Shawn Fernandes

The Gibson Interview: Kirk Hammett of Metallica

Thirty years in, the world’s best-known metal band shows absolutely no signs of flagging. From their days as pioneers of the Bay Area thrash metal scene in the ’80s to their current status as the elder statesmen of global hard rock, Metallica have spread the gospel of heavy metal across the world.

Two decades ago, their epochal 1991 “Black Album” baptized a new generation of metal fans across India. MTV had just begun broadcasting in the newly liberalized India and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was like nothing we’d ever heard before. For the next two decades, Metallica would be at the top of the playlist at any and every rock concert across India. This October, Metallica finally arrive on Indian shores to play Delhi and Bangalore – answering the prayers of Indian metal fans.  

Trying to hide our impatience, we spoke to the band’s lead guitarist Kirk Hammett over the phone from San Francisco. He spoke to us about the band’s unlikely success, sharing a stage with Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth, and what it was like to have Joe Satriani teach him how to play.  

First, let’s talk about what the entire metal community in India has been talking about – those two Metallica dates in Bangalore and Delhi in October. How excited are you?

I’m really looking forward to seeing India as a country and as a culture, and from there seeing how our fans and our music fit into all of that. Indian culture, for me, is very interesting and very provocative. It’s spiritual and mystical; it’s the birthplace of Buddhism and Hinduism as well as yoga, so I’m very excited to go to the spiritual birthplace of those three disciplines.

Also, we’ve gotten a lot of fan mail that had a lot of people asking us to come to India and now we’re finally doing it. So it’s going to be pretty cool and I’m really looking forward to it.

What made this the perfect time for Metallica to come to India?

Well [laughs], mainly because we have the time to do it! We’re officially off tour but, for some reason or the other, this year we’ve managed to fill our calendars with a bunch of shows in places we’ve either never gone to before or rarely go to. So because we had the time and we had an offer to play India, all of us decided now’s the time to do it. We feel pretty good about coming over there and playing because it’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.

Can Indian fans expect any new material at the shows?

Well, as far as new material is concerned we’re just now starting to think about writing new material. I guess if anything is going to be finished between now and the end of October, who knows? We may play a new song, we may not, but because India’s kind of a special place and it’s the first time we’re playing there, we might even break out a song that we haven’t played for a while.

Let’s talk about the Big Four, the run of shows you’ve been doing with Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth. The four biggest thrash metal bands in the world on the same stage. How did that happen?

Actually the idea came from us thinking about how cool it would be if all the old San Francisco thrash metal bands came together in like a festival sort of situation; maybe play a festival in San Francisco. As we started talking about it we realised that the four main metal bands of the ’80s – Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth and us – had never played a show that included all four bands together. We decided to see if it was possible, if we could actually do it. As it turned out, the other bands were into it. We played that first show in Europe [16 June, 2010 at the Sonisphere Festival in Warsaw, Poland] and it turned out great.

So now it’s something we know we can actually do and it’s evolved into a cool heavy metal event. It’s also a pretty cool way to celebrate the fact that we’ve been here for so long now and we’re still together, we’re still making albums, we’re still playing shows. Just for that fact I think it’s a pretty cool thing.

How much fun is it playing with those bands and what’s your favourite part of the show?

The great thing about the Big Four shows is that being backstage is super, super cool, because we’re all kinda hanging out and talking, being buddies, talking about the old days. So it’s very cool to just hang out and be a part of the event. 

The other really cool part of the show is when all four bands get together onstage and jam on “Am I Evil?” [by Diamond Head]. That’s not something we’ve been doing every show, but we did it in Bulgaria and we did it down in L.A. and I have to tell you it’s super, super cool, its a great thing to experience and its great to be up onstage with all these other great bands.

Cheeky question then – which band, in your opinion, is the best band of The Big Four?

Err… well, us [laughs]. But of course I’d say us. The better question is who’s my second favourite?

Fair enough. So who’s your second favourite band?

I have to say Slayer. What can I say, they’re evil, they’re heavy and they don’t really compromise. Slayer just rules. I also have to say though; Scott Ian [from Anthrax] is one of my best friends. I’ve known him for as long as I’ve been in the band and we hang out a lot socially. We do things together, our families get together, so I have to say I really just like hanging out with Scott ’cause he’s one of my bros.

With all the touring, has the band been able to get cracking on a new album?

We haven’t really started yet; we’re thinking about it though [laughs]. There’s just a bunch of other things that we’re doing right now. We keep telling ourselves that we’re going to get ’round to start writing songs but you know, something comes up. Normally it’s a show or us having to travel to India to play or something or the other, and then the album gets put on the backburner for a bit. But I think personally, the new album will just happen when it happens.     

There’s a new Metallica biography out – Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica by Mick Wall. The author said that before he started writing the book he thought he knew everything there was to know about Metallica. Two years in he realised he knew nothing at all. What did he discover?

