10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Metallica

It’s been a blast watching Metallica grow. Now well past their quarter-century mark, the band has been together longer than the Beatles, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Led Zeppelin combined. Musically speaking, America’s favorite headbangers have always had more to say than your average posse of speed-thrash-grindcore-hardcore metalheads, and it’s for this reason Metallica remains heavy metal’s most enduring band of brothers.

It’s been a blast watching Metallica grow. Now well past their quarter-century mark, the band has been together longer than the Beatles, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Led Zeppelin combined. Musically speaking, America’s favorite headbangers have always had more to say than your average posse of speed-thrash-grindcore-hardcore metalheads, and it’s for this reason Metallica remains heavy metal’s most enduring band of brothers.

Founded in Los Angeles by drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist James Hetfield in 1981, Metallica became a complete band when they enlisted bassist Ron McGovney and original co-guitarist Dave Mustaine. The lineup solidified when the latter duo was replaced by bassist Cliff Burton in March, 1983, and former Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett that same April. Brandishing an intense Euro-metal vibe, Metallica’s first indie album, Kill ’Em All, sold nearly half a million copies, while major-label follow-ups Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, ... And Justice for All, plus the more American-sounding Metallica (a.k.a. the Black Album), Garage Days, Load, ReLoad, and, most recently, St. Anger all ranged from gold to triple-platinum sales. Metallica’s wildly successful world tours garnered throngs of fans, whose increasing numbers approached, equaled, and perhaps even surpassed (gasp) the venerable Kiss Army.

When it comes to the guitars of Metallica, you almost have to consider Hetfield and Hammett as a single entity. No matter how cool either guitarist sounds on his own, it’s their ultra-heavy, tightly-meshed blend of styles and tones that gives the band its unique sonority. The duo’s big, dark, sinister-yet-warm sound set new standards for chops and precision among the cutting-edge ’80s metal community, whose big five also included Slayer, Anthrax, Metal Church, and Mustaine’s band Megadeth. Hetfield and Hammett each sport different styles and spheres of influence—Hetfield grew up listening to Black Sabbath and AC/DC, and later embraced the music of dark crooners Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave; Hammett comes from what former GP editor Joe Gore once called the “middle ground between the blues-based rock stylings of the ’60s and ’70s and the speedball diatonicism of the ’80s.” But the core of Metallica’s melodic, harmonic, and, to significant degree, rhythmic musical mayhem lies in how both guitarists play together. With a few exceptions, that chemistry is what I’ve set out to capture in this lesson. If you’re already a fan, you know what to expect. If you’re new to the fold, welcome to Metallica boot camp. First, you’ve gotta ...

1 Persevere

Metallica has certainly weathered its share of tragedy, adversity, and setbacks, but the musically fearsome foursome has always managed to land on its feet. It takes strength and dedication to carry on in the wake of enormous loss, as Ulrich, Hetfield, and Hammett did after Burton’s death in 1986. (The influential bassist was killed in a European tour bus crash.) But while adversity is an unavoidable part of life, personal rehabilitation and group therapy requires a conscious decision, agreement, and commitment from all parties involved. And that ain’t easy. Just ask Metallica. Better yet, watch Some Kind of Monster, the inspiring 2004 documentary that chronicles the band’s struggle for survival in the wake of losing yet another bassist (Jason Newsted quit the band in 2001) and Hetfield’s year-long hiatus and recovery from alcohol addiction during the St. Anger sessions. (Newsted was eventually replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne/Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo in 2004. Producer Bob Rock filled the chair in the interim.)

2 Stick to Your Guns

Though their music ran contrary to all popular trends, Ulrich and his bandmates’ persistence of vision clearly paid off. Ulrich and Hetfield had a definite idea about how their music should sound and went about achieving it by whatever means necessary. For instance, their composing and recording strategies ran against the grain of typical metal bands throughout most of the ’80s. In 1989, Hetfield, the band’s principal composer, described the writing process that Metallica employed from Ride the Lightning (1984) through... And Justice For All (1986; featuring Newsted’s first appearance on bass) as a sort of pre-Pro Tools style of editing achieved via copious tape splicing. “It starts with like 20 riff tapes,” said Hetfield. “Lars and I go through tapes [and] the challenge is to take one riff and another riff that doesn’t fit in with it at all, and make them mix together. Lars is very involved in re-constructing the songs. We have to try every possible combination before we’re satisfied.”

