When it comes to great metal frontmen, it doesn’t get much more legendary than Metallica’s James Hetfield. Be it his gruff voice, guitar licks or down to earth off-stage persona, Hetfield’s career has been one of the very highest order. Whether you’re a Metallica purist or not, you cannot deny that Hetfield has had an enviable amount of success in his occupation and is a skilled musician. It’s no coincidence that he’s one of the most influential artists in the history of metal.
Having founded Metallica in San Francisco in 1981 alongside drummer Lars Ulrich, in the mid-’80s, after numerous lineup changes, they would assert themselves as one of the pioneers of thrash metal, and the de facto leaders of the genre’s ‘Big Four’ alongside Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. To date, they’ve sold over 120 million records worldwide, dragging metal into the major leagues, a feat that should not be understated.
Given that he is a figure of such colossal importance in the world of devil horns, fans have long wanted to understand his artistry on a more tacit level, to really be able to analyse where Hetfield comes from as a musician. Well, in 2009, he surprised fans by listing six of his favourite guitarists in an interview with Music Radar. Hetfield revealed: “My rhythm gods are Tony Iommi, Rudolf Schenker and Malcolm Young – guys who just keep it steady. The Misfits too, and even the Ramones with their simplicity. It’s all downpicking! Watch some footage of Johnny Ramone and you’ll go, ‘Wow!'”
Detailing further, he explained: “When I started playing guitar, I would fiddle around with pretty much everything. I was trying out different rhythms and trying to play (Aerosmith guitarist) Joe Perry solos, but then I just started gravitating more towards rhythm because of guys like Tony Iommi, Rudolf Schenker of the Scorpions, and even AC/DC. You know, very rhythm-based stuff.”
Hetfield then explained how he progressed as a guitarist and that when he realised the importance of the riff, this is what augmented his playing. He said: “And then later I got into riffing as, to me, that’s what makes a song great. If you’ve got a great riff you’ve got a great song. Some dude can do an amazing solo, but if it’s over a crappy riff the song’s still gonna be crap. A riff is the meat of the song.”
No wonder Hetfield has churned out so many iconic riffs, he learned from the very best. In his list, Hetfield named some of the most powerful guitarists in the history of rock. Clearly, the underlying factors that tie all the names together are power, speed, and a penchant for a meaty hook.
Out of all the names, the ‘Riffmaster’ Tony Iommi is the least surprising entry, as you’d be hard-pressed to find any metal legend who wasn’t inspired by his doom-laden licks in Black Sabbath. The same goes for Rudolf Schenker of Scorpions, who inspired everyone in the earlier days of the Californian thrash scene, including Megadeth.
For Hetfield to mention AC/DC rhythm guitarist, Malcolm Young, it makes a lot of sense, as Hetfield’s own style of rhythm guitar is a burly take on Young’s work. In songs such as ‘Master Of Puppets’ and ‘I Disappear’, you can clearly hear the similarities.
Then we come to two other figures on the list, whose playing was speed laden, and whose down picking has influenced everyone in metal as well as hardcore punk. Although Hetfield didn’t mention which specific guitarist of Misfits it was that inspired him, it’s safe to say that it was probably Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein, their third guitarist, who played on their most important releases. A king of heavy down picking, Doyle’s playing is timeless. The same can also be said for Johnny Ramone, the co-founder of The Ramones, who needs no real introduction.
Completing the collection, Joe Perry arrives as the most interesting mention. The guitarist extraordinaire of Aerosmith, his swaggering playing is some of the most instantly recognisable out there. Be it in Aerosmith’s early, outwardly hard rock days, or their more expansive later material, there’s a balance to Perry’s playing that has given his riffs an endurance that many of his contemporaries should be envious of. In this sense, we can see where Hetfield gets his balanced style from, sometimes undertaking the lead, and sometimes the rhythm, but always having the song in mind.
See the list, below.
James Hetfield’s favourite guitarists:
- Tony Iommi
- Rudolf Schenker
- Malcolm Young
- Johnny Ramone
- Joe Perry
Watch James Hetfield talk about his guitar playing below.