“A life lived unexplored is a life not worth living,” says Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist and songwriter of rock band Metallica. Hammett describes himself as being obsessive, curious, smelly, ugly, happy, and progressive. It seems to be the combination of his curiosity and progressive traits that has advanced him down the road of super stardom to the success he has enjoyed in his music career. Learning everything he can about the guitar and forever educating himself on new styles is Hammett’s answer to the issue of burnout that so many musicians face. Even after successful tours, albums and Grammy awards that he won playing with Metallica, he was humble enough to study guitar at City College of San Francisco. Hammett’s humility and dedication to ever improving his skills earned him a slot as number 11 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He approaches other aspects of his life with the same curiosity and slightly subdued enthusiasm.
Kirk Hammett was born in San Francisco, California in 1962. His father was a merchant seaman and his mother was Filipino, which accounts for Hammett’s the long, flowing black locks. Hammett spent his childhood in El Sobrante and first became interested in music by listening to his brother Rick’s record collection. His first concert ever was Day on the Green, which featured the Eagles, Steve Miller, Heart and Foreigner. When he was 15, Hammett began his guitar endeavors modestly with his first guitar from a Montgomery Ward catalog. For an amp, he used a shoebox with a four-inch speaker. His early musical influences included Jimi Hendrix, UFO, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Joe Satriani, Warren Haynes, Adrian Belew, Freddy King and Buddy Guy.
It wasn’t long before Hammett felt the need to upgrade in order to keep improving. His next guitar was a Fender Stratocaster. Ever curious, Hammett was always searching for his own unique sound and developed the “Frankenstein” technique using different pick up and amp combinations. Finally, Hammett discovered his guitar soul mate when he started playing a 1974 Gibson flying V. This guitar is still a part of his collection and has been featured on numerous Metallica albums. In order to make enough money to buy his musical toys, Hammett worked at Burger King and as a dishwasher while he developed his guitar skills.
In 1980 Hammett co-founded his first band, Exodus with vocalist Paul Baloff. Exodus was known as a thrash-metal band and toured all around the Bay area. The rest of the band’s lineup included Gary Holt on guitar, Geoff Andrews on bass and Tom Hunting playing the drums. Exodus opened for two Metallica shows before Hammett ever considered joining up with the group. However, just after the second time that Exodus opened the show for Metallica, the band decided to fire their guitarist, Dave Mustaine. Hammett had to scrape together the money to fly to New York from his native California to join up with the band. Metallica never officially asked Kirk if he wanted to be a permanent member of the band. They just kept playing together for more and more engagements. Finally, when they were through recording the Kill ‘Em All album, Kirk felt sure that he must be an official member. Even though he was now a part of a legitimate hard rock band, Hammett was still working to improve his guitar skills. He followed in the footsteps of many other guitar greats and took lessons from Joe Satriani. From Satriani he learned about techniques and the intricacies of jazz, blues, and classical styles.
Hammett’s influence in Metallica helped create a more melodic and controlled sound for the band. His main role with the group is lead guitarist, but he has also written riffs for Metallica songs since he joined with the band. He composed a riff that is used in Metallica’s biggest hit, “Enter Sandman” when he was in a hotel room at 3:15 in the morning. “Enter Sandman” was the first single off of Metallica’s self-titled album, also known as the Black album. “Enter Sandman” was hugely successful and contributed to the album selling 15 million copies, which makes it the 25th highest selling album ever in the United States. In addition, “Enter Sandman” has now been ranked 399th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It has become such a part of American pop culture that you can hear it played at sporting events and gatherings of all kinds. Musical groups of all kinds from marching bands to dance combos love its familiar intro and stirring rhythm.
After the Black album tour ended in 1993, Hammett had reached a whole new level of success with his music, but he never lost his desire to learn and improve himself. He returned to San Francisco to study guitar at the local City College. Even though he was an accomplished rock star, he still had the humility to admit that he didn’t know everything. He gives his time and study at City College the credit for his much improved guitar sounds on Metallica’s Load and Re-Load albums. Hammett has drawn criticism for using the wah-wah pedal too much in his solos. To his would-be critics Hammett simply replied, “They’ll have to cut off my leg if they want me to stop using the wah-wah pedal.” Despite his critics, in a 1998 issue of Guitar Legends: The Top 100 Guitar solos, Kirk is credited with 3 songs on the list: “One” (No. 7), “Fade To Black? (No. 24), and “Master of Puppets” (No. 51).
Kirk Hammett and Metallica drew attention in 2000 when they filed a class action lawsuit against Napster, an internet music sharing site. They claimed that the site was sharing material that had been copyrighted without the consent of the band members. Metallica got a lot of slack from many fans that enjoyed the ability to get music for free on Napster. In the end, Metallica won the suit and Napster is now a pay-to-use service.
To date, Hammett’s commitment to constantly educating himself and improving his guitar skills has brought him huge success with Metallica. They have released eight studio albums, two live albums, two Eps, nine videos and recently recorded their ninth studio album, Death Magnetic. Metallica has been one of the few widely known and commercially popular heavy metal bands. They have sold over 95 million records and won seven Grammy awards. Four Metallica albums have reached number one on the Billboard 200.
As for his personal life, Hammett’s curious and progressive ways seem to permeate his lifestyle. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Lani, son Angel Ray Keala, and dog Darla. He is not a big sports fan and claims to support whatever team his band mates don’t like. He does enjoy surfing in his spare time, and listening to music by U2, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, John Coltrane, Prez Prado, Alice in Chains, David Bowie, King Crimson, Robert Johnson, Radio Head, Government Mule, and Deep Purple. Hammett is well known for being a vegetarian of the lacto-ovo variety and his favorite types of food are sushi, Mexican food, pasta, Thai food and Indian food. His favorite drink is a martini made with Skyy vodka and green tea. Other, more interesting hobbies include collecting horror movie memorabilia and taxidermy. Hammett displays a stuffed two-headed sheep and a monkey at his home. He also sports various body piercings and a couple tattoos including one on his stomach that says, “Made in SF 11-18-62”.
From his meager beginnings to monster success to his quirky lifestyle, Kirk Hammett has always remained humble about his music. He realizes that there is always room for improvement and more that he can learn about guitar. Several biographies of Hammett reveal that he plays guitar at least 361 days out of the year. One can only imagine what is going on during those four days when he is not playing, and how he possibly makes it through the day without picking up his guitar. His constant devotion to his craft, humble attitude and curiosity have worked together to provide great guitar success for Kirk Hammett.