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From the Archive: Kirk Hammett Discusses the Past, Present and Future of Metallica in 2002 Interview

Here's an interview with Kirk Hammett of Metallica from the March 2002 issue of Guitar World.To see the complete cover, and all the GW covers from 2002, head to our 2002 covers gallery.

As anyone who's followed Metallica's career can tell you, the group's members are rarely at a loss for words. But when Kirk Hammett recently learned that he'd become the first inductee into the Guitar World Hall of Fame, he was rendered speechless for a solid minute or two. "It totally took me by surprise," he says. "Especially since our profile has been so weird lately. It's been very non-musical, you know?"

Indeed, with no new Metallica material on the shelves since 1999's live orchestral collaboration, S&M, most of the group's media attention in the past 12 months has revolved around the resignation of longtime bassist Jason Newsted, vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield's rehab stint and the band's continuing involvement in the seemingly endless Napster saga. But the Guitar World Hall of Fame was created to honor long-term contributions to the world of guitar playing, and, judging by the reaction of our readers, a year out of the spotlight hasn't diminished any of Hammett's significant achievements.

"I'm actually quite flattered and impressed, and a little bit shocked and dumbfounded," he says of the final ballot count, which placed him ahead of his own heroes Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Michael Schenker. "There's a little bit of 'Why me?' in there for good measure, too." He pauses for a second, then laughs. "Do I get, like, a gold plaque?"

Since 1982, when he first joined Hetfield, bassist Cliff Burton and drummer Lars Ulrich in Metallica, Kirk Hammett has virtually defined thrash metal lead guitar, combining the fret-melting speed and melodicism of players like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Maimsteen with the street-fighting tenacity of vintage Motorhead and UFO. But Kirk's unwavering commitment to his instrument has also led him down some unexpected sonic paths, as exemplified by his more texture-oriented contributions to Metallica's recent Load and ReLoad albums.

As for the band's latest work in progress -- sorry, fans, there's no release date yet -- Kirk not surprisingly characterizes it as "very dissimilar to anything we've ever done. We have a lot of new material, and I like to think it's the best stuff we've done in a long time. It's heavy, it's very dynamic, and this time, James, Lars and I wrote together, which is a very, very new thing. Rather than do it as, 'Okay, the A part is his, the B part is mine, and we've forced them together,' the new songs have unfolded in a very natural, organic way. We sound like a band, even though we still need a bass player."

That vacancy was temporarily filled by Bob Rock, the group's longtime producer, during the initial recording sessions for the new album. And though Rock has more experience as a guitarist, Hammett says his four-string contributions were quite helpful and inspiring. "Bob's bringing in all these very modern ideas with his bass playing, and it's a real breath of fresh air."

Metallica will ultimately have to find someone to fill the spot full time, but at this point, says Hammett, the band's not really worrying about it. "We have more important things to think about. We're taking our time with this thing; we don't want to get into a situation where we have a 'revolving-door' position. We're either gonna get someone and shackle him to us, or we're not gonna get anyone at all and just hire someone, like the Stones do."

Recently, though, Metallica have simply been in hiatus mode. Hetfield, for his part, has now completed his rehab program and is "doing great," according to Hammett. "I saw him at my birthday party. He was very healthy, and he had his sense of humor."

As for Hammett, he's been exploring new ways to approach his guitar, shaped in part by the philosophy espoused by Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery. As the guitarist explains, "The concept of clearing one's mind before performing a task so that it is consumed by nothing but that task, yet is open at the same time to anything that might happen -- that concept can be applied to playing guitar, and it's enormously helpful for improvising. When it comes time for me to improvise, I try to find that feeling, that awareness without any expectation or attachment to anything prior or future. In other words, try to be in the 'now' while you're playing! That's the most profound piece of knowledge that's come my way in the last six months."

