THIS STORY BEGAN A FEW MONTHS AGO AT Metallica HQ in Marin County,
California. Although it looks like a nondescript industrial park from
the outside, the inside is instantly recognizable to anyone who saw the
Metallica rockumentary Some Kind of Monster. The walls are adorned with
posters from gigs so long ago that the name Metallica sits at or near
the bottom on many a bill (and many a headliner has long since faded
into obscurity). Banners lovingly made by fans sit side-byside with a
huge Aerosmith poster that used to be on a teenage James Hetfield’s wall
(since signed by Tyler, Perry, and company). In the room next to the
lunchroom resides Hetfield’s white Flying V-style guitar—the one that he
used on the band’s groundbreaking debut, Kill ’em All. It’s fitting
that so much of the band’s youth should be on display, because as we’re
ushered into the control room to audition the then-unreleased new CD,
Death Magnetic [Warner Bros.], it becomes clear that rhythm god Hetfield
and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett are very much in tune with their past.
The new tunes possess the energy, power, and progressive song structures
that thrust them into the public’s consciousness and onto arena stages
back in the ’80s. Far from being a cynical retread, though, Death
Magnetic sounds fresh and current. It is a return to form in all the
best senses. They sound exactly like themselves— only better.
It was, after all, the band’s early records— Kill ’em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and …And Justice for All—that gained them their famously loyal, hardcore, headbanging following. It was the subsequent records— the far slicker, huge-selling, Bob Rockproduced “Black Album,” Load, and Reload— that made their longtime fans feel that the Metallica dudes were running from their history. Indeed, confronting their past hasn’t always been easy—especially for Hetfield, who wrestled with abandonment issues (stemming from his folks’ divorce and his mother’s death when he was a teenager) and the substance abuse that was a symptom of those issues. No matter how bleak things appeared at times, however, they made it through. Hetfield, Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich, and bassist Robert Trujillo are still alive, still kicking, and they’re showing the world how thrash—a style they pretty much invented—is meant to be played. Along with super-producer Rick Rubin, they have created what is sure to be one of the biggest records of the year, and they are currently crushing all comers on tour. It was at their Kansas City, Missouri, date that Hetfield and Hammett talked about Metallica past and present.
How would you describe the difference between working with Bob Rock and working with Rick Rubin?
Hetfield: It’s only like trying to compare black to white, or oil to water [laughs]. Bob was the first one in the studio and the last one to leave it—if he ever left. He was setting the schedule, getting sounds, breaking up fights, coming up with ideas, taking lunch orders, playing bass—he did everything, and produced and engineered, as well. Rick Rubin shows up, talks a bit about the mission, and then says, “Give me the songs.” He has this harem of engineers and mixers, and he’ll choose the guys he thinks are best for us. We had Greg Fidelman, who did most of the hands-on stuff. Greg was representing Rick. We’d say, “Let’s try this on guitar,” and Greg would say, “Well, Rick is not going to like that.” I might have wanted to throw some vocal harmonies in here or there, and Greg would remind us what the mission was—no harmonies, guitars in your face. There was a lot of speaking for Rick when he wasn’t there, which was somewhat frustrating. But Greg knows Rick very well, and he knew that it would only mean doing more work later on if we did something Rick didn’t like.
Hammett: A lot of times, Bob would push me to compose solos and come somewhat prepared. That’s not to say he wasn’t up for improvising, but he wanted me to come in with an idea that would anchor the solo, or become the springboard for the solo. I got used to working that way. This time around, a lot of the ideas I came up with were based on my current state of playing— a lot of bluesy, jazz-oriented stuff. But I figured out that approach wasn’t really working for the sound we were trying to get for Death Magnetic. Rick encouraged us to look to the past to create something new. So I threw away a lot of the ideas that I spent five or six months working on. I started going back and listening to all the guitarists who moved me emotionally in my 20s: Michael Schenker, Ritchie Blackmore, Ulrich Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, Pat Travers, and so on. I started relearning some of their solos, and, once I had re-established those chops into my style, I went back to the studio with maybe 30 percent of my solos composed and 70 percent relying on spontaneity and improvisation. When all was said and done, I listened back, and I realized that I’m not too subtle on this record [laughs]. It’s guns a blazing!
