How recording The Unforgiven changed Kirk Hammett's approach to guitar solos forever

Kirk Hammett performing live with Metallica in 1992
(Image credit: Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty)

Metallica’s Black Album, on a macro level, represented a bold reinvention of the band’s sound, and saw them explore new sonic avenues while also staying true to their heavy metal roots. On a micro level, however, it was also the catalyst for a number of significant shake-ups for Kirk Hammett’s electric guitar playing.

Not only did it usher in the age of the wah pedal – a tool Hammett has said he employs strictly while recording rather than while writing guitar solos – it also saw the Metallica titan permanently tweak his approach to lead lines, thanks to a recording process that placed an unfamiliar emphasis on improvisation.

And, as it turns out, there was one song – and one solo – in particular that invoked the change in Hammett’s approach: The Unforgiven

Speaking in an exclusive interview in the latest issue of Total Guitar, Hammett revealed The Unforgiven was one of only a handful of parts that were improvised on the whole album, and that it sparked a monumental change in his solo skills.

Of recording The Unforgiven solo, Hammett recalled, “It wasn’t happening and then Bob Rock accused me of not doing my homework. I don’t know what he was talking about, because I arrived into the studio with all these ideas, but they just didn’t work! I had to throw them all out.

“I was bare naked with no idea what to do,” he continued. “Bob told me he would try to tweak the sound for me and when he did that it really helped. They said, ‘Just play!’ and I was like, ‘Arrrgh!’ 

“I had maybe a minute to put myself into a real mood. I just needed to block everything out and go deep emotionally. We hit record and I didn’t know what the fuck to play but something was going to come out... Something always does. 

“That solo was raw emotion. I had no idea what to do; it all came to me as I played – real improvisation. I was so happy after that, really excited and inspired.” 

Hammett then went on to discuss the longterm impact of The Unforgiven, revealing it was an experience that encouraged him to embrace off-the-cuff, emotionally informed leads in favor of scripted solos.

“I knew I needed to do more of it, and ever since that moment, I’ve worked on being better at improvisation and completing music thoughts that are very much listenable,” he continued. “Forming complete solos naturally, if you know what I mean. 

“For The Black Album, I came in with 80 percent of the stuff worked out and 20 percent was improvised, including The Unforgiven solo. 

“Nowadays I prefer to have it the opposite way, with 20 percent worked out and 80 percent improvised, because it’s more exciting, more spontaneous and honest. 

“I don’t know what’s going to be on the album as much as anyone else! It feels right doing it like that, it feels better – rather than composing something and making it fit, sometimes forcing things where they might not feel right. Pure improvisation is more real and human.”

Visit Magazines Direct to pick up the latest copy of Total Guitar, which features the extended conversation with Hammett, an interview with Samantha Fish and a review of the Fender Noventa Series Stratocaster and Telecaster.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.