As for the months that will follow, until work is finished on the band's new recording studio, Hammett is content to make music at home. "I've been playing a lot of blues, a lot of jazz," he says, "been jamming with friends in my basement studio." He's also been pursuing his newest love: "I recently discovered surfing," he reveals, "and it's the best thing in the world! I feel really fortunate that, in playing guitar and surfing, I've found two things that mean so much to me, and which really complement each other. There's definitely a spiritual thing to both of them; they totally connect you to a higher realm."

Now that we've got some idea where Hammett's going, let's take a look back at where he's been. While our prize committee goes off in search of a gold plaque for the Hammett mantlepiece, pull up a beverage and join Hammett and Guitar World as we trace the evolution of his sound through some of Metallica's musical high points.

Kill 'Em All (1983)

"When I was doing that guitar solo, I was using James' Marshall. That was the Marshall -- it had been hot-rodded by some L.A. guy, the same guy who hot-rodded Eddie Van Halen's Marshalls -- and when it came time to do my guitar leads, I just plugged into that. I had maybe four or five days to do all my leads. I remember thinking, There's 10 or 12 songs on this album, so that means two a day. I had to throw down a solo, not think much about it, and move on.

I had my trusty old Ibanez Tubescreamer, my trusty wah pedal, and my black Gibson Flying V that I used on the first four albums -- it was either a '74 or a '78, I'm not sure. I didn't have much really worked out; I knew how I wanted to open the initial part of the solo after the break, so I just went for it two or three times. And then the producer said, 'That's fine! We'll use it!' There were no frills, no contemplation, no overintellectualizing -- we weren't going over the finer points. On a couple of notes in that solo, I bend the notes out of pitch; for 18 years, every time I've heard that guitar solo, those sour notes come back to haunt me! [laughs] I remember on that tour, whenever it came time to do that guitar solo, I was always like, Okay, I'm gonna play this so much better than the way I recorded it!

"I had been taking lessons from Joe Satriani for, like, six months prior to joining the band, so his influence was pretty heavy in my mind and in my playing. He passed down so much information to me, I was still processing a lot of it. When it came time to do the solo, I was thinking, I hope Joe likes this. I hope this isn't something he'll just pick apart, like he has in the past." [laughs]

Ride the Lightning (1984)

''Again, we were using Marshalls; I tracked the whole album with Marshall amps and my Gibson Flying V. For that song, I knew that I wanted to come up with something really melodic at the beginning of the solo. At that point in the song, there's just a lot of riffing, a lot of heavy dynamics. I was thinking, Wouldn't it be nice if we had something somewhat melodic to lead into it? Hence that little melody I played. I can remember thinking, Fuckin' hell, man, these guys want me to play an awful-long fucking guitar solo! It was our first instrumental, and it was an incredibly long guitar solo. It was like, 'How can I keep this solo going without making it sound like I'm just playing a bunch of notes?' So I thought that I would break it up into sections rather than play one long spew of notes.

I used a modal approach, and there's also arpeggios that I play in the solo -- they're actually 'broken arpeggios,' a term that I got from Yngwie Malmsteen. At that time, 1984, Yngwie was big in the guitar world; he influenced me in that he was using all these different scales and different arpeggios, and really got me thinking about that kind of sound. I was also thinking chromatically: there's that one part at the top of the next cycle where I play a chromatic lick that goes all the way down the high E string with the wah pedal.

"I actually wrote out the entire solo on pieces of paper, using my own notes and my own pet names for the individual licks. I would say that 80 percent of it was composed beforehand and 20 percent of it was improvised. When we revisited that song with the symphony on S&M, it was a lot of fun; it felt like I was visiting my guitar technique from, like, 15 years ago or something. I just don't play like that now -- I'm a lot bluesier -- so it was pretty trippy."

