Having spoken to Metallica's Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield about their memories of their totemic 1991 eponymous unit-shifter, aka The Black Album, it's time to check in with the pros, the peers who saw the Bay Area metal titans' evolution in real time, and those who were inspired by this new hi-definition, radio-friendly brand of stadium metal.
Here, have 16 guitar greats, from Jerry Cantrell to John Petrucci to Mark Tremonti to Diamond Rowe, each explaining the riffs, the tracks and the tones that made the album something special.
Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains)
“I guess it would be the riff to Sad But True, which is pretty fuckin’ sick. That whole record is like a perfect record, though. You’re lucky enough if you make one of those in your career, and they made about five, you know? This record was bigger than heavy metal. It put them into the stratosphere of the most successful bands in the world and broke the ceiling of how far a metal group could go. It’s admirable.
“The artistic risk and sense of growth is what makes it a perfect record. Which is why I can’t say Sad But True is any more meaningful to me than Sandman or The Unforgiven or Nothing Else Matters or Wherever I May Roam. I could go on; every one of those songs is perfect. The Unforgiven is an amazing piece too; it’s like what would happen if Ennio Morricone wrote a metal tune. That’s what it is, fuckin’ badass!
“But [back to] Sad But True. Hetfield’s right hand is something else. There’s nobody else that has that, he has the best picking hand in rock. The precision and power of his playing is otherworldly.”
Jen Majura (Evanescence)
“I was just teaching it to one of my seven-year-old guitar students. The 12/8 West Side Story intro melody is totally approachable for young guitar players, and after the first riff gets the vibe started, that second layer riff – that, at first, seems to go against it – completes it.
“This combination leads into the dynamic snare fill, which turns into this amazing Metallica groove. You can hear Hetfield sing, 'Don’t tread on me' twice, before the stomping verse with a chromatic riff movement is upping the energy of the song. The major/minor harmony-game in the beginning of the chorus together with guitars and drums is one of the classic features on this album.”
Richie Faulkner (Judas Priest)
“Very few will say it’s their favorite track, but this solo sticks out for me. A lot of it has to do with seeing their process of recording on [the 1992 documentary] A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica. I watched it religiously, seeing how the songs were constructed.
“One part was them recording the solo for The Struggle Within. Kirk was in there, coming up with the leads. It was interesting to see that process and understand how he was thinking – 'This is the song, this is the idea, I’m going to start with this, go through these changes and end up with something else!' You could see the sounds being created, the songs being created, the solos being created.
“I remember watching Kirk, and he was struggling, like 'Shit, this isn’t working for me, what do I do' … Watching the studio process broken down like that was so inspiring. You could see their pursuit of making it thicker, heavier and more muscular.”
Bill Kelliher (Mastodon)
“When I first heard The Black Album, I was... not disappointed, but because of the cleaner singing, I was like, “Whatever!' But later I went back to listen to it and was like, “Holy fuck!” That record is so good. I could name any song or any riff as a defining moment.
“The Sad But True riff is perfect, for example. I learned it on guitar recently because it sounds so simple yet so big with the palm-muting. It’s a real chugga-chugga record; every song has lots of that going on.
“Once I learned it, I couldn’t stop playing it. It’s such a satisfying riff. That’s why we’re guitar players, right? It’s fun playing other people’s music. It makes you feel good. I totally understand why cover bands have a lot of fun doing what they do.”
- Bill Kelliher reveals what he learned from touring with the biggest metal band in the world, and shares his thoughts on The Black Album, 30 years on
Justin Hawkins (The Darkness)
“My abiding memory of The Black Album is always Sad But True, and it’s the opening gambit of that song. We were filming the One Way Ticket video in Iceland and driving through a glacier at night with the Northern Lights in the sky.
“That track was playing in a van full of the band and supporting crew. It was just so moving and so powerful, experiencing that record in that environment. I can’t imagine anything else would have had the same effect, really. It felt so immense. I think it still inspires us to this day, doesn’t it? When I say us, I mean humankind.”
