James Hetfield

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James Hetfield
James Hetfield 2017.jpg
Hetfield performing with Metallica in 2017
Background information
Birth nameJames Alan Hetfield
Born (1963-08-03) August 3, 1963 (age 59)
Downey, California, U.S.
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • Vocals
  • guitar
Years active1978–present
Member ofMetallica
Formerly of

James Alan Hetfield (born August 3, 1963) is an American musician. He is the lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, co-founder and a main songwriter of heavy metal band Metallica. He is mainly known for his intricate rhythm playing, but occasionally performs lead guitar duties and solos, both live and in the studio. Hetfield co-founded Metallica in October 1981 after answering an advertisement by drummer Lars Ulrich in the Los Angeles newspaper The Recycler. Metallica has won nine Grammy Awards and released ten studio albums, three live albums, four extended plays and 24 singles. Hetfield is often regarded as one of the greatest heavy metal rhythm guitar players of all time.[2]

In 2009, Hetfield was ranked at No. 8 in Joel McIver's book The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists[3] and No. 24 by Hit Parader on their list of the 100 Greatest Metal Vocalists of All Time.[4] In Guitar World's poll, Hetfield was placed as the 19th greatest guitarist of all time,[5] as well as being placed second (along with Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett) in The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists poll of the same magazine.[6] Rolling Stone placed him as the 87th-greatest guitarist of all time.[7]

Early life

Hetfield was born on August 3, 1963,[8] in Downey, California, the son of Cynthia Bassett (née Nourse), a light opera singer, and Virgil Lee Hetfield, a truck driver.[9] He is of English, German, Irish, and Scottish descent.[10][11] He has two older half-brothers from his mother's first marriage and one younger sister. His parents divorced in 1976 when Hetfield was 13. They were very strict Christian Scientists, and in accordance with their beliefs, they strongly disapproved of medicine or any other medical treatment and remained loyal to their faith, even as Cynthia was dying from cancer. This upbringing became the inspiration for many of Hetfield's lyrics during his career with Metallica, most notably in the songs "Dyers Eve" and "The God That Failed" from ...And Justice for All and Metallica respectively. Cynthia died of cancer in February 1980, when Hetfield was 16 years old. After the death of his mother, Hetfield went to live with his older half-brother David. Virgil died in late 1996, during Metallica's Load tour.[12] Hetfield attended Downey High School for his freshman and sophomore years[13] and graduated from Brea Olinda High School in 1981.

Hetfield was nine years old when he first began piano lessons, after which he took on his half-brother David's drums and finally, at the age of 14, he began to play guitar with Robert Okner.[14] He was also in a few bands as a teenager – one being Leather Charm, and another, Obsession. Hetfield identifies Aerosmith as having been his main musical influence as a child,[15] and has said they were the reason he wanted to play guitar.


Hetfield in 2008

In the early days of the band, Metallica experimented with a few different vocal and guitar combinations, essentially creating a setup similar to that of British metal band Diamond Head, another major influence on Hetfield. Some of the options considered included adding another guitar player, having John Roads play lead guitar, as well as asking John Bush from Armored Saint (who later joined Anthrax) to sing for the band. The finalized line-up of the band became Hetfield (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), Lars Ulrich (drums), Dave Mustaine (lead guitar), and Ron McGovney (bass), who was soon replaced by Cliff Burton. Hetfield referred to their early sound as power metal. The term "thrash metal" was first used when Kerrang journalist Malcolm Dome described the Anthrax song "Metal Thrashing Mad" in an issue of Kerrang in February 1984.[16]

From 1982 to 1983, Mustaine's overly aggressive behavior and drinking problems led to mounting tensions between himself and Hetfield.[17] Mustaine also once poured beer onto McGovney's bass,[17] nearly causing serious damage. On April 1, 1983, the band recruited lead guitarist Kirk Hammett from the band Exodus, and 10 days later, Hetfield and Ulrich officially fired Mustaine from the band due to his erratic indifference.[17][18] Mustaine was sent home on a four-day bus journey from New York to Los Angeles, and went on to form the heavy metal band Megadeth.

Since the recording of Load, Hammett has been recording rhythm guitars as well. Hetfield occasionally plays guitar solos on songs such as "Nothing Else Matters", "My Friend of Misery", "Just a Bullet Away", the outro solo on "The Outlaw Torn", the second solo on "To Live Is to Die", the first solo on "Suicide and Redemption", the first interlude solo on "Master of Puppets", and the harmonized solo on "Orion". He also writes the majority of the guitar harmonies, as well as writing the lyrics, vocal melodies, and co-arranging the songs with Ulrich.

