Metallica's James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett reveal the guitar secrets behind 16 of the band's best songs

(L-R) James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica
(Image credit: Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

This interview was first featured in Guitar World magazine in 2009.

Metallica’s 1983 debut, the explosive Kill ’Em All, taught a grateful world a lesson in unbridled thrashing fury. Since then, their sound has passed through numerous stages, but the guttural intensity that was the hallmark of the young Metallica remains the essence of the band today.

Over the past few decades, Hammett and James Hetfield have established themselves as metal’s quintessential guitar alliance. In the following retrospective, Kirk and James take a walk down Metallica memory lane and critique some of the key songs in the band’s harsh, noble history.

1. Seek & Destroy

Album: Kill ’Em All (1983)

Hetfield: "The idea for Seek came from a Diamond Head song called Dead Reckoning. I used to work in a sticker factory in L.A., and I wrote that riff in my truck outside work. This was our first experience in a real studio. 

"I used a white Flying V, which was the only electric guitar I had back then. I still have the guitar in storage. The song is based around a one-note riff that was up a little higher. Though most of my riffs are in E, that one worked off an A."

Hammett: "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.

There were no frills, no contemplation, no over-intellectualizing - we weren’t going over the finer points

Kirk Hammett

"I had my trusty old Ibanez Tube Screamer, 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 over-intellectualizing - 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.'"

2. The Four Horsemen

Album: Kill ’Em All (1983)

Hetfield: "Dave [Mustaine, Metallica’s original guitarist] brought that song over from one of his other bands. Back then it was called The Mechanix. After he left Metallica, we kind of fixed the song up. The lyrics he used were pretty silly."

Hammett: "Prior to recording that song, we put in a slow middle section that wasn’t there when I first joined the band, and it needed a slow, melodic solo. 

"I remember going through the song with everyone, and when I got to that part, I played something really melodic. Lars looked up at me and said, 'Yeah, yeah!' He’s a big lead guitar fan. One of his biggest influences is Ritchie Blackmore. 

"For that song I put down one lead, then added one on a different track. I wasn’t sure which one to use. I listened to both tracks at once, to see if one would stand out. But playing both tracks simultaneously sounded great, and we decided to keep it like that on the record. Some of the notes harmonized with each other, and I remember Cliff [Burton, bassist] going, 'Wow, that’s stylin’ - it sounds like Tony Iommi!'”

3. Creeping Death

Album: Ride the Lightning (1984)

Hetfield: "We demoed Ride the Lightning and one other song in the studio before we recorded the album, so there’s actually a demo somewhere of those three songs with different lyrics. 

"When we did the crunchy 'Die by my hand' breakdown part in the middle, I sat in the control room after we did all the gang vocals, and everyone was just going nuts! That was our first real big, chanting, gang-vocal thing. There was almost some production value to it. 

"That whole album was a big step for us. By then I had the Gibson Explorer. I grew to love that shape better than the V."

The first figure in [Creeping Death] pretty much came off the top of my head

Kirk Hammett

Hammett: "When we first began playing that song in the garage, I noticed that the lead guitar part also incorporated the chorus. I thought that was a good opportunity to play something a bit wild and dynamic. 

"The first figure in that song pretty much came off the top of my head. I was still using the black Flying V and the Boss distortion pedal through Marshall amps, with a TC Electronics EQ. For that song, Flemming [Rasmussen, engineer] suggested that I double-track the solo, which made it sound a bit thicker and fuller. 

"We did that solo, after which we had to do this small fill at the end, a four-bar break with four accents afterwards. The plan was to fill the break up and play something over the four accents. When I studied with Joe Satriani, I did this chordal exercise, a diminished chord with four notes. I just played that over these four accents, and it worked out real nice."

4. Fade to Black

Album: Ride the Lightning (1984)

Hetfield: "That song was a big step for us. It was pretty much our first ballad, so it was challenging and we knew it would freak people out. Bands like Exodus and Slayer don’t do ballads, but they’ve stuck themselves in that position which is something we never wanted to do; limiting yourself to please your audience is bullshit.

"Recording that song, I learned how frustrating acoustic guitar can be. You could hear every squeak, so I had to be careful. I wrote the song at a friend’s house in New Jersey. 

"I was pretty depressed at the time because our gear had just been stolen, and we had been thrown out of our manager’s house for breaking shit and drinking his liquor cabinet dry. 