John Petrucci (Dream Theater)
“The riff that starts at about 22 seconds into Sad But True is a perfect example of one of the ultimate guitar sounds ever recorded. The percussive 'chunk' sound that occurs when palm-muting a power chord with all down-strokes is such a signature quality of the Mesa/Boogie Mark IIC+ amp used on this album, the same amp responsible for the guitar sounds on Master of Puppets.
“Once described by a dear friend of mine as the sound made when 'smashing a steel pipe against a brick wall,' that specific tonal quality can only come from that amp and was captured flawlessly on the recording and in the performance of this song.
“The Black Album epitomizes the perfect balance between memorable, heavy riffs, incredible songwriting and stellar production. It showed that a metal band can write an album filled with crushing guitar tones and still achieve overwhelming commercial success.
“It showed the world how Metallica would pioneer the next phase of guitar-driven metal and bring their signature sound to more people than ever before without compromising what we all loved about them.”
Vogg (Decapitated/Machine Head)
“The intro to Enter Sandman is pure genius. That clean channel sounds like liquid glass, and then Kirk’s riff is like the Holy Grail. To start the album with that was mind-blowing for everyone listening for the first time.
“Sad But True had this heaviness and groove, thanks to the tempo and lower tuning… I’m sure a lot of guitar players will tell you it’s their favorite riff on the album. It also has one of my favorite solos on the album – and the tones across the board were amazing.
“Holier Than Thou feels like you’re driving at 300 mph on Formula One! There’s a moment after the solo where the bass goes together with the drums and then the guitars come in one by one with an amazing thrashy feel that only Metallica can deliver.”
Diamond Rowe (Tetrarch) – The Unforgiven
“Kirk's solo on The Unforgiven is probably my favorite guitar moment on the album, followed by the main riff to Enter Sandman. I also have to mention the riffs in Sad But True. The rhythms and solos on the album taught guitar players like me how to write theoretically heavy riffs while still keeping them catchy.
“You can sing back most of the solos and riffs – and that isn’t as easy as one may think it is to create. It’s a very important album because I believe it was the first time a band as heavy as Metallica brought hard music to the pop forefront. They crushed every stereotype that a metal band could be given and became a global music sensation while playing a genre that was typically only seen as underground. It really paved a way for bands to come – and it still does to this day.”
Mark Holcomb (Periphery) – Sad But True
“All these years later, the main riffs and rhythm tones from Sad But True are still oppressively heavy. In the '90s, I was an old-school Metallica purist, so The Black Album was a departure for me in that a lot of the technicality and proggy elements from previous records were gone… so I didn’t come around right away.
“In fact, I found myself a little disappointed at first as I loved the long arrangements, impossibly fast riffs and angular sections from …And Justice for All. The Black Album was not any of those things. But Sad But True, and that main riff in particular, illustrated something I still hold onto: [the fact that] mix, tone and production can make a riff hit a million times harder.
“If your tone and mix are dialed in, using fewer notes actually adds more weight and impact to a riff. In contrast, you could play one of the crazy riffs from Master of Puppets or Blackened on a $30 distortion pedal plugged into a lo-fi baby monitor and it’d sound a little impressive.
“But what The Black Album did for me was prove that when the drums sound enormous, the guitars are clear and the bass sits in the mix just right, restraint sounds even more menacing than complexity.”
“It isn't one single moment; it’s the overall sound design and cumulative power. Everything from the thunderous tom sound Lars brought forth on Enter Sandman, the unexpected sensitivity and raw emotion of Nothing Else Matters, the mysterious and exotic lines of Wherever I May Roam and the prototypical riffs of Sad But True.
“I remember being 14 and experiencing those early days of guitar magic, where the instrument seemed to pull me in closer with promises of identity and confidence. Kirk’s solos on The Unforgiven and Enter Sandman provided an escape from everyday life. I wouldn’t be the guitar player I am today without The Black Album.”
Satchel (Steel Panther)
“After the seond refrain in The Unforgiven, there’s a solo where Kirk switches from Mixolydian to harmonic minor and hits the raised seventh over the minor five chord.
