2023 has been an epic year for guitar solos: Wolfgang Van Halen turned in the Frankenstein-featuring Take A Bow, Matteo Mancuso announced his arrival on the world stage with Silkroad, and Nita Strauss headlined her latest solo album with Surfacing.
Now, we as guitar fans love to wax lyrical about fretboard acrobatics and marvel at mind-melting six-string stunts, but according to Kirk Hammett, our enthusiasm isn’t shared by “the majority of the listening world”.
Instead, the Metallica man says the average non-guitar-playing music listener isn’t interested in guitar solos, and will most likely forget them once the song ends.
Speaking in Total Guitar’s new end-of-year issue, the Greeny custodian offered a controversial electric guitar hot take, claiming: “I hate to say it for all your readers out there, but non-musicians, who are the majority of the fucking listening world, they are not going to remember guitar solos.”
To that end, the heavy metal veteran offered his own two cents on crafting a memorable piece of music – something that goes beyond a show-stopping solo: “They are gonna helluva remember a great melody, and they’re really gonna remember a great song – especially a song that’s gonna bring them to a different place from where they were five minutes previously.”
The importance of prioritizing the song over its individual components is an approach Hammett has held since the onset of his playing journey. As he goes on to explain to Total Guitar, “I figured it out when I was 15 years old.
“John Marshall [former guitar tech and fill-in Metallica guitarist] and myself had literally been playing guitar for six months when I said to him, ‘We need to start writing tunes. Look at KISS, they write all their own songs... and Aerosmith, Van Halen,’” Hammett elaborated. “So John and I started writing music. And it was a lot of crap, but it was something!”
There is merit to Hammett’s observation, of course. By and large, solos are just one part of a song, and should serve to supplement rather than carry a track. There are some exceptions to this, but the overwhelming rule of thumb is that age-old adage of “the solo should serve the song”.
It’s also worth pointing out that Hammett has helped Metallica amass some of the most well-known riffs and records ever committed to tape, so his philosophy on making songs as memorable as possible is definitely worth listening to.
But are the “majority” of non-guitar-playing music listeners really going to forget a great guitar solo? We’d like to think the appeal of a well-crafted lead effort stretches beyond those audiences who can critique and unpick its intricacies, and that those who don’t play guitar still get a kick out of a ripping solo.
What makes a good guitar solo, anyway? Ask any pro player and they’ll probably mention something to do with “melody”, talk about how the best solos are the ones you can sing, and philosophize how they are ‘songs within songs’.
And, by Hammett’s own admission, the universal music lover appreciates “a great melody”, and so it stands to reason that a genuinely good solo with a robust melodic foundation and strong emotive core would be appreciated equally by all music fans. It’s why Hammett plays the Master of Puppets solo the same way every night – even if he is “freaking bored of it”.
That said, not all solos are rooted in melody or sonic storytelling, and, yes, some simply exist to cram in as many notes as possible with little or no consideration for flow or structure. In such cases, Hammett has a point – but we'd wager that most guitar-playing music listeners would also forget a poorly crafted solo, too.
It's not the first time Hammett has shared his solo philosophy this year. In April, he defended his Lux Æterna lead effort, ridiculing the idea of playing with style over substance, explaining all his own solos are improvised with song's best interests in mind.
To read the full interview with Kirk Hammett, head to Magazines Direct to pick up the latest issue of Total Guitar – a bumper end-of-year edition that features interviews with Nuno Bettencourt, Wolfgang Van Halen, Sophie Lloyd and more, and a breakdown of 2023’s best riffs, solos and gear.