Celebrating James Hetfield’s Riffs on His 60th Birthday


When you think about metal’s riff masters, who do you have in your Mount Rushmore? Tony Iommi, Dave Mustaine, Jeff Hanneman, K.K. Downing… all masters in their own right. But for my money, one dude sits at the head of the table. In fact, he might even be the table.

Dollar for dollar, pound for pound, Metallica frontman James Hetfield and his right hand has produced some of the most memorable riffs in metal. Given the fact that today’s his 60th birthday, I figured it would be great to take a look at some of the cooler riffs he’s done from each major album (and one EP).

Whether you agree with these choices or not — and some of them are definitely not the most obvious choice — let us know in the comments which songs you think had the best James Hetfield riffs.

“Motorbreath” – Kill ‘Em All

Kill ‘Em All has some certifiable early thrash metal bangers. But only one track is completely attributed to Hetfield — “Motorbreath.” Coming in as the shortest song on the record, “Motorhead” is a no bullshit thrash track that just goes. That galloping opening riff immediately serves as foreshadowing for the rest of things to come.

“Fight Fire With Fire” – Ride The Lightning

As the opening track for Ride The Lightning, “Fight Fire With Fire” is a nuclear blast of riffage that tells the listener to hold onto their ass, because the rest of the album’s going to rip you a new one. And for a song about the threat of nuclear warfare, which was absolutely a constant fear back in 1984, the guitar work on this track really works to embody the frantic nature of global thermonuclear destruction.

“Disposable Heroes” – Master of Puppets

Could I have chosen the title track for this entry? Sure. In fact, I’m sure a lot of this record could have made this list. But for my money, “Disposable Heroes” heavily features James’ heavy right hand. And while the opening riff is sick, it’s the rapid-fire riffs that make up the verse sections that really stand out.

“The Shortest Straw” – …And Justice For All

As the band’s first album after the passing of beloved bass player Cliff Burton, as well as the introduction of Jason Newsted into the fold, …And Justice For All is Metallica at their angriest. Rather than stick to the thrash formula that led to them opening arenas for the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, they went down a more progressive route. And as a result, James’ writing got more intense.

“The Shortest Straw” has an undeniable groove that maintains the aggression displayed throughout the rest of the album. There are chugging rhythm sections and meandering little licks all over the place on this one that manage to keep the listener on their toes.

“Holier Than Thou” – Metallica

Let’s just address the elephant in the room — “Enter Sandman” has a boring riff. Sure, it’s iconic but how many fucking times am I going to hear it before I die?! When it comes to their most commercially successful release, the stand out on their self-titled album is none other than “Holier Than Thou.”

From the start, the song is big and menacing. Perfect for the massive arena tours they were now booking all around the world. Then, it transitions to a groove-filled riff that maintains the rest of the song to great effect.

“King Nothing” – Load

Though Metallica came out in ’91, the real 90s era for the band is exemplified by Load and ReLoad. This era, in my mind, is all about the slower, bluesier sound that they started messing with around that time. Eschewing the fast and chunky parts of their early discography, Metallica in the 90s became a lumbering, plodding beast and the riffs reflected that. “King Nothing” is the perfect example of that, as the riff has a certain sway that sounds like a big ol’ pair of truck nuts swaying behind a big ass Ford F-350.

“Prince Charming” – ReLoad

If Load and “King Nothing” were massive truck nuts, then ReLoad and the track I’m highlighting — “Prince Charming” — is that same truck being driven by a dude who’s been daydrinking. During this period of Metallica’s career, they were experimenting with more rock and blues elements, rather than their usual metal style.

From the start, “Prince Charming” doesn’t feel like the Metallica you’d expect at all. The opening lick sounds like it’s supposed to play just before a bar fight kicks off. The verse riff drives the song forward in an I-Roc Z with T-Tops. It’s just more big ballsy riffs from a Metallica that effectively felt like throwing the middle finger to its old style for something new.

“- Human” – S&M

Though technically not an original album release, since it’s just Metallica playing their classics with an orchestra behind them, the band did write two original songs for S&M. And while I absolutely love “No Leaf Clover,” it’s the other, less talked about track “- Human” or “Minus Human” that really gets my pick.

You may not remember this one, but it’s tuned LOW. This is a heavy, crushing riff that once again feels like a plodding behemoth of a beast. In some ways, I get a “The Thing That Should Not Be” vibe from this one. But even then, “- Human” feels slower and more methodical, whereas “The Thing That Should Not Be” feels dangerous and slightly off kilter, which makes sense since it’s about Cthulhu.

“Frantic” – St. Anger

I gotta be honest with ya. This album is fucking devoid of any memorable riffs. This was Metallica trying to fit into the nu-metal crowd by tuning down to Drop C or lower and venting their trauma in front of the world. But still, I remember hearing this track for the first time and digging James’ guitar work. But then I heard the “tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick” part and I died a little inside.

We can move on from this one…

“All Nightmare Long” – Death Magnetic

If any of you fuckers don’t recognize “All Nightmare Long” as an absolute banger, you’re simply wrong. Death Magnetic was touted by the band as their return to form. After the dismal reviews they got for St. Anger, I guess they decided 2008 was the perfect time to try to get back in touch with the genre that brought you to the dance in the first place.

Heavy and chunky at parts, this song features a rapid fire riff throughout that just kicks all kinds of ass. But what really stands out to me is the section at around six minutes in the clip below, right after the solo. Just riding that open E string for a while before getting a bit of a discordant chord run. And then the sick part where they pull everything out and silence. Fucking goosebumps, man. Then they fly right back into the track and I’m throwing the horns as hard as I possibly can.

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

There’s just too much to talk about when it comes to “Spit Out The Bone.” If Death Magnetic was supposed to be Metallica’s return to form, Hardwired was supposed to be that return realized. Unfortunately it was a janky release with some songs that could have been cut for a leaner release (something modern Metallica has trouble with, truth be told).

Still, I’ll never forget the first time I heard the absolute riff showcase that is “Spit Out The Bone.” It’s seven minutes of pure thrash metal goodness. So many different riffs are featured in this monster track about the eventual AI uprising that’ll kill us all. Seriously, don’t go past this entry. Just listen to the track and you’ll get why I chose it. I’ll wait.

“Inamorata” – 72 Seasons

And now we’re at this year’s 72 Seasons. Largely considered by myself as a damn good record, the one track that truly stands out to me in terms of riffs is none other than “Inamorata.” Sure, it’s 12 minutes long, but if you wanted to hear Metallica write a Black Sabbath song, this is it. From the very get go, this track sounds like James just wanted to be Tony Iommi for a while.

As I said in my review, this track in particular has an “overarching sense of gloominess and at times a touch of swagger and grit from their Load and ReLoad days.” The opening sounds doomy as hell and while the chilled out section at about the five minute mark is a great bit of reprieve, it’s the slow build up to the absolutely sick harmonizing riffs that ties that whole section together. From top to bottom, this song rules.

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