabinet can produce more of the low-end thump that he was looking for.”
There’s also a limited-edition model of the amp, fully pimped with chrome hardware and solid maple cabinetry done in a blackburst finish that matches Kirk’s 20th Anniversary signature model ESP guitar, released earlier this year. “It’s a great look,” Hammett says. “I’m really proud of how these modules and amps have turned out. There are a lot of great features. You can adjust the tube bias by yourself, which is a cool thing. There are two effect loops—series and parallel—and it’s set up for MIDI switching.”