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"Music was the voice I didn't have"

James Hetfield Player Spotlight.  Base image from ErnieBall.com
James Hetfield Player Spotlight. Base image from ErnieBall.com

Out of the shadows and into the spotlight on this occasion we have a real monster player.👹 A true icon and a master of his genre; a guitar hero so cemented in the minds of the millions it’s hard to imagine a world without his musical influence.

He has nine Grammy awards to his name and he’s consistently ranked in the top 10 greatest metal guitarists of all time. He is the perfect example of an unsuspecting guitar hero, proving that you do not have to be a ‘bells & whistles’ lead guitar player to be an astronomical influence to the masses.

This is a player who focuses everything he’s got on the rhythm and drive, and most of all: the Riff! 🤟. Nothing Else Matters but the riff for Mr. James Hetfield (aka Papa Het)!

Image from RollingStone.com


The journey through the formative years of a young James Hetfield was a particularly interesting one. Significant challenges and struggles were laid down upon him and this made the boy a man and contributed to his future angst.

James was born on the 3rd August 1963 in Downey, California and has two older half-brothers on his mother's side and one younger sister Deanna. His parents were definitely two diverse characters in their professional working lives, his mother Cynthia Bassett was a light opera singer and his father Virgil Lee Hetfield was a truck driver. They unfortunately divorced in 1976. They were strict Christian Scientists, and their beliefs in their faith was so strong that even when James's mother Cynthia developed cancer she remained loyal to her faith and refused any form of medical treatment. This upbringing along with the trauma greatly impacted James and subconsciously influences his lyrics to this day along with his expressive anger through music and performance.

Because of your parents' strong Christian Science faith, did that impact in terms of the school you went to or the way you were treated as a child?

“It didn’t impact on the school. It wasn’t like going to a Catholic school. It certainly did affect me though – more than my sister and my brothers, I took it a little more personally. Our parents didn’t take us to the doctor. We were basically relying on the spiritual power of the religion to heal us or to shield us from being sick or injured. And so at school I wasn’t allowed to sit through health class, to learn about the body, to learn about illnesses and things like that. And, say, I’m trying out for the football team [and] you have to get a physical, to get a doctor’s note, I’d have to go and explain to the coach that, you know, our religion says this. So I felt really like an outcast, and, you know, kids would laugh about it. When health class would begin, I would be standing in the hallway, which was basically a form of punishment in other aspects. Everyone who walked by would look at me like I’d been some criminal of sorts, you know?”

Quote - https://www.loudersound.com/features/metallicas-james-hetfield-my-life-story

Early musical memories and experiences would see a young Hetfield begin taking piano lessons at the age of nine which he stuck to as a formality and then looked to progress onto his older brother's drums - out of curiosity of course.


It wasn’t until the age of around 14 that the prospect of the guitar dawned on him. His first guitar was something really quite spectacular on reflection, there was a guitar for sale via a local kid who was in the school jazz band... no less than a 1969 SG standard! 💥

James took great drive in obtaining the guitar and asking his mother to get it for him, he worked hard via chores and anything else he could do to earn the right to buy the instrument. 200 bucks later the SG was in the hands of Hetfield. 🤟🎸

James was an extremely shy young man and timid to the point of almost not being able to communicate or talk as you would expect, he states in many interviews that music was his form of communication and still is to this day:

"Music was the voice I didn’t have"

James Hetfield at Guitar Center

Now with guitar in hand the next focus was to join a band which he did with some guys in his year. They all got together after school and thrashed out their favourite tunes, the band was called Obsession.

Musically, Black Sabbath was a key influence and James found himself naturally drawn to more rhythm-based players, players that would drive the song with a rhythm-based riff rather than the lead guitarist with the outlandish licks and extended solos. Tony Iommi was the backbone of influence.

As guitar culture swept across the school James found that his competitive nature lead to learning new stuff on the guitar and progressing quickly. As people would compete and show off what they had learned day-in-day-out so naturally this led to flourishing progression all round.

Hetfield immersed and isolated himself in guitar and to this day still reports it as his favourite place of escapism, quoted as saying when musicians say they are “in the zone” that is what they are really referring to, being in the moment in music feeling no pain, no worries, just being locked in to a blissful place.

James Hetfield at Guitar Center


James played with a number of local cover and garage bands in his teen years. He began to start writing his own material in his sophomore year and this was the breaking point with many things  between James and his commitment to music.

