His style and flair helped make me­tal­lica the big­gest band in our world. We talk to Kirk Ham­mett about his jour­ney into mu­sic, the St. Anger is­sue and whether he’d ever stray from the fold…


The metal icon on his life in gui­tars, and why so­los will never die.

Kirk Ham­mett is a gui­tar hero. It’s as sim­ple as that. the me­tal­lica leg­end owns a sound and style that’s been widen­ing the hori­zons and floor­ing the jaws of im­pres­sion­able youths for 35 years. His pas­sion and per­son­al­ity, flam­boy­ance and fi­nesse, melodic nous and at­tack­ing zeal have mo­ti­vated count­less young­sters to pick up a six-string. For

Kirk, grow­ing up in cal­i­for­nia in the late 60s and 70s, his own pri­mary mo­ti­va­tor comes as no sur­prise.

“When I first saw that movie doc­u­men­tary about Jimi Hen­drix, when I ac­tu­ally saw footage of what he was about vis­ually, how he per­formed, and how that re­lated to his gui­tar play­ing, I was blown away,” he rem­i­nisces to­day over the phone, dur­ing a brief bit of down­time in me­tal­lica’s lat­est euro­pean tour. “I was im­pressed at how artis­tic it all was; it looked like he had to­tal cre­ative en­ergy and free­dom to do what­ever he wanted with that elec­tric gui­tar. It was very se­duc­tive to me, as a young boy who was try­ing to find my place in the world. I thought,

‘that looks like he’s hav­ing a lot of fun, I think that’s what I want to do to!’ then I saw [led Zep­pelin con­cert film] The Song Re­mains The Same around that time, and see­ing the mag­nif­i­cence of Zep­pelin on­stage, the vis­ual im­pact of it all… it made the mu­sic that much big­ger. I per­ma­nently set my per­spec­tive on Hen­drix and Zep­pelin!”

thus in­spired, Kirk took up the gui­tar and formed his first band, which be­came ex­o­dus in 1979. From an early stage, the teenage gui­tarist was gen­er­at­ing his own ma­te­rial – and writ­ing a piece of heavy metal his­tory in the process.

“I’d come up with a riff, then a cou­ple more around it, I’d show the guys, and we’d just in­stantly start play­ing it – be­cause we had noth­ing else to play!” he em­pha­sises with an en­dear­ing snort. “af­ter get­ting a few songs un­der our belt, it felt like we had some mu­si­cal foun­da­tion that we could sit on. It’s the same for me now, in that when I have mu­sic that I haven’t played for any­one, it feels good. When­ever you walk into a room with the in­tent of com­ing up with some­thing, and you walk out of that room with any­thing, whether it’s a riff, a melody, a chord pro­gres­sion, or two bits that go to­gether, there’s an

im­mense amount of sat­is­fac­tion that comes along with that. It’s very em­pow­er­ing. It re­ally feels like you’ve cre­ated some­thing out of noth­ing, and the value in that is huge. Huge. I al­ways say to ev­ery­one, ‘make up your own stuff! come on, let’s hear it. the world needs more mu­sic.’”

The world was lis­ten­ing. When ex­o­dus started play­ing their own songs live – Kirk com­po­si­tions Die By His Hand and Im­paler in­cluded – it was clear that some­thing ex­plo­sive was brew­ing, and that he was help­ing to shape a sound that would change metal for­ever. ex­o­dus’s mu­sic was in­spired by a new gen­er­a­tion of metal com­ing out of Bri­tain, but the Bay area boys glee­fully set about mak­ing it faster and more ag­gres­sive.

“The New Wave Of Bri­tish Heavy metal re­ally shaped our gui­tar styles; all those tech­niques com­ing over from the UK,” ex­plains Kirk of how he came to spear­head the most rad­i­cal sound of the early 80s. “So we didn’t sound like the guys who grew up lis­ten­ing to eric clap­ton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. We didn’t lis­ten to BB King, we came from com­pletely dif­fer­ent roots. So we stood out. and the win­dow for stand­ing out was only like, two or three years. that was the dif­fer­ence be­tween gen­er­a­tions. there were mu­si­cians a cou­ple of years older than me who didn’t want to lis­ten to that style or sound of gui­tar play­ing.”

While some of Kirk’s peers strug­gled with this brash new style, his par­ents were even more con­fused. “Oh, my fam­ily hated it,” laughs Kirk, launch­ing into an im­pres­sion of a hor­ri­fied dad: “‘Don’t put on the mu­sic with that guy scream­ing!’ that guy scream­ing just hap­pens to be Paul Di’anno! Or I’d put on motör­head and clear out the en­tire house. and I’d feel dis­en­fran­chised by my friends, when I played it to them and they’d go, ‘eu­rgh, you like this stuff?’ Some of them wouldn’t talk to me af­ter a while. Wasn’t that weird, back then?”

De­spite the dis­ap­proval of fam­ily and friends alike, Kirk was mak­ing a name for him­self as a key player in this bur­geon­ing scene; so much so, in 1983 he was called in at short no­tice to re­place Dave mus­taine in me­tal­lica, un­der­ground metal’s hottest band, on the eve of record­ing Kill ’Em All, un­der­ground metal’s hottest de­but. an in­tim­i­dat­ing sit­u­a­tion, han­dled with con­fi­dence and ma­tu­rity by a man barely into his 20s.

