"I'm a little bit of a barbarian when I play" – James Hetfield reveals the two players from the metal and punk worlds that helped develop his guitar style

James Hetfield is one of those guitar icons that's always interesting to listen to – especially as he's become more candid as the years have gone by. And when the Metallica rhythm lynchpin sat down with Ernie Ball recently to talk about his new Papa Het signature guitar strings in the video above, he was also happy to dig into his roots when it comes to influences. 

"I'm kind of a little bit of a barbarian when I play,: laughs Hetfield. "[I was] always interested in the riff. It was the foundation of the song. Tony Iommi – he's ruling the song with his riff and everything else joins him. Johnny Ramone – lots of downpicking, just fast downpicking; that helped develop my style. So kind of a combination of punk rock and heavy rock at the time turned into the downpicking style with melody along with it.

Ernie Ball Papa Het Hardwired Master Core James Hetfield

(Image credit: Ernie Ball)

The Ramones influence makes perfect sense on reflection, though it's perhaps more surprising that it's taken 40 years to see a signature set of strings for Hetfield. The Hard Wires Master Core set is offered in a never-before seen gauge combo from Ernie Ball; 11, 14, 18p, 28, 38, 50. Ideal for hard hitters then. 

"The biggest challenge was tuning," reflects Hetfield. "You got lighter strings, you hit them hard; they're going, woah – real sharp for a second and then they settled back. It just became such a challenge, especially in the studio. 


"When we would sit down and play this thing and then, oh you're a little out. Then you've got to do it again. So the real percussive hitting of it was a challenge. When you're trying be creative in the studio and you have to sit and stop and wait for tuning, it's like a big speed bump in your creativity. It slows you down, and the quest for a string that would stay in tune better is kind of where it started. 

"Ernie Ball said, 'Let's look into this some more and see what we can do.' And we fiddled around with different gauges. We messed around with 11 through 50, we went to 52 for a second and it just didn't work. We were losing some of the brightness."

The big man is clearly impressed with the results, though we also hope Hetfield's other endorser ESP has introduced him to one of their models with an Evertune bridge too. 

It makes me work a little harder

"Coming up with the Heavy Core was a major milestone in strings," offers Hetfield. "It makes me a better player, actually. It makes me work a little harder. You've got to have some Metallica callouses to play some of these things at times. What I've found also is I get to add a little more gain to my amp to give it a little more forgiveness in my playing because it's so tight." 

More info at Ernie Ball

Classic interview: James Hetfield – "I’m able to show Lars some drum stuff and he’s able to show me riff stuff"

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.