Hetfield: I think the best thing that Rick brought to the project was objectivity. He was not attached to anything. Bob Rock could get attached to ideas. Lars and I would be arguing about something, and we’d say, “What do you think, Bob?” And it was like he was on trial, and he was going to get the death penalty from one of us. He could tell whose version was whose, because Lars and I tend to be opposites on certain things— which is the great friction of Metallica. Rick didn’t care whose version it was. He would say, “That sounds better to me.” Simple as that. That’s why I think he didn’t want to get involved with any of the drama or the day-to-day business. He just wanted to sit down, hear the music, and say, “This I like. This I don’t like. Let’s try this.” He was as blunt and as honest as he could be, and, as an artist, that’s sometimes hard to take. But we all knew it was for the better of the project, and so we were able to get past that.
On the subject of looking to your past, you went back to some of your earliest gear to make this record.
Hetfield: I was inspired by this photographer who wanted to get an iconic picture of me with a somewhat iconic guitar. When I pulled out my early guitars—my old Kill ’em All white Flying V copy and some of the Explorers—I rediscovered how well they played. That V—some guy ripped me off as a kid. He put a Gibson trussrod cover on it, and he sold it to me as a Gibson—even though it has a bolt-on neck [laughs]. I didn’t pay much for it, and I didn’t care if it wasn’t a Gibson. It was white, it was a V, and I was Michael Schenker. Anyway, I started playing that guitar again after the photo shoot, and it felt so good—so fast. I plugged it in, and, man—it has this midrange quality that’s undeniable. We ended up using it on the record. As for amps, I’ve always gone back to the Boogies, whether it’s the Triaxis in my rack or my old C++. We might add an amp here or there, and, for this record, we ended up using an Ampeg that helped with the mids, a Krank, and a Diezel. The main sound is the Boogie, though. When I plugged the V in, I said, “Oh my god, it’s Ride the Lightning!” It felt very comfortable and very familiar. Rick was really into dry, cleansounding rhythms, and those tones can make it tougher for me to get the fat chugs and the chunky downpicking. If you play with a saturated sound, you allow that saturation to take you different places. You play a little softer, and you concentrate more on cleaning up the note, rather than hitting it hard to distort it. So, when I picked up the V and plugged into the Boogie, it allowed me to get back to the older style a little.
Even though you played that V early on, you’re much more known as an Explorer guy.
Hetfield: My backup was a Gibson Explorer, but I didn’t play it much until the neck broke on my V. That’s what got me into the Explorer. It’s similar to what Tony Iommi went through. He played a Strat, and, when that broke, his backup was an SG.
What guitars did you play, Kirk?
Hammett: I cut just about all the leads on my Mummy ESP. It sounded best. For some of the clean stuff, I used my ’59 Les Paul Standard, which I’ve played from Load all the way to S&M and St. Anger. I also played my old Caution ESP, and I used a ’59 Tele for some other clean stuff. But the Mummy was the workhorse. For amps, I used a Randall, a Boogie, a Marshall, and an Ampeg from the ’90s—that’s a great amp. I don’t know why they stopped making them.
I get the energy and the song structures from Master of Puppets and And Justice for All, but this record has a groove and a pocket that wasn’t there on those records.
Hetfield: That’s certainly what we were going for. We talked a lot about the Garage Inc. album, and it’s looseness and liveliness. St. Anger had a different kind of looseness that was probably characteristic of where we were as a band—pretty fragmented. For Death Magnetic, Rick brought in the idea that vibe rules. He would say, “Yes, this one sounds technically better, and, yes, you’re in tune, and this one is out of tune. But there’s a vibe to the out-of-tune one.” Getting the tightness along with the vibe factor—that was important.
How did you reference your past when it came to the guitar solos?
Hammett: Lars was there to help me out when I got stuck. He said that some of the stuff I was doing was reminiscent of what we did in the ’80s, but not quite the same. I told him I was trying to steer away from playing the exact licks. He said, “But wait a minute— that’s part of your sound. You own that stuff. There’s no reason you can’t play those licks.” So I brought some of those licks back, and it really brought back some of that old energy to my playing. Some reviewers have accused me of not learning any new licks, but that’s not the case. I choose to play certain things from my past because they work right now.
What were you going for from a tonal standpoint on this record?
Hetfield: When I listen to the “Black Album” and Load and Reload, those are really thick with color—lots of vocal and guitar overdubs. We didn’t want that on this. Rick Rubin has his famous “strip them down to the AC/DC sound” mentality. We really kept the rhythm guitars pretty simple. We worked a lot to get some softer mids in there, without the harshness, and that’s really tough to do. We experimented with a lot of amps to get some midrange warmth.
