Master Of Metal

Metallica's James Hetfield made his name as a guitarist, but he likes to slow down with great cigars
| By David Savona | From Metallica's James Hetfield, March/April 2023
Master Of Metal
Portraits/Jim Wright

The lights go dark, and more than 70,000 fans begin to shout, roar, clap and chant, eager for the start of the show. An electric guitar blares from a battery of speakers, and James Hetfield bends towards the microphone like a lion eyeing his prey. “We are Metallica!” he bellows, pointing to the far reaches of the crowd. “And so are you!” He attacks the strings of his Electra Flying V guitar, hands moving at scorching speed as the singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist leads his band in a high-energy set that will last nearly two hours. The heavy metal music fires up the crowd with songs that will ring in their ears long after the encore.

Hetfield has been invigorating people with his music for more than 40 years. Metallica has sold more than 120 million albums, far more than any other metal band and outselling such names as Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac. They’ve performed all over the world, with a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first band to play a concert on all seven continents. They once performed before more than one million people during a Moscow music festival, and the most popular video on the band’s YouTube channel has been viewed 1.2 billion times. Their last studio album charted at No. 1 in 32 countries. They have won nine Grammy awards, own a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and boast Billboard No. 1 hits in four different decades. Metallica’s new album, called 72 Seasons, drops on April 14.

James Hetfield
Metallica in action in Chicago last year. From left, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo.

The lightning-fast music, originally considered too fringe for radio or MTV, is now firmly embedded in mainstream culture. “Enter Sandman” pumped up Yankee Stadium whenever Mariano Rivera came out to finish a game, “Master of Puppets” was played during the 2022 finale of “Stranger Things” (pushing the song to No. 1 on Apple’s iTunes) and the band has appeared on “Billions,” “The Simpsons” and a host of other television shows. One of the biggest names in pop music—a person that few would ever guess to be a Metallica fan—recently lauded their music.

“This is one of the best songs ever written, to me, it’s a song that never gets old,” said Elton John on a 2022 episode of “The Howard Stern Show,” speaking of the Metallica power ballad “Nothing Else Matters,” written by Hetfield. “The chord structure, the melodies, the time changes,” gushed Sir Elton, “their songs aren’t just heavy metal, they’re beautiful songs.”

That beauty was born out of pain. “I was a shy kid, very introverted, difficult upbringing, very religious,” says Hetfield, sitting on a couch at Metallica’s headquarters outside of San Francisco on a chilly November morning. He patiently toasts the foot of a Blackened Cigars “M81” by Drew Estate Corona, rotating it under the flame of his torch. He blows on the foot to check the burn, then takes several hearty puffs, the smoke from the maduro curling up around his trademark horseshoe mustache. He’s 59, looking every inch the rock star in a black T-shirt, jeans and boots, a silver skull ring on one finger. He’s tall and lean, his hair close-cropped and gray.

“My dad left at 13, my mom passed away at 16,” he says, his voice powerful and resonant, a voice that regularly speaks to thousands. “Music was my savior. It spoke to me, it was my friend. It was there for me.”

Music found Hetfield early. His half-brother David, 10 years older, was a drummer in a band that played in the family garage in Downey, California, part of Los Angeles county. “I fell in love with the atmosphere, the smell, the noise,” Hetfield says. “They were just hanging out together, creating music, I was like how do you guys do this? It was so cool. There were musical instruments in the house, all the time. My mom was very creative. She was a graphic designer, and artist, a painter. There was a piano, there was a guitar, there were a few other things. I just loved hitting and making noise, and I was just banging on the piano, trying to do what my brother does on the drums.”

“I feel so comfortable up there, it’s so weird. sitting down one-on-one with someone is a lot more anxiety ridden than standing up in front of 10,000 people, 20,000 people,” said Hetfield.

Hetfield’s mom sent young James to take piano lessons when he was eight. “I’d rather be out playing football, but I would go there and learn some pretty mundane songs,” he chuckles. But the lessons paid off. He learned how to work his hands independently of one another and how to sing while playing an instrument. “I learned right and left hand, so kind of splitting the brain.” But his heart just wasn’t into piano. “I realized you can’t look cool running around on stage with a piano. So I picked up the guitar.” After the music lessons, playing guitar followed naturally. “I knew the voicings, I knew how harmonies worked, so singing and playing kind of came easy,” he says. “Learning how to play guitar was a gift from God. There’s no doubt about that. Saved my life.”

