Published on 22 February 2022
Is James Hetfield the most influential guitarist of the last 35 years?
For heavier styles, it would be hard to imagine anyone else who has been so specific in not only rewriting the rulebook on riffs, but defining (and re-defining) the guitar sound of modern heavy rock.
Given that Metallica are actually - considering they are the biggest metal band ever - quite an experimental lot, most of us still have a very clear and defined idea of how they sound, and that’s almost entirely to do with the guitars. Lars’ ‘idiosyncratic’ drums also play a large part, but the furious chunky riffs slammed down by Papa Het and Kirk Hammett are the band’s true signature.
Today, we are going to look at how you can bring a little of that sound into your own world. We’ll check out the gear and we’ll talk a little about the playing as we go.
Riffs for Every Price Point
When checking out the instruments and equipment, we’ve arranged the gear into three distinct categories of price: Affordable, Pro and Top-End. You'll hopefully see that spending more does buy you better gear, but also that the least expensive choices are still entirely effective at copping some Metalli-tude! We’ll look at some mosh-tastic accessories and pedals, to further extend your grip on the Metalli-verse! Okay, enough of that, on to the guitars first…
James and Kirk are both long term ESP endorsees. No band has done more to bring a brand to the public like Het and Kirk’s continual use of their signature ESP axes, and as a result, there have been dozens of variations over the years. Both players have an affinity for active pickups, but beyond that, they have relatively different tastes.
James is very fond of guitars styled after Gibson’s ‘Moderne’ shapes of the late 50s. Early Metallica records saw him (and Kirk, actually) rocking on Gibson Flying V’s, but he’s almost certainly best known for using Explorer-shaped guitars. His 1980s ESP models bore an extremely close resemblance to Gibsons, and somewhere down the line, ESP were legally obliged to alter the design somewhat. Today, there are plenty of ‘X’ shaped guitars out there, and ESP offer plenty of their own. To the uninitiated, ‘LTD’ is simply the more affordable sibling of ESP. ESP (it stands for Electronic Sound Product) are Japanese (with limited offerings from the US) and LTD are licensed models made in countries like Indonesia. This brings the price down but keeps things ‘official’, as it were.
Affordable Choice 1: LTD EX-200
This current take on the famous Explorer style is great value for money. The LTD EX-200 has a mahogany body and a set neck with a bound fingerboard, lending the instrument a solid and authoritative feel. High output pickups and extra jumbo frets let you get your riff on straight away. All you need is an extra long strap for the correct rock stance.
Affordable choice 2: LTD KH-202
For Kirk’s affordable choice, there’s no more obvious a contender than his own entry-level signature model! The LTD KH-202 is a bolt-on necked superstrat with the all-important skull ‘n’ crossbone inlays, a great neck profile and a Floyd Rose tremolo for all of those ‘Puppets-era’ screeching solos! The reverse headstock is the authentic finishing touch this great value axe needs to make it insta-Kirk. Excellent!
Pro Choice 1: LTD Snakebyte (Black, White and Camo)
Moving into the next price point, these guitars are all professional quality and are built to be toured again and again. For our Hetfield choice, we have his own pretty awesome ‘Snakebyte’ signature model, with its tastefully ‘chunked out’ Explorer shape. Every hard rocking guitar company offers their own Explorer style and this shape is perhaps our favourite ‘re-drawing’ of the classic. It's available in Black, Snow White and Camo.
The Snakebyte is, as you’d expect, a hefty slab of mahogany, and this model features Hetfield’s signature EMG ‘Het Set’ pickups. These active models are designed specifically to deliver a mids-rich tone (scooping the mids out of heavy tones is done less these days than in the past) with huge output but, crucially, low background noise levels. The pickups are perfect for staccato riffing, such as you’d find on the legendary Master of Puppets riff, shown in the video below. It’s a long-held matter of honour among metal hordes that anyone attempting this evil, chromatic riff do so with downstrokes only. It’s not easy! To be fair, though, alternate picking techniques (where you’d substitute some up-picked notes along the way to make the job easier) do sound different, so the end result is probably worth the effort of learning it Het’s way!
