Metallica's Kirk Hammett Talks 'Ride the Lightning,' Cliff Burton and Benefits of Taking Guitar Lessons from Joe Satriani

by Brad Angle
Posted Jun 19, 2014 at 11:14am

This is an excerpt from the August 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story, plus features on the Who's Quradophenia, Soundgarden, Jackson Guitars, David Crosby, our Summer Tour Survival Guide, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Jackson, Ibanez, Blackstar, Musicvox, EarthQuaker Devices, Electra Guitars and more, check out the August 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.

High Voltage: On the 30th anniversary of Ride the Lightning, Kirk Hammett talks about the making of Metallica’s electrifying album that changed metal and put a jolt in the band’s career.

Tucked in a nondescript industrial tract north of San Francisco near San Pablo Bay, Metallica’s headquarters is an oasis for both thrash fanatics and gear heads of every stripe. The massive studio—dubbed HQ by the band—has been Metallica’s base of operations for writing, rehearsals, demoing and all-purpose hanging since late 2001. In a rare case of reality trumping fantasy, it is a place that exceeds expectations.

We’ve been invited to HQ to talk with Kirk Hammett about the 30th anniversary of Metallica’s classic sophomore album, Ride the Lightning. Released on July 27, 1984, the album showcased their growing musical maturity and willingness to take chances.

With brazen disregard for convention, Metallica delivered the pure thrash attack for which they were known while simultaneously branching into progressive, melodic and, ultimately, more marketable territory. Ride the Lightning didn’t just change the band’s trajectory—it reset the course of metal itself.

Below is an excerpt from our interview with Hammett. For the complete conversation, plus info about Randall Amps' KH103 Hammett Signature Head, pick up the all-new August 2014 issue of Guitar World, which is available now on newsstands and at the Guitar World Online Store.

Today, Ride the Lightning ranks as a classic album in the metal genre. Looking back through the lens of the past 30 years, how has your view of the Ride the Lightning era changed?

It’s interesting. Just this morning I was telling my kids what I was going to do today. I’m like, “These people are taking a picture of me in an electric chair!” They’re both young, so of course they said, “Why?” I explained it’s because we have a song called “Ride the Lightning” and that’s another way of saying, “You’re getting electrocuted in an electric chair!” Then I had to play them the song and sing them the lyrics. They’re sitting there looking at me, like, Wow. [laughs]

So I’m sitting with them, listening to that “Ride the Lightning” guitar solo, and I was like, I have absolutely no recollection of putting all those harmonies on there! [laughs] When we were putting that song together, we had the intro riff, the verse, the chorus, and a part of the instrumental bridge. When the whole thing slows down and there’s that solo section, I remember I pretty much played that solo as it is off the bat.

When I recorded that in 1984, I was 21 years old. That’s crazy. In 1984, a guitar solo like that was something. If you put it into context of what was going on back then, it was very modern sounding. Of course, if you put it into today’s context, it sounds like classic rock. [laughs] It’s not like today’s norm, with sweeping arpeggios and 32nd notes everywhere. I also have to say that when I listened to it this morning, I realized that the actual sound of the album is still good. After all these f---ing years, it still holds up sonically.

Did you guys do a lot of writing in Denmark? Or did you have most of the tracks finalized before you arrived?

I remember “Fight Fire with Fire” and “Fade to Black” were finished in the basement of a friend’s house in Old Bridge, New Jersey. I think it was this guy called Metal Joe [Chimienti]. Before we went to Europe to tour and eventually record in Denmark, we stopped on the East Coast to play some shows. We knew we needed to finish some of these songs.

We had most of “Fade to Black,” except the end part were the solo happens, and I came up with that there. I remember we were writing “Trapped Under Ice” there too. We were using that fast Exodus riff, and James came up with the chorus and I added that whole middle instrumental part. Ride the Lightning was written in a few places: the house in El Cerrito, New Jersey, Copenhagen, and down in L.A. before James and Lars moved up to San Francisco.

Were you writing the stuff in El Cerrito around the same time you were taking lessons from Joe Satriani?

Yeah, absolutely.

Do you remember any specific techniques that he showed you that ended up on Ride the Lightning?

All the stuff I learned from Joe impacted my playing a lot on Ride the Lightning. He taught me stuff like figuring out what scale was most appropriate for what chord progressions. We were doing all sorts of crazy things, like modes, three-octave major and minor scales, three-octave modes, major, minor and diminished arpeggios, and tons of exercises.

He taught me how to pick the notes I wanted for guitar solos as opposed to just going for a scale that covered it all. He taught me how to hone in on certain sounds and when to go major or minor. He also helped me map out that whole chromatic-arpeggio thing and taught me the importance of positioning and minimizing finger movement. That was a really important lesson.

You guys made a pretty serious jump in songwriting and style between Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightning. Lars has said that Cliff Burton was an important force in pushing Metallica in this new progressive direction. What was your experience like working with Cliff during this time?

Cliff was a total anomaly. To this day, I’m still trying to figure out everything I experienced with him. He was a bass player and played like a bassist. But, f---ing hell, a lot of guitar sounds came out of it. He wrote a lot of guitar-centric runs. He always carried around a small acoustic guitar that was down tuned.

I remember one time I picked it up and was like, “What is this thing even tuned to, like C?” He explained that he liked it like that because he could really bend the strings. He would always come up with harmonies on that acoustic guitar. I would be sitting there playing my guitar and he’d pick up his bass and immediately start playing a harmony part. And he would also sing harmonies. I remember the Eagles would come on the radio and he would sing all the harmony parts, never the root.

Photo: Jimmy Hubbard

For the rest of this story, plus features on the Who's Quradophenia, Soundgarden, Jackson Guitars, David Crosby, our Summer Tour Survival Guide, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Jackson, Ibanez, Blackstar, Musicvox, EarthQuaker Devices, Electra Guitars and more, check out the August 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.

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