Master of Puppets (1986)

"I used my Jackson Randy Rhoads V for this solo. When you listen to the solo, there's this weird sound right after the mellow part where it sounds like I'm hitting a superhigh note in the midst of my phrasing, like I'm fretting the string against the pickup. Well, what happened was, I had accidentally pulled the string off the fretboard! You know how you take an E string, you pull it down toward the floor away from the neck? I accidentally pulled down on the string, and it fretted out on the side of the fretboard. We heard it back, and I was like, 'That's brilliant! We've gotta keep that!' Of course, I've never been able to reproduce that since; it was like a magic moment that was captured on tape. That was one of my most favorite things about that guitar solo. I thought I had screwed the solo up by accidentally pulling on the string, but once I heard it back, I thought it sounded great. That was definitely a keeper!

"A lot of people think I actually came into my own sound on that song. That had everything to do with buying Mesa/Boogie Mark II-C heads. Boogie made those heads for a short time in the mid Eighties and only made a limited amount of them. They moved on after that, and they haven't really been able to recapture that sound since -- I don't know if they ever tried or not. But there's something about Boogie Mark II-C heads that were really unique and very individual in their gain stages and overall sound. Most of

Master of Puppets

was tracked with Boogie heads and Marshall heads combined, and I used my Gibson Flying V and my Jackson. By that time, I also had my black Fernandes Stratocaster."

...And Justice for All (1988)

"I lost a lot of sleep over that set of guitar solos! [laughs] The main guitar solo at the end, with the right-hand, Eddie Van Halen-type tapping, came almost immediately. That guitar solo was just a breeze; what was going on with the rhythm section in that part of the song was just very, very exciting for me to solo over: The first solo was a little bit more worked out. I heard James playing some really melodic stuff over the intro, just doodling around, and I thought, That's pretty cool, I'm gonna use part of that. So I have to give credit to James for subliminally pushing me in that melodic direction. I think the first two licks at the top of the first solo are his, and the rest of the solo just sort of fell into place. That little chord comp thing in that first solo came from a major-chord exercise that I do all the time. I thought it would sound really good in the solo if I just staccato-picked it and resolved it right there. I thought the solo needed something to perk people's ears up!

"The middle guitar solo in that song, I must have recorded and rerecorded it about 15 million times. I wanted a middle ground between the really melodic solo at the beginning and the fiery solo at the end; I wanted that to sit very confidently within the song, but it sounded very unconfident, and I was never happy with it. Finally, it came down to the wire: we were mixing the album while simultaneously touring on the Monsters of Rock tour. One night, I flew from Philadelphia to New York City, and while everyone else was on their way to Washington, D.C., I went to the Hit Factory and rerecorded the solo again. I brought my guitar, I had one of my main amps sent to the studio, and I redid the solo there and finally nailed it. I was very, very happy about that! The next day, we played a show in Washington, D. C. It got panned by the critics, because we'd all only had about three hours of sleep and were exhausted. But I got a good solo the night before, so it was worth it! [laughs]

"I think at that point I was using the ESP neck-thru-body KH-1 guitar, with the skulls on the fingerboard. I'd gotten that guitar in '88 and used it pretty prominently in the studio. I also used an ADA preamp and an ADA MP-1 -- it was a programmable digital amp that had tubes in it, with a separate rack-mounted EQ. I remember blending that thing with the Boogies for lead sounds and clean sounds. The clean sound on 'One' was done almost exclusively with the ADA MP-1."

Metallica (1991)

“Again, I was playing my ESP with a wah pedal, and this time I used a bunch of different amps. We were combining Boogies and modified Marshalls; I also think we had a clean old Fender in there, and maybe even an old Vox amp, and they were all blended together to get that tone. I can remember getting that lead guitar sound together very quickly, very spontaneously. When it came time to start thinking about that guitar solo, I just thought, Well, this is a great guitar song, and it's in the spirit of all my favorite guitar bands, like Thin Lizzy and UFO, but kind of modernized. So I kept thinking, Michael Schenker, Michael Schenker... But then I started thinking, If Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy played on this song, what would he play? With that mind-set, I started playing what I thought Brian Robertson would play on a song like that, and the entire fucking guitar solo wrote itself!