Bonus Choice: LTD Iron Cross James Hetfield
For the Metallifan who likes a slightly more traditional silhouette to their axe, this LTD Iron Cross model takes some beating. James has used a number of ESP Singlecuts over the years, from ‘Primer Grey’ coloured examples to these more overtly militaristic Iron Cross models. They’ve become famous amongst fans, as most of the Het’s guitars do, and they sound as focused and unstoppable as they look.
Pro Choice 2: LTD KH-602
When it comes to Kirk’s guitars, an upgrade in price gets you a direct upgrade in model. The LTD KH-602 may look superficially similar to the cheaper 202 model, but it’s really quite different. First off, the neck is set into the body, which gives this particular guitar a vastly superior feel, not to mention greater sustain! Access to upper frets is better too, so if you’re reaching for those dramatic high notes in the Unforgiven (see below), you won’t be hampered by awkward heel shapes.
Another major upgrade is the pickups. Kirk has his own signature set of EMG’s too - called Bone Breakers - and what surprises with these is not the unearthly crunch that comes from them, but the quality clean tones you can get! Thinking on it, Metallica do have a fairly high share of quasi-classical and neo-Western clean parts in their songs, and the KH-602 is equipped to meet those requirements head on.
Whether you prefer the black model or the bold (and awesome) Purple Sparkle KH 602, you’ll enjoy an upgraded Floyd Rose 1000 Series tremolo (tougher metal, appropriately!) and yes, you’ll still get those piratey inlays!
Take in one of Kirk’s most celebrated moments here: it’s the climactic solo to the Black Album’s The Unforgiven. Here, he demonstrates those atmospheric clean dynamics we spoke of, and also demonstrates his lyrical, melodic taste. Notice how often he changes left hand position in order to gain access to the notes he wants, rather than just running through typical ‘box’ scale shapes. The artificial harmonics (dig your thumb in when you pick to bring out those squeals) seem accidental but are a great dramatic addition to the piece, so practising them until you get them 100% is worth it!
Top-End Guitar Choice
For ultimate Hetfield appropriation, we have this wonderful beast from ESP’s Japanese Custom Shop. The ESP Japan James Hetfield Snakebyte Camo is a beautifully built instrument, crafted from the best Mahogany and Ebony to the highest possible standards.
The Camouflage finish on this Snakebyte is a specific style chosen by Hetfield from his favoured brand of hunting equipment, KUIU. In addition to the signature EMG pickups, this guitar boasts a Tonepros bridge and Sperzel tuners for a spec that’s top-flight in every sense. This is the same standard of instrument that James Hetfield plays himself every night, so it does not get any closer than this!
Additionally, a portion of the profits from each guitar sold goes to Metallica’s own charitable foundation, so you will be doing some good in the world every time you strike a pose and unleash the fury on this beast! CHYEAAAH!!
Amps: Get That Metallica Crunch
Time for amps and other devices! The guitar is only the beginning of the story for great tone: what you plug into will define to a greater degree how you’ll actually sound. Can this be done at various price points?
Of course it can!
Now, whilst it’s true to say that ‘classic’ Metallica songs (the 80s stuff) was performed through a brace of Mesa Boogie Mark II C+ amps, it’s also true to note that Hammett and Het have used a great number of amps over the years. Nowadays, that huge high gain thump is less expensive to get, too, and there are tons of options for achieving it! Let’s see a few, using the same ‘affordable - pro - top end’ style as with the guitars.
Affordable Amp Choice 1: Diezel Mini Boutique head
If you aim to play mainly at home, why not go straight for one of the most famous high-gain tones of the last two decades? You can see Hetfield using Diezel quite often in rehearsal/recording footage, so this Diezel VH Micro a tenable link.
This tiny little head is designed to accurately emulate the roaring gain channel of a Diezel VH4, which is a colossally huge amp head, with a correspondingly colossal price tag attached. This bite-sized box of doom throws down like an amp ten times its size, and is extremely affordable, given its solid-state circuit (no valves here, not that you’d know from listening) and paperback book-sized footprint. Attach any compatible speaker and marvel at the deadly sounds within.