You know, that’s a good question. I honestly don’t know. I mean, I know what I know [laughs] but I don’t know what Mick Wall  knows or doesn’t know, you know what I mean?

Sure, what do you suspect it could be?

I suspect it could be the way that we are naturally when we’re off tour, you know, when we’re not doing much of anything. We’re just really normal guys who just like to do a bunch of really normal things. I suspect that might have been something that shocked him [laughs].

Guitar talk now. On the early Metallica albums you used the Gibson Flying V a lot. You’re also a Les Paul fan. Tell us about your passion for these guitars.

Yeah, my first-ever Gibson was a Gibson Flying V and I just loved it. 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 PuppetsAnd 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.

Who inspired you to pick up the guitar?

I remember I saw a movie called A Film About Jimi Hendrix and that movie just totally blew me away. After that I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix. I not only wanted to play guitar like him and look like him but I wanted to be him. So I bought a guitar and started learning how to play Hendrix songs. After that I discovered UFO and Michael Schenker. That’s when I moved over from my previous guitar to the Flying V because, of course, I had to have the same guitar as whoever I was into at the time.

You learnt under a legend, the great Joe Satriani. How did that happen and what was it like?

Well, by that time I had my Flying V and one day I said to a friend of mine, “Your guitar playing’s really good, what’s up, how come you’re playing so good?” He said, “Oh I found this new teacher in Berkeley, his name is Joe, you should check him out”. So I went to this music store called Secondhand Guitars in Berkeley and I walk in and in the back I can hear someone playing guitar, crazy guitar, like no other guitar playing I’d ever heard. I went back there and there was Joe sitting on a chair and he says, “Hi, are you my new student?” I said “Yeah” and so we sat down and Joe just started playing.

Even back then he sounded like he does now. I mean, all the components of his guitar style were in place back then. I was just so totally blown away by his technique and his style. The first thing he said to me is: “OK, if you’re going to take lessons from me I expect you to learn your lessons. If you come in next week without learning the lessons, you’re just going to be wasting our time and there’s no real lesson for you to be taking lessons”. So he kinda basically told me to have my act together when I came in the next week. So I had the lesson, learnt everything over the week and came back the next week. It just totally grew from there.

I could tell that Joe really liked playing with me because we would always play longer than the allotted time. I mean usually he’d spend about a half an hour with his other students but for some odd reason he’d spend more time with me. I found out later that it was just because he liked playing guitar with me.

Later on in interviews, Joe said that when he first started teaching me he could see something in my playing style and my approach that was just radically different from most people’s approach at the time. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I was way into heavy metal at a time when heavy metal wasn’t even popular. It probably also had something to do with the fact that I was listening to guitar players like Ulrich Roth and Michael Schenker. I mean, there weren’t a whole lot of people in the United States back then who even knew who those guitar players were. So I was coming from a pretty unique sort of perspective.

I learnt a lot of things from Joe, a lot of things about technique especially. I also learnt that feel is better than anything and everything. So I’ve always strived be a player with a lot of feeling rather than a player with a lot of technique. I was always aware of the fact that you can say just as much with five notes as you can with five thousand notes. Learning that was very very important to me.

Speaking about technique, what would you say is the most unique facet of your technique, something that you’ve evolved over the years?

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.

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.

Metallica’s been around 28 years now. We’ve seen many metal bands come and go, the genre itself has been through its ups and downs. What’s that special sauce that’s kept Metallica at the very top for the last 30 years?

I honestly don’t know. All I can tell you is that I think our music stands the test of time. The music still sounds modern and still sounds relevant 30 years in. People are hearing it and they still hear it fresh. All I can say is that it’s just incredible that it’s actually happened to us.

When you got the call in 1983 inviting you to join Metallica, did you have any idea of where this was all headed?

No [laughs]. We all saw it as us being able to record an album, have the album out and tour clubs [laughs]. That’s honestly all we thought we’d get. Of course it turned out to be much more than that and thank god!

But yeah, for a long time we were just striving to be a recording band that would be able to put out albums and go out on tour and play clubs and small theatres.

Remember, at that time, when Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightning came out, heavy metal was not that popular at all. There were all these other different types of music that were more popular at the time. Back then heavy metal bands stood out like sore thumbs and people didn’t really understand heavy metal.

We just thought we’d record a few albums and go out on tour but we definitely didn’t expect it to be like this.

Before we end, we have to ask you about this new book about horror movie memorabilia that you’re working on called Too Much Horror Business.

It’s a book on vintage horror movie posters and vintage monster toys. I’ve been collecting this stuff for, like, forever. I bought my first monster movie magazine when I was five years old and I’ve been into this stuff forever. I just decided one day that because I have this huge collection of posters and monster toys, that I was going to share it with the world. Basically that’s what I’m doing right now, I’m just sharing it with the world. It’s really fun. It’s a lot of work and I’m still working on it right now but it’s a lot of fun and I can’t wait to release it.

Photo credit: Jeff Yeager