Metallica’s Kirk Hammett is a giant among men.
There isn’t a guitar poll he hasn’t won, and his popularity runs high among fans and critics alike. Few would dispute the contention that he is, with the possible exception of Edward Van Halen, the most influential hard rock/metal lead guitarist alive today.
It’s no wonder that Guitar World’s readers chose him as the first inductee into the magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2002. “I’m actually quite flattered and impressed, and a little bit shocked and dumbfounded,” Kirk said 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.”
Kirk answers that question for himself in this groundbreaking lesson, in which he presents an intimate look at his technique.
…And Rhythm for All
James Hetfield, of course, is known as the rhythmic rock on which Metallica stands. As a result, Hammett begins the lesson by focusing on a side of his own playing for which he is perhaps underrated. “Although I’m a lead guitarist, I’d say that a good 95 percent of my time onstage is spent playing rhythm,” Hammett says.
“Consequently, it doesn’t matter how great your lead playing is—if your rhythm work sucks, you’re not gonna go very far. When you’re playing rhythm in a band like Metallica, what your right [picking] hand does is really important. Obviously, what your left hand is doing is pretty darned crucial too, but, as a lot of our riffs involve syncopated open-string notes and relatively simple-to-finger power chords, it’s often the right-hand picking and muting techniques that can make or break a song.”
Before getting down to the nuts and bolts of his muting and picking, Hammett takes some time to dispel a few common misconceptions about his band’s mighty rhythm tone. “The first thing I gotta say is that Metallica’s crunch sound is often cleaner than people expect,” he says.
“Actually, to be honest, my taste in tone has definitely changed over the years. I don’t like to use as much distortion these days—I prefer my tone to be nice and crisp. Don’t get me wrong, distortion is great, but there’s definitely a point where having too much turns your tone to mush. The low end loses its tightness and your overall tone gets flabby, with no definition or cut.
“When you’re first starting out, there’s always the temptation to hide behind distortion because it lets you get away with murder. But, when it comes to rhythm work, you’ve gotta back off that gain control a bit, especially if you’re playing with another guitarist. Actually, over the years, James and I have found that besides giving our tone more definition and cut, backing off the gain makes us play our riffs better because we can’t get away with being sloppy.”
Many guitar-playing Metallica fans assume that Hammett and Hetfield scoop the mid frequencies from their rhythm tone. “Well, we used to do that,” Kirk confirms, “but while making Metallica  we rediscovered midrange and how much louder and fuller our guitars sound with it in there.”
The Point Is Mute
“A lot of our riffs involve right-hand palm muting [P.M.],” Hammett says. “It’s actually a pretty easy technique to master.” Here, he offers his list of suggestions for performing it.
1. To palm-mute a chord or note correctly, rest the lower part of your right palm on the strings right where they go over the bridge. Don’t go too far away from the bridge, though, otherwise the notes will lose their definition and become dull thuds.
2. If you play a guitar with a fixed bridge—like a Les Paul or the ESP Explorer Hetfield uses—you can be pretty heavy handed when muting. “But if your guitar has a whammy system that’s set up ‘floating,’ like mine is, you’ve gotta be a bit more careful, though,” Hammett cautions. “If you lean too hard on a floating bridge when you’re palm-muting, you’ll end up pushing the bridge down and sounding like shit because your strings will all go sharp.”
For more the complete lesson— as well as lessons with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Zakk Wylde and more — pick up Guitar One Presents: Play Like a Guitar Wizard, on newsstands now and available in our online store.