How to play Master of Puppets on guitar

James Hetfield
(Image credit: Ross Marino/Getty Images)

Master of Puppets, the title track from Metallica’s landmark 1986 album, is widely regarded as one of the greatest riffs of all time, and a high point of thrash metal.

In recent years, the song has experienced a resurgence at the hands of Stranger Things, which introduced James Hetfield’s awe-inspiring riff to a whole new generation.

Here, we’re looking at how to play the Master of Puppets riff, which is performed in standard tuning (EADGBE). The song starts with a series of powerchord stabs that are accented by the whole band. This sets the pace and makes way for James Hetfield to lay down the mother of all thrash riffs.

To play the parts authentically, use downstrokes throughout. This adds aggression, power and drive, while making it much more convenient to integrate palm-muted single notes around the powerchords.

If you attempt to play the riff at full speed from the get-go, you may get fatigue in your picking hand and fall behind the pulse of the music. Learn the parts first and then build the speed gradually, so you can maintain the downstrokes for the entire riff.

Get the sound

This song uses chunky and aggressive but tight metal tones. To get this sound, you’ll need a guitar with a humbucker in the bridge and an amplifier with a decent amount of gain.

If your amp is lacking in the gain department, use a distortion pedal for more grunt. Keep the midrange low, but the bass and treble high for a classic ‘scooped’ metal tone.

Use a thick pick, too, so that your downstrokes have sufficient power and consistency in the attack.

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