Metallica's James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett Lead a Lean, Mean Thrash Machine

It’s not that Metallica frontman James Hetfield isn’t thrilled that his band’s new album, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct [Blackened], debuted at number one worldwide—the sixth Metallica release in a row to do so.
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It’s not that Metallica frontman James Hetfield isn’t thrilled that his band’s new album, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct [Blackened], debuted at number one worldwide—the sixth Metallica release in a row to do so. It’s just that there’s another number that is more important to him—zero. That’s how many empty seats the singer/guitarist likes to see at Metallica concerts. It’s also how much space the singer/guitarist would, in a perfect world, have between the audience and stage.

“I want to see faces,” says Hetfield, who works with stage designers and venue managers to get the barricades at Metallica shows as close to the stage as local ordinances will legally allow. “I need to see eyes. I need to see the reaction. I need to get the energy. And, yes, I am pretty surprised at the huge response to Hardwired. People buying the record and making it number one is a very nice thing. But I don’t worry about whether we’re number one, two, or three, or whatever. For me, when people show up to watch us play, that’s when it feels successful.”

Similarly, aside from spending time with his family, Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett can’t think of anything he loves more than taking the stage with Hetfield and his other two band mates—bassist Robert Trujillo, and drummer Lars Ulrich.

“I rarely have a bad Metallica gig because I enjoy myself so much up there,” says Hammett. “I’m like all other guitar players—I like hearing my guitar really loud. I’m not even really talking about filling the arena or stadium full of guitar sound. That’s cool, too, but I just love standing in front of any amp cranked up to that sweet spot where it gets warm—whether it’s in my house, in a club, a small hall, or even back at [Metallica] HQ.”

Although both guitarists have, in recent years, relocated their families out of Northern California (the Hammetts to the Hawaiian Islands, the Hetfields to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains), HQ remains the tricked-out San Rafael, California, office/rehearsal facility/recording studio/clubhouse/pinball parlor where most things Metallica still go down. For this interview, though, the guitarists called in from the winter leg of their 2017 World Wired Tour—Hetfield from Beijing, China, before the band’s show at the Sports Arena, and Hammett, a few days later, after their concert at Singapore’s Indoor Stadium. And these “Enor-moDomes” are small venues for Metallica, who will likely be playing American stadiums later in 2017, when they embark on their first U.S. tour since 2009.

But whether Metallica is playing arenas or stadiums, the band’s worldwide success is all the more astonishing if you remember where they used to play ….

When I started at Berkeley High School in the mid ’80s, I often noticed flyers on nearby telephone polls advertising Metallica gigs at a local club called Ruthie’s Inn—sometimes with Exodus or Megadeth on the bill. What were those shows like?

Hetfield: Ruthie’s was a lot of fun. Back then, we had no worries, no agenda. And it was our local hang, too. Going there was our weekend ritual. No matter who was playing, we’d be there.

Hammett: We didn’t require much—just a few amps, a drum kit, and some guitars, and we were good to go. We were always having sound problems, but it didn’t matter, because we were only concerned with getting up there and being as heavy, aggressive, confrontational, and visceral as possible. Nowadays, it’s the same basic ingredients, but the glaring difference is that we have better equipment, and a higher level of quality that we need to hit.

When I finally had a band and gigged at Ruthie’s a few years later, it was a rainy night, and there were buckets everywhere inside the club—even on the stage—to catch water coming through the ceiling.

Hetfield: Actually, at our show in Shanghai a couple of nights ago, there was a leak in the arena’s roof, and it was dripping right onto my dry T-shirts for stage! [Laughs.] Since those days, we have evolved into a worldwide band that is still going after 35 years—which is still unbelievable to think about.

Obviously, with success, you were able to hire pro guitar techs and tour managers. But is their any staffer you have now that you never dreamed you’d have?

