Hero of the Day or Disposable Hero?
Kirk Hammett is the lead guitarist for the band Metallica, a position he has held since 1983. Despite his many accomplishments and contributions to the metal genre, Hammett is no stranger to criticism for his guitar playing. Is this criticism unwarranted? Should this just be chalked up to jealousy by those who have struggled to succeed to the level he has? Let’s look at some of Hammett’s history with Metallica.
As a teenager, I first discovered Metallica when I was about 12 years old. At that time, Metallica’s self-titled “black album” had just hit the scene with Enter Sandman as headliner. Not long afterward, I’d started learning to play guitar. I didn’t start playing because of Metallica, but Metallica absolutely influenced my guitar playing. Initially, I’d started just trying to be able to play the rhythm guitar parts to Enter Sandman, The Unforgiven, and Wherever I May Roam. Being able to play the solos was just an ambitious fantasy.
As my guitar experience gained momentum, I wanted more, so I started searching for more albums and found Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and And Justice for All. There were a multitude of songs I loved to play (or attempt to play) from each of the albums. Little by little I did my best to puzzle out the solos…by ear… I didn’t have internet and didn’t buy the tab books. The quality and accuracy, to say the least, was lacking. I discovered bits and pieces of scales, though at the time I didn’t know which scales they were.
The Right Ingredients
Following the black album, the 1990s brought on a sound evolution for Metallica. I’ve heard and read critics complaining that Hammett relies too much on the pentatonic scale for his solos. Solos from his early career certainly do not rely on pentatonic, but as the 1990’s unfolded, the sound of Metallica evolved overall. With this evolution, solos needed to take on a new form. Through the years, I find, as with all change, there will be the complainers who only want to keep hearing the same sound. I get that and can appreciate it. There is a comfort in knowing the sound to expect from a favorite band that has been around a long time. I’m not suggesting bands who choose to maintain the same sound are bad, less talented, or less innovative. Conversely, changing or evolving your sound, for whatever reason, is not a bad thing. Both come down to a personal or group-related choice. In the wake of all the criticism over his extensive use of pentatonic riffs, Hammett explains that for him,
In an interview referring to pre-“black album” songs, Hammett explains that the music was designed for a wide variety of modal sounds. With the evolution of their sound, Hammett feels the best fit for his solo melodies is the pentatonic scale. “It’s actually harder to say stuff with pentatonic… [and] easier to play modal. I will challenge anyone on that.”
Another reason for the criticism of Hammett’s guitar playing is that he has been accused of relying too heavily on guitar effects and not putting enough focus on his actual playing. In a review of Metallica’s 1991 self-titled album, also known as “The Black Album,” music critic Steve Huey wrote, “Hammett’s solos are too often drowned in effects, which detract from their emotional impact.” Some feel that Hammett’s use of effects pedals and other electronic equipment detracts from the raw power and emotion of Metallica’s music.
I personally cannot fully agree with Steve Huey’s assessment. Not fully. Do I think he relies too heavily on effects? I can do with a little less wah. But that’s my opinion. Hammett is not going to read my article or anyone else’s and suddenly decide “I’m going to stop using the wah so much.” In an interview with Rick Beato, Hammett openly admits he LOVES the wah and uses it often even if only to apply filter in his sound. Doesn’t sound like he’s going to let up on wah any time soon.
Some of my favorite Hammett solos use little or no wah pedal. The intro and outro solos to Fade to Black always give me chills – they’re also a lot of fun to play! Other notable solos without wah are The Unforgiven, Fuel, One, Escape, Master of Puppets, Orion, Hero of the Day and more. In contrast, I have always been a big fan of his use of wah in Dyer’s Eve, a ripping solo to finish the And Justice for All album. I enjoy his use of wah in a multitude of songs from the “black album” and in later works. In the song “The House that Jack Built” his use of effects absolutely transforms the song!
Formula to Create a Guitar Solo: E=MC2… x = (-b ± √(b² – 4ac))/2a…
Additionally, some critics have argued that Hammett’s guitar solos can be formulaic and lack the creativity and originality of those of other well-known guitarists. In a review of Metallica’s 2003 album “St. Anger,” music critic William York wrote, “Hammett’s solos are uninspired and forgettable.” While Hammett is certainly a talented musician, some feel that he has not consistently pushed himself to try new things and evolve his playing style. To be honest, after listening through the “St. Anger” album, an album I just don’t listen to, I was disappointed in the lack of guitar solos. But that album needed to happen for the band AND the listeners. The album represents a pivotal space in time for the band; the exit of Jason Newsted as their bassist and James Hetfield’s battle with substance abuse. While the album didn’t do it for me, not every album from every artist or band is going to be a hit for everyone.
It’s worth noting that not everyone agrees with some of the criticisms I’ve highlighted of Hammett’s guitar playing. Many fans and fellow musicians have praised him for his contributions to Metallica and the metal genre as a whole. In an interview with Metal Injection, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine said, “Kirk Hammett is a great guitar player. I think he’s just an incredible guitar player…I thought it was honorable that Kirk took my solos and did his best to play them as I did.” As with the general public, we can expect that opinions within the metal community will also widely vary.
Ultimately, whether you enjoy Hammett’s guitar playing is a matter of personal taste. When sitting to write this article, my intention was to identify some of the arguments for and against Kirk Hammett’s guitar playing, not to try to sway the reader to one way or the other. Through the years since first discovering Metallica, I have enjoyed the guitar riffs the band, and specifically Hammett, offers. In the end, this is all about what Kirk Hammett enjoys in his guitar playing. It’s his journey, we just happen to have the benefit of reviewing 40 years’ worth of his journey at the push of a button!
Kurt Echols is an American musician and the founder and Owner/CEO of Axtreme Guitar, a thriving Boston-based enterprise known for its guitar lessons and comprehensive maintenance and repair services. Kurt’s exceptional talent as a performer captivates audiences, while his creative prowess is evident in his skillful composition of original music that deeply resonates with listeners. He actively collaborates with fellow artists, co-creating captivating musical arrangements.
Alongside his musical pursuits, Kurt is committed to fostering music appreciation among young individuals. Through Axtreme Guitar, he engages with the community by providing music appreciation programs in elementary schools, inspiring aspiring musicians and instilling a love for music. With his diverse skill set, unwavering passion, and impactful contributions, Kurt Echols continues to leave an indelible mark on the music industry, both locally in Boston and beyond. Axtreme Guitar also maintains a strong online presence with engaging content on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/axtremeguitar and at Axtreme-Guitar.com.