Metallica‘s James Hetfield recently sat down with Guitar Center for a wide-ranging interview, offering fans an insight into his early years as a musician and his development as a guitarist.
Describing the effect that learning to play had on him as a young man, Hetfield recalled, “I was pretty much afraid of everything. Afraid of the world. Afraid of speaking — really, really shy kid. Music was a way to speak, simple as that. That’s me telling the world about me when I can’t do it on my own — so music was the voice I didn’t have.”
Offered a $200 guitar by a member of his school’s jazz band, Hetfield said he “begged my mom, did chores, whatever I could” to get his hands on the instrument, which set him on a path of no return. Joining a cover band called Obsession, young Hetfield started studying guitarists; unsurprisingly, he found immediate inspiration in the music of Black Sabbath.
“Black Sabbath was the band that just totally lit me up,” said Hetfield. “So heavy, so moving. I sunk right into that. I could close my eyes and be in there. . . . Obviously, Tony Iommi is a big influence on most metal guitar players, and obviously the single-note riffs, they sounded fat. When you analyze the sound, it’s not really fat sounding — it has an edge that cuts.”
That cutting edge helped define Hetfield’s sound. “I wanted to play drums on guitar, pretty much,” he explained. “I wanted a really percussive sound — one that really reacts quickly and is punchy, but if you hang on a chord, it’s gonna fill the room.”
Of course, Hetfield left Obsession fairly quickly — as he put it, “I was on a quest, I wanted to get better” — and the rest is history. “Every day we wake up, there is that reminder, again, that dude, you get to do what you wanna do: create, and it’s sustaining your family,” he marveled. “The validation you get out there is unreal. It’s like a fantasy.”