Hammett: We were definitely going for a creamier lead sound—less gritty and less high-endy with more midrange. That became a problem, because Greg Fidelman and I established a lead tone that would blend into the tonal spectrum of what James’ rhythm sound was doing. And then, once most of the leads were done, James changed his rhythm sound, and it became a lot more scooped. That changed how my lead sound was being heard, and we had to EQ it a bit so it sat with the rhythms. I wanted a more solid sound—a thicker single-note sound—because I knew I was going to be using my wah pedal again, and a sound that has a little more midrange always works better for me when I step on my wah. I used three different wahs: a Dunlop Jimi Hendrix model, a Dunlop Dimebag wah that has all these tone sweeps on it, and a Mu-Tron—which I love to death, but it’s weird. It plugs into the wall with a power chord. I used that to get a different wah sound.
This band’s relationship with midrange has evolved over the years.
Hetfield: Well, I’ve grown to love the apparent volume effect of mids. Back in the old days we’d get our C++’s from Boogie, and we’d just dump the mids. We’d get the smiley face EQ curve, and that made us smile. Then, we started to bring in a little bit more low-midrange frequencies. In those days, it was a battle between my sound and the bass player’s, and the bass usually lost. I was in the bass range. What made more sense to me—especially because Rob is such a great bass player—was to get the width of my sound concentrated a little more, and boosting the mids helped. A lot of times, though, when you crank the mids, the ends fall off. The lows are covered by the bassist, the highs are taken over by the hi-hat, and you’re left with this honking midrange that sounds like a megaphone. That’s not me! So it’s tough to squeeze your sound down and introduce some mids without that being the only thing you hear. We were very aware of that—getting the apparent volume without the fatness falling off.
The intro tone to “Broken, Beat & Scarred” definitely has that fatness. How did you get that tone?
Hetfield: It’s two guitars—my Iron Cross Les Paul, which has a lot of girth to it, and the old Kill ’em All V, which adds some mids and highs. The combination is a great sound. A lot of it has to do with the aggression and the muting as I’m playing it. I’m really hitting it. You can really hear the scrape of the pick on the strings. That was one of those cleaner tones, and, when I don’t have the crunch of the amp, I tend to use the strings a lot more to get some of that [sings] sssshun-jun-jun-jun. There’s the noise before the note, and actually after it, which is really important.
There are a lot of those little guitaristic noises on this record, and they really give it a sense of immediacy.
Hetfield: Those are things that I really went for—the scrapes, the sssshacka in “Judas Kiss,” the fffflink before the chorus in “Broken, Beat & Scarred,” all that percussive stuff. Those are the kinds of noises that were taken out on some previous records. Lars and I argued about that quite a bit. He’d say, “Isn’t that too loud? Isn’t that getting a little annoying?” I’d say, “Dude—that’s character.” A lot of my rhythm things are right with the drums, so the scratch on the guitar along with the snare is pretty powerful.
Hammett: At this point, I’m also into noise for the sake of noise. In a couple of my solos, like on “The End of the Line,” I play on the pickup. I call it playing on the “29th fret.” I became obsessed with that sound. I did over 100 takes on that solo. The first thing you hear, that climb up, was written out. From there on, I just wanted to go crazy. Around take 89 or 90, I started doing that high sound of playing on the pickup. I love that.
Like most of the songs on this record, “Broken, Beat & Scarred” has a ton of parts. Do you ever lose track of all the sections?
Hetfield: Once we start the riff, it’s easy. If you say, “Hey, play the middle bit in ‘Judas Kiss,’ I can’t do it. I have to start at the beginning. I don’t know what letter comes after Q—I have to start at A, you know? It’s kind of weird. When you write a song, it’s easier to remember. But for someone like Kirk, who wasn’t there actually putting the song together and playing the rhythm all the way through, that’s gotta be really tough.
Hammett: It’s crazy. We all have to take notes. When we were in the process of writing and rehearsing this album, it was difficult for me, because my wife and I had just had our first child. I’d show up totally sleep-deprived, and I’d forget how to play a part or forget what part was coming next. And this was on top of taking a lot of notes. With the more complicated, progressive arrangements, I write out a little map of where the song is going. Once you play the song enough, it will get into your psyche and you’ll feel it. You’ll know where it’s going.
Do your charts have chord names, or do they just say, “Go to the galloping riff”?
Both. I would write the actual arrangement— verse, chorus, bridge, A riff, B riff—then I would write a line from B riff with the names of the chords. It’s a lot of stuff to memorize.
When do you know you have enough parts?
Hetfield: When we’re out of riffs [laughs]. Lars and I battle with that quite a bit. I like songs shorter, and they could be shorter. Lars likes longer songs. I don’t mind that so long as they don’t sound long. If you have a song that’s eight minutes long and it feels like nine, we need to go to the barber.
