Metallica’s Kirk Hammett on His First Flying V and Why He Loves the Wah
Almost 30 years have passed since Kirk Hammett joined what was to become one of the biggest, most influential metal bands of all time. As the lead guitarist for Metallica, Hammett developed a unique six-string proficiency that helped capture metal lovers’ hearts and fist-pumps with 1984’s Ride the Lightning and 1986’s Master of Puppets, two albums many call some of the genre’s all-time greatest.
Today, Metallica are as active as ever. In fact, the guys are plotting their first-ever music festival, Orion Music + More, which is slated to rock Atlantic City, New Jersey, on June 23 and 24.
In celebration of his amazing career, Gibson Custom has issued the Kirk Hammett Flying V, a meticulous recreation of Kirk’s own Flying V and trusted companion throughout his playing career with Metallica.
Looking back at the early days, Hammett says he didn’t have much time to prep for that first audition with the Metallica crew to replace original guitarist Dave Mustaine. “I had a week to learn the songs,” he told Music Radar. “At the end of that week I flew out and I had a week to rehearse with them, and then we started playing shows. Every show just kept on getting better.
“When it came time to go into the studio, Johnny Z, our manager, said, ‘You know you have to play Dave’s solos.’ I said I didn’t really want to. ‘Then why don’t you take the opening to every solo, so that people think that they’re Dave’s solos and then you can go somewhere else with them,’ he said.
“As a 20-year-old kid, put in a position like that, you don't want to rock the boat too much, especially being the new kid in town – the fresh guy. So I said, ‘Sure.’ That's exactly what I did. I took the first four bars of most of the solos and changed them. When I changed them it was always for the better and everyone liked it.”
Guitar-wise, it’s easy to see where Hammett’s loyalties rest. A Gibson loyalist, on Metallica’s early albums, Hammett seemed purely a Flying V guy. Since then, he’s also developed an affinity to Les Pauls.
“My first-ever Gibson was a Gibson Flying V, and I just loved it,” Hammett told Gibson. “I think it’s either a ’78 or ’79 Flying V. I bought it mainly because Michael Schenker had one but also because it had humbucking pickups (the guitar that I had before that had single coil pickups). I was looking for a fuller sound, a sound that I could achieve ‘heavy metal’ with [laughs], so I bought myself the Gibson Flying V and that was my guitar.
“That’s the guitar I played on the first five albums – Kill ’Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets …And Justice For All and The Black Album. All those albums have that guitar somewhere. I think I played all of Kill ’Em All on that guitar as well as all of Ride the Lightning. I love Flying Vs. I bought my first Les Paul in 1988. I went on to buy another after that in 1989 and then I just started buying Les Pauls on a regular basis. It’s mainly because I just love Les Pauls, especially the old ones. The old Les Pauls which had the PAF pickups are just amazing to me.”
While Hammett’s parts on the band’s debut, Kill ’Em All, were pretty cemented by what Mustaine had already written, Hammett was really able to put his stamp on the follow-up, Ride the Lightning.
Speaking with Guitar World, Hammett explained how he came up with the now-famous guitar melody in the instrumental track “The Call of Ktulu” off Ride the Lightning. “I tracked the whole album with Marshall amps and my Gibson Flying V,” Hammett explained. “For that song, I knew that I wanted to come up with something really melodic at the beginning of the solo. At that point in the song, there’s just a lot of riffing, a lot of heavy dynamics. I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something somewhat melodic to lead into it?’ Hence that little melody I played… It was our first instrumental, and it was an incredibly long guitar solo. It was like, ‘How can I keep this solo going without making it sound like I'm just playing a bunch of notes?’ So I thought that I would break it up into sections rather than play one long spew of notes.
“I used a modal approach, and there’s also arpeggios that I play in the solo – they’re actually ‘broken arpeggios,’ a term that I got from Yngwie Malmsteen. At that time, 1984, Yngwie was big in the guitar world; he influenced me in that he was using all these different scales and different arpeggios, and really got me thinking about that kind of sound. I was also thinking chromatically: there’s that one part at the top of the next cycle where I play a chromatic lick that goes all the way down the high E string with the wah pedal.
“I actually wrote out the entire solo on pieces of paper, using my own notes and my own pet names for the individual licks. I would say that 80 percent of it was composed beforehand and 20 percent of it was improvised. When we revisited that song with the symphony on S&M, it was a lot of fun; it felt like I was visiting my guitar technique from, like, 15 years ago or something. I just don’t play like that now – I’m a lot bluesier – so it was pretty trippy.”
When it comes to his favorite guitar accessory, Hammett points to his trusty wah pedal. “I’d say that I just really can’t stop playing that wah pedal. I know it’s not really much to claim but, you know, I like playing the wah pedal. I love playing guitar solos using my wah. That’s really all it is,” he told Gibson. “I really try to come up with guitar solos that are catchy and memorable, that stick in your mind and are almost a song within a song. I’ve always tried to come up with catchy guitar solos that you can just hum and sing along to.”
What’s your favorite Hammett riff or solo? Let us know in the comments section!
Photos courtesy of Anton Corbijn and BB Gun Press