When you’re a part of one of the biggest metal bands in history you carry a certain mystique—inspiring figures of rock music as they are. It’s why stories of their own inspiration always offer a nice reminder of their humanity. For Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, it was one particular song that shaped his enthusiasm and encouraged him to start a band.
For Hammett, one guitar’s greatest himself, of course, points to the master of the instrument Jimi Hendrix and his iconic performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the one that confirmed Hammett was a rocker and that he needed a band. Curiously, the inspiration really landed on Hammett while he was watching one of metal’s forefathers, Led Zeppelin.
Speaking on Beats 1 Radio in 2017, Hammett along with Lars Ulrich sat down to speak about their musical beginnings. The guitarist shared the first song he learned in full on the instrument and how it inspired him to plug in and kick start his dreams. Hammett said: “The story with me and ‘Purple Haze’ is – when that album [1967 Hendrix debut ‘Are You Experienced’] came out, my brother would play it at the house and that song always stood out for me ’cause it was dirtier and uglier and more gritty and more like what it was like when I stepped outside my front door.”
“Once my brother moved out, he took his record collection with him – that was when I was about 8 or 9 years old. So for me, it was back to the radio.” It was here that Hammett couldn’t align his world with what was being played on the radio. Sugary-sweet songs reigned supreme at the time and despite some rock radio options, most of the time you needed to buy the album to really get a taste of what an artist had to offer.
“I didn’t hear things like ‘Purple Haze’ or any of the less radio-friendly stuff that he was playing at the house until later on when I was 13 or 14,” remembered Hammett. “I started seeking out my own music and going into record stores, buying stuff like Deep Purple, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy.
“I remember I went to see Led Zeppelin on Day on the Green in 1977 and Judas Priest opened that show. I don’t remember anything about it except for KK Downing’s Flying V guitar.”
Hammett shared that it was here that the guitarist finally reconnected with the song that had shaped his childhood: “But in between sets, they played music over the PA, and they played ‘Purple Haze’! It’s been five years since I heard that, and it hit me so heavily! It was more impactful that it’s ever been because I heard it through a big live PA.
“Pretty much next day I went to buy some Hendrix albums and the only one I could find was the Woodstock album,” the live album of Hendrix’s iconic performance. “It had ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and it was Hendrix playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ that made me want to play the guitar. Just constantly playing that track over.
But it was another song that confirmed Hammett needed a band. “The very first song I ever learned was ‘Purple Haze.’ I learned it and then two weeks later I rallied some friends – me, a bass player, a drummer, and a singer – I was plugged into an amp, the bassist was plugged into the same amp, and the vocalist was plugged into the same amp. [Laughs]
“We played ‘Purple Haze’ and that was all we played for 15 minutes. [Laughs] Make racket, stop, play again.”