One of the memorable incidents of making a stand in angst was when he went to return to playing football that year and the coach told him to cut his long hair, if the hair didn’t go he couldn’t play! … Hetfield chose his hair! 🤟🤟🤟

After leaving high school James worked at the local sticker factory and while he was performing his menial daily tasks he was daydreaming, writing riffs in his head, and contemplating the possibility of becoming a successful musician.

As an individual he began to stray from his local cover bands Obsession and Leather Charm as he wanted more and had the drive to fulfil his original material and heighten his creativity. One key fact and comment that really sticks is that James sold his 1969 SG for a PA system as a sacrifice to become a singer 🎙!

In October 1981 he answered an advert in a local Los Angeles newspaper – The Recycler. The rest is metal legend! 🤟🤟🤟

Guitar Talk with James Hetfield of Metallica


Metallica 'Master of Puppets' Live in Manchester, UK

“Metallica are one of the most important and most influential metal bands of all time, drafting the blueprint for thrash metal in their earliest days, then pushing the boundaries of mainstream metal and hard rock as they settled into their role as a popular legacy act as the decades went on. Between the meeting of raw energy and intricate speed metal compositions of their 1983 debut Kill 'Em All and the layered, radio-geared production of 1991's self-titled "black album," the band turned in classic album after classic album, each new chapter leading the development of metal on a global scale. Throughout the '90s and beyond, the group was highly active as a stadium-level touring act while sporadically releasing new music. Razor-sharp riffs, growling vocals, and high-power precision drumming remained at the core of their sound even as they explored new ideas on later albums like 2003's St. Anger or their tenth studio album, 2016's Hardwired...To Self-Destruct.”

from allmusic.com

Metallica 'Seek & Destroy' live in London


BARBARIAN PROOF STRINGS! Now this is where things get really interesting and the moment we’ve all been waiting for... the string choice of a hard-hitting metal God.

Contrary to his counterpart Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield chooses his strings for a completely different reason other than breakages due to whammy bar stability. Hetfield's string choice is both precise and intricate with his attention to detail in regards to obtaining correct pitch through heavy right hand string attack is both vital and masterful.

The main issue and point of reference is that he refers to light strings always going sharp when hit hard in a very aggressive metal style, he self-labels his own playing as barbaric and a full-on contact sport.

Papa Het's Signature Master Core Strings by Ernie Ball

"Heavy, I want heavy!"

James Hetfield via ernieball.com

It might have taken 40 years but in conjunction with the iconic Ernie Ball James has tailor-made his own custom set of guitar strings to suit his exacting requirements.

What makes this set really unique is the fact that they consist of a thicker core, this combined with the heavier balanced gauge with a .050 at the bottom really complements Hetfield’s heavy duty playing style and keeps everything in check - in regards to tuning and stability. As he says: Metallica is all about playing tight and together.

These custom created signature strings really do take things to the next level, as James states, you no longer need to worry about finesse or tuning as the stability of the strings due to the thicker core in and tried-and-tested RPS & Paradigm technology really makes these strings fit for the heaviest down picking known to man.

A real landmark set of strings tailored to an iconic frontman. 🤘

“Papa Het’s new hardwired Master Core signature string sets have been co-developed with Metallica’s James Hetfield over the past decade to best meet his demanding performance requirements. This signature set consists of James’s preferred 11-50 gauge combination using thicker Paradigm core wire and plasma enhanced nickel-plated steel wrap wire. They are ideal for James’s aggressive style and technique, offering a heavier sound with extra pitch stability. The Plain strings consist of Paradigm core wire with brass RPS reinforcement at the ball end for added strength and tuning stability. “

• Thicker sound
• Added pitch stability
• Heavier core to wrap ratio
• Never before offered gauge combination (11, 14, 18, 28, 38, 50)
• Wound strings wrapped with Paradigm plasma-enhanced nickel plated steel around ultra high strength tin plated steel hex cores

James Hetfield plays Ernie Ball RPS Slinky 10s and 11s as well his own custom gauge 'Hardwired' 11-50 set.
James Hetfield plays Ernie Ball RPS Slinky 10s and 11s as well his own custom gauge 'Hardwired' 11-50 set. Original image from Metallica.com by Brett Murray.


James Hetfield also has his own range of signature plectrums with Jim Dunlop. The original Black Fang and the more recent White Fang which is based on the FLOW pick range.

James Hetfield Signature White Fang FLOW picks from Jim Dunlop
James Hetfield Signature White Fang FLOW picks from Jim Dunlop.

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