Metallica's Kirk Hammett Talks 'Ride the Lightning,' Cliff Burton and Taking Guitar Lessons from Joe Satriani
Did you guys do a lot of writing in Denmark? Or did you have most of the tracks finalized before you arrived?
I remember “Fight Fire with Fire” and “Fade to Black” were finished in the basement of a friend’s house in Old Bridge, New Jersey. I think it was this guy called Metal Joe [Chimienti]. Before we went to Europe to tour and eventually record in Denmark, we stopped on the East Coast to play some shows. We knew we needed to finish some of these songs.
We had most of “Fade to Black,” except the end part were the solo happens, and I came up with that there. I remember we were writing “Trapped Under Ice” there too. We were using that fast Exodus riff, and James came up with the chorus and I added that whole middle instrumental part.
Ride the Lightning was written in a few places: the house in El Cerrito, New Jersey, Copenhagen, and down in L.A. before James and Lars moved up to San Francisco.
Were you writing the stuff in El Cerrito around the same time you were taking lessons from Joe Satriani?
Do you remember any specific techniques that he showed you that ended up on Ride the Lightning?
All the stuff I learned from Joe impacted my playing a lot on Ride the Lightning. He taught me stuff like figuring out what scale was most appropriate for what chord progressions. We were doing all sorts of crazy things, like modes, three-octave major and minor scales, three-octave modes, major, minor and diminished arpeggios, and tons of exercises. He taught me how to pick the notes I wanted for guitar solos as opposed to just going for a scale that covered it all. He taught me how to hone in on certain sounds and when to go major or minor. He also helped me map out that whole chromatic-arpeggio thing and taught me the importance of positioning and minimizing finger movement. That was a really important lesson.
You guys made a pretty serious jump in songwriting and style between Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightning. Lars has said that Cliff Burton was an important force in pushing Metallica in this new progressive direction. What was your experience like working with Cliff during this time?
Cliff was a total anomaly. To this day, I’m still trying to figure out everything I experienced with him. He was a bass player and played like a bassist. But, fucking hell, a lot of guitar sounds came out of it. He wrote a lot of guitar-centric runs. He always carried around a small acoustic guitar that was down tuned. I remember one time I picked it up and was like, “What is this thing even tuned to, like C?” He explained that he liked it like that because he could really bend the strings. He would always come up with harmonies on that acoustic guitar. I would be sitting there playing my guitar and he’d pick up his bass and immediately start playing a harmony part. And he would also sing harmonies. I remember the Eagles would come on the radio and he would sing all the harmony parts, never the root.
The harmonies are really apparent on this record, too, on tracks like “Creeping Death.”
Totally. He wrote that “Creeping Death” harmony part and the harmony in the intro to “Ride the Lightning.” He even helped me with a lot of the harmony stuff I played in the solo to “Ride the Lightning.” I remember, I thought he’d just grab a bass and show me. But no, he had me write out all the notes in my solo on a piece of paper. Then he grabbed a pencil and went through and notated it, “If you’re playing E, then G, then A, then C…” I’m looking at him like, What? But I took the paper and worked it all out. And you know what? It was perfect.
What was the actual recording experience like when you finally entered Sweet Silence Studios? It was winter and you were far away from home. Did the isolation make for a super-creative experience or a lonely one?
It was super creative, but it was also very lonely and depressing for us because we were one step away from being homeless. We had all embarked on this to become signed by a record company, make records and go on tour. But at the time we were living a hand-to-mouth existence, and all of us were worrying about what was going to happen. Would a gig show up? Or would we get a phone call saying, “You guys are too extreme.” There were a lot of different factors.
We were also lonely because we were so far away from home. At least Cliff, James and I. We all had girlfriends at the time, and we were away for three or four months at a time. It was that sort of lonely feeling you get from being on the road and away from loved ones for a long time. I think that basic feeling was channeled into the album.
Where were you staying while you were over there?
We lived at the studio. Well, first we were staying at our friend’s house, but we totally thrashed it. Then we were living upstairs in an empty floor of the studio. That was crazy, because it was the middle of winter and we’re living among piles of asbestos and particleboard. But we rallied around each other, because that’s all we really had at that point. All of us were taken out of our lives, like maybe a year and a half prior with Kill ’Em All, and we fended for ourselves. We were so young and just trying to figure it out. A lot of the time we didn’t know what we were going to do, and we were fearful. I think that’s why we really embraced the consumption of alcohol so much. [laughs] We drank a lot. Actually we drank tons up to 1998. [laughs]
It’s interesting that you say that, because nowadays Metallica are an institution. There are probably fans born in 1998 that never realize at one point you were just another struggling band.
Totally. You know that we actually recorded Ride the Lightning in two different time periods? We started recording, then we took a break and went over to England to do a tour with the Rods and Twisted Sister. But when we got to England, the tour got canceled. We had no money, so we got stuck and couldn’t get back to Denmark. So we stayed in England for a couple weeks, and I just hung out and drank a lot of English beer. [laughs]
But yeah, I remember a time when I only had one fucking guitar. I had to borrow a second guitar in the studio for Kill ’Em All, because my guitar didn’t have a whammy bar. Even when Ride the Lightning came along, I just had three guitars. I had the black-and-white Gibson Flying V, a red Fernandes and the Edna, which was a black Fernandes Strat that was on the cover of [The $5.98 E.P.:] Garage Days [Re-Revisited]. Those were my three guitars.
Speaking of gear, is it true that all your Marshall amps were stolen in Boston right before you headed over to Denmark?
Yes. And when we got to Denmark, they only had a few amps in the studio. That country is so small that all the major music stores are in Copenhagen. So Flemming Rasmussen called all the stores and said, “Bring down all the Marshalls that you have.” We tried ’em all and found a couple that were good. We just worked with what we had. Oh, there was this guy in some band that had a great-sounding Marshall that we used. We dubbed it the “Best Sounding Marshall in Denmark.” We used his head for the majority of the album.
What other gear were you using back then?
I had the [Dunlop] Cry Baby wah I’ve always had and an [Ibanez] Tube Screamer. On Kill ’Em All, I used a Boss Super Distortion, because my Tube Screamer got stolen. But on Ride the Lightning and on every album since, there’s always been a Tube Screamer for the solos. Actually, we were just rehearsing some acoustic stuff for an acoustic gig. I needed a boost to drive my solo, and what do I go for? The Tube Screamer. And it worked perfectly.