“I’ll never rest on my laurels”: the life and times of Kirk Hammett

Kirk Hammett
(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

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 ‘wah-wah 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.”

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.” 

Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.