“I was com­ing into a band that al­ready had a lot of re­ally great songs, so I felt I had to step up my game,” ad­mits Kirk. “But I thought some of the riffs I was al­ready writ­ing were pretty damn good, so it was just a ques­tion of in­te­grat­ing my­self into the process. But the great­est thing about me­tal­lica is that I felt it was a bet­ter fit, me be­ing with these mu­si­cians, than ‘the band that I started in high school’. that was bit­ter­sweet for me, but that was the re­al­ity, and if I wanted to con­tinue on this mu­si­cal jour­ney I had to stick to my guns, and that’s why I joined me­tal­lica. We clicked from like 0.001 se­cond in; we came from the same place, we were lis­ten­ing to the same stuff, we had the same aes­thetic, the same ears, so it was just such a nat­u­ral thing.”

Along­side James Het­field’s crunch, Kirk Ham­mett’s blues-schooled licks and singable leads came to de­fine me­tal­lica’s sound so pow­er­fully that it still seems bizarre to think he was never part of the orig­i­nal plan. and then, of course, there’s what might just be Kirk’s most iconic trait of all: his beloved wah-wah pedal.

“To me, the wah-wah is a lot like the hu­man voice,” he muses of his much-used favourite toy. “It isn’t so much about the ‘wah­wah sound’, it’s be­ing able to ma­nip­u­late the tone how­ever

I feel it in that mo­ment. It ac­tu­ally cre­ates a bet­ter con­nec­tion to the deeper part of me. and Hen­drix wasn’t ac­tu­ally the first per­son I heard use a wah-wah pedal – that was Brian robertson from thin lizzy! the first time I be­came aware of it was the song War­riors on Jail­break. He comes in with this to­tally wah-ed out two-three notes, and I said to my friend, ‘What is that?!’ He said, ‘that’s a wah-wah pedal.’ ‘Wow, fan­tas­tic!’ I made a men­tal note of that…”

It be­came a Ham­mett trade­mark that helped make him a lynch­pin in the sound that saw me­tal­lica be­come the big­gest band in metal. a sound that has con­tin­ued to evolve and adapt over the years – and never more con­tro­ver­sially than on 2003’s St. Anger, which en­tirely dropped one of Kirk’s hall­marks – gui­tar so­los. He strongly ob­jected at the time, and his dis­taste hasn’t mel­lowed.

“I guess it was ap­pro­pri­ate for the time, but look­ing back, it doesn’t seem so ap­pro­pri­ate to me now!” Kirk drawls. “I will al­ways ob­ject to that, but I think the mes­sage was driven home af­ter that al­bum, that so­los are needed in me­tal­lica! Peo­ple look

for­ward to hear­ing them. So for me there was a weird vin­di­ca­tion.”

If the fash­ion of 2003 was against gui­tar so­los, the fash­ion of 2018 seems to be against gui­tars al­to­gether. asked about the trou­bles cur­rently fac­ing the good old-fash­ioned six-string – our con­ver­sa­tion takes place the day af­ter Gib­son filed for bank­ruptcy – Kirk sounds more hurt than an­gry.

“I don’t know what the fuck it is, but peo­ple seem to be see­ing the gui­tar in a dif­fer­ent light, and pass­ing them up for fuck­ing sam­plers and what­not. maybe it’s a sign of the times. like all in­stru­ments, there’s a time when it goes out of fash­ion. In the early 80s the gui­tar wasn’t as pop­u­lar as it be­came again in the mid-80s, so we’ll see what hap­pens as far as en­thu­si­asm is con­cerned with the ac­tual act of mak­ing mu­sic with a gui­tar. It’s sad news to me, but I hope Gib­son pre­vail. they have in the past.”

although ev­i­dence of the gui­tar’s de­cline is all around us, there re­mains a ra­bid au­di­ence who still joy­fully ob­sess over the finer points of each player. they’re count­ing the days un­til they can get their teeth into a Kirk solo al­bum… so how about it?

“I have so much ma­te­rial sit­ting around that’s ob­vi­ously not me­tal­lica stuff, and that pile gets big­ger and big­ger. One of these days when it feels right…” Kirk muses. “I still feel I have so much to give me­tal­lica. When that feels more com­plete, maybe I’ll think about do­ing that other stuff.” Warm­ing to his theme, Kirk mulls over what we should ex­pect from a Ham­mett lP. “It would not look like a metal al­bum at all,” he af­firms. “It’ll be some­thing so weird and far-rang­ing in styles, but co­he­sive at the same time. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if all of us did some solo, independen­t, au­ton­o­mous sort of thing. I think it’s healthy, and if any­thing, when you come back to the band you’d come back with more en­thu­si­asm. It’d feel like go­ing on a lit­tle camp­ing trip, and it’s al­ways good to come back home to a nice warm bed!”

In a re­flec­tive mood as our chat winds down, Kirk pon­ders the spir­i­tual enor­mity of what his in­stru­ment means to him. “I live for play­ing gui­tar, loud and ag­gres­sive,” he em­pha­sises. “there’s such a ther­a­peu­tic ef­fect that hap­pens to me, and it fills a huge gap­ing hole in my soul. It’s been the case since day one, and it’s still im­prov­ing. I still don’t feel I’ve hit the sum­mit; I have a long mu­si­cal road to dis­cover and ex­pe­ri­ence. mu­si­cally I’m in the best place I’ve ever been, and I feel very for­tu­nate. Some peo­ple peak right off the bat, then can’t pull off things they did when they were younger. I want to keep on go­ing, never rest on my lau­rels, and al­ways look for­ward.”



a baby­facedKirk and James in 1986

Star power: Kirk on­stagein canada last sum­mer

Kirk, lars, rob and James: un­stop­pable

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