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(Credit: Gene Ambo)


How Metallica’s Cliff Burton revolutionised bass playing

It’s not very often that we talk about a musician as being truly revolutionary. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Eno and Kurt Cobain are just a few that instantly spring to mind. Another artist who truly helped to forge a new way in music was the late Cliff Burton, the original bassist of San Francisco thrash titans Metallica. 

Burton was taken too soon, losing his life in a devastating bus crash in September 1986, and although the huge loss is still felt by those closest to him today, he lives on through the incredible work he did on Metallica’s first three albums.

It’s a testament to Burton that he played on Kill’ Em All, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets as to many diehard fans of the band, this trio rank among their very best. Furthermore, he received a posthumous writing credit for ‘To Live Is to Die’ from 1989’s…And Justice for All, another classic. 

Cliff Burton was the life and soul of Metallica, and his unmistakable technique and style augment the records he played on. His death didn’t stop his influence on the band though, and his spirit has carried them on through their 40-year career.  

Famously, Burton had a high-octane style of playing, and he played the bass like a guitar. Citing Lemmy, Geezer Butler, Geddy Lee, Stanley Lee and Phil Lynott as heroes, he blended their styles and created something genuinely pioneering. It’s no coincidence that Cliff Burton is the ultimate metal bass player to everyone in the know. The definitive king of rhythmic thrash playing inspired generations, and his influence can be heard across the various forms of metal, be it black, thrash or sludge. 

An iconoclast in every sense of the word, Burton tore up the rulebook and did things his way, showing that success is possible if you veer off the beaten path. This uncompromising attitude combined with his talent keeps his work as refreshing as it was over 30 years ago.   

The spirit of Burton has been felt everywhere across the bass-playing world, not to mention in his old band. On the eve of his audition for Metallica in 2003, bassist Robert Trujillo had a life-changing experience with Burton. He was staying at Faith No More drummer, Mike Bordin’s house, who was a close childhood friend of Burton’s.

Whilst going to sleep, Trujillo looked up at a photo of Burton on display. He recalled: “I said, ‘Cliff, if I get this gig, I won’t let you down. I promise.’ I almost felt like he was checking me out. Hopefully, he was giving me a thumbs up. I’ll never forget that moment because it was very surreal, but it was very important.”

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Showing just how impactful Cliff Burton was on his peers, Frank Bello, the bass player of Anthrax, recalled: “I would watch their show every night, I always loved what Cliff was doing, talking with his bass. Cliff was innovative, he always thought outside the box as a bass player.”

It was the iconic bassist of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flea, who really captured the revolutionary essence of Cliff Burton, however. In 2019, he tweeted on Burton’s birthday, February 10th: “Happy birthday to the great Cliff Burton. What a beautiful musician. The harmonic complexity and vibrant rhythm that he bought to rock music will live forever.”

Supporting this, Flea also once said in tribute to the late bassist: “The space that he created in the history of music will last forever, no one else can ever fill it, he was one of a kind, and I can never listen to any Metallica record without thinking of him. It is clear that the gift he gave lives on in that band’s music, be he live or be he dead.”

One of the more recent pioneers of bass playing that Burton inspired was Ryan Martinie of Mudvayne. One of the most celebrated bass players of the last 20 years, who fuses jazz precision with funk and metal, it will probably come as no surprise that hearing Burton’s revolutionary playing galvanised Martinie to take his playing to the next level. He explained: “I remember going to the store and buying Kill’ Em All on cassette. It had already been out for a few years by the time I got to it, but it was brand new to me, and I was entranced with Cliff’s playing. The bravado, and bombastic sounds belied the nuances hiding under the surface.”

In terms of Burton’s effect on music at large, Martinie asserted: “Those nuances sat squarely in the hands of Mr. Cliff Burton. Many things made me want to play bass guitar, but one of the most important things, was recognising that bass could do a whole lot more than just follow the guitar around. Cliff was an individual within the songs, while being wholly a part of the music and the band. His writing was critical in the development of what we all know today as metal. My eternal gratitude to him, and to all the others that toe the line in the never-ending river”.

The most influential bass player of the last 40 years, on his birthday, let’s not forget just how impactful Cliff Burton was on the world of music.

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