We got hundreds and hundreds of letters from kids telling us how they related to [Fade to Black] and that it made them feel better

James Hetfield

"It’s a suicide song, and we got a lot of flack for it, [as if] kids were killing themselves because of the song. But we also got hundreds and hundreds of letters from kids telling us how they related to the song and that it made them feel better."

Hammett: "I was still using the black Flying V, but on Fade to Black I used the neck pickup on my guitar to get that warm sound. I played through a wah-wah pedal all the way in the “up” position. 

"We doubled the first solo, but it was harder to double the second solo in the middle because it was slow and there was a lot of space in it. Later I realized that I harmonized it in a weird way - in minor thirds, major thirds and fifths. 

"For the extended solo at the end, I wasn’t sure what to play. We had been in Denmark for five or six months, and I was getting really homesick. We were also having problems with our management. 

"Since it was a somber song, and we were all bummed out anyway, I thought of very depressing things while I did the solo, and it really helped. I played some arpeggios over the G-A-B progression, but we didn’t double track that solo. When that was finished, I went back and did the clean guitar parts behind the verse. James played an arpeggiated figure while I arpeggiated three-note chords. We ended up getting a very Dire Straits–type sound."

5. The Call of Ktulu

Album: Ride the Lightning (1984)

Hammett: "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 actually wrote out the entire solo on pieces of paper, using my own notes and my own pet names for the individual licks

Kirk Hammett

"I used a modal approach, and there are 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."

6. Welcome Home (Sanitarium)

Album: Master of Puppets (1986)

Hetfield: "The idea for that song came from the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Fade to Black worked well, and we wanted to have another slow, clean, picking type of song, this time with a chorus. 

"I had trouble singing that chorus. It’s really high, and when I went to sing it in the studio, I remember Flemming looking at me like, 'You’re kidding.' I said 'Shit, I don’t know if I can do this!' 

"So I ended up singing it lower than I intended, but we put a higher harmony on it and it worked pretty well. The riff for that song was lifted from some other band, who shall remain anonymous."

Hammett: "The beginning of the first solo is an arpeggiated ninth chord figure, where I basically mirror what James is playing. The second guitar figure had some harmonies. 

"I used a wah-wah pedal on the third solo, which was pretty straight ahead. The fourth solo comes out of harmonized guitars; the very last lick was based on something really cool I saw Cliff play on guitar in the hotel one night that I knew would work in that spot."

7. Master of Puppets

Album: Master of Puppets (1986)

Hetfield: "I think we wanted to write another song like Creeping Death, with open chords carried by the vocals and a real catchy chorus. On Master of Puppets we started getting into the longer, more orchestrated songs. 

"It was more of a challenge to write a long song that didn’t seem long. The riff for that song was pretty messy - constantly moving. It works good live. People love to scream 'Master!' a couple of times."

Hammett: "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 super high 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. 

Of course, I’ve never been able to reproduce that since; it was like a magic moment that was captured on tape

Kirk Hammett

"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!

"For the next solo we used backward guitar parts. To get them I played a bunch of guitar parts that were in the same key as the song and laid them down on quarter-inch tape. Then we flipped the tape over and edited it, so we had two or three minutes of backward guitar. We put it in the last verse of the song.

"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 '80s 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."

8. The $5.98 EP/Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987)

Hetfield: "Putting out an EP of all cover tunes was absolutely unheard of, which we thought was really cool. We didn’t do too many arrangements, except to some of the Budgie tunes, where we eliminated some lame singing parts. 

"For some of the songs we tuned down to D to make them a little heavier. The guitar sound is really awful, but it was the first thing we put out where the bass could be heard, so Jason [Newsted, bassist] was happy."

Hammett: "That was recorded when I first started using ESP guitars with EMG pickups. All the lead guitar parts on that EP flowed really quickly. I did them in two nights. All of the leads were mine. 

"The fact that the original versions of Helpless and The Wait don’t even have solos in them was a bit of luck - no one would have anything to compare them to, and it kept any preconceived ideas out of my head. We did that EP for the fans, just for fun, and Elektra loved it and released it."

9. ...And Justice for All

Album: …And Justice for All (1988)

Hetfield: "That song is pretty long, like all the songs on that album. We wanted to write shorter material, but it never happened. We were into packing songs with riffs. The whole riff is very percussive; it goes right along with the drums. The singing on that song is a lot lower than usual."

Hammett: "I worked out an opening lick for the solo but it wasn’t really happening, so I plugged in the wah-wah pedal, which I always do when all else fails. As soon as I plugged in, we were done. 

"A lot of people give me shit about how I hide behind the wah pedal, but something about it brings out a lot of aggression. It just tailors the sound to match the mood and emotion I’m trying to convey. 