Hammett: Yes. Mike Gillies. He runs our Pro Tools rig and records every single live show, rehearsal, and TV appearance we do. He also maintains a huge reference library of all our music—which is helpful if, say, we’re in doubt about a part on a song we haven’t played in a long time, or we want to hear what tempo we were doing a song at on the last tour. He has a lot of album stems, too, so he can often isolate the original part for you, slow it down, or even change the pitch to match whatever tuning you’re in. His position is not one we ever asked to be filled. His job just sort of evolved over time.

I understand you guys have a tuning room set up at every venue. A whole room just for tuning?

Hetfield: It’s a band room, actually, where we can run through songs and go over vocal harmonies and guitar parts, etc. And when we’re performing in places like China, it can be interesting, because there are certain songs we’re allowed to play, and others we’re not. So, because of the censorship that still happens, there may be some songs we need to rehearse that we haven’t played in a while. Sometimes, a new riff comes up in there, so we record it on the spot, and maybe it ends up on the next record. Also, while we’re in there, we’ll figure out if there are particular sounds we need to work on with the crew. But we have an amazing road crew that is very well prepared, so we usually don’t even need to soundcheck.

If I was on stage with you at a soundcheck, and you handed me your guitar and said, “Here, give it a swing,” what do you think might surprise me about playing through your rig?

Hetfield: You’d probably be surprised that there isn’t a giant backline, and that it’s not as loud as you might expect it to be. I have two cabinets and that’s it. A lot of our sound is coming through in-ear monitors, and a lot of it is coming through the Meyer wedges we use on stage. We’re very happy with our monitor sound. A huge wall of amps doesn’t seem necessary to us anymore. We like to be a little more streamlined, so we can show up at a TV show, a radio thing, a stadium, or a club, and things will work the same in every setting.

Hammett: If you picked up any of my guitars, you might be surprised that they’re not super easy to play, because I play with relatively high action. If a guitar’s action is really low, I don’t like it. I need to have some space between the string and the neck. There would probably be less wear and tear on my hands and my fingers if I lowered the action a little, but I like the guitar to fight back—especially because my right-hand attack is so aggressive. I don’t want it to be too smooth and seductive, because my playing style is half caveman, half Lord Byron. My strings aren’t even particularly light. At home and in the studio, when we’re in [A 440] concert pitch, I use Ernie Ball .011s. When I’m on the road, though, and playing for hours and hours each day, I’ll go down to .010s.

What are your go-to stage guitars these days?

Hetfield: It’s mostly ESP guitars for me—all of which have Ernie Ball strings and my EMG Het Set pickups. I’m really loving my ESP Vulture—which has a Flying V type of design that I came up with last year—and also my ESP Snakebyte. I’ve also got a few Gibsons in there—just for diversity. I love the V shape, the Explorer shape, and the traditional Les Paul shape. Those shapes fit my body best, and I love playing them. But that Vulture guitar! It’s nice and light and it’s really lively sounding.

Hammett: We actually have two entire sets of touring guitars and amps. We call one the Black System, and the other the Blue System, and they leapfrog when we’re touring. If, say, the Black system is at a show in London, the blue system might be on its way to Switzerland. On one system, I’ll have my original 1988 ESP KH-2 “Skully” guitar—the very first ESP that I ever got—as the main guitar. The other system features my ESP “Mummy” guitar, which I’ve been playing since the ’90s.

The problem used to be staying consistent with the amp sounds, because one system would usually have a better-sounding amp than the other, and James and I would always know which system sounded better. But we solved that problem when we switched to Fractal Axe-FX processors. Now we have the same guitar sound everywhere—even in rehearsal.

Hetfield: We’re really pleased with Fractal. It’s amazing. For my rig, we went into the studio and put some sounds into it—a combination of my Mesa/Boogie amps mixed in with a little bit of my Diezel sound. The clean sounds are from the Roland JC-120. On stage, Mesa 2:Ninety power amps drive my cabinets, but those cabs aren’t miked at all. They’re only there for my monitoring, for getting feedback, and for just feeling it. The Fractal is going direct to the board.

