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James Hetfield Rig Rundown: Guitars, Amps & Pedals

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When you think of thrash metal titans Metallica, James Hetfield‘s commanding riffs and gritty vocals immediately spring to mind.

As the band’s rhythm guitarist and co-founder, Hetfield has crafted some of the most iconic guitar tones in the genre’s history. But what gear is he actually using?

Whether you’re a die-hard fan or a guitarist seeking to emulate Hetfield’s sound, this guide offers a comprehensive look at the most frequently used gear by this legend.

Guitars Used by James Hetfield

guitars used by james hetfield

Hetfield’s choice of guitars reflects not just his personal taste but also the demands of Metallica’s music. Here’s a closer look at some of the key instruments in his arsenal and the iconic tracks or albums they’re associated with:

  • “Unforgiven” Custom Acoustic Guitar: This is a Line 6 Variax 700 Acoustic that stands out not just for its unique black top and pyrography finish but also for its role in bringing the acoustic nuances of Metallica’s softer side to the forefront, particularly in songs like “The Unforgiven II” from the “Reload” album.
  • Ken Lawrence Custom James Hetfield Signature Explorer: One of Hetfield’s most recognizable guitars, this custom-built instrument has been a mainstay in his rig, particularly noted for its use on heavier tracks across Metallica’s catalog. The Explorer’s solid body and unique design contribute to Hetfield’s signature chunky rhythm tones.
  • Fender American Vintage ’52 Telecaster Reissue: Hetfield used this guitar for the clean, twangy intro riff of “The Unforgiven II” on the “Reload” album. The Telecaster, with its ash body and maple neck, fitted with a B-Bender system, showcases Hetfield’s ability to incorporate country-inspired sounds into Metallica’s music.
  • Gibson SG Standard: A gift from producer Bob Rock, this 1963 Gibson SG has a distinctive sound that Hetfield utilized in various studio recordings. Its mahogany neck and rosewood fretboard offer a warm tone that complements Metallica’s heavier, distorted sounds.
  • Gretsch White Falcon Semi-Hollow Guitar: This semi-hollow guitar brings a different sonic texture to Hetfield’s palette, offering a richer, more resonant tone suitable for both clean and overdriven sounds, adding depth to Metallica’s arrangements.
  • ESP Explorer “EET FUK”: A custom ESP Explorer with the infamous “EET FUK” inscription, this guitar is synonymous with Metallica’s late ’80s and early ’90s era, particularly used in the recording of “…And Justice For All” and the subsequent tour. Its aggressive design and powerful sound perfectly match Hetfield’s rhythm playing style.
  • Gibson Explorer Electric Guitar: This matte black Gibson Explorer was a workhorse during the “St. Anger” sessions and tour, contributing to the raw, unpolished sound that characterizes the album. Its heavy tone and sustain were crucial in achieving the gritty, punchy guitar sounds on tracks like “Frantic.”
  • 1968 Gibson SG: Hetfield’s first guitar, purchased with his mother’s help, this instrument was pivotal in the early days of Metallica, used to write some of the band’s first songs. Its historical significance to Hetfield’s personal and professional journey is immeasurable.
  • Gibson Flying V: Known for its use during live performances of “American Idiot” and “Creeping Death,” the Gibson Flying V highlights Hetfield’s ability to seamlessly transition between rhythm and lead roles on stage, offering a sharp, cutting tone that pierces through Metallica’s live sound.
  • ESP LTD James Hetfield Signature “Iron Cross” Electric Guitar: This signature model, with its distinctive Snow White finish and custom “Iron Cross” graphic, is a testament to Hetfield’s enduring influence on guitar design. It’s been featured in various live settings, demonstrating its versatility across Metallica’s diverse discography.

Looking for other rig rundowns? Check out the gear of Alex Turner and Jamie Cook from Arctic Monkeys.

Amps

amps

Hetfield’s selection of amplifiers over the years has played a pivotal role in developing his distinct sound, from the raw aggression of Metallica’s early days to the more polished, yet equally heavy, tones of their later work.

  • Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier: This 150-Watt tube head is renowned for its high gain and versatility. Hetfield has relied on the Triple Rectifier for its thick, chunky distortion, which can be heard across a wide range of Metallica’s repertoire, particularly in the post-“Black Album” era.
  • Diezel VH4 100W Tube Guitar Head Amp: The Diezel VH4 is noted for its clarity and depth, offering a wide range of tones from clean to brutally distorted. Hetfield used this amp to achieve some of the distinctive clean tones and tight, aggressive distortions on albums like “St. Anger.”
  • Mesa/Boogie Mark IIC+ Head: A legendary amp in Metallica’s history, the Mark IIC+ contributed to the groundbreaking tones of “Master of Puppets” and “…And Justice For All.” Its tight, focused gain structure helped define the band’s sound during this era.
  • Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus: Famous for its clean, shimmering sound, the JC-120 has been a staple in Hetfield’s setup for clean tones. Its stereo chorus effect has been a key component of the clean passages in songs from the “Black Album” and beyond.
  • Marshall JMP Superlead 100 Watt: In the early ’80s, Hetfield used a modified Marshall JMP, which contributed to the raw, cutting tone of Metallica’s debut album, “Kill ‘Em All.” This amp set the stage for the band’s early sound.

