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Jerry Cantrell: “The precision and power of James Hetfield's playing is otherworldly – his right hand is really something else”

Jerry Cantrell
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Jerry Cantrell remembers exactly where he was when he first heard Metallica’s fifth record – sat in a car with drummer Lars Ulrich. The Danish-born drummer was naturally excited about the music his band were about to unleash onto the world and keen to share the anticipation with friends. 

The Alice In Chains guitarist, whose band had released their Facelift debut the year prior, even remembers which of The Black Album’s 12 genre-defining tracks got queued up first. As it would for countless others following its release, the music that blasted out of the car stereo that day left a long-lasting impression…

“I was sitting in a car with Lars when he first played that shit to me – because you’d always show your friends and rock out to new riffs in the car,” Cantrell tells Guitar World, in between promoting his new solo record Brighten and his new signature guitar with Gibson. “The first thing I heard was Sad But True and I was like, ‘Fuck, man… this is unbelievable!’ 

“They are a band that have the fury and the control and they are able to release the power at key moments. That’s what made them one of the bands I’ve always admired. I’m lucky to be able to call all of those guys my dear friends.”

But it was more than just a record that turned Metallica into one of the biggest-selling bands of all-time, reasons Cantrell. It was the sheer ferocity they brought to the stage and the brutal conviction they were playing with, taking heavy metal to its limits in just about every conceivable way. Seeing the four horsemen live in the flesh during this golden age was the stuff of legend, like witnessing history in the making…

“On top of the music part of it, their live shows were insane,” continues Cantrell. “Just being that band is enough but when you see them thrown on stage, plugged into a PA and letting it rip, they definitely left everyone satisfied. And then there was the whole theatrical aspect of the shows they were putting on… fuck, man!

The Black Album is like a perfect record, though. You’re lucky enough if you make one of those in your career and Metallica made about five

“Every tour had its own special thing, like when they did …And Justice For All with the stage falling apart. And then they started doing the whole in-the-round thing. Even if you forget about the genre and the band for a second, they’ve been at the very forefront of putting on epic shows. That’s what you shoot for, I guess. That’s what makes them the highest flag on the mountain of rock.”

If you were forced to pick, what would be your one defining guitar moment on The Black Album?

“That’s really tough. I’m never good at picking the best of anything, I never really know what to say… but 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?”

The Black Album’s success did a lot for heavy metal – to the point where it’s hard to imagine what the genre would be like without it…

“I think that’s because the record was bigger than heavy metal. It put them into the stratosphere of the most successful bands in the world, out of any genre, and broke the ceiling for how far a metal group could go. It’s admirable. I feel like 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 Enter Sandman or Holier Than Thou or Nothing Else Matters or Wherever I May Roam. I could go on… every one of those songs is just 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 if you’re asking for pure dick-in-your-face Metallica riffs, it’s gotta be Sad But True.”

The Black Album, Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind. They are the kind of records that were bigger than the band or genre they came from, taking on another form of life

Looking at the run they had going into this album, they were simply unstoppable. When did you first become aware of them? 

“Before I really started out as a musician, I was listening to Kill ‘Em All and Ride The Lightning a lot, which were the albums that indoctrinated me into them. I have to say Hetfield’s right hand is really 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!

“Those first five records were made a couple of years apart from each other. What a run! And it culminated on The Black Album. You can hear the upward trajectory. All of those records are transcendent, in the same way as [Guns N' Roses'] Appetite For Destruction or [Nirvana's] Nevermind

“They are the kind of records that were bigger than the band or genre they came from, taking on another form of life. Being a band is a long journey. The odds of success are stacked mightily against you…”

[L-R] Jerry Cantrell and James Hetfield

(Image credit: Getty Images)

And in Metallica’s case they rose to the challenges and overcame the odds, even after losing Cliff. Similar things can be said about Alice In Chains…

“I look to those guys as a musical inspiration just for being on their own journey. And yeah, we’ve done a similar thing in our own way. Through challenges and losses, it’s been amazing to see them move forward. They’re always seeking a new level, seeing where they could do or looking for ways to top what they’ve done before or try things they’ve never done. 

“They’re unafraid to adapt and grow, that’s what it comes down to. The Black Album is the summary of that – moving into the future without caring for anyone else’s opinion. That’s what makes it fuckin’ amazing. To me, they’re the best of the best, the top of the heap… and also top-shelf geezers!”

  • The remastered 30th Anniversary Black Album is out now via Blackened Recordings.
Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).