Hammett: For a while, we didn’t have any cabinets onstage, but that was just too weird. I need to hear something. I need to feel the air being pushed by the speakers for it to sound natural to me. So I have one cabinet on stage for monitoring, and one cabinet in a flight case with a fixed mic on it.

Do you feel like the Fractals sound as punchy on stage as your tube heads do?

Hetfield: Well, they probably won’t ever sound exactly the same as amps they’re replacing, but we’ve worked really hard to get them extremely close. And I’ll tell you, for convenience’s sake for our crew, and for consistency out front for our soundman, Big Mick [Hughes], it’s an amazing setup.

Metallica hasn’t done a U.S. tour in eight years. Any hints as to what the new stage is going to be like?

Hammett: At this point, we have a lot of plans, but we can’t go into detail because it’s still developing. One thing we are going for is a cleaner look—less gear onstage, and more focus on what the four of us are doing.

Do you guys still get the same emotional release from playing the guitar as you did when you started as teenagers?

Hetfield: Absolutely. I’ve probably said this before, but my wife will know when I’m in a crappy mood, and she’ll say, “Hey, when’s the last time you played guitar?” Guitar really does put me in a happy state—a content state. I love just sitting and playing. And I’ll tell you, when you’re out on tour and you play your rig through a giant P.A. system in a stadium, it’s still cool. It’s like a kid living the dream.

Kirk, what directions are you going as a lead player these days?

Hammett: Well, it’s really strange. My ten-year-old son plays cello, and my eight-year-old son plays violin. They’re just starting, but there’s a lot of classical music in the house. And in much the same way as when I used to put on Jimi Hendrix and get licks from “Red House,” I’ve started doing that with classical pieces. I’ll hear a little thing and go, “What is going on there?” Then, I’ll grab my guitar and figure it out. I had never thought of doing that with classical music. I’m also loving tango music. I can’t believe how emotional it is. I totally love Cuban music, too, and I am obsessed with Bossa Nova, as well. I love Jobim. I spend a totally inappropriate amount of time sitting with my acoustic guitar playing Bossa tunes over and over.

When a guitar player walks into HQ for the first time, is there anything about the place that might blow his or her mind?

Hammett: Well, it’s like Guitar Center, but personalized. [Laughs.] James and I really like Les Pauls, so you’ll see a lot of those. You’ll also see a lot of ESP guitars—my models, and James’ models. You’ll see amps stacked high—new amps, vintage amps, and boutique amps. There’s also whole bevy of guitar effects—stompboxes and rack stuff—and a piano that everyone poses with, but never plays. Honestly, we’re so stocked up on gear, that I’m shocked when we discover we don’t have something and need to buy it.

I have a lot more guitars than I actually need, so I’ve started going through them to figure out which ones really sound good and which ones mean something to me. The rest I’ve started selling anonymously on eBay. I won’t tell anyone that I’m the owner, because if I do, the transaction gets complicated.

Your rigs are slimming down, your stage is more streamlined, and your guitar collections might be shrinking. Listening to the new record, it seems as if you’re also streamlining musically a bit—back to raw thrash metal, but with a modern sound.

Hetfield: I think we get a little older in life and want to simplify things and stick to the stuff that works. As far as the album itself being streamlined, though, I don’t know. We had so many riffs, the album had to be on two CDs!

I love the way the album sounds. I think [producer] Greg Fidelman did an amazing job at helping us get the sounds we wanted. It sounds really powerful, but also smooth, so that you can really turn it up without it punishing your ears. You don’t get ear fatigue listening to it. It’s warm, but fat. That’s really what we were after.

In an age of dropped-tunings and 7-and 8-string guitars, I’m amazed at how heavy you guys made the songs in E sound. It’s like you somehow made E sound heavier and deeper than it should.

