“My guitars are my umbilical cord. They’re directly wired into my head.” — Kirk Hammett
Metallica’s career has seen the band take metal music to dizzy and unprecedented heights since their formation back in 1981. Both critically and commercially successful beyond their wildest dreams, the group’s impressive career was founded on a core group of talented musicians and songwriters. While Kirk Hammett wasn’t there from the very beginning, his arrival in 1983 was a key moment for the group and, without him, who knows if they would have become the band they are today.
Hammett had garnered an immense reputation with his previous band Exodus and, when a vacancy became available in Metallica, there was only one man that they wanted to fill it. In May 1983, after Metallica travelled to Rochester to record their debut album Metal Up Your Ass, the opportunity for Hammett will arrive. Then-lead guitarist Dave Mustaine was struggling profusely with his battle with substance abuse and violent tendencies, which led to him being fired from the band and eventually forming Megadeth.
Metallica was left in a predicament by Mustaine’s departure but they knew Hammett could fix their woes and phoned him on the very same afternoon. At this point, Hammett was just a 20-year-old kid that had never even left California but, with determination, he scrambled together enough cash to get him the next flight to New York for his audition, which he passed with flying colours. James Hetfield later recalled: “The first song we played was ‘Seek and Destroy’, and Kirk pulled off this solo, and it was like…things are going to be alright!”
Over the last few decades, Hammett has proved that he is one of the best axemen in the world with a plethora of game-changing riffs and solos. The guitar god once said: “I didn’t want to fall into the trap of competing with all these other great guitar players. I just want to sidestep the whole thing and get out of the race.”
This quote alone perfectly describes how he has forged his career through his totally unique style and, in this feature, we’re going to look at some of his most killer performances with Metallica through the lens of his isolated guitar.
Let’s take a look!
Metallica’s Kirk Hammett best isolated tracks:
Taken from Metallica’s fourth studio album …And Justice For All, ‘One’ is a classic track from the band. Released in 1988, the song hangs on the guitarist’s furious hands. The song carries an anti-war message and depicts a World War I soldier severely wounded after having their arms and legs blown off by a landmine, blind and unable to speak or move, begging God to take his life.
Hammett’s lead guitar manages to convoy this emotion of the soldier and instantly makes the listener buy into this tale that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich created. Hammett told Kerrang in 2008 that this track has one of his favourite Metallica guitar solos.
Hammett explained: “Specifically, this is the middle solo of the song. Much like ‘Enter Sandman’, it’s a solo that everybody can pretty much sing along to, and it definitely gives me a really good feeling every time I play it.”
‘Nothing Else Matters’
‘Nothing Else Matters’ featured on the group’s stellar self-titled fifth album in 1992 and quickly became one of their most adored tracks, which, in large part, is down to the incredible guitar work of Hammett.
James Hetfield explained the song to Mojo in 2008: “It’s about being on the road, missing someone at home, but it was written in such a way, it connected with so many people, that it wasn’t just about two people, it was about a connection with your higher power, lots of different things.”
Hetfield added: “I remember going to the Hells Angels Clubhouse in New York, and they showed me a film that they’d put together of one of the fallen brothers, and they were playing ‘Nothing Else Matters.’ Wow. This means a lot more than me missing my chick, right? This is brotherhood. The army could use this song. It’s pretty powerful.”
‘Fade To Black’
Often credited as Metallica’s first-ever power ballad, ‘Fade To Black’ is one of the most pivotal songs in their career. However, more importantly, the song proved to the world exactly what new recruit Kirk Hammett was capable of with a searing solo for the ages.
The solo is regarded as one of Hammett’s best, and it was apparently improvised by the guitarist while playing the final take in the studio. It is said that Hammett took his mind to the darkest corner he could and allowed this darkness to bleed into his hands. It’s the kind of practice that would work well for method actors, and Hammett compounded the theory with this superb solo.
Many bands’ biggest hits aren’t ones that they are particularly proud of, but ‘Enter Sandman’ is the opposite of that for Metallica. A wildly popular radio anthem, the song is compact and ferocious, potent and precise, telling you exactly what they’re all about in one simple track.
Hammett once told Rolling Stone how he wrote the incredible riff: “Soundgarden had just put out Louder Than Love. I was trying to capture their attitude toward big, heavy riffs. It was two o’clock in the morning. I put it on tape and didn’t think about it. When [drummer] Lars [Ulrich] heard the riff, he said, ‘That’s really great. But repeat the first part four times.’ It was that suggestion that made it even more hooky.”
He added: “A lot of people can probably hum this one note perfect, but aside from the fact that it’s an insanely popular song I think the solo is amazing in its own right. It fits in perfectly and adds a different dimension to the music,” he recalled to Kerrang in 2008.
This track is a heavily emotional one for the group and another example of Hammett’s talent in assisting James Hetfield’s vision. This was written straight from the heart by Hetfield, and he sees him lament his troublesome childhood. As well as his truck-driving father walking out on the family, his Christian Scientist mother’s religious beliefs led to her dying young from cancer after refusing treatment.
The singer told Rolling Stone that there is “a lot of blame in that song.” He added that he resented his family for “insulating and alienating, which happened a lot with our religion [Christian Science]. That song was about being in a cocoon, and now that I’m out on my own, oh, my God, the world is shocking me. I don’t know how to deal with this stuff. I don’t know how to deal with grief, poverty, confrontation. How to live on my own, after father leaving, mother dying.”
‘Ride The Lightning’
The title track from Metallica’s second album, ‘Ride The Lightning’ is a barnstorming anthem for the ages and is the sound of a band firmly on their way to world domination.
The classic song saw Hammett prove that he was an integral cog in the Metallica machine as he was the one who came up for the title for the song, which would then become the name of their sophomore album.
The song title came from Stephen King’s book The Stand, one which Hammett was reading at the time. He recalled to Rolling Stone: “There was this one passage where this guy was on death row said he was waiting to ‘ride the lightning.’ I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a great song title.’ I told James (Hetfield, vocals), and it ended up being a song and the album title.”