Learn to play guitar like James Hetfield in five minutes

Metallica’s king of riffs and rhythm has inspired countless players, here’s how to nail his crushing technique.

James Hetfield of Metallica

James Hetfield of Metallica. Image: Ross Marino / Getty Images

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If you haven’t warmed up your picking hand, go and do it now because today we’re looking at the style of Metallica’s James Hetfield, and his right hand takes no prisoners!

Hetfield is known for his ferocious rhythm chops and his ability to down-pick relentlessly at positively inhuman speeds. It’s a huge part of what made Metallica one of the biggest bands of all time, so let’s see if we can get to grips with the basics of his style.

Machine gun bursts

Five Minutes To James Hetfield

This is an up-tempo riff at a pretty speedy 174bpm. For the most part, you’re playing eight notes, from the slide power chord to the open palm mutes, but check out what goes on over beat 3 – speedy burst of four 16th note open strings. At this tempo, these short bursts have a machine gun like quality.

Chromatic movements

Five Minutes To James Hetfield

Bumping up the tempo to 190bpm, this is a prime example of an early 80s Hetfield riff that would be all down picked using chromatic movements against a repeated note phrase. Start off slow and build up picking hand stamina slowly. If you down pick every note, it gives the riff more drive and attack.

Fast thrash riff

Five Minutes To James Hetfield

Back when Metallica were basically a thrash metal band you’d see an abundance of riffs like this. The open strings are alternate picked 16th notes at 160bpm and are framed by power chords at either end.

Clean picking in 3/4

Five Minutes To James Hetfield

While they’re considered metal at their core, Metallica aren’t a band to shy away from some moody clean passages. This clean picked part in 3/4 uses some repeated droning notes against a root note that shifts each bar.

About the Author

Leigh Fuge is a guitar teacher and professional musician from Swansea in the UK. He has taught hundreds of students face to face and via the MGR Music platform. He has over 10 years’ experience working in the industry as a touring musician, session guitarist and teacher.

For more lessons from your favourite guitar players, click here.


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