Affordable Amp Choice 2: Line 6 Catalyst 40w
Line 6 are innovators when it comes to modelling, as we all know, Brilliantly, the infamous ‘insane’ channel from their mega-selling Spider amp series was directly based on the Enter Sandman guitar sound. Whilst we don’t necessarily think that particular promise was entirely accurate, it certainly put huge, monstrous levels of gain and low end into the hands of all guitarists with £70 available for an amp!
Those days are behind us, but Line 6 are as innovative as ever. Their brand new Catalyst range of amps seriously impressed our crew, and it’s clear that world-demolishing gain sounds are easily achievable with their otherwise unassuming 40w combo.
When designers like Line 6 look at tones to model for their amps, you can bet your bank balance that they are referring to Metallica’s world famous crunch when it comes to the high gain amp sounds. Listen for yourself in our video and you’ll hear what we mean!
Pro Amp Choice 1: EVH 5150 Iconic 40w 1x12
Wow, talk about a gain channel! These new 5150 'Iconic' combos from EVH (which of course stands for Edward Van Halen, creator of the greatest non-Metallica hard rock tone in existence) have blown our collective socks off with the sheer power of the sound! There are obscene amounts of filth on tap here, and it is very easy indeed to dial in a range of classic ‘Tallica tones, from Call of Ktulu and Creeping Death to Sad But True and Hardwired to Self-Destruct.
This amp is a ‘proper’ valve amp, so there is no modelling going on here at all. You get two channels, and whilst one of them is called ‘clean’, you can actually push this channel into blissfully aggressive overdrive too, so it’s either a clean/gain amp or a gain/more gain amp. Set it up as you see fit, engage the built-in noise gate and you'll find that even a casually struck low E string will sound like beautiful armageddon.
“Say your prayers, little one, don’t forget, my son, to buy me one of these new EVH 5150 Iconic amps because they sound amazing”.
That’s how the song goes, isn’t it?
Pro Amp Choice 2: Synergy Modules
For those who want to nail a number of boutique amp tones, Synergy’s modules are the way to go. You buy a Synergy SYN preamp or combo and then simply choose the module(s) you wish to use and slot it in. Buy a few of your favourite amp models and swap them in and out as your heart desires. Voila, you now have a room full of world-class amps! It’s a very simple and effective idea, and we’re mystified as to why every pro player hasn’t gotten in on the act!
Synergy have collaborated with every tasty amp builder out there, from famous gain merchants like Friedman and Bogner to combo kings like Morgan Amplification. There’s even a module that unofficially cops the tone and feel of the MarkII C+ amp we mentioned earlier in this article!
For instant metallica, a two channel Synergy preamp or combo armed with any clean module (add chorus via a pedal for the JC120 ‘Justice’ tones) and either the IIC+ or Diezel Herbert modules will set the game afoot in rare style.
Talking of Justice, 1988’s And Justice For All is, for many Metallica fans, the point where Hetfield’s riffing reached its zenith. True, it can be argued that the bass is completely inaudible, but that hardly affects how potent and downright unstoppable the Het machine is on here. He just throws out riff after riff like there’s no tomorrow, and the majority of the results are solid gold.
Harvester of Sorrow is a great example of his unusual note choice. This was long before the ‘Load’ days when second-hand Blooze riffing was considered acceptable. Harvester brings in Eastern modal scales and chromaticism to usher in some very cool, off-kilter riffs. After the clean, Jazz-Chorus intro, it’s a masterclass in epic riffology, with nice songwriting elements thrown in (changing metre, start-stop dynamics) to keep you slightly unbalanced as you mosh hard. This is the level to aim for when constructing your own riffs!
Top-End Amp Choice 1: Kemper Powerhead and Remote
Now for the top-end amplifier choices. Many bands have ‘gone digital’ these days, particularly on tours, when consistency in terms of sound and performance are as important as tone. Metallica, so go the rumours, actually use Kemper profilers for their live rigs nowadays, and so it makes sense to include them here today!