Hetfield has been involved in a number of onstage accidents, most notable for being an incident with pyrotechnics at Olympic Stadium in Montreal during the Guns N' Roses/Metallica Stadium Tour on August 8, 1992. Hetfield was the victim of a pyrotechnics accident during the song "Fade to Black", in which a pyrotechnic charge reacted. Hetfield's guitar protected him from the full force of the blast; however, the reaction struck his left side, burning his hand, arm, eyebrows, face and hair. He suffered second and third-degree burns, but was back on stage 17 days later, although his guitar duties were delegated to former guitar tech and Metal Church guitarist John Marshall for four weeks while he made a full recovery.[19]

Hetfield also suffered a broken arm a number of times while skateboarding, which prevented him from playing guitar on stage, and subsequently caused Hetfield's management company, Q Prime, to put a clause in Hetfield's contract forbidding him to ride a skateboard while Metallica was touring.[20] During a live performance on tour for Metallica, Hetfield experienced complications with his vocals after performing a cover of the Anti-Nowhere League song "So What?", forcing him to take vocal lessons for the first time. He did basic warm-up exercises to piano keys with his vocal coach, who also gave him a cassette tape of the piano warm-up for future use. Hetfield still uses the same cassette he was given in the early 1990s to this day before any live performance or any recording Metallica does. Hetfield talks about his vocal training endeavors in the Metallica documentary film, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, produced and directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.[21]

During the recording of the band's eighth studio album St. Anger in 2001, Hetfield went into rehab to address his alcohol usage. He rejoined the band after seven months in rehab and four months recovering with his family. His health problems are featured in Some Kind of Monster.[21] Some Kind of Monster also shows the making of the St. Anger album, and documents the various conflicts and issues the band were facing at the time including the departure of Jason Newsted, alcoholism, family commitments, and the future of the band.

Hetfield and Metallica addressed their need for a new bassist by recruiting Robert Trujillo, who formerly served under the wing of Ozzy Osbourne. Osbourne recruited Jason Newsted shortly after Trujillo's transfer. The new line-up has continued to make music and tour worldwide. Metallica's ninth studio album, Death Magnetic, was released on September 12, 2008. Like St. Anger and every album of original material released by Metallica since 1991's Metallica, Death Magnetic went to #1 on the Billboard charts in over 30 countries during its first week of release.[22]

On April 4, 2009, Hetfield, along with remaining Metallica members Ulrich, Hammett, Trujillo, as well as former bassist Newsted, and the deceased Cliff Burton (who was represented by his father), were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[23] In an interview after their nomination, Hetfield commented that everyone who had appeared on an album with the band would be inducted. This excluded original guitarist Dave Mustaine and original bassist Ron McGovney, as both had appeared only on the band's early demo tapes. Hetfield and the rest of Metallica, including Newsted, performed "Master of Puppets" and "Enter Sandman" to end the ceremony.

Playing style

Hetfield has been called "The King of Downpicking" for his right-hand picking speed by Annihilator guitarist Jeff Waters.[24] He has explained he holds the pick with his thumb, index and middle fingers, rather than just the thumb and index, citing additional stability he gains by it.[25]

Personal life

Hetfield backstage at the Big Day Out 2004

Hetfield married Francesca Tomasi on August 17, 1997, and together they have three children. He currently resides in Vail, Colorado, citing a "multitude of reasons" for moving there, including it being his wife's childhood hometown, the natural beauty, and the quiet environment.[26] During an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Hetfield stated that his wife had helped him to mature and learn to deal with his anger issues more constructively, explaining that after they met, his destructive tendencies embarrassed both of them.[27] Hetfield filed for divorce in August 2022 citing irreconcilable differences.[28]

Hetfield's son Castor is also a musician, playing for the Savannah, Georgia-based band Bastardane as their drummer.[29]

Hetfield has long struggled with addiction problems. In 2001, he entered a rehab program (documented in the film Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), and began maintaining total abstinence from alcohol. In a 2010 interview with So What!, the official magazine of Metallica's fan club, Hetfield stated that he is a "reborn straight edge".[30] However, in 2019, Hetfield once again entered rehab, forcing Metallica to cancel their Australia/New Zealand leg of the WorldWired Tour.[31] Hetfield made his first public appearance since leaving rehab at the Petersen Automotive Museum reception on January 30, 2020.[32]

Hetfield enjoys a variety of activities, most notably hunting; farming and beekeeping; customizing cars and motorcycles in his garage; watching the Las Vegas Raiders, the San Francisco Giants, and the San Jose Sharks; and going to hot rod shows.[33] He put his 1968 Chevrolet Camaro up for sale on eBay, with the proceeds going to a Music for Schools program.[34] The car was used in the video for "I Disappear" and was given to him as a gift upon the video's completion. "Slowburn", his 1936 Auburn boat tail speedster, won the 2010 Goodguys West Coast Custom of the Year.

