James Hetfield on Metallica's new creative era: "I don't want to sit there and create the songs with Lars anymore – I want everyone to be a part of it and be in it"

James Hetfield
(Image credit: Metallica / YouTube)

Join us for our traditional look back at the news and features that floated your boat this year. This story first appeared in May.

Best of 2023: James Hetfield hasn't done many interviews for Metallica's new 72 Seasons album, and he doesn't really need to; he says a lot in this hour-and-12-minute sit down with the band's So What! fanzine that you can watch below. And true to form of being increasingly candid as he's got older (and wiser), he comes clean about the creative approach in the band that's in sharp contrast to the one recently portrayed by former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted during his tenure. 

"We opened up," Hetfield reveals. "I was much more ready to open my heart to everyone in the band: lyrically, emotionally, and creatively. I was really an advocate, going out of my way to say, 'Send in your riffs. We need stuff, c’mon,' you know?" It's a far cry from the Hetfield/Ulrich dynamic of Metallica's past songwriting and demo creation Newsted recently reflected on the Let There Be Talk podcast. 

"I don’t want to sit there with [only] Lars and create the songs anymore" continued Hetfield. "I want everyone to be a part of it and be in it. Can we all show up? Can we all be in the studio together? Can we jam on these things together? Can you speak up and say what you think might be great and not so great? Really wanting to open it up, and there were challenges in that. But I think we got through most of ’em, you know?"

As Kirk Hammett recently told So What! himself, it allowed for him to contribute more to the writing process. But how did Lars take this new approach of "four chiefs instead of just two"? 

"You know, there would be times when all four would be in the studio, and Lars would be looking at me [asking], 'What do you feel the next part is?' And I would just be quiet

"Well, I think we all have fear of change," Hetfield replied. "We all have fear of change or, 'Wait, this is working, let’s just keep going with it,' you know? But as an artist, as someone who’s creative, I like those challenges. I don’t like them out in the regular life very much; I don’t like changes and challenges. But in the studio, I feel comfortable with it, and I think Lars eventually understood why and where I was trying to go with it. And even if there wasn’t input from others, just having that white space for input was great.

"You know, there would be times when all four would be in the studio, and Lars would be looking at me [asking], 'What do you feel the next part is?' And I would just be quiet. Just say, 'What do you guys think? What are you guys feeling?' It felt really free to kind of just sit back and let the process happen more. And yeah, it did take longer, and we might’ve gone through ten ideas that didn’t work to get to one that did, but if you’re not out there mining for gold, you’re not gonna find any. So there were nuggets that came out of it that were just amazing."

Hetfield also spoke about the tones behind 72 Seasons, and why he's always chasing better like the rest of us. 

"I'm always, always searching for better tone, always searching for a better guitar sound," he admitted. "And I end up with stuff I’ve used before because it just sounds the best, and that’s okay. It’s helping me speak.

"There’s the Copperhead guitar, Copper Top, whatever you want to call it, but it’s the copper one that’s a snakebyte that has been painted horrendously thick and shouldn’t sound good at all. The pickups have been painted! It’s got the tone. It sounds great as a main guitar, so that one always gets put down first. I used it a bunch on Hardwired. The So What! guitar got some play, the EET FUK guitar showed up a lot as a second guitar."

Those two are icons from Metallica history; a 1984 Gibson Explorer and 1987 ESP MX220, respectively.  

"But the guitar that probably showed up more on any of the songs besides the Copper Top was the OGV, you know?"

This is the first electric guitar Hetfield used in Metallica; the Electra V that Hetfield bought in 1980 for $200 and was used on Kill 'Em All. It was retired following a neck snap in '84 but made an unlikely comeback before the recording of 2008's Death Magnetic

"It’s hanging up in the control room, and I get to pick it up and play it," said Hetfield. And with all of its nicks and damage… rings pounded holes in it, scrapes and this and that, especially on the neck, it’s just a minefield that’s been destroyed. It feels comfortable, great, it plays easy, and it sounds lively and young. So that guitar is probably never going to go away, I think. Hopefully, it’ll come with me to the grave."

The guitar's shared history with its owner is a like a doorway to another time. 

"It does remind me of the Kill ’Em All tour, for sure," he explained . "It just does. That was the only guitar I had, so it’s got to remind me of that. But we’ve been through hell, and we’ve been through heaven together. It has definitely died a few times and come back to life. The neck’s been broken on that thing, the headstock’s come off three times, and the tailpiece just broke on this album. But it’s a survivor, like me, and this guitar has been a great friend."

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.