“Anyone who has studied music knows that even though this should create enough dissonance to make [Steel Panther singer] Michael Starr shit his diaper, the scooped mid frequency of the guitars makes it possible mathematically to raise the volume to well over 150 dBs in your car (assuming your stereo is like mine) and achieve the ability to wake most neighbors within a three-mile radius.
“Listen… I don’t know what the best moment is on this album, and that’s the point. That’s what makes this record awesome. Do you think James’ grandma ever told him he had a beautiful voice? He didn’t give a fuck. He sang anyway. Do you think Kirk gave a fuck that he wasn’t as technically advanced as Steve Vai? No. This is what being in a band is – four guys who are more together than apart.
“When I listen to The Black Album I hear songs that are simple, heavy and awesome. It’s still inspiring, just like Van Halen’s debut, just like Nevermind. And just like those records, it makes us mere mortals feel like we can achieve awesomeness with enough determination and practice. And maybe… Bob Rock.”
Jake Pitts (Black Veil Brides)
“The opening riff of Sad But True is what does it for me. It’s more than just the riff – it’s the tone. Listen to how beefy and chunky the guitars sound. Being 13, I noticed right away that I loved this guitar tone, and the production of The Black Album as a whole, and I knew I had to figure out how to get these sounds.
“That’s what started down my path into the production world from such a young age. Of course, I had to learn the long and hard way. I thought saving up my money and changing my bridge pickup to a better one would be the answer, and – like I said – I found out the hard way that there was way more to it!
“But I have to give credit to this album, and the production of Bob Rock for sending me down this path into the world of recording and producing. Little did I know many years later in 2014, I’d be making a Black Veil Brides album with the man himself [Black Veil Brides].”
Lzzy Hale (Halestorm)
“The intro to Sad But True. It’s deceptively simple. It is wide enough to not overwhelm the brain upon listening, but anyone who has dared to cover that song quickly realizes how difficult it is to play correctly – and with the right feel.
“Many people don’t realize how hard that is for a rock band to pull off that universal 'big dumb' while simultaneously keeping it stimulating. And the whole album is like that! It’s one complete thought and an incredible journey for the listener. If it weren’t for The Black Album, so many would have never been introduced to the power that is Metallica.”
Mark Tremonti (Alter Bridge)
“When I learned The Call of Ktulu as a kid, it really helped me develop my fingerstyle abilities. It definitely molded me into the fingerstyle player I am today. Since then, every time I would look at new Metallica releases, I’m always keeping an eye out for those kinds of patterns.
“For me, Nothing Else Matters is the standout track on that album because of the great classical-style vibe it has. I also was surprised and enjoyed hearing James Hetfield take a lead on that track. It was an emotional solo that stood out to me. I learned how to play that song as soon as the record came out.”
Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge/Slash)
“It would have to be the solo James plays on Nothing Else Matters. The way the song crescendos into his blues-based lead connected with me from the moment I heard it.
“For a guy who was known for his rhythm chops, it was cool to hear him express himself as a lead player with a wonderful sense of phrasing, intense emotion and a stellar tone. I remember so many of my guitar students bringing that record in for me to transcribe.
“I couldn’t begin to count how many times I wrote out the riff to Enter Sandman! The best part was seeing how happy and empowered the students were after they were able to play it on their own.”
Phil Demmel (Vio-Lence)
“The intro riff to Through the Never is killer and always has me headbanging when I hear it, because it’s reminiscent of the Master of Puppets riff where Papa Het just owns the right-hand jackhammer and sets the bar in that department. It’s pure down-picking brutality.
“After not loving ...And Justice for All so much, I was hoping for a more cohesive record. I didn’t really like the tones, and the tunes were a bit redundant. I lost interest early and maybe moved on a bit from the band. Vio-Lence was writing and started to record when I heard The Black Album for the first time, and I, like everyone else, was floored. It sounded perfect.
“The tones were clear and crunchy and up in the mix, while the riffs and performances were on point. It showed James’ clean guitar brilliance, and his solos were so surprisingly good, and then it also had Kirk’s most hummable and memorable leads.”