God was both friend and enemy to young James Hetfield. His parents were Christian Scientists. Their doctrine—that faith, not medicine, would heal a body—confused him and made him feel like an outcast. “I never went to the doctor as a kid. Never got vaccines, never got any of that stuff as a kid. I didn’t learn about the body—that I didn’t understand. They didn’t want me in health class, which was odd. It’s like, well, how am I supposed to take care of my body?” His parents’ views made him “a very alienated, isolated kid ‘cause of this religion.” When health class commenced, he had to stand in the hallway. When he wanted to play football he couldn’t get a physical. Anger built in the young man, anger that only grew when his father left home when James was 13. He was further scarred when his mother died of cancer three years later, after refusing medical treatment. At age 16 he moved in with his half-brother David, and dove into music even more.

“I gravitated towards the heavier stuff in my brother’s record collection. Black Sabbath stuff, even Jethro Tull, kind of heavy for me back then. And then I discovered Aerosmith and some of the more American stuff that was somewhat raw and heavy.” He jammed with friends, forming a couple of small bands that played parties, but his world changed forever when a friend brought him along to answer an ad in a Los Angeles paper reading “drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with,” placed by Lars Ulrich. That was October 1981.

“When I met Lars that was the big deal,” says Hetfield. They were both 18, but otherwise opposites, Hetfield tall and Ulrich short, Hetfield from a modest background and Ulrich the son of an affluent family from Denmark. Hetfield marveled at how Ulrich could spend lavishly on music. “He had an immense record collection. I would spend days at his house just listening, listening, listening. Him and I connected and we did love the same kind of music and it just grew from there.”

The two founded Metallica in 1981, with Hetfield on rhythm guitar and singing, Ulrich pounding the drums. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett joined in 1983. Bassist Robert Trujillo has been with the band for 20 years.

The plan was simple. “I wanted to play music that I liked. I wasn’t hearing music that I liked on the radio,” says Hetfield. Metallica’s first gig paid all of $16 (for the entire band) but people started to listen. They moved from glitzy L.A. to more down-and-dirty San Francisco, recording a demo in 1982 and their first album in 1983. Metallica played hard and heavy, a speedy version of metal that was dubbed thrash metal. “I remember some of the early days where we got thrown out of clubs ’cause they thought we were a punk band,” Hetfield says. Speed is a Hetfield signature. When he plays he tends to downpick, strumming in one direction—repeatedly descending on the strings. At high speed, it’s tougher to maintain compared with the more efficient alternate-picking technique. But it achieves a much heavier sound.

James Hetfield
The Metallica jam room, where the band rehearses and records, is the heart of Metallica HQ. Flags from fans decorate the walls and ceiling.

But speed was always another objective. “The boiling rebel in us made our music go faster and faster. We wanted people to pay attention,” he says. The guitar master actually equates his rapid-fire style with another instrument. “I basically play drums on the guitar. I still do love playing fast, it does come easy for me.”

Few things that the band did in its early days would hint at future success: Metallica songs were too fast and raw for radio, not to mention extremely long (many early ones are eight minutes or longer). Metallica even bridled against the typical appearance of many bands of the time. Shunning the gaudy clothing and teased hair that defined the glam metal genre, they preferred to play in T-shirts and jeans. “If you came here to see spandex and makeup and hairspray and all this crap—this ain’t the band!” a youthful Hetfield once shouted from the stage. Hetfield and company were determined to do things their way, rather than the way the industry wanted it done. “We’re still, to this day, making the kind of music we want to hear.”

The band’s chosen direction—a combination of ferocity and melody—also struck a chord with audiences who began filling venues to see them live. Recording success came slower, but their third album—1986’s Master of Puppets—achieved Gold Record status, eclipsing a half million copies sold. But it was the 1991 release of Metallica (known as the black album) that took the band from big to immense, selling more than 30 million copies. It remains one of the 20 most-popular albums of all time, having outsold Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Today, the band is a force of nature. Concert tickets sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars each and new releases quickly move to the top of the charts.

Critical recognition has accompanied the musician’s popularity. “Hetfield is the gold standard,” wrote Jonathan Horsely for Guitar World magazine when readers voted him the No. 2 rhythm guitarist of all time in 2022. “None have eclipsed him.” Guitar Player magazine wrote: “Hetfield’s right-hand precision, speed, and power would set a standard that all aspiring metal rhythm guys would struggle to match.”

