10 Greatest METALLICA Guitar Solos

December 1, 2022, a month ago

By Tim Coffman

feature heavy metal riff notes metallica

10 Greatest METALLICA Guitar Solos

Every single great Metallica song always comes back to the guitar. With ten albums under their belt and a new one on the way next year, you were never going to find a song where James Hetfield decided to break out his piano skills or anything like that. James may be the riffmaster, but what really makes the songs come alive are what Kirk Hammett is doing behind the fretboard. Compared to the dozens of metal guitarists that came before him, Kirk had his own voice, whether that meant interpreting Dave Mustaine’s parts in the beginning of bringing his own spice to the song. 

Throughout the band’s glory years, Kirk’s playing was what drove the song into a different dimension, before getting a lot more tasty licks in the ‘90s when the Black Album rolled around. Contrary to his metal credentials, Kirk was a much more bluesy player than what people give him credit for, being just as much a fan of people like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix as much as metal icons like Uli Jon Roth and Michael Schenker. Throughout Metallica’s catalog, there are solos that are freakouts, solos that are tasty, and solos that combine both of them at the best of times. Kirk may be one of the more reserved members of the band, but you don’t need to talk when you have licks like this.

“One” - …And Justice For All

Everyone in Metallica was fairly lost when cutting most of …And Justice For All. With Cliff Burton gone and new guy Jason Newsted operating in the band now, this whole record almost feels like a transition towards where Metallica were going to go next, trying to be the ultimate statement of their thrash days and almost sounding closer to prog metal in some places based on how many parts are in these songs. They hadn’t forgotten how to write ballads though, and “One” is basically everything that you’re looking for in a Kirk Hammett solo. Despite having virtually no low end for a majority of this record, half of the reason why the solo works so well is how much emotion Kirk’s able to get out of his six string, completely understanding the assignment of a man that’s trapped inside his own mind and wanting some way to be let out. 

Although the opening solos sound completely raw and haunting, the entire song practically lives and dies on that outro, with James’ machine gun riffs giving way to Kirk’s tapped solo, almost giving someone like Eddie Van Halen a run for his money in writing something lyrical while tapping. This isn’t just mindless shredding either, especially towards the end of his solo where he brings back the blues licks, making for one of the most satisfying musical moments in Metallica’s history where he locks in with James and Lars on those musical stabs towards the end of the solo. James Hetfield’s harmonized solo might take us off until the end of the song, but when you’ve already heard Kirk’s performance, any other guitarist is going to be competing for second place.  

“The Unforgiven” - Metallica

When talking about recording for Metallica (aka The Black Album), Kirk had mentioned that it was the easiest album for him to play because of how much the songs would be screaming for certain types of solos. He did have to deal with Bob Rock though, and the producer’s need for perfection in every single part ended up driving the band up the wall more than a few times, having them play in a room and punching the same song over and over until they got that one magical take. And Kirk had just the thing for the solo to “The Unforgiven,” only to be told that everyone absolutely hated it. When the band started tracking it in the studio, Bob notoriously got really fed up with Kirk trying to just use the solo as an excuse to show off, not thinking that the whole thing was coming together. 

After getting him riled up so much, Kirk got to the point where he got so furious that he just shredded a random solo to vent his anger. That ended up being the keeper though, and what we have here is actually some of the most emotional playing that Kirk had ever performed, having that bluesy edge that so many of his other solos had but with an extra layer of attitude this time around, even putting a lot more emphasis into those subtle arpeggios that happen around the end of the solo. Everyone in Metallica had a certain ax to grind when cutting this record, but in terms of Kirk’s job, all you have to do is just piss him off to actually bring out the demon hiding inside him.

“Fade To Black” - Ride The Lightning 

There’s a certain school of thrash metal fans that could claim that the beginning of Metallica’s bad habits started with “Fade To Black.” Despite its reputation as one of the band’s greatest ballads, there are just as many detractors saying that this was the start of the band delving into more easy listening territory, not wanting them to stray away from the traditional thrash that they got up to on their debut. In terms of the soloing though, there has probably never been another piece that has sounded as pretty as Kirk does on this song. While there’s still plenty of distortion in his tone here, the actual phrases that he’s playing feel like they’re a lot more indebted to what James would play on his type of solos, almost trying to use his guitar as a voice before James starts singing. 

