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We take a look at metal's finest, the way they shaped modern guitar playing and the tools that helped them do it.
There’s no question that Metallica changed the course of electric guitar. Their influence extends far beyond the thrash metal kingdom they sit at the top of. You can hear elements of the Metallica guitar sound in such wildly different contexts as FM rock radio and commercials for Nutri-Grain. Sometimes the Metallica guitar approach is quite progressive and technical, and other times it’s more blunted and direct. James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett took the epic tonality of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), the energy of punk and the attack of AC/DC, and came up with something unique and earth-shaking, and – let’s face it – super-fun for other guitarists to play. There’s just something addictive about strapping on an axe, cranking up the gain and chugging out on Metallica riffs. Credit should also go to Dave Mustaine, who was Hetfield’s co-guitarist in the band’s early days and who helped shape the vocabulary of thrash metal. Under Dave’s stewardship in Megadeth, the thrash sound took on a more complex, detail-driven feel compared to Metallica’s approach. In Metallica’s hands thrash became more accessible without losing its inherent sense of danger. Talk to anyone who was aged around 10 or so when “Enter Sandman” came out in 1991 and they’ll tell you that the song’s ominous opening scared the ever-loving piss out of them. Ask anyone who’s sat in a darkened room listening to “Fade To Black” in headphones what it was like and they’ll tell you about needing to spend 10 minutes in silence afterwards to wrap their head around the heavy thoughts the song dredged up.
So let’s take a dig into the technical and tonal approaches of Metallica through the years.
KILL ‘EM ALL/RIDE THE LIGHTNING
If you’re trying for Kill ‘Em All-era tone, try a Marshall-style amp with a goodly amount of power valve distortion and a little bit of distant micing for fatness and depth. Passive pickups and a mahogany bodied guitar will help too. Don’t just crank down the midrange knob; in those days Metallica kept quite a bit of upper midrange crunch in their tone. One of the most important things to consider is picking technique. Mostly, Hetfield picks with solid downstrokes (unless it’s the fast triplet stuff), and there’s an art to striking the perfect balance between pick attack, palm muting, and fretting hand phrasing. Careful attention to the whole life of the note can be smothered if you use too much gain. If you’re after the higher gain of the Ride The Lightning rhythm guitar sound, add an overdrive pedal with the treble reduced slightly. Hetfield has said in interviews that he used an Ibanez Tube Screamer, although he didn’t particularly like it. But you can hear its trademark thickness and fine-graininess on the album’s rhythm tracks. It blunts some of the rough edges of the sound compared to the tone on Kill ‘Em All. By Lightning Hammett had discovered the active EMG 81 humbucker. But his main recording guitar for the first four albums was a black Gibson Flying V, initially with Seymour Duncan pickups but swapped to EMGs. Gibson recently issued a Gibson Custom reproduction of this V, right down to the scratches and duct tape.
MASTER OF PUPPETS
To mimic this tone, scoop the midrange and run a compressor in your effect loop (it was more likely added at the mixing desk on the album). On Puppets Hetfield switched to the Mesa Boogie Mark C-Plus amp, modded to function as a pre-amp feeding a 100 watt power amp, and he favoured a Jackson KV1 V-style guitar with Seymour Duncan passive humbuckers. By 1987 these pickups had been swapped out for EMG 81 actives. There’s a pretty impressive low end wallop to the guitar tone on Puppets, which you can bring out with micing techniques as well as of course turning up the Bass knob on your amp. James multi-tracked the rhythm guitars with brilliant precision on Puppets, so if you’re really dedicated to nailing that sound but you’re only one guitarist, take this into account: set up a stereo rig if you can, and add light chorus or a slight pitch shift detune effect. Even a very quick delay will do if that’s all you have available.
Kirk Hammett used pretty much the same gear on Puppets that he used on Lightning: a Jackson Randy Rhoads Custom with EMGs and a Fernandes Stratocaster copy. The story goes that when Kirk picked up that Jackson during the Lightning era, it was so new that he had to wait around for the glue on the nut to dry.
GARAGE DAYS RE-VISITED
For Metallica’s first release without Cliff Burton, they went back to the NWOBHM and punk bands that influenced them in the early days. The tones are raw, with an upper midrange punch and a haze of rich distortion which smears the attack somewhat but enhances the body of the tone. In fact, if you step back and play it side-by-side with Death Magnetic you’ll hear a lot of common ground between the guitar tones of the two releases. The Garage Days tone is a little thicker while Death Magnetic is more direct with more emphasis on pick attack, but there’s certainly a connection. And Garage Day’s clean tones are looser and more raw than those of Puppets before it or Justice after it. For a raw, rough recording punched out in the wake of unimaginable personal tragedy and upheaval, it’s a surprisingly coherent, well-formed recording which captures an aspect of Metallica that we don’t often get to see. This was the last Metallica recording on which James relied on a Gibson Explorer with EMGs rather than his ESP versions. In this case it was the ‘More Beer’ guitar, so named for the sticker on its back end (right above the Jagermeister sticker).