Hetfield has a number of tattoos, including one which shows flames encasing four playing cards – ace (1), 9, 6, and 3 – representing the year of his birth, and the words "Carpe Diem" ("seize the day"). The flames on the tattoo are in reference to the pyrotechnic accident which he suffered in 1992 during a concert in Montreal.[35] He has tattooed an "M" and "81" on his right hand for "Metallica" and the year Metallica was founded, 1981, and an "F" on his left hand for "Francesca". He also has some Christian tattoos, including crosses and one of Jesus on his right arm. He has a tattoo of two razors forming the straight edge X symbol on his left wrist.[30]

The first single Hetfield ever bought was "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd.[36] He was featured in a documentary called Absent, directed by Justin Hunt, which takes a look at the effects of absent fathers on their children and the "father wound" that they leave behind.[37][38][39]

Hetfield has expressed his disdain for politics and celebrities who "soapbox their opinions", stating that "for us, people are people – you should all have your own opinion".[40] In 2007, Metallica performed at London's Live Earth concert. When Hetfield was asked for his thoughts on climate change, he responded by saying:

I really avoided the press around the Live Earth day. I didn't quite agree with what was going on there. Politics drive me crazy, and I don't like talking politics. Politics get in the way of things; they get in the way of getting things done, and getting our music across is what we wanna do – we don't wanna cloud it with Democrat, Republican, whatever. Our philosophy is 'think for yourself' at the end of the day – do what you think feels right. I really believe that humans will survive. I have a lot of faith in mankind that we will overcome and adapt – whatever it is; whether it's man-made or God-made, or Earth/Mother Nature – we have a lot of smart people on this planet that will make something good out of bad.[41]

In 2008, he made comments which were perceived as endorsing the use of his music at Guantánamo Bay to torture prisoners.[42][43] British band Chumbawamba subsequently released a song called "Torturing James Hetfield" as a direct response.[44]



Hetfield has been a major endorser of ESP Guitars since the 1980s, and is best known for playing custom-made Explorer-style guitars with an EMG 81/EMG 60 set for pickups and since then he has his own signature EMG JH pickups.[45] Hetfield's main guitar from the early days was a Flying V copy made in Japan by Electra, which was modified with a Seymour Duncan Invader (SH-8) pickup and used almost exclusively until 1984 when he switched to the Gibson Explorer model.

During the mid-1990s, ESP produced the first of his signature model guitars. To date, Hetfield has had six signature guitars with the company. However, Hetfield often uses guitars from Gibson and other companies instead of ESP despite his endorsement.

Some of Hetfield's guitars over the years have included:

Date purchased Guitar & "motto" Note Ref(s)
Unknown Gibson SG Standard (1969 model) Hetfield purchased the guitar from a mutual member of the schools jazz band. [46]
1980 Electra Flying V Purchased for $200 in 1980 and used on Kill 'Em All. Broke in 1984 and restored in 2008. [46]
1984 Gibson Explorer – "So What" First used on Ride the Lightning. Also restored in 2008 for the Death Magnetic album. [46]
1984 Gibson Explorer – "More Beer" Hetfield's back-up guitar from 1984 to 1988. [46]
1985 Jackson King V Custom – "Kill Bon Jovi" Used during the recording of Master of Puppets and sporadically during the Damage, Inc. Tour in 1986/87. [46]
1987 ESP MX220 – "Eet Fuk" Hetfield's first ESP and used during the And Justice For All period. [46]
1987 ESP MX220 – "So Fucking What" As with his Gibson Explorer – "More Beer", this was Hetfield's back-up to the ESP MX220 – "Eet Fuk" model. [46]
1988 ESP MX220 – "Fuk Em Up" Hetfield purchased his 3rd ESP in 1988 and while identical to his previous two guitars, this model was all black. [46]
Unknown ESP Explorer Double Neck Hetfield used this guitar during live performances of Fade to Black and can be seen during the music video for the song. [46]
Unknown Gibson EDS-1275 Double Neck Seen during the music video for Nothing Else Matters. Like a stock guitar. [46]
Unknown Danelectro/Coral Electric Sitar Hetfield used this during the recording of Wherever I May Roam from the Black Album. [46]
1996 ESP MX250 – "Elk Skull" Used during the Load period as one of his main live guitars and was painted by artist Dino Muradian. [46]
1996 Ken Lawrence Explorer Custom-made by Ken Lawrence, Hetfield is known to have more than one including a double-neck model. [46]
1996 ESP Flying V JH-1 Designed and built by Matt Masciandaro, Hetfield had two of these guitars. One had red flames, the other one had green. [46]
1996 ESP JH-2 Essentially a port over from his previous guitars, Hetfield's again had two different versions. [46]
1996 Fender Telecaster '52 Reissue with B-Bender A mid 1990s reissue of the 1952 Fender Telecaster, this guitar was used to record the intro on "The Unforgiven II". [46]
1998 ESP Eclipse Custom/JH-3 With artwork designed by Hetfield, all the hardware is gold-plated and the guitar is still used live occasionally. [46]
Unknown 1963 Gibson SG/Les Paul Standard A gift from Bob Rock, Hetfield used this guitar in the "Turn the Page" music video. [46]
2003 Gibson Explorer – "Rusty" This guitar was used during the St. Anger era, both in the studio as well as on tour. [46]
Unknown Gibson Les Paul Custom Also used around the St. Anger period, this guitar was manufactured in 1973. [46]
Unknown LTD H-307 This guitar was used to record Some Kind of Monster. [46]
Unknown ESP/LTD Baritone Viper – "The Grynch" Black with green flames, this guitar was used live for songs with Drop D tuning. [46]
Unknown ESP Truckster Released in 2008, this ESP guitar was another Hetfield signature model. [46]
Unknown ESP Iron Cross This guitar has been used live extensively since 2008 and is inspired by his 1973 Gibson Les Paul. [46]
Unknown ESP/LTD Snakebyte A recent Hetfield addition, it is equipped with a set of James Hetfield signature pickups. [46]
2016 ESP Vulture Hetfield has been using this guitar since 2016 and it can be seen on their Instagram and YouTube channels. [46]