Hetfield: I think that’s part of the lively feel to Hardwired—staying in E on many songs, instead of recording dropped, like we do live. We’ve experimented with that quite a bit. Having one song that’s tuned down—“Dream No More”—creates some good diversity, but when you have everything tuned down, eventually it all just sounds the same.

The “Moth Into Flame” chorus lick is so catchy. How did that materialize?

Hetfield: We probably played it on the road somewhere, and it got recorded and put in our library. It doesn’t really matter who put the riff in there, because all four band members have tons of ideas stored up—especially now, since it’s been eight years between albums. When it’s time to plan a record, Lars and I sit down, as we’ve done with all our albums, and we go through all the riffs to find find the A+ riffs. “Moth” was definitely one of the A+ riffs.

What are some of the craziest, wildest, most Spinal Tap moments that have occurred on your big stages?

Hetfield: Lots of things have happened to us on the road, from electricians being electrocuted to big pieces of pig parts flying up on the stage at festivals, to bolts and darts being thrown at us. I haven’t really done the falling off the stage thing yet, but our career’s not over [laughs]. Our stages have been extremely dangerous over the years. There has been fire hidden underneath the stage, things that fall over and explode, roadcrew members seemingly falling out of lighting rigs. We’ve done lots of crazy things that scared people, which is always pretty fun. In the movie Through the Never, there’s that new, improved And Justice for All statue crumbling down and bouncing into the crowd. We’ve even had big Tesla coils onstage. I don’t think anyone else has done that.

Hammett: During the Ride the Lightning tour, I think I fell off the stage two or three times. Part of the reason for that was we used to drink before we went on, and sometimes my footing wasn’t as good as it could have been. Next thing you know, I’m on my back. One funny thing that comes to mind is the night we changed the key of “Jump in the Fire” from G to F#, because we had figured out that if it was down a half-step, we could utilize open strings—which always makes things sound bigger. So, later, when we’re deep into our set, the song finally comes up, and someone forgets that it’s now down a half-step. Everything’s off by a minor-second. We’re a full two minutes into the song, and it’s still completely atonal. I mean, to be fair, when you have in-ear monitors, and all you can hear is yourself, it’s hard to figure out that you’re in totally a different zip code than everyone else. But that was hilarious. It was microtonal f**king chaos.

I wanted to congratulate you on cofounding KHDK Electronics, Kirk. What’s it like being in the guitar-pedal business?

Hammett: It’s a lot more fun and creatively satisfying than I expected it to be. I love the fact that I’m manufacturing pedals that I want to use. It’s such a great feeling to be able to think something up, have it built, and then have it sitting in front of you. My partner, Dave Karon, and I have been trying to get these pedals into everyone’s hands—musicians in rock bands, funk and soul bands, blues bands, jazz bands, and country bands—because we are not just a heavy-metal pedal company. We’re also in the process of building pedals for a few other guitar players right now, and I’m really excited about that, because I want them to get the same feeling I got when I had that first KHDK Ghoul Screamer sitting in front of me. There I was, thinking, “Finally! A Tube Screamer with more knobs and compression.” I want to be able to offer that kind of situation to players who have an idea for a pedal that they’ve always wanted to have, but that no one has built.

What do guys think of djent? Do you check out bands like Meshuggah, who are still very much metal, but are taking the rhythmic complexity factor to the next level?

Hetfield: Of course. Yeah. We’ve done quite a few shows with Meshuggah. They’re one of a number of bands out there that are really pushing the limits as far as sonics go, as well as playing some extremely intense and challenging stuff. It blows my mind that I have no idea how they can remember those songs. Then again, people ask us the same question—“How do you remember that song?” Well, you write it. That’s how you remember a complex song. When you write the song, it’s a lot easier to remember than if you’re trying to learn someone else’s thing.

Kirk, you’ve been public about the fact that in recent years you’ve become alcohol-free. Has quitting drinking helped your playing?