Despite the accolades, Hetfield has self-doubts and an unexpected humility. “I know individually we’re all really average players,” he says, “but when you put us together something happens. Something really happens.” His doubt kicks into overdrive when playing with other musicians. “Getting up and jamming with people is like a nightmare for me.” An example came at Metallica’s 2009 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, when he and the band were joined onstage by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck (who died in January), Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. “I felt so inadequate. And it’s a head game for me. I’m a perfectionist. And kind of a people pleaser. Most musicians are insecure.”

Metallica, a band once considered fringe, was embraced by the music industry with its 2009 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. From left, Trujillo, Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and former bassist Jason Newsted.

Some of that insecurity comes from Hetfield’s upbringing. Both of Hetfield’s parents died from cancer, both avoided medical treatment due to their religious beliefs. “They did not want medical help. And they were cancers that could have been easily put into remission or remedied. But it’s their choice. And I respect that. But as a kid it was tough.” He channeled the pain into music. The 1996 song “Until It Sleeps” has haunting lyrics that describe a person’s struggles with inescapable agony. “Where do I take this pain of mine?/I run but it stays right by my side./So tear me open, pour me out,/there’s things inside that scream and shout./And the pain still hates me,/so hold me until it sleeps.”

Metallica’s songs begin with the music and the words come later. “The riff is the foundation, the core of the song,” says Hetfield. “To me, the vocals are like another percussive instrument.” His words can be quite heavy, soul searching. “Never free, never me, so I dub thee unforgiven,” he sings in “The Unforgiven.” His commentary about religion can be scathing: “Broken is the promise, betrayal,/the healing hand held back by the deepened nail./Follow the God that failed.”

The powerful words are agents of healing. “It is so cathartic, it is so therapeutic,” he says, a smile spreading across his face. Now he finds solace in the words and expressing what’s inside, “writing down my hugest fears, secrets, crazy thoughts, putting them into lyrics and the whole world is reading them. A lot of the world.” His social comfort level has come a long way since he was 18. “Early shows were really difficult—I was so shy. Didn’t want to talk. I’d have the other guys in the band introduce the songs,” he says. Now, he’s incredibly at ease on stage, more at ease there than in a private conversation. “I feel so comfortable up there, it’s so weird. Sitting down one-on-one with someone is a lot more anxiety ridden than standing up in front of 10,000 people, 20,000 people.

“There’s nothing that makes me feel more connected than writing music, performing it live, people joining in with you on it. And seeing people’s faces change and the smiles and the joy that it brings people? There’s no greater feeling. I haven’t found it yet.” He pauses, takes a puff. “No matter what cigar I’m smoking,” he adds with a hearty laugh.

Hetfield has been a cigar smoker for years; he tried them as a younger man, but became heavily interested in them in the late 1990s. “I first got introduced with some lighter ones. Then there was La Glorias, and then the Fuentes instantly became my favorite . . . And I don’t know if other people can relate, but some of the first ones that you like, it’s hard to move off of them. It’s like your first style of music or something—you just like it. It relates to you, it talks to you.”

Today, Hetfield is channeling his love of cigars in his own line, Blackened Cigars “M81” by Drew Estate. Made entirely from maduro leaves, it’s rolled in Nicaragua by the maker of Liga Privada and Herrera Esteli. Nearly two years in the making, the cigars debuted in December 2022 after a preview at the Big Smoke. Jonathan Drew of Drew Estate sent samples which Hetfield reviewed with notes to direct the taste of the end product.

Hetfield's Blackened Cigars “M81” by Drew Estate have been met with much fanfare since their release.

Rob Dietrich, the distiller of Blackened American Whiskey (which is also made in conjunction with Metallica, the booze bombarded by heavy metal songs as it ages) is a friend of Hetfield, and suggested the cigar team-up with Drew Estate. “We connected on cigars. Couldn’t really connect on the whiskey part,” says Hetfield, who no longer drinks after an earlier career that included many of the excesses associated with rock bands. Dietrich is one of Hetfield’s regular cigar buddies. “We smoke a few of our favorites together and he just brought up the idea—what if we did a cigar?”