Amplifiers and cabinets

Throughout Metallica's career, Hetfield has used a wide range of different amplifiers. For the first two albums, he used Marshall heads and cabinets, with occasional effects. The specific Marshall that he used for Kill 'Em All was stolen after a concert prior to the recording of Ride the Lightning; Hetfield was extremely upset by the theft, as his mother had helped him purchase the amplifier before her death. In 1985, for the recording of Master of Puppets, he and Kirk Hammett each bought a Mesa/Boogie Mark IIC+ amplifier (the preamp sections of which were connected to Marshall power amplifiers), and since then he has mostly used Mesa/Boogies, including the Triaxis and Rectifier models. Around the time of St. Anger, Hetfield began using the Diezel VH4 head. The majority of his clean tones come from a Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus Guitar Amplifier, although many different amplifiers have been used over the years.

In December 2011, it was announced by Fortin Amps that they would team up with Randall Amplifiers to start a new line of tube amplifiers based on the Fortin Meathead amplifier. Kirk Hammett currently has two prototypes, and Hetfield will eventually be receiving one.

The amplifiers currently used on tour by Hetfield are:


To avoid problems with pedals being damaged during live performances, Hetfield keeps his effect pedals in a rack along with his amplifiers and his guitar technician controls them through a pedalboard sidestage. The pedal controller allows him to change between different effect pedals and amplifiers.

Hetfield's live rig in 2008 included:

In 2010, a Line 6 effects unit was added to the list, along with the TC Electronic unit, perhaps indicating that this had replaced his stompboxes.


In addition, Hetfield uses Shure Super 55 microphones for vocals.




Year Title Role Notes Ref(s)
1992 A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica Himself Documentary film
2004 Metallica: Some Kind of Monster Himself Documentary film
2006 The Darwin Awards Himself Feature film
2013 Metallica: Through the Never Himself Concert film
2019 Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile Bob Hayward Feature film [47]
Year Title Role Notes Ref(s)
1996 Space Ghost Coast to Coast Himself "Jacksonville" (season 3, episode 11)
2004 Dave the Barbarian Dragon 1 Voice; "Here There Be Dragons" (season 1, episode 10a)
2006 Metalocalypse Various characters Voice; four episodes (season 1)
The Simpsons Himself Voice; "The Mook, the Chef, the Wife and Her Homer" (season 18, episode 1)
2009 Time Warp Himself "Heavy Metal, Motorcross and Chain Saws" (season 2, episode 4)
2014 The Hunt Narrator All episodes (season 1)
2016 American Dad! Water polo coach[48] Voice; "The Life Aquatic with Steve Smith" (season 11, episode 2)
Billions Himself "Short Squeeze" (season 1, episode 4)
2016–2018 Skylanders Academy Wolfgang Voice; recurring role

Guest appearances

On stage

Musical collaborations



Music videos

Video games


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External links