"It’s purely an aesthetic thing and not a crutch or anything like that. The riff where I utilize the open string hammer-ons developed from a Gary Moore lick that I’d been studying. I figured it would sound really good combined with the heavy E-chord progression."

10. One

Album: …And Justice for All (1988)

Hetfield: "I had been fiddling around with that A-G modulation for a long time. The idea for the opening came from a Venom song called Buried Alive. The kick drum machine-gun part near the end wasn’t written with the war lyrics in mind, it just came out that way. We started that album with Mike Clink as producer. He didn’t work out too well, so we got Flemming to come over and save our asses."

Hammett: "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. 

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

Kirk Hammett

"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! 

"We wanted a clean guitar sound for One. I think at that point I was using the ESP neck-through-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 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 Aphex parametric 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."

11. Enter Sandman

Album: Metallica (1991)

Hammett: "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 mindset, 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 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."

12. Don't Tread On Me

Album: Metallica (1991)

Hetfield: "A lot of the songs on this album are more simple and concentrated. They tell the same story as our other shit but don’t take as long. There aren’t a hundred riffs to latch on to - just two or three stock, really good riffs in each song. I used my ESPs and tons of other guitars: a 12-string electric, a Telecaster, a Gretsch White Falcon, a sitar and other things. 

"I also used a B-Bender, a bar installed in the guitar that twists the B string up a full step. It’s used a lot in country music. But Don’t Tread is just real heavy guitar - there’s really nothing else to it."

Hammett: "I used a Bradshaw [preamp] because the mids were clean and the low end sounded real percussive, and I put it through a VHT power amp. The harmonic distortion also sounded nice and dirty. For the highs we used two Marshalls. We combined all the sounds and put it all through Marshall cabinets with 30-watt speakers and blended all the room mics. 

"My sound is a lot thicker and punchier than before, and I think it’s better than ever. For the majority of the leads on this album I used a third ESP guitar. I also used my 1989 black Gibson Les Paul Custom. For the clean sound, I used a ’61 stock white Strat and a Fender blackface Deluxe. 

"I also used a ’53 Gibson ES-295 style, and an ESP Les Paul Junior with EMG pickups. I used the ’89 black Gibson Les Paul Custom and a wah-wah pedal on Don’t Tread on Me. At one point I had to play these ascending lead fills, and it just wasn’t happening at all. So I wound up playing harmonics instead of lead guitar fills, and it worked really well."

13. The God That Failed

Album: Metallica (1991)

Hetfield: "That’s a very nice song. Slow, heavy and ugly. There are a lot of single-note riffs and more open-chord shit on this album. A lot of the rhythms I came up with were a little too complicated - half-step changes and other weirdo shit that Kirk had trouble soloing over. 

"So we simplified some things. All the harmony guitar stuff on this album is incorporated in the rhythm tracks. I played rhythm all the way through, then I overdubbed harmony guitar things. There are harmony solos and harmony guitar in the rhythms, but they’re very distinct from each other. We found that layering a guitar six times doesn’t make it heavy."

Hammett: "I had this whole thing worked out, but it didn’t fit because the lead was too bluesy for the song, which is characterized by real heavy riffing and chording. So producer Bob Rock and I worked out a melody, to which I suggested that we add a harmony part, but Bob said it would only pretty it up. 

We found that layering a guitar six times doesn’t make it heavy

James Hetfield

"So we ended up playing the melody an octave higher, and it sounded great. We basically mapped out the whole solo, picking the best parts from about 15 solos I’d worked out. It’s one of my favorite solos on the album. 

"One thing I did on this album that I hadn’t done before was play guitar fills. I filled up holes - like when James stops during the vocal, I put in a little stab or, as Bob calls it, a 'sting.' 

"My solos on this album are a little offbeat. Though a lot of guitar players start the solo on the downbeat - the first beat of the measure - I come in on the upbeat of the third measure of a bar, like on Enter Sandman and Don’t Tread on Me."

14. Hero of the Day

Album: Load (1996)

Hammett: "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 Load album, I was experimenting so much with tone that 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. 

It was one of those things where one musician hears one thing one way and another musician hears it completely different

Kirk Hammett

"I was listening to a lot of David Bowie at the time, particularly the sounds on Low, 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."

15. Fuel

Album: Reload (1997)

Hammett: "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 equipment-head, and he really got me thinking about vintage gear."

16. No Leaf Clover

Album: S&M (1999)

Hammett: "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."

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