In this era, Metallica insisted on recording one instrument at a time. Hetfield: “Me and Lars get all the drums, then I go back and do the rhythm [guitar] stuff again. After we get the basic rhythm parts on tape, Jason does the bass, and then I come back and do all the doubling and harmony guitar stuff. Finally, Kirk does the leads.” The band started writing and recording together in real time on the Black Album and have since embraced Pro-Tools as both a compositional and editing tool.

3 Amass Weapons of Mass Distortion

With more than 90 million Metallica albums sold worldwide, you can bet that H & H have had their hands on nearly every piece of guitar gear in existence. It’s hard to boil down their favorites, so what the hell, let’s just list stuff until we run out of room! Hammett: black Jackson Randy Rhoads, black 1974 Gibson Flying V (used through the Black Album), black Fernandes Stratocaster-style guitar (“Edna”), neck-through-body 1987 ESP Kirk Hammett KH-2 (Hammett’s favorite stage guitar), ESP KH-3 hard-tail, ESP M-2 “Frankenstein,” two Tom Anderson solidbodies, ’59 and ’87 Gibson Les Pauls, blonde ’59 Fender Telecaster, seafoam green ’63 Fender Stratocaster, Gibson ES-335, and Martin D-28 guitars; Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier rackmount and vintage Marshall amps; Mesa/Boogie preamp; Marshall speaker cabinets; Ibanez Tube Screamer, Dunlop CryBaby wah, DigiTech Whammy, and various Line 6 pedals. Hetfield: 1976 Gibson Explorer (“Rusty”), 1973 Gibson Les Paul (“Uncle Milty”), various ESP Explorers with EMG pickups (in black and chrome diamond plate), ESP Viper baritone (strung .013-.056), Fender reissue ’52 Telecaster, vintage Fender Stratocasters, ’63 Gibson Les Paul/SG, Gretsch White Falcon guitars, Coral Electric Sitar, and Jerry Jones 6-string bass; Mesa/Boogie TriAxis preamp; Jose Arrendondo-modded Marshall head; Roland JC-120, Fender Twin Reverb, and Matchless Spitfire combos; Marshall cabs. Whew! Both guitarists use Mesa/Boogie Strategy 400 power amps, have recorded with Roland’s VG-8 V-guitar system, and string up with Ernie Balls. (Hammett: .011-.048; Hetfield .010-046) Final fact: H & H began detuning one half-step below standard in 1996 while recording Load.

4 Power Up on Power Chords 

Our basic training starts with some root-5 and 5-root power chord voicings that recur throughout Metallica’s repertoire. Ex. 1a lays out two-note root-5 power chords on the sixth (root) and fifth strings, and the same voicing is transferred to the fifth (root) and fourth strings [Ex. 1b]. Ex. 1c features 5-root inversions on the fifth and fourth (root) strings, while Ex. 1d shows you how to do root-5 voicings in dropped-D tuning on the sixth (root) and fifth strings. (Tip: You can easily mix and match the last two groups of chords.) Ex. 1e reveals a few of the harmonic intervals H & H have been known to substitute for power chords. Finally, the voicings in Ex. 1f are ideally suited for arpeggiating with clean, chorused tones during tender, ballad-esque moments. Mess with the first five shapes (tip: Try playing each one as four consecutive ascending eighths in a slow 4/4), then play the Bm and Gmaj7 grids as ascending eighth notes on beat one, adding the open D string on the and of beat two. You can also create three-note root-5-root counterparts for any of the voicings in Examples 1a, 1b, and 1d by adding a note on the same fret of the next highest string. Now it’s time to ...

