Ranked 11th in Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, Kirk Hammett has achieved legendary status. As guitarist for the world’s biggest metal band Metallica, Hammett is an unassuming and humble individual as Joe Matera found out when he sat down with Kirk for a chat for Australian Musician.
Arriving in Melbourne recently as part of the group’s current world tour, it marked three months since Metallica were last on stage anywhere and six years since their last Australian tour. Seated in his dressing room backstage at Rod Laver Arena for this interview, Hammett was quietly spoken and polite, a total contrast to the public persona he wears as one of metal’s six string masters. Having just released the Australia/New Zealand themed EP Six Feet Down Under, I asked Hammett whether the group makes a conscious effort to record all their live shows.
“For the last ten years or so we have been recording all of our shows,” Hammett affirmed. “But this EP was kind of comped together from a lot of different recordings. Some come from bootleg recordings that were traded on the circuits and some were recordings that are from a taping section where we’d invite people to come to the show and tape it, some of those tracks are culled from those particular recordings, and then some of it is also stuff that we had in our own recording archive.”
Having been on the road for over eighteen months thus far, Hammett keeps to a daily ritual of performing fingering exercises to keep his guitar playing chops in top shape while being on tour.
“I do a lot of exercises, especially chromatic exercises,” he says. “I also do chord type exercises, as well as run-through scales. I have a bunch of my own exercises that I made up that I use a lot too. Lately though, I have also been trying to concentrate on certain parts of my style that needs work on, things that I never really paid attention to. Just little subtle things that I just feel I need to work on and improve.”
Hammett believes that in recent years his playing technique has undergone a renaissance of sorts largely due to having changed his choice and style of guitar pick and strings.
“I now use a small jazz pick,” he reveals. “I changed it about a year and a half ago and it has totally changed my playing. That has made a big difference and that is probably the biggest change that I have made along with the strings. I realised that over the last couple of years or so, playing 0.11s [string gauge] have been really hard on my hands. And it started to cause tendon problems in my hand. I had a trigger finger with this finger (points to left hand ring finger) which is not a really good condition to have for a guitar player. And that screwed me up for about six months. I had to sleep with a splint on the finger and also had to put all sorts of muscle lotions on it. We had a ten week break from touring and I pretty much didn’t play for the whole period so that my hand could heal. So now, I am back to playing 0.10s.”
Hammett has also noticed quite a considerable change in his guitar tone as a result of the drop in string gauge. “It doesn’t really sound the same now,” he affirms. “The sound isn’t as good as it was when I was playing with 0.11s. But you can actually compensate with some EQ and get the sound that I was getting with my 0.11s. Strangely enough, I didn’t know that was even possible. But now that I am back to playing with just .10s, my hands really love it. I can play longer and my muscle stamina is better and at the end of the show, it doesn’t feel like my finger or my hand is going to fall apart. That was a major revelation for me.”
Whether on tour or in the studio Hammett believes his ESP Signature Kirk Hammett guitars, is another vital factor to his signature tone. “Well to start with the neck-through body is really important,” he says, “because having a neck-through body guitar adds more mass and more sustain, I believe. The EMG pickups are also an important part of that too. Instead of having two volume and two tone knobs, for me it’s more important to have just two volume and one tone knob. The Floyd Rose is also an integral element even though I am not so great in using the whammy bar. But having it there just in case is great. For me, I have an easy criteria I adhere to when it comes to guitars; it has to look good, it has to sound good and it has to play good. And that was my whole intention with ESP guitars. I told them if they could just make guitars that look good, sound good and play good, then I am happy.”
And finally the last elements in his sound chain are his amplifiers, especially when it comes to the live environment. “If you expect to get the same sound live that you got on record, then you’re in for a long ride” he says. “What James and I try to do is that we just try to get as close as possible and just work with that. And then it is a refining thing from there on. On the course of a tour we may just try and refine it and get it as close to where we think it should be. Live, I do amp blending but it is never more than two amps, I just blend my Mesa/Boogie with my Randall basically. That is basically how I get my sound.”
With our interview coming to an end, I ask Hammett one final question, a question that most fans are curious to ask. Has the songwriting process for the next Metallica studio album begun? “No,” he replies before adding, ”But we do have riffs here and there but there are no complete songs as yet. But we all have tons of music that is just lying around, in fact all of us do. That is the great thing about Metallica, there is never any shortage of ideas. I think on the next Metallica album though, I am going to be playing with a lot more melody. More melody than I have been playing in the past ten years or so.