Singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield wrote the song (credited to Hetfield/Ulrich) while he was on the phone with his then girlfriend. Since he held the phone with one hand, he plucked the four open strings of a standard E-minor chord with the other, which eventually made up the first two bars of the song. The lyrics, which talk about being "so close, no matter how far", were also dedicated to his girlfriend, indicating the bond they shared even when Hetfield was on tour. Initially, the song was not meant to be released, as Hetfield had written it for himself, but after drummer Lars Ulrich heard it, it was considered for the album.
Its intro is an E minor arpeggio beginning with the open low E followed by the open G, B and high E strings.
It is one of the few Metallica songs in which Hetfield, not Kirk Hammett, plays the guitar solo. Given that Hetfield recorded all rhythm and most harmony tracks on the band's first five albums and that Hammett has stated he didn't learn how to play the song until they were well into the tour for the album, Hammett does not play on the studio recording, making it one of two songs in the whole Metallica repertoire, along with Cliff Burton's "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth", in which he does not appear.
The music video premiered on MTV on February 26, 1992. It was directed by Adam Dubin, and edited by Sean Fullan. The clip consists of parts of the A year and a half... video tape which was shot during the recordings of Metallica. One of them shows Hetfield playing the 12 string during one of the choruses. MTV will not air the video during daytime hours anymore because it features nudity in the form of pin-up posters and Playboy centerfords that are taped up in the studio. It also has a picture of Kip Winger which Lars Ulrich is seen throwing darts at. On the band's 2006 music video compilation DVD, the posters are censored, as was done with the nudity featured in the music videos for "Turn the Page" and "Whiskey in the Jar".
The song has now become a staple in Metallica's live performances, and has been dedicated to their fans. When played live nowadays, Hammett does the first part of the intro, and Hetfield joins in for the second, to then sing and play it alone until after the first chorus, when the whole band kicks in. Also, the last verse is left out, ending the song with the heavily distorted guitar solo by Hetfield, and usually fading into "Enter Sandman". A live version on which this can be heard can be found on the CD/DVD Orgullo, Pasión y Gloria: Tres Noches en la Ciudad de México. Other live recordings can be found on Live Shit: Binge & Purge, on S&M, Cunning Stunts DVD as well as the DVD/Blu-rayThe Big 4 Live from Sofia, Bulgaria.
For its appearance on S&M, its orchestration was arranged by Michael Kamen conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. This live version is featured on the album S&M. It was also released as the single "Nothing Else Matters '99", which included the b-sides "-Human", and the S&M version of "For Whom the Bell Tolls", on November 22, 1999. This version was also played with guitars tuned to Eb.
There is also an acoustic remix of "Nothing Else Matters" that is called the "elevator version" with no electric guitars (replaced by acoustic guitars, even for the solo), Kamen's orchestrations, and Hetfield's voice only; it appears as the b-side to "Sad but True".
Marco Masini (Italian singer-songwriter) as "E Chi Se Ne Frega" (moderately vulgar Italian for "Who cares"), for the album Uscita Di Sicurezza. (Marco Masini's version only covers the music. The lyrics for "E chi se ne frega" are not the Italian translation of Metallica's song.)
Shakira covered the song for her 2010 and 2011 tour, "The Sun Comes Out", and performed it for the first time on September 15 in Montreal, where the tour kicked off.
Lissie covered the song during her Live Lounge session on the Radio 2 show 'Saturday Session' hosted by Dermot O'Leary in the UK. The song is on Disc 2 of the double CD release "Dermot O'Leary Saturday Sessions: 2CD".
The song was covered as an instrumental for the album Buddha Lounge: Renditions of Metallica - * The Black Lounge along with ten other Metallica covers.
Ed Alleyne-Johnson performed an electric violin cover on the album "Arpeggio".