With the exception of a couple of songs in dropped-D, this record is in standard tuning. How did that come about?
Hetfield: That was Rick Rubin’s big experiment. He wanted to know how much the tuning of Kill ’em All through the “Black Album” had to do with the liveliness of the tunes and the feel. After the “Black Album,” we started dropping down a half-step, and then St. Anger was all over the map. So, we did a comparison. We recorded all of the songs—there were 14 at the time—in normal E tuning and then in Eb. And there was a difference, and not just that they were a little more difficult to sing. The tunes in Eb sounded slower—even though they were the same tempo, had the same tones, the same everything. Bringing them up helped with the liveliness factor. A slightly tighter string gets you a different sound—it has a little more midrange. It sounds a little more youthful.
Standard tuning aside, the majority of the songs have a tonal center of E. How do you present back-to-back songs in the same key without them all sounding the same?
Hammett: It helps to modulate. If the song is in the key of E, for the chorus we might move to A, then modulate to G before we get back to E. Then, we’ll have a part that stays in F# for a bit. It’s the same for solos. I’ll solo in C, and then we’ll move through D, and then hang in G for a while. I once saw a very popular band that I won’t name, and I said to Lars, “Aren’t they great?” And he said, “Yeah, but when are they going to switch keys?”
Hetfield: A lot of it has to do with the running order. I was very interested in getting back to the sampler platter of Metallica. Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets started with a fast song, then you go into an epic song, then a ballad, an instrumental, and a fast ender with a few others thrown in between. And that’s what we got on this record. So, if you have a song that ends super fast, you want to start the next one with a mellow picking pattern. Those mood changes have a lot to do with preventing things from sounding the same.
Your signature fast rhythms are all over this record. How naturally does that style of playing come to you? Do you have to warm up, or can you just roll out of bed and play the ending riff to “One”?
Hammett: I’ve found the longer I’ve been playing, the more I need to warm up. For rhythms, I can play pretty fast when it’s steady speed picking. But for the more syncopated stuff with those little hiccups—like on “My Apocalypse”—I need to work up to it. I definitely need to warm up from a lead standpoint. The solo to “Judas Kiss,” for example, is really fast. My creative goals can only be executed if I’m warmed up.
Hetfield: I can pretty much roll out of bed and play fast rhythms. Kirk and I are different that way. Before a show, I’ll see him warming up, and that makes perfect sense for a lead guitarist. I don’t have the quick dexterity that he has—especially when it comes to single-note stuff—but chords and fast downstrokes are pretty natural for me.
You guys have always placed such an emphasis on downstrokes that a lot of kids believed you never use upstrokes. They must have hurt themselves trying to play your super-fast rhythms with just downstrokes.
Hammett: I feel sorry for them! The really fast stuff is certainly alternate picking. Kids—James and I both alternate pick the ending to “One.” That reminds me of this story of a blind piano player who learned how to play by listening to a player piano that would play two parts simultaneously. He learned how to play both parts because he didn’t know any better, and he became an amazing musician as a result. I remember trying to figure out how Thin Lizzy got that sound that was in all their songs. I worked for weeks at it, and then a friend who was a bit more accomplished on guitar came over and said, “That’s two guitars playing harmonies.” I did learn a lot from it, though.
James, you talk about not knowing music theory, and yet your harmonies have always been pretty deep. For the acoustic intro to a song like “Battery,” do you hear all the parts in your head, or do you just start layering and see what sounds good?
Hetfield: I do hear them in my head, but I’m very open to discovery when I start doing stuff in the studio. I love the on-the-spot beauty of those amazing mistakes that don’t fit in with proper theory, but just work when you play them.
Can you talk about how you approach harmony when it comes to distorted chords. You generally won’t play an Em chord, but you’ll divide up the chord tones between the two of you.
Hammett: We tend to think of it as two stacked chords and not just one voicing. Instead of one of us hitting an Em chord, I might play Es in octaves, and James will play Gs in octaves. It’s a harmony, but we’re chording it. It sounds heavier, clearer, and more pronounced than if all those notes were coming out of one amp. It’s something we do naturally. We don’t really think about it.
Hetfield: We rarely hit all the strings at once. I’m pretty much on two or three strings, and that’s it. But the third of the chord does play a role. If you listen to “To Live Is to Die,” there’s movement within the chord. We will highlight those harmonies, because they don’t stand out with the distortion. If you’re just branging a big chord, some of those melody notes get lost.
