Some kind of monster

By Miguel Ángel Ariza

In 1983 a Californian band called Metallica was preparing to record its first album in the city of New York. That band was formed by Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, a newcomer Cliff Burton and a guitarist named Dave Mustaine who increasingly mixed his taste for drugs with a tendency to violence that made it increasingly unbearable to live with him in the band. Mustaine was a talented guitarist and also contributed quite a lot of songwriting to the band... but the bosses were others and they ended up throwing him out of the band just before the recording of his first album Kill 'em all; and this is the background to the phone call that changed Kirk Hammett's life forever. That same afternoon Kirk was already raising enough money to travel to New York to join the three men with whom he would make history for the next four decades.

Hammett, born in San Francisco, was a member at the time of the thrash metal band Exodus and knew the guys from Metallica because he had stages with them in some of the venues that were beginning to accommodate this new musical movement that was emerging from sunny California. Hammett's ability with the guitar was overt; probably influenced by the fact that he was a student of the favorite teacher of this section, Professor Joe Satriani, who seems to have as much talent playing as selecting his students (David Bryson, Rick Hunolt, Steve Vai...). In Hammett’s case we are talking about a special student for Satriani since due to the release at that time of the album that would  launch his career Surfin' With the Alien with, Metallica’s guitarist was his last pupil for a long time.


According to James Hetfield the first song that Hammett played with Metallica was Seek and Destroy and from the first few notes he knew that they had called the right man. Since then the band's career was a rampant rise to the highest peaks of what a rock band can achieve. Perhaps its most crucial point was in the early 90s, with the release of his self-titled album, or Black Album, but until that album, venerated by everyone to this day, Metallica, with Hammett as lead guitarist, had already given the world several masterpieces of a new style known as Thrash Metal and that made them the true band to beat in that style. In fact, for the most radical in this movement Metallica is only Metallica until  that record and from that moment on they are just another popular band that makes music for the masses...

Those first years of Metallica,  from 1983 to 1991, show a Hammett ever  at a very high level with the six string but who is also confirming himself as a valued composer . His  evolution goes from being a mere instrument of repetition in  the parts composed by Dave Mustaine for the songs on Kill' em all until he  ends up providing the most emblematic riff of the band and one of the most iconic in history, that of Enter Sandman. Between one job and another, and just to mention some of its innumerable merits,  he gives us unbelievable solos like the one on Fight Fire With Fire to open his second LP Ride the lightning, an album where his contributions to composing is already noticeable with mythic songs like Creeping Death, the epic punctuation of Master Of Puppets chanted by the tens of thousands of souls that clutter every Metallica concert (and the pressure that adds to it when it comes to playing, can  you imagine missing  a note that they are singing in full lung 50,000 souls?) all the guitar mastery  developed in songs like One or Fade to Black of which he is co-author... in short, the list is endless and Hammett's brand is very extensive as it could not be any other  way. 

We are talking about a thrash metal band in which the electric guitar has a supreme importance and the band's soloist is Kirk Hammett, that same Kirk Hammet who played cards with Cliff Burton, gambling over  where to sleep on the  Master of Puppets tour bus when the band was in  Sweden. Legend has it that Cliff Burton won by drawing an ace of spades and chose Hammett's bed to sleep that night. The rest happened just like a  bad movie, Cliff goes to sleep in the "good" bed that has won  from Hammett, the bus goes off the road and crashes; there is only one victim: Cliff Burton. This event marked the band forever and especially our protagonist, who says that not a day goes by when he does not think about the long missed bass player of the band.


But let's focus on the survivor and start talking about what we like most around here. Hammett's sound is basic in Metallica's DNA. That sound is full in distortions with a very high gain, almost garish in their first albums, which he would bring out in due time  from his Marshall heads that  he plugged his Gibson Flying V or Hetfield's into, they were the only guitars they had at that time. Later he would use the Mesa Boogie heads, usually the Dual Rectifier.

The Gibsons were replaced by the ESP, a brand chosen by Kirk (and Hetfield) for  the last 30 years. He has used countless models over  the  decades but perhaps the most iconic of all and the one he has declared himself to use  recording much of his material in studio is his Kirk Hammett ESP "Mummy" (he decorates his guitars with cinema and horror comic motifs since he is a true fan of the monster world, even  becoming one of the greatest collectors of objects related to the genre and promoting  his own horror festival: the Kirk Von Hammett's Fear Festevil).  

He has his  own signature model of both the Gibson Flying V and ESP, in many versions and budgets, all be said in passing. To finish with their guitars we have to talk about perhaps the most iconic of   them all, although it was not precisely thanks to him (so far). We are talking  about the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard  that belonged to Peter Green, founding guitarist of the Fleetwood Mac, with which he became one of the greatest guitarists in history and which he later  sold  to a young Gary Moore who used it for  many of the best years of his career and which  has now ended up in the hands of Hammett. He has been seen using it live for the solo of Whiskey in the Jar in his  last tours, thanks to two million dollars he got for it.


But if we talk about Kirk Hammett and his sound, I think we all agree that his signature mark is the massive use of the wah effect. It is a constant in almost every Metallica album to listen to Kirk's guitar solo and wait to see how he uses the wah this time. In fact, and this is a personal conjecture, I think the rest of the band members have had to convince him not to use it on every disc because just avoiding the sound of wah in a Metallica solo is a novelty in itself. It is not strange then  that  the Californian guitarist has  declared that the wah is an extension of his personality. Perhaps this passion for the wah also comes from his fondness of 60s blues rock or of more classic groups like UFO or the Jimi Hendrix Experience (he has declared that his favorite guitarists are Jimi Hendrix, Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth). These influences were a fundamental part for the "conversion" of the Metallica of the 90's with Load or Reload to sounds closer to Hard Rock than to Heavy or thrash metal.

The last years of his career and that of the band’s have always been peppered with rumors of separation, the comings and goings from rehabilitation clinics, changes in band members, etc... well, basically everything involved in keeping one of the greatest bands on the planet afloat...

For good old Kirk  things have not gone too well lately. For the recording of the more than respectable Hardwired to self destruct he would recording ideas for songs on his mobile, up to more than 200 according to him, but it got stolen with all that content inside and in the end he  did not contribute in the writing of the album ... James Hetfield has already questioned this  and even said that  maybe Kirk has given  that excuse because he hasn’t been working hard enough  in recent years or because he wasn’t too inspired. What we do know from these statements is that Metalica’s lead singer was not too pleased about the fact that  Kirk has not added compositions to the last album.

This type of cross statements between members of the band has been a constant from its beginnings but to end this off,  we want to highly recommend the documentary Some Kind of Monster, it is full of some of the most incredible audiovisual documents ever recorded (or at least  that have seen the light) about a rock group (including a meeting with Dave Mustaine 30 years later). The unfiltered real monster that Metallica has become.

Kirk Hammett is an essential part of that monster, his sound is an essential part of the history of rock music and his way of playing the guitar has influenced thousands of guitarists from all over the world. Being able to watch 40,000 souls sing at the top of their  lungs to the solos that you have composed in each concert must be a very powerful feeling and only a few sublime guitarists lucky enough to fall into a superb band have ever been able to do it.. The story of Kirk Hammett and Metallica, Metallica and Kirk Hammett.


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