Metallica's Kirk Hammett Talks 'Ride the Lightning,' Cliff Burton and Taking Guitar Lessons from Joe Satriani
Tucked in a nondescript industrial tract north of San Francisco near San Pablo Bay, Metallica’s headquarters is an oasis for both thrash fanatics and gear heads of every stripe.
The massive studio—dubbed HQ by the band—has been Metallica’s base of operations for writing, rehearsals, demoing and all-purpose hanging since late 2001. In a rare case of reality trumping fantasy, it is a place that exceeds expectations.
We’ve been invited to HQ to talk with Kirk Hammett about the 30th anniversary of Metallica’s classic sophomore album, Ride the Lightning.
Released July 27, 1984, the album showcased their growing musical maturity and willingness to take chances. With brazen disregard for convention, Metallica delivered the pure thrash attack for which they were known while simultaneously branching into progressive, melodic and, ultimately, more marketable territory. Ride the Lightning didn’t just change the band’s trajectory—it reset the course of metal itself.
We arrive at HQ before Hammett does, so while we wait, a staff members gives us a tour of the facilities. Everywhere we turn there are choice pieces of memorabilia or references from one of the eras of the band’s rich history. Fan-made banners collected from concerts around the world hang throughout the massive complex.
There’s the kitchen table over which drummer Lars Ulrich confronted guitarist James Hetfield in a particularly tense scene from Metallica’s 2004 documentary, Some Kind of Monster, as well as the electric chair from Hammett’s Kirk’s Crypt horror memorabilia collection and the Lady Justice prop head from the 1988-’89 Damaged Justice tour.
But the real gold is in the band’s storage room. Not unlike the oversized aisles of a Sam’s Club, the shelves in this room are packed to the rafters, only with gear. A quick scan of the inventory reveals a mint of mouth-watering guitars, from vintage Flying Vs, Les Pauls and Strats to a staggering array of ESPs, Jacksons and Warwicks.
HQ’s massive main rehearsal area is bursting with even more gear. Today the room is staged with the band’s acoustic arsenal, as they’re in the middle of rehearsals for an upcoming unplugged gig. Fitting nicely with the objective of our mission, the original Ride the Lightning stage backdrop is hanging across the rear of the rehearsal room.
As we take in HQ’s scope and content, we’re reminded that Metallica aren’t your average working band. At this point they’re a metal institution and one of the most successful selling artists in the world. But Number One albums, feature films, massive tours and sprawling rehearsal studios weren’t always a part of the band’s lifestyle. When Ride the Lightning was released 30 years ago, Metallica were a bunch of young musicians from the San Francisco Bay area, hungry to push the limits of the nascent thrash metal genre and willing to go to any lengths to make that happen.
“Around the time we were writing Ride the Lightning, I was taking guitar lessons from Joe Satriani,” Hammett says after he joins us at HQ. “I didn’t have a car, so I had to ride my bike to the lessons. And it took me over an hour and a half, because I lived, like, 25 miles away. The lessons were in a guitar store. So I would ride the whole way there—all huffing and puffing and sweaty—and I’d grab a guitar off the wall. After we finished, I’d grab my lesson papers and bike 25 miles again home!” He laughs at the memory. “It was hilarious. I felt like Lincoln walking 18 miles to go to school or something.”
Back then, Metallica were a quartet of hellions who ignited the underground thrash metal movement with their blazing, neck-breaking debut, Kill ’Em All, which was released on indie label Megaforce in 1983. But unlike Anthrax, Slayer and other thrash acts that were rising around that time, Metallica had a broader, more ambitious vision of what their sound could encompass. They just had to figure out how to pull it off.
By all accounts, their bassist Cliff Burton—who died tragically in a 1986 bus accident—was integral to helping the band expand its horizons. “Cliff studied music in college,” Hammett says. “I had a grasp of music theory, thanks to Joe, but Cliff went the whole length and learned musical theory and everything. And he was way into harmonies. James really absorbed the dual-harmony thing and took it to heart. He made it his thing, but it was originally Cliff’s. Cliff also inspired James greatly on counterpoint and rhythmic concepts.”
In early 1984, armed with a batch of new material and fresh techniques, the band decamped to Copenhagen, Denmark (at the prompting of Lars, who is a Danish citizen), and began tracking the record with producer Flemming Rasmussen at Sweet Silence Studios. In two sessions spread over several months, Metallica cut the eight tracks that would comprise Ride the Lightning. The record contained Kill ’Em All–style ripping thrash (“Trapped Under Ice”), but it also incorporated acoustic sections (“Fight Fire with Fire”), epic compositions (“Creeping Death,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls”), exciting structures (“Ride the Lightning”), expansive instrumentals (“The Call of Ktulu”) and, most shockingly, a power ballad (“Fade to Black”).
Metallica may have entered Sweet Silence as just another thrash band, but they left as one of the most sought-after acts in the scene. In the months following Ride the Lightning’s release, they were picked up by the major label Elektra and signed to powerhouse management company Q-Prime. With the die-hard metal underground already in their corner and their new backers poised to launch them out to mainstream audiences, Metallica set off on the path to becoming the biggest metal band on the planet.
Today, Ride the Lightning ranks as a classic album in the metal genre. Looking back through the lens of the past 30 years, how has your view of the Ride the Lightning era changed?
It’s interesting. Just this morning I was telling my kids what I was going to do today. I’m like, “These people are taking a picture of me in an electric chair!” They’re both young, so of course they said, “Why?” I explained it’s because we have a song called “Ride the Lightning” and that’s another way of saying, “You’re getting electrocuted in an electric chair!” Then I had to play them the song and sing them the lyrics. They’re sitting there looking at me, like, Wow. [laughs]
So I’m sitting with them, listening to that “Ride the Lightning” guitar solo, and I was like, I have absolutely no recollection of putting all those harmonies on there! [laughs] When we were putting that song together, we had the intro riff, the verse, the chorus, and a part of the instrumental bridge. When the whole thing slows down and there’s that solo section, I remember I pretty much played that solo as it is off the bat.
When I recorded that in 1984, I was 21 years old. That’s crazy. In 1984, a guitar solo like that was something. If you put it into context of what was going on back then, it was very modern sounding. Of course, if you put it into today’s context, it sounds like classic rock. [laughs] It’s not like today’s norm, with sweeping arpeggios and 32nd notes everywhere. I also have to say that when I listened to it this morning, I realized that the actual sound of the album is still good. After all these fucking years, it still holds up sonically.
You were still on the indie label Megaforce when you recorded Ride the Lightning, which I assume meant you weren’t working with a big budget. How’d you end up flying to Copenhagen to record with Flemming Rasmussen? Was that a Lars connection because he’s Danish?
It was a Lars connection. Also, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow had recorded a couple albums there—Difficult to Cure and Bent Out of Shape—and they’re recorded really well. At that time, studio time was cheaper in Europe than it was in the States. We were already over there, because we had just ended a European tour. Plus, we had the benefit of Lars being Danish, so we worked out a package deal with Sweet Silence Studios.
I remember we had landed in Copenhagen to record the album, and we needed a few days to get the songs together. We were in Mercyful Fate’s rehearsal space in Copenhagen. They weren’t there, so they lent it to us. So we were in there playing, and I look up and through the window I see this guy with his back to me. I could tell it was King Diamond, and I was like, Uh-oh, there’s the man himself. And then he turned around and he didn’t have his makeup on! I was like, Woah…unmasked! [laughs]