Effects

james hetfield pedal effects

James Hetfield’s use of effects pedals is relatively restrained, focusing on enhancing his tone rather than radically altering it. Here are some key effects from his pedalboard:

  • Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer: Used as a boost for solos and to tighten up the amp’s distortion, the TS9 has been part of Hetfield’s rig since “Ride the Lightning,” following the theft of his ProCo Rat pedal.
  • Pro Co RAT: This pedal was crucial for the gritty, aggressive distortion on Metallica’s debut album, “Kill ‘Em All.” It helped lay the foundation for the band’s early thrash sound.
  • MXR M107 Phase 100: Hetfield has utilized the Phase 100 for adding texture and movement to clean parts, enriching the band’s sonic palette without overshadowing the guitar’s natural tone.
  • DigiTech Whammy Pitch-Shifting Pedal: Though not as frequently used as other pedals, the Whammy has allowed Hetfield to experiment with pitch shifting and harmonizing effects, adding a unique flavor to certain songs.
  • Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth XO: Although primarily a bass pedal, Hetfield has used this to add depth and a synthetic edge to some of Metallica’s more experimental sounds, showcasing his willingness to explore different sonic territories.
  • Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Pedal: The Cry Baby Wah has featured in Hetfield’s setup for adding expressiveness and dynamic range to solos and certain rhythm parts, particularly in live performances.

James Hetfield’s rig reflects a blend of traditionalism and innovation. His choice in guitars, amps, and effects showcases a commitment to achieving a signature sound that’s both versatile and unmistakably Metallica. By focusing on high-quality, high-gain amplifiers and a carefully selected array of effects, Hetfield has crafted some of the most influential guitar tones in metal music. Whether recording in the studio or performing on the world’s biggest stages, Hetfield’s gear setup is a key component of Metallica’s sonic assault.

How to Get the Hetfield Tone

how to get the hetfield tone

Achieving James Hetfield’s iconic guitar tone is a quest for many guitarists. While his setup has evolved over the years, there are fundamental elements in his rig and playing style that you can emulate to get closer to that signature sound.

Here are some tips on how to achieve the Hetfield tone:

Choose the Right Gear

  • Guitar: Start with a guitar that has a solid body and humbucking pickups. Hetfield’s preference for guitars like the ESP Explorer and Gibson Les Paul suggests that weight, sustain, and the ability to handle high gain without feedback are crucial.
  • Amps: Invest in a high-gain amplifier known for its tight distortion. Mesa/Boogie amplifiers, particularly the Triple Rectifier or the Mark IIC+, are ideal choices. If these are out of reach, look for amps that offer a “Mesa-style” gain structure.
  • Effects: Keep your effects simple but effective. A Tube Screamer or similar overdrive pedal can be used to tighten up the amp’s distortion, while a wah pedal and a phase shifter can add expression and texture to your playing.

Dial in Your Amp Settings

Hetfield’s tone is characterized by tight, aggressive distortion with a scooped midrange, pronounced low end, and sparkling highs. Start with the gain high enough to achieve a thick, saturated distortion, but not so high that you lose clarity and articulation.

Bass and treble should be boosted moderately, while the midrange can be dialed back slightly. Remember, the exact settings will depend on your specific gear and playing environment.

Focus on Your Playing Technique

  • Downpicking: Much of Hetfield’s rhythm tone comes from his aggressive downpicking technique, which provides a sharper attack and more percussive sound than alternate picking. Practice playing riffs with strict downpicking to build speed and endurance.
  • Palm Muting: Mastering palm muting is essential for getting that chunky, chugging rhythm sound Hetfield is famous for. Use the side of your picking hand to lightly dampen the strings at the bridge, varying the pressure to control the amount of muting.
  • Dynamic Control: Hetfield’s playing dynamics play a significant role in his tone. He often varies his pick attack to create contrast between softer, cleaner passages and heavier, distorted sections. Pay attention to how hard you’re hitting the strings and how it affects your tone.

Final Thoughts

James Hetfield’s guitar tone is a cornerstone of Metallica’s sound, embodying the power and aggression of heavy metal music while retaining clarity and musicality. Achieving his exact tone may require a combination of the right gear, technique, and a lot of practice.

However, even if you can’t replicate his setup note-for-note, understanding the principles behind his sound can help you develop your own unique tone.

Experiment with your gear, refine your playing techniques, and most importantly, have fun exploring the vast sonic landscape that is heavy metal guitar.