Hammett: Yes, it has. Alcohol just stopped working for me. So, about two-and-a-half years ago, I quit drinking. I had been in this routine for years and years where we’d play a show, and, afterwards, I’d go out and get drunk, come back to my hotel room, grab my guitar and start playing, and two or three hours later, pass out and go to sleep. I still play guitar in my hotel room after shows, but now I do it without being drunk. And this means that the next morning, I remember what I played the previous night. It stays with me. Because of that, I’ve reconnected with my guitar in a way I never expected. It’s the weirdest thing to have been playing guitar since I was 15 years old, and, then—36 years later—connect with it in a completely different way. It blows my mind.

Kirk’s Green Machine

Since The Summer Of 2014, Kirk Hammett has been the owner of what may be the most hallowed Gibson Les Paul in history: “Greeny,” the famous ’59 Standard once wielded by revered British bluesman Peter Green. Yet Hammett doesn’t feel like he’s the guitar’s owner.

“I just feel like I’m the guy taking care of it for this period of time,” says Hammett, who purchased the instrument for “under seven figures”—a bargain, apparently. “Greeny has its own fan base. It has its own life separate from mine, and I love that. It’s not tied to me like some other guitars are. And everyone who sees Greeny wants to take a picture with it. It’s as if my wife were a famous movie star and I’m constantly having to step aside so people can take pictures with her.”

The guitar is legendary for at least three reasons—Peter Green’s use of it on iconic Fleetwood Mac recordings (“He wrote ‘Green Manalishi,’ ‘Oh Well,’ and ‘Albatross’ on that guitar,” raves Hammett); its long tenure with Gary Moore, who purchased it from Green in 1969 (“Gary played it on Black Rose, one of my favorite Thin Lizzy albums”); and the spooky out-of-phase sound it gets with both hum-buckers engaged.

Famed luthier Jol Dantzig had the opportunity to examine Greeny’s pickups and controls in 1984. “Everything looked totally stock,” he later told GP’s Andy Ellis. “The pickups were wired in phase, but I knew they didn’t sound stock when played together. Then, I used a compass to measure the pickups’ polarities. I discovered that one magnet was oriented north-to-south while the other was oriented south-to-north. The pickups were magnetically out of phase. This was the secret we’d all been searching for.”

Hammett was impressed by the guitar from the moment he first plugged it in. “I was in London one fine summer day when a dealer friend invited me to check it out,” says Hammett. “We ran it through a vintage Marshall Bluesbreaker 2x10 combo, and immediately the bridge pickup had a nice, full tone with lots of presence. I checked the neck pickup and thought, ‘Wow, that’s one of the fattest neck sounds I’ve ever heard.’ But when I put it in the middle position, oh my god—it sounded like a Strat through a 100-watt Marshall fully cranked.’ Seven hours later, after making a counter-offer, the owner called and told me we had a deal. I had never even thought about owning Greeny before that day. I was just on tour, and Greeny came to me.”

To hear Hammett playing Greeny with Metallica, listen to his solo on “Hardwired,” the first track on Hardwired … to Self-Destruct. He played the part on Greeny while plugged into three amps—a modded Marshall head, a Mesa Dual Rectifier, and a Kirk Hammett signature-model Randall KH103 “Meathead” with a KHDK Ghoul Screamer pedal engaged for extra drive.

“That solo is all blues licks,” says Hammett, who also played Greeny on several other tracks on the album. “The licks are just strung together in such a way that it sounds like a heavy metal solo. If you really listen to it, though, the opening lick is just a Robert Johnson lick that’s turned up.”

Despite being a near-priceless hunk of guitar history, Greeny has been touring with Hammett and Metallica.

“I play it on ‘Whiskey in the Jar,’ which is a song Greeny has probably played numerous times before I came along,” says Hammett. “A lot of people have played that guitar, including Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher, and George Harrison. And the guitar will continue to get played. I’m not going to put it in a f**king display case. That piece of wood is all the right things at all the right times, and it was created for all of us.”

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