5 Get Up for the Downstroke

You can build a respectable arsenal of Metallica-style riffs by establishing a straight eighth-note downstroke pattern on the open low-E string and dropping selected root-5 or 5-root power chords from Examples 1a-1e into various beats. The modus operandi here is to use downstrokes for all eighth notes regardless of tempo—upstrokes are introduced only as necessary to play sixteenth-note upbeats. As Hetfield explains, “That’s the key—downpicking. It’s tighter-sounding and a lot chunkier.” And Metallica progressions, Hammett points out, “usually have a lot of half-step motion, like Bb to A to G to F#, all with the open low-E string below it.” So, here’s the drill: Choose a tempo, set up the basic eighth-note pulse in Ex. 2a, then experiment with both accented groupings offered in Ex. 2b. (Tip: Try un-muting the accented notes.) Next, select a chord (or two) from the four options in Examples 2c and 2d and drop it/them into the same accented rhythm slashes laced between low Es. Play either of these figures three times, then insert the characteristic G5-F#5 slides in Ex. 2e or 2f to form a full four-bar riff. Cool, huh? We’ll wrap up this eighth-note drill with four more bar-4 substitutions: Ex. 2g shows how to cross the bar line with A5-Bb5 slides, Examples 2h and 2i emphasize accented syncopations, and Ex. 2j reveals one of Metallica’s secret weapons—a truncated 3/4 version of a 4/4 riff. In this case, it’s a shortened Ex. 2f with different chords. Work each riff up to tempo and ...

6 Prepare for Battle

It’s no secret that Hetfield’s massive scooped-midrange tone, brutal riffage, and relentless right hand virtually redefined heavy metal. The guy has more ways to pummel an E string than Mike Tyson has ways to knock you out, so let’s examine Hetfield’s in-the-ring battle tactics. The following Hetfield-style mixed-eighth-and-sixteenth low-E “gallops” are designed to whip your picking hand into shape. Apply upstrokes as written and have at it. Ex 3a introduces a pair of sixteenths to the basic pulse on the second half of beat one, then displaces it rhythmically, one beat at a time over the next three measures. Reverse this rhythm to sixteenth-sixteenth-eighth and repeat the same routine. Ex. 3b doubles the same rhythm motif on beat two and displaces the pair in the same manner as Ex. 3a. (Reverse this one, as well.) The first bar in Ex 3c adds a third pair of sixteenths to beat three, while the last three bars feature reconfigured eighth- and sixteenth-note groupings in the style of “Leper Messiah,” “Orion,” and “Disposable Heroes.” In bar 1 of Ex 3d, we’re hitting nearly every sixteenth. (Think “Damage, Inc.”) Bars 2 and 3 depict characteristic stop-and-start rhythms à la “Leper Messiah” and “One,” while bar 4 drops an eighth-note to form a 7/8 riff similar to one in “Disposable Heroes.” (Tip: Insert power chords at will. For instance, try E5s on the middle pair of eighths in bar 3 of Ex. 3c à la “Orion,” or a four-bar E5-F5-G5-A5 progression applied to bar 2 of Ex. 3d à la “Leper Messiah.”) As a bonus, you can replace beats one and/or three in Examples 3a-3d with any of the one-beat single-note fragments in Ex. 3e. Allez cuisine!

7 Mesh Finesse with Brutality 

Whether he’s tossing off wah-inflected sheets of sound, developing thoughtful melodies, or blowing through straight-ahead blues- rock riffs, Kirk Hammett’s well-informed and versatile solo style provides the perfect foil for Hetfield’s crushing rhythm riffs. Though he also shares the responsibility of doubling or harmonizing many of Hetfield’s parts, Hammett has played nearly every recorded Metallica solo. An eternal student and a voracious listener (he studied with Joe Satriani and his eclectic influences include UFO, Hendrix, the Allman Brothers Band, SRV, Dave Brubeck, and Coltrane), Hammett’s highly adventurous listening habits have always informed his solo excursions. Ex. 4a illustrates four typical E-minor Hammett motifs with a European-influenced neo-classical flavor, while Ex. 4b addresses Hammett’s penchant for diatonic scale sequences—E Aeolian functioning as D Mixolydian in this case—and his chameleon-like ability to seamlessly morph into blues territory. (Mileage Tip: By changing the general background chord, you can give this lick a G Ionian [use G], A Dorian [Am], B Phrygian [Bm], or C Lydian [C] sound.) The Hammett-style E Dorian/Blues hybrid moves in Ex. 4c blaze by in the blink of an eye, but to Hammett’s credit, you could easily slow these soulful moves down to any tempo and they’d be just as effective. Add wah at will.