"You know how the guitar solo goes: it plays out, and then there's a lead guitar break that leads into a breakdown? I think the time has come to tell where I actually got that lick. It's from 'Magic Man' by Heart, but I didn't get it from Heart's version; I got it from a cut off Ice-T's Power album, where he used it as a sample. I was listening to Power a lot while we were recording Metallica, so I kept on hearing that lick. I thought, I have to snake this! I did change it around a little bit, though!"

Load (1996)

"Speaking of Thin Lizzy, the first time James heard my solo on 'Hero of the Day,' he didn't like it. He said, 'It sounds like bad Brian Robertson!' [laughs] I was like, 'What do you mean?' And then, after much 'debating' back and forth, we kind of agreed that it wasn't so much the solo that was the problem but the lack of anything going on underneath it. So he went and put something down underneath it that made it sound, well, a little better to his ears, I guess. It was one of those things where one musician hears one thing one way, and another musician hears it completely different.

"For the


album, I was experimenting so much with tone I had to keep journals on what equipment I was using. For 'Hero of the Day' I know I used a 1958 Les Paul Standard with a Matchless Chieftain, some Boogie amps and a Vox amp-again, they're all blended. I was listening to a lot of Bowie at the time, particularly the sounds on


, and I was really interested in playing guitar parts to see if I could shape the character of the song by playing parts instead of solos.

"And to a certain degree that's what I was trying to do during 'Hero of the Day.' It's a guitar solo in the classic sense, but it's a part of the song as well. I was very into the idea of creating soundscapes and crafting textures. I was tired of playing ripping, shredding solos; I wasn't into proving myself like I was around, say, …And Justice for All. It's great to be able to have that in your back pocket and use it when necessary. But for the most part, taste, tone and atmosphere are my main concerns.

"I'll tell you a funny story, though. In '94, a guy came up to me and said, 'How come you stopped doing double stops? You used to play a lot of double stops, and then you stopped doing it. I miss it.' And when we were recording Load, all of a sudden I remembered him saying that. I thought, Yeah, you know, he's right! So in that song 'Better Than You,' which ended up on ReLoad, I just crammed both solos with all sorts of double stops. And that was totally for that guy. I can't remember who he was, where he lived or what he looked like, but his sentiment stuck with me."

ReLoad (1997)

"That track was actually recorded at the same time we were doing all the Load stuff. It was one of the first tracks [from that session] that I actually played a guitar solo on. That guitar solo was played through a couple of old Marshalls, some Vox amps and the Chieftain, and I used a 1963 sea foam green Strat. I can remember thinking, God, this guitar has such a killer sound to it! It wasn't like all my other guitars, which had active humbuckers and everything. It sounded fat, present and full, and I was blown away by how big it sounded, even though I was going through single-coil pickups, stuff that wasn't active. That was a real treat for me, because it really felt like I was going in a new direction, tone-wise and equipment-wise. And that all kind of blossomed throughout Load and ReLoad. Bob Rock definitely had a big role in that, because he's a total equipmenthead, and he really got me thinking about vintage gear."

S&M (1999)

"That song came together only about a week before we actually played with the symphony. And that week leading up to the actual dates was so hectic. We had to do so much footwork that I really didn't have as much time as I would have liked to spend on that solo. So I thought, Hell, I'll just go for it and improvise! And what you hear on that track is just me improvising and playing off the top of my head on my ESP 'Mummy' guitar. I mainly used my live rig, which consists of Boogies and Marshalls and Boogie cabinets. My rack-mounted wah is in there, and that's about it, other than maybe just a touch of delay.

"There's a modulation toward the end of the solo, and I kind of wanted to outline that modulation a little bit. That's why I shift keys for the four or eight bars at the end. The solo on 'No Leaf Clover' is actually comped from the best licks from both nights and made into one solo. In retrospect, I would have loved to have had more time to structure it and put it together. But we were on a deadline, blah blah blah, and we really didn't want to rerecord anything -- we wanted it to all be recorded with the symphony. So we just kind of went for it."