Kemper are one of the better known digital modellers out there, and they get their tones by ‘profiling’ actual amplifiers, which means taking something akin to a digital fingerprint of that amp’s tonal characteristics and behaviour. These resulting profiles can be uploaded to any computer and shared with other Kemper users, making them very open-ended pieces of equipment. You basically build a gigantic amp collection in minutes by searching for profiles and downloading them to your own Kemper unit! It will take you about two seconds on the Kemper forums to find endless examples of exhaustively profiled Metallica amps, of no doubt varying quality, but the good ones will be utterly perfect, and that makes the Kemper worth its weight in gold.
Top End Amp Choice 2: Soldano SLO-100 head
Our second and final top-end amplifier choice is perhaps one of the greatest amps of all. Until it was resurrected in 2020, the fabled Soldano SLO-100 was almost mythical amongst appreciators of great tone. This hand-made all-tube head is an update on Mike Soldano’s famous boutique amp-market-creating design, which changes nothing about the original circuit or sound, but adds little details such as a ‘depth’ control, similar to the resonance controls you’ll find on many other high gain amps.
Actually, calling this ‘high gain’ is unfair: it’s famous for having one of the best overdrive channels in the business, but the clean channel is equally impressive, if not more so. Lots of boutique amps offer one great sound, but the SLO-100 (it stands for Super Lead Overdrive and it’s 100 watts) arguably delivers the greatest clean, crunch and full-on dirt signals that you’re ever likely to experience.
Expensive? Yes, but it’s the very best of the best, and nothing much comes close. You see these in Hetfield’s practice space (ok, you see a LOT of amps in there) and it’s an easy thing to dime the gain and enter ‘Captain Crunch’ land, but this amp serves up all of your tonal meals as exquisite banquets. If you can afford it, there probably is not a better choice out there.
Accessories and Extra Bits
Okay, you’ve picked your preferred axe and plugged it into your chosen amp or amp-thing. What if you want more from your Metallica experience? Where can you go? Well, you can check out Kirk Hammett’s tastefully horrific wah pedal, the KH95.
On the top of the pedal is an anatomically correct x-ray of Hammet’s right foot, to enable the user even greater wah-dexterity.
Okay, we lied. It’s not an anatomically correct x-ray of Kirk’s foot at all, but the pedal does look ace, with that same horror/slime green finish Kirk likes to use on his pickup covers and plectrums. He’s a real fiend for wah - as you may have noticed - so this specially tuned wah pedal will get just the right amount of midrange honk to sit in a mix just above relentless chug-chug rhythms.
We mentioned plectrums there? Well, our friends in Metallica love ‘em, and you can experiment a little with the numerous Metallica plectrums that exist out there. Dunlop make all of these, and they are a relatively diverse bunch! Papa Het likes things with fangs, evidently, because his picks are ‘White Fang’ and ‘Black Fang’ Ultex picks, in various gauges and made in the popular Flow shape. From what we can gather, James tends to use a 1mm pick mainly, but we expect he changes that up as much as the rest of us.
Kirk brings his love of horror to his plectra, and you can grab a tin full of .88mm horror-themed picks in his ‘The Monster is Loose’ package. More esoteric are his bright green (think back to the wah) Jazz III picks. Again, calling these ‘Jazz III’ is a bit of an overstep because they are actually pretty different. The thickness and the tip are Jazz III, but there’s a heart-shape (heart-ish) to the grabbing end, which Kirk reckons makes them less likely to fly out of his sweaty fist. These greenies are made of nylon and are well worth a try for the curious.
When it Comes to the Ultimate Crunch…
So there you have it. We’ve covered the main points that need to be understood in order to sound and play like Metallica. To recap, it’s a bit like this:
- Have a powerful humbucker at the bridge position of your guitar.
- If that humbucker is active, so much the better.
- Riff using as many downstrokes as possible.
- Ignore Blues scale for early (good) Metallica. Indulge in the Blues Scale for mid-period (less good) Metallica.
- Forget about 9 gauge strings (10s for James, a scandalous 11 gauge for Kirk!)
- High gain tone is achievable at all price points.
- High gain tone gets better the more money you spend on it.
- Keeping your mids in your ‘Tallica tone is okay.
- Riffing hard, having fun and breaking rules is more ‘Metallica’ than simply copying them all day.
We hope our guide has been helpful to you today. May it propel you to heavy metal heaven, and may your riff sessions be long and plentiful.