8 Start Light & Get Heavy 

The gentle acoustic sounds that open the classic Master of Puppets album might lull unsuspecting listeners into a false sense of serenity, but it’s not long before “Battery” swells majestically and then lurches into a blistering speed-metal assault unlike anything that preceded it. Over the course of the song’s first 20 measures, the repeated two-bar phrase in Ex. 5a builds from a single, plaintive nylon-string acoustic figure (Acous. Gtr. 1) to a trio of diatonic acoustic harmonies added one ascending voice at a time (Acous. Gtrs. 2, 3, and 4), and climaxes with an electric recasting of the same multi-tracked riff as a phalanx of Scorpions-style power chords and Euro-harmonies (Elec. Gtrs. 1-4—see Ex. 1 for slash chord voicings). In 2006, Metallica used this entire section of the song as a pre-recorded fanfare. Following four accented ensemble quarter-note chords (E5-B5-G5-B/D#), Hetfield takes off with a secondary intro/verse riff played nearly three times faster than the original tempo. Ex. 5b shows the first four bars—a galloping, low-E riff (See bar 1 of Ex. 3b) punctuated by power chords (See Ex. 1a) and minor-third intervals (See Ex. 1e) on the last three eighth- notes of bars 1 and 2, respectively. Hetfield reportedly came up with the riff while he and Hammett were watching the telly in a London flat. Note how the tritone-based Bb5-A5 chords in bar 1 contrast with the chromatic minor-third intervals, which function as a quick Im-V (or Em-B/D#) cadence in bar 2. The second ending consists of syncopated F#5, G5, and G#5 power chords interspersed with palm-muted low Es. Repeat the whole deal, replacing the second ending with Ex. 2h to form the complete intro.

Hammett adds muscle to this repeat by accenting staccato E5s on the downbeat of bars 1 and 2, and nailing the Bb5 and A5 chords in tandem with Hetfield before joining his partner on the Ex. 2h riff to double the entire eight-bar figure for another rousing round of controlled mayhem. Yee-haw!

9 Reverse Strategies

Conversely, “Master of Puppets” starts balls-out with a roar, then quiets down during a mid-song interlude. It’s notated with sixteenth notes [Ex. 6a], but observe the “double-time feel” indicator, and play Hetfield’s secondary intro riff (Gtr.1) using all downstrokes. Hammett (Gtr. 2), who initially plays the slash-rhythm figure (Recognize Ex. 2e?) before doubling Hetfield’s riff, has admitted that downpicking this blazing Phrygian-flavored four-finger twister approaches his and Hetfield’s limits. At 3:33, the song breaks down to a half-time interlude, and Hetfield assumes a more subdued arpeggiated chordal approach [Ex. 6b]. Initially, this clean-toned figure comes off as 2/4 + 4/4 + 4/4 + 4/4 + 2/4 (due to the way Hetfield changes chords on beat three in bars 1, 2, and 3), but by the time the two-part E Aeolian/Harmonic-minor-based harmonies (Gtrs. 2 and 3) enter at 3:52, the 4/4x4 feel solidifies—shades of “Hotel California.”

10 Bring Tritones to the Masses

If there’s one Metallica song you’ve gotta know, it’s “Enter Sandman” from the infamous Black Album (Metallica). Why? “If there were no E-A# [Bb] melodic configuration, I don’t think we’d be around,” Hammett testifies. Let’s check out how this ultimate tritone riff is developed via “additive” phrasing. Hetfield’s eerie intro figure [Ex. 7a] sets the mood, after which he literally builds the song’s signature riff (which was actually penned by Hammett) before our very ears. To reconstruct this process, begin with four rounds of palm-muted open Es as shown in Ex. 7b, but replace the rhythmic slash with a slide into E on the fifth string, 7th fret. Next, flesh out the first two eighth-notes in Ex. 7c as E5 chords, substitute the previous single-note E and a staccato Bb on the sixth-string/5th fret for the first two slashes, then replace the last one with a first-position F5 pull-off/slide back into E5. Finally, embellish the same riff with a single, staccato A on beat three, the last slash in Ex. 7d, for eight repeats until, lo and behold, the must-know signature riff in Ex. 7e is born!

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