When asked if the corona that he is smoking represents his preferred size, Hetfield says, “Well, for breakfast.” He smokes a few most days. “I love a fat one, if I have the buddies over for cigar fellowship on an afternoon. But I do prefer the smaller ones.” Kirk Hammett, his fellow guitarist, also enjoys cigars, along with some of the Metallica crew. “Sometimes they’ll just keep an ashtray going for me.” Hetfield used to forgo cigars before a show to save his voice, but that changed after a backstage visit at a Billy Joel concert. “He was smoking a cigar backstage. I said oh, this is OK. This is doable. His voice doesn’t suck.”

Hetfield likes to puff cigars often. “I get it, there are some rules that make some sense, don’t smoke in a gas station, when you’re filling up that plane,” he says. “But what’s the big deal in other places?” He turned an unneeded den in his Colorado home into a cigar lounge, which he uses frequently. (He also turned a spare bedroom into a music room.) Hetfield has a group of eight to 10 cigar buddies who come over to his house every Thursday for a smoking session, and he passed out early samples of the new cigar to that group at one of the gatherings. Because he and his friends found the test smoke a little too strong, he asked Drew to tone it down. The final product is more medium in body, flavorful without being overly spicy or overwhelming.

Hetfield is cognizant of the current rash of celebrity branding with sometimes tenuous connection to the products being offered and he emphasizes that he’s directly involved in the cigars. “It is important for me to say to the consumer that we’re not just slapping our name on shit,” he says. “We’re involved in it big time.”

At Metallica headquarters in San Rafael, about an hour outside of San Francisco, there’s a small couch off the kitchen on the ground floor with a wooden table, on it a small humidor, several cutters and lighters. A pinball machine is in one corner, records, concert posters and eclectic art cover the walls. The band acquired this space, an old recording studio, some 20 years ago, and today it serves as offices, recording studio and man cave.

The jam room where Metallica records is a big space filled with amplifiers and guitars. Colorful flags and banners hang from the ceiling and the walls, gifts from the audience thrown onstage during concerts that are lovingly hung to show the global reach of the band. They are from South Korea, New York, Serbia, Nicaragua, Canada, Germany, just about everywhere. Metallica has played in a staggering number of places, but one venue sets them apart. In 2013, an ice cutter took the band down to Carlini Station, Antarctica, to make history as the first band to play on all of earth’s continents. However, concessions were necessary to protect the fragile ecosystem from heavy metal thunder. “It was a silent gig, like a silent rave, everyone had headphones on,” says Hetfield with that mischievous smile. “Didn’t want to cause any more glaciers falling.”

James Hetfield
Hetfield in the jam room at the famous Metallica HQ outside San Francisco with a Balckened "M81" smoke hanging from his mouth.

In April, Hetfield and Metallica will hit the road again, embarking on a tour that will span 12 countries to support the new album, 72 Seasons. Rehearsals for the project began during Covid, via Zoom. The April 14 release is happening later than planned, and the desire to provide fans with a retro listening option and the logistical problems that go with it are to blame. It seems that not even a heavy metal hero is immune to supply-chain holdups.

“It’s the vinyl,” Hetfield says. Metallica’s fans love old-school vinyl releases, and the band delivers. “Our albums, we put out with thick, wide grooves; it’s always a double album so it sounds the best as possible. A lot of our fans are vinyl freaks. Especially in Europe. So it doesn’t make sense to put the album out when the vinyl isn’t ready,” he says. “You’re pressing up a million copies, and they can only press so many a day.”

The band’s touring schedule is not as aggressive as in the earlier days. “As we get older, we would love to continue to play all the places we’ve been before but it’s near impossible to keep up the pace we’ve had, say, in the ’90s. We would go out for months at a time,” he says. “We are very self-critical and hard on ourselves and have very high standards. So we do take care of all aspects of bringing the best show visually and sonically to the people that enjoy our music and continue to come to see us live. The live performance is where we see and feel the most connected to our audience. So we respect and care for the live performance as much as we do the songwriting.”

The name of the first teased track “Lux Æterna” (Latin for eternal light) suggests, perhaps, a more hopeful feel than previous Metallica works. And Hetfield himself seems to have found another family in the fans with whom he has formed a kinship over the past 41 years. “There are people who have [attended] 200-plus shows,” he says, after taking another puff of his cigar. “It’s a joy to see those familiar faces. It makes us feel at home kind of anywhere, really. They are dedicated—there is a family out there. And it feels good.” 

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