One thing that has always set Metallica apart from a lot of heavy bands is your use of clean tones, quiet sections, and dynamics in your music. Think back to a tune like “Fight Fire with Fire,” and discuss that picked intro and the importance of those contrasts.
Hetfield: Contrast is exactly what we’re going for—you hit it. If you have an album that’s just relentless, like St. Anger, it’s a statement more than a sonic adventure. For us, it has always been important to go from light to heavy. Orchestras do that—they send you on journeys. The intro to “Fight Fire” was Cliff Burton’s construction. He was very into layering and harmonies, and he introduced that to Metallica. I was always into Thin Lizzy and Queen—Brian May is the king of layering and orchestrating guitars. Having those kinds of intros became sort of a signature of ours—although we’re certainly not the first to do it. I always thought it conveyed more emotion than going straight into the song. Pretty much every album had something like that, like “Battery,” “Blackened,” “Dyers Eve,” “Damage Inc.,” and “The Day that Never Comes” off this latest record.
Hammett: Cliff would play that intro all the time on this nylon-string he would carry around with him. We thought we should use it in a song. Those light parts make the heavy parts heavier when they come back in. It’s a nice break from all the pummeling, and a great way to weave different atmospheres in and out. It varies things up, and makes the song more exciting and cinematic.
How has your approach to clean tones changed?
Hammett: I go for a sound that has just a touch of break up. I used to try to keep my clean sounds as clean as possible, but I’ve started to dirty them up a little more, and I think that makes the transition to a distorted sound a little smoother. Live, I use the clean channel of my signature Randall, which is based on an old Fender Twin Reverb.
Metallica is a hugely influential band. What do bands that cite you as an influence get wrong in your opinion?
Hetfield: Here’s what I’ve observed: A lot of the really heavy bands have figured out how the rhythm guitar and the drums are very much in tune with each other in our music. But what they do is get the drums to emulate the rhythm guitar, which is less effective. It might feel like that’s what has to happen, but if you have the kick drum doing the exact same thing as the rhythm guitar, there’s less of the syncopation. My rhythm parts are kind of like drum fills, and that’s where I get a lot of the syncopations.
There’s a big brouhaha on the Internet about the overall sound of Death Magnetic, and how the versions on the Guitar Hero video game are clearer and less compressed. What’s your take on all that?
Hammett: A lot of that has to do with Rick Rubin’s opinion that the kind of production on Death Magnetic makes the album sound livelier. I’m inclined to agree with him. I think it sounds pretty cool. I think it sounds good and raw and in the moment. It’s less than perfect, but I like that aspect of it. In the past, we’ve gone to great pains to eliminate any kind of digital distortion or redlining. I think for these songs—and the concept of this record—it sounds good.
Hetfield: I don’t know. Some people will always find things to complain about, and I realize that. They might not be used to the kind of sound that Rick Rubin goes for— which is pushing the limits. We went back and forth with the sound of the record. I was one of the first ones to notice the compression was affecting the overall sound, but when we took it away, something was missing. It was like the mixing desk was part of the sound. When the compression was taken away, some of the liveliness went away with it. So, after comparing both directions, we said, “This sounds better.” It’s as simple as that. There’s nothing technical about it. We didn’t get into worrying about what people were going to think. As far as the Guitar Hero tracks are concerned, those are probably very early versions, but I really don’t know. It’s so complicated these days. You never know where, how, and when music is being released. It was a lot easier when you sat down, mixed the record, released it, and that was it. Now it’s more frustrating. The more variables there are with CDs, mp3s, ringtones, and games, the more potential there is for different sounds. People are talking about it, though, and that’s somewhat important. There’s passion there, and we accept that as a good thing. People have always been pretty passionate about Metallica—positive and negative.
The name James Hetfield is frequently mentioned on a short list of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time, alongside people like Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, and Malcolm Young. How do you feel about that?
Hetfield: It’s awesome. I would include Alex Lifeson in there, because he’s an amazing rhythm player—although some people don’t notice. Rudolf Schenker, as well. There are a lot of great rhythm players nowadays that are holding down the fort, so I’m grateful to be recognized. I am proud to be a rhythm guitar player. I love rhythm. I study the rhythms and counter rhythms of all kinds of musics. I’m not winning any guitar hero awards, and I’m not winning any vocal awards, either. But I’m proud to be the team player that you can’t do it without. It never gets old to me. Lars will lay down a beat, and I go to town. I’ll write ten riffs in ten minutes, and I’ll have so much fun doing it. Writing riffs is what I do for a living.