Kirk Hammett: the upside of covid is a half a billion new guitarists and a bright future

Kirk Hammett wearing a black shirt, looking at the floor
(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

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This interview was conducted to mark the 300th issue of Classic Rock magazine, which launched in 1998. The anniversary issue is available to purchase online, and also features interviews with Gene Simmons, Def Leppard, Alice Cooper, Geddy Lee, Justin Hawkins, Rick Nielsen, Tony Banks, Fish, Slash and many more.

To help mark Classic Rock's 300th issue, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett calls us from his car in the US en route to rehearsals with that Goliath of a band. During our talk there’s the occasional twang of a guitar he’s noodling on (we’re hoping he has a driver…). 

Turning 60 this year, Hammett’s releasing his first ever solo record, Portals, an ambitious four-track ‘audio-cinematic’ work that charts four eras of horror movies. Also, it turns out that this Hawaii resident is a regular Classic Rock reader. 

It’s surprising that Portals is your first ever solo release. Why now? 

I’m just a bit creatively restless. I had this music that was initially started for my museum exhibition [horror/sci-fi movie-art event It Lives!]. The goal was to continue writing for that, and that became two instrumentals, The Monster And The Maiden and The Jinn

I met [composer/orchestrator] Edwin Outwater when we were making [Metallica’s 2020 orchestral live album] S&M2. We connected over our love for horror movies, soundtracks and classical music. In a flash of inspiration I asked him to collaborate. And I was super-pleased with the results. 

The album draws on aspects of your musicianship that we haven’t really heard before

I’ve been playing guitar most of my life, a wide range of styles – classical, jazz, country, rockabilly, rock, blues – but people only hear the Metallica stuff. There’s a lot of guitar styles within the Metallica idiom, but when people hear this album they’re gonna hear a lot of sides of my playing they’ve never heard before, another side of my musical personality. 

What are your hopes for Portals? 

This one’s purely from the heart. It’s not made for anyone, except for the sake of creating something I hear in my head and getting it out. It’s seeing an artistic statement through, working on it, then throwing it out there and letting the fucking world decide. I don’t care, I like it.

Classic Rock launched just before Napster came along in 1999, and the music industry started to change. Metallica were one of the big names fighting against peer-to-peer file sharing, which morphed into the streaming model that prevails today. 

We warned everyone that this was gonna happen. We warned everyone that the music industry was gonna lose eighty percent of its net worth, power and influence. When these monumental shifts come you just either fucking rattle the cage and get nothing done or you move forward. 

There’s definitely a new way for getting music out there, but it isn’t as effective as the music industry pre-Napster. But we’re stuck with it. There needs to be some sort of midway point where the two come together, or another completely new model comes in. 

The new model probably works well for big bands, like yours, but for smaller artists maybe it’s more of a challenge getting heard – and getting paid? 

It is harder for these younger bands to get their music out there. I’ll tell you one thing: because of covid there’s upwards of half a billion new guitar players in the world, bro. That bodes very well for the future of music. It was inspirational for me just knowing there’s gonna be that many more musicians in the world trying to make great music. 

There’s so much disorganisation in the world right now, so much division. Music brings people together. Music organises people and their thoughts. Maybe because there’s more musicians it’ll make for a better future for everyone. I’m just being optimistic [laughs]. 

Metallica have been on Classic Rock’s cover many times. Not to put you on the spot, but do you ever read it yourself? 

Read it? I read it so much I want you to put me on subscription! A lot of times magazines are slow to get to Hawaii, especially European magazines. I’m still an obsessive reader, and I like the physicality of actual magazines still. So if you could add me to your subscriptions that would be A-okay.

Consider it done. You’ve had so much press coverage, you must have read some real nonsense about yourself? 

I don’t read articles about myself! I read about what Jeff Beck was doing in 1971 with Carmine Appice and Tim Bogert, what David Bowie was doing in 1976 in LA. I read to find out about Spooky Tooth, what was going on with Mountain when they were at Woodstock. I’m a product of the seventies. 

The foundation of all Metallica music is seventies hard rock. It stops at the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. I’m a fan of so much sixties, seventies stuff. I love reading about Tangerine Dream, Neu!. I read Prog, also. I only discovered prog about five years ago. I was never into it. I spent a lot of time listening to jazz, bossa nova, blues, classical, soul and reggae. 

So we can look forward to some country, reggae and bossa on your follow-up to Portals? 

[Laughs] Well this morning I heard John Paul Jones’s remake of When The Levee Breaks, and I was amazed how great it sounds with more musicians on it – all this percussion, this far-away harmonica. It moved me to come up with this haunted bluesy thing. But day in and day out, I’m always doing something creative. I just have lots of nervous energy. It’s weird, because I’m at a time when a lot of people are slowing down.

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.