Once the song gets started though, Kirk almost seems to be serving the song until the final breakdown section, where the protagonist realizes that his choice to live again is too late and he is going to be condemned to death by his own hand. While there are a few licks carried over from the first solo here, it’s all about context this time around, and you can feel Kirk’s playing get more and more frantic as the track plays on, going into these different triplet rhythms that almost feel like the lifeforce being stripped away from the guy as he passes over into the next plane of existence. While the attitude of the solo grows more and more chaotic, there are even a handful of phrases that Kirk had never tried before, almost taking cues from funk with some of the lines towards the start of the fade. There might not be much hope left for the lyrics of this song, but this kind of solo makes it feel like things might not be all bad. 

“Master Of Puppets” - Master Of Puppets

Right…and you thought that we wouldn’t have any more love for what is arguably the best Metallica record? Even though Ride the Lightning gave us the classic Metallica that we know, Master of Puppets gave us everything that thrash metal stood for under one roof, mixing the typical ballads with some of the most ferocious riffs that James Hetfield would ever write. If you needed to distill the band’s power down to one song, it would probably be the title track. Before you even get to the solo, Kirk is a machine keeping up with James Hetfield, having the same kind of intensity in his down picking that would leave most of us clutching our forearms in agony trying to play. There is definitely love for both solos here though, kicking things off with James’ gorgeous layered harmony parts in the melodic breakdown section, which sound like the euphoria that comes with a drug high before coming back down to Earth and realizing what a horrible mistake you’ve made. 

Once Kirk kicks into the main solo though, that’s when the real intensity ramps up, putting just as much venom into his licks as James put into the main riffs, including one moment where he pulls on his whammy bar to make the guitar sound like it’s crying out for help. There are even a handful of notes that didn’t even survive into the final mix, with Kirk mentioning that during one of his phrases one of the lines he was trying to do got screwed up by him pulling the string off of the fretboard. Any other band would tell him to do it over again, but this might be one of the few times where the mistake is actually an improvement, adding just another layer of insanity to the track.  

“Ride The Lightning” - Ride The Lightning

If Kill ‘Em All was the album that made Metallica the forerunners of the thrash metal world, Ride the Lightning was where they started going outside of the genre altogether. Even though a handful of these cuts make for some of the most straightforward thrash in the book like ‘Fight Fire With Fire,’ there were just as many left turns that left us shell shocked when we first heard them like “The Call of Ktulu.” And while the title track definitely falls into the more straightforward metal territory, Kirk’s solo might be one of the first moments that he really integrated himself into the band. Considering the amount of writers on this song, this could be the ultimate Metallica track, featuring contributions from almost every member, including Dave Mustaine for one of the main riffs. 

Although Kirk remained the one guy not given a writer’s credit, the solo that he turns in here really makes the entire song, sounding absolutely frantic going across the strings and really enhancing the power behind the tune. Since the entire story revolves around a man that is wrongfully accused and sentenced to death by electrocution, the solo might as well be the man’s final thoughts as his brain is getting fried, as the descending patterns symbolize the guy’s life flashing before his eyes right before he goes under. Metallica’s debut may have been the thrash metal that their native San Francisco was raised on, but this one song was a statement of intent from the band. We’re going to go into some darker territory…so you’d better be strapped in.

 

“The Four Horsemen” - Kill ‘Em All

Jumping into Metallica on day 1 for Kirk couldn’t have been an easy task. Here was one of the legends of his local scene that had asked him to come into audition, and suddenly he had to play better than what guitar god Dave Mustaine had to offer. Though the majority of Kill ‘Em All tends to give more credit to Mustaine for writing the licks, “The Four Horsemen” is where Kirk really gets to shine for the first time. Being the first real epic that Metallica would ever commit to tape, this is basically a crash course in every single lick that Kirk had on the backburner before he even joined the band, playing his ass off in every section of the song, from the groovy as hell main riffs to eventually turning things way down on the middle section and giving us the first glimpse of the bluesy sounds that he would only enhance further on the next handful of albums. 

There are even a few licks that almost seem too chaotic for their own good, like starting one of the solos off by going up the strings that makes it sound like you’re being thrown into the depths of Hell by one of the horsemen. Then again, Kirk doesn’t necessarily look back on this as his best performance by any stretch, saying that he wished he could have played some of the solos a little better but couldn’t because of time constraints while recording. There might be a few buzzed notes in there, but this is the perfect blend of thrash’s intensity mixed with the no frills attitude of punk rock. 

“Fuel” - Reload

Most of the mainline Metallica fans tend to act like the Load era of the band just didn’t exist. Despite having a handful of decent songs, the amount of GQ-ified looks and the fact that they dared cut their hair left fans not wanting anything to do with the thrash titans anymore. For a brief moment at the start of Reload though, it felt like that old magic was coming back. While “Fuel” might be the closest to a thrash classic to come from this era of the band, the solo on this song is one of a kind from Kirk, making something that’s a lot more lyrical than anything he had done before. Kirk had been listening to a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Thin Lizzy around this time, and you can really hear it in the solo he turns in here, having just as many tasty blues licks but never letting up on the speedy portions. 

Since the song is literally about fast cars, the entire solo feels like it gives you the sensation of an actual gear shift, as if you were going for a ride in the first section before hitting another level of speed once the guitar comes in. After years of trying to cram as many notes in as possible though, this solo doesn’t overstay its welcome, doing exactly what it’s supposed to do and then flaming out towards the end to make room for the final verse and chorus of the song. Given the subject matter though, it’s probably better just to go as hard as possible and then get out while the listener is still on the edge of their seat. 

“To Live Is To Die” - …And Justice For All

When talking about the best moments of Kirk Hammett, some people are a little too quick to turn to the memes. Although the man has delivered some of the most lyrical solos in the world of metal, his overreliance on blues licks and his borderline obsessive relationship with his wah wah pedal has led to countless guitarists ragging on him for being a one trick pony. Then again, who says that Kirk is the only one allowed to do a solo? After losing Cliff Burton during a tragic bus accident during the Puppets tour, “To Live is To Die” is the band’s solemn tribute to their fallen friend, making an instrumental that almost serves as a means to process the grief that they were all feeling at the time. 

When it came time to play the solo during the mid-section of the song though, James actually takes the reins here, making something that’s much slower that what Kirk would have thought of and adding in different harmonies here and there to give it an added texture. While this is definitely not up to the Kerry King standard of blistering leads, there’s also accounting for taste here, and James approaches these leads almost like he would if he were singing, holding out notes for just the right amount of time to make the solo sound almost operatic, just like the old classical compositions that Cliff loved to listen to in his downtime. No amount of grieving in song is going to be able to bring Cliff back, so the least they could do is make an epic like this that their fallen friend might be proud of. 

“Spit Out The Bone” - Hardwired…To Self-Destruct

Most of the newer Metallica records don’t really need to prove anything to us anymore. While Death Magnetic at least got the band back to sounding like themselves after St. Anger, the majority of that album was just a reminder that they could play pure thrash metal and not went too far away from the formula. There was always room for improvement though, and “Spit Out The Bone” gave us the best solo that we had gotten from Kirk since the glory days of The Black Album. Since the entire song is centered around different forces of technology taking over the world, the solo follows suit as well, with the different sweeps almost sounding like the cries of a machine malfunctioning. 

Although the majority of this song tends to feel like a well-oiled metal monster storming across the land, the second solo towards the end of the song almost tells the storytelling better than James Hetfield is doing, sounding like that humanistic side of the band trying to fight against the machines in the lyrics trying to overthrow everything.  If the entire song is sequenced like an 8 minute long action movie, this would be the final battle, where the humans are going up against different robots and duking it out in song before James comes roaring back in to deliver that final crushing blow. Some of the commentary here might ring a little too true these days, but nothing can replace the more authentic side of Kirk that you hear on this song. 

“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” - Master Of Puppets

Ballads tend to be a bit of a naughty word in the world of thrash metal. Even though bands like Megadeth and Slayer have been known to tone down the speed of their songs, launching into full slow territory and a bunch of clean guitars feels like the antithesis of what thrash was about in the first place. Metallica were never ones to go with the pack though, and “Welcome Home” is the kind of song that packs the same punch even with the slower groove. While the visuals of someone being trapped inside a mental asylum is already a sobering listen, the real emotion from this song comes from Kirk’s lead breaks throughout the song, drenching everything in melancholy, almost like you’re trapped in this guy’s mind as he’s crying to himself, knowing that he’ll never find a way out unless he turns to drastic measures. 

By the time that the song reaches its climax though, we see the different side of Kirk emerge as well, going from some of the most emotionally gripping parts of his work to a place of extreme anger, like you’re watching that same man from before suddenly snap and lash out. Even when he harmonizes with James on the final solo, you can see that bluesy part of his sound coming out, managing to cross Jimi Hendrix leads with the sounds of Scorpions. The ballad might be hard to manage in thrash, but this has the same darkness that you’d find in anything off of Kill ‘Em All.

(Top photo by Steve Rose)



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