Metallica are the biggest metal band on the planet, which means that more people have listened to Kirk Hammett play than other guitarist from the genre. Since jumping ship from thrash pioneers Exodus back in the early 80s – taking the riff for future classic Creeping Death with him – he’s helped shape Metallica’s sound for more than 40 years. When new metal guitarists break through, you can guarantee Kirk was an influence without needing to ask. These 10 classic Hammett solos prove why.
10. Seek and Destroy
All Hammett’s solos are structured into distinct phrases which answer each other musically. That’s most obvious here, when the sections are broken up by bouts of riffing. Right from the beginning there was more method than madness, and Kirk’s balance of composition and spontaneity gave his solos huge appeal. In keeping with Kill ‘Em All’s aesthetic, many of the licks here are classic metal ideas, just delivered harder and faster.
9. Eye of the Beholder
When he joined Metallica, Kirk was taking lessons from the legendary Joe Satriani, a man who knows a thing or two about guitar melodies. The initial break on this …And Justice For All cornerstone shows Kirk had been paying attention, as he develops a simple theme into a masterful lead break. He then comes back for a second bite, this time supplying eerie lines that raise the technical bar without compromising the melody.
8. The Unforgiven
Having made his name soloing at frenetic tempos, Kirk took the chance on the black album to show what he could do over a grinding, Sabbathy metal groove. Always more of a blues player than most of his peers, here Kirk sounds like a jet-fuelled Jimmy Page. Where early Kirk sounded like a teenage joyrider speeding through a city, here he sounds like Godzilla eating one.
7. Creeping Death
Kirk had obviously been listening to Swedish shred pioneer Yngwie Malmsteen when he came up with this (in his defence, a lot of guitarists thought this was acceptable in 1984). But where Yngwie couldn’t write a song if his Ferrari collection depended on it, Kirk was armed with a fistful of instant metal classics. His pyrotechnic solo puts this one over the top.
6. Wherever I May Roam
One of Kirk’s most important contributions is popularising phrygian scales in metal. They were more associated with flamenco than thrash before Kirk spotted their metallic potential. Wherever I May Roam is a prime example of Kirk exploiting exotic sounds for his own twisted ends.
How do you produce a solo intense enough to match these riffs? With omnipresent wah and this perfectly-judged freakout. This break is relentless without being monotonous, with Kirk’s wild string bending breaking up the shred barrage. The second half is more melodic, a euphoric release from the preceding chaos. No guitarist can deliver a shot of adrenalin like Kirk.
4. Fade to Black
For the epic outro to this, Kirk shows a brilliant awareness of how to build excitement. His entrance is restrained, a melodic theme that builds anticipation for the fireworks to come. He pays homage to the 70s masters of the outro solo, channelling first UFO’s Michael Schenker and then Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham.
3. Master of Puppets
Amid the talk of his fast playing, Kirk’s melodic phrasing is consistently undervalued. The gorgeous break at 4:11 makes everything sound even more brutal when the band starts breathing fire again. The shred blitz that follows is among Kirk’s best executed. The 80s weren’t exactly short on whammy bar action, but the spectacular harmonic at 5:50 is as good as it ever got.
2. Enter Sandman
More people have air guitared to Enter Sandman than any other Kirk classic, and this is clearly a solo that was written to be played in stadiums. Hammett peels off a sequence of infectious phrases that are as memorable as the song’s chorus. This was a new side to Kirk: the solo you could sing. If George Harrison had played metal, he’d have done it like this.
The solos over the clean sections early on are moments of beauty amidst unrelenting bleakness. When Kirk unleashes at 5:46, it’s catharsis for all the trauma up to that point, a virtuoso primal scream. Guitarists consistently vote this Kirk’s best solo, but it appeals far beyond guitar nerds. One made Metallica MTV stars in no small part because of the raw fury of its guitar climax. When Kirk and Lars